Mystery Worshipper: Sed Angli
Church: Grace Church
Location: Charleston, South Carolina, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 11 August 2013, 11:00am
Dating from 1846, Grace Church is a Gothic-style structure of smooth stone. The building survived shelling during the Civil War and a major earthquake in 1886, and has recently undergone major renovations to the exterior. The nave is filled with colorful stained glass both in the clerestory and ground-floor level and has two side aisles separated from the central nave by stone arcades. The sanctuary area is crowned with an ornate stone apse. The interior stonework is smooth, light-colored, and well-maintained. The stained glass diffuses a large quantity of natural light into the room.
South Carolina has recently been the seat of much controversy within the Church. In 2012 the Diocese of South Carolina voted to withdraw from the Episcopal Church over certain actions that the diocese viewed as contrary to scripture. The Episcopal Church has sued over who has rights to the name, seal and property of the diocese and who may legitimately call himself its bishop. Grace Church is among the very largest parishes remaining in the diocesan structure that is in relationship with the national Episcopal Church (the Continuing Diocese of South Carolina).
Charleston, located on the Atlantic coast, is South Carolina's second largest city. The entire city is dripping with history (and, in the high summer, humidity). The church campus is in the midst of the historic Harleston Village, one of Charleston's most diverse and lively districts, in the vicinity of the College of Charleston.
The Revd John Zahl, associate priest, was the celebrant. The Revd Canon J. Michael A. Wright, rector, preached.
What was the name of the service?Choral Eucharist, Rite II
How full was the building?
The sizeable nave was pretty full, particularly for mid-August: probably 80 per cent filled at least.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
We were greeted by two very friendly and helpful ushers, one of whom advised us of the best way to deal with parking in the area. We felt warmly and genuinely welcomed to the parish.
Was your pew comfortable?
The pew was uncushioned wood, appropriately comfortable for the worship of God. Rather than an attached kneeler rail, individual kneeler-stools populated the pews.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
My wife and I were mostly captivated by the guild of change-ringers tolling the bells, but the heat and humidity eventually drove us into the nave to find our seats, probably six or seven minutes before the organ prelude began. The room was filled with soft, mild chit-chat among the parishioners, which unfortunately only got louder and more noticeable after the organist began the prelude.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The opening sung words were, "O Lord, increase our faith," the first phrase of the choral introit. The opening spoken words were, "Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Book of Common Prayer 1979 (mostly printed in the service bulletin); Hymnal 1982. Scripture readings (Old Testament, epistle, and gospel) were from The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version.
What musical instruments were played?
The music was led from and accompanied by a stupendous pipe organ, an opus of the Reuter Organ Company of Lawrence, Kansas.
Did anything distract you?
The most egregious offenders in the chit-chat department were seemingly positioned in the pew directly behind ours. Running commentary lasted through the second scripture reading at least.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was what I like to describe as "broad-church ritualist" classical hymns accompanied by the organ, unadulterated liturgy from the 1979 BCP (Rite II), and appropriate vestments all around (no cassock-albs in sight). The low-church roots of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina were revealed in the assisting minister at the altar, who wore a stole over his clergy shirt, but that oddity was counterbalanced by the crucifer clad in tunicle and gloves.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
10 minutes on the dot.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Canon Wright spoke with a smooth-as-silk radio voice that I could listen to all day long and immediately grasp and comprehend every word uttered. It was no surprise to later learn that he is Canadian and the scion of a long line of clergy.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
While incorporating ideas from the epistle and Old Testament reading, the sermon focused on the first line of the gospel lesson, "Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is the Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." He must have repeated that line six or seven times, to good effect: Do not be afraid.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Robust congregational singing and glorious music from the choir and the organist.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The chit-chat from the people behind us, which continued into the choral Kyrie. I actually had to do the turn-around-and-look thing once or twice.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
As the organist began the postlude, I wandered against the flow of traffic up to the front of the church, admiring the stained glass windows but generally trying to look like a visitor. At least two church members (who were not ushers that day) made eye contact with me and said things along the lines of, "We are so glad you chose to worship with us today. Thank you for being here. I do hope you visit again in the future." It was the perfect balance of friendly welcome hospitality without being overbearing or suffocating.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
My wife slipped out of the handshake line to go to coffee hour in the parish hall, and reported that there were four or five trays of brownies and cheese and crackers. Lots of people attended, and two women were posted at the door to welcome people as they entered. If someone wanted take the initiative to mingle and meet people, my wife had the impression of warmth and friendliness.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – My own personal churchmanship would lead me to want to visit the Church of the Holy Communion, the Anglo-Catholic parish in town, but I found worship at Grace to be uplifting, prayerful, and embodying the beauty of holiness.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Definitely. I was sad that the final communion hymn wasn't sung, just because I wanted to experience more of that robust congregational singing. And the singing by the choir (which I believe was predominately volunteer) was among the best I've heard.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The two choral anthems, at the offertory and communion. Also, the stunning stained glass (particularly the Great Commission window over the west door and the Sacraments window over the altar), and the organ pedals rumbling the floor of the nave.