Meeting of the House of Bishops at the Morial Convention Center, New Orleans

Meeting of the House of Bishops, Morial Convention Center, New Orleans, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: Lapensiera
Church: Meeting of the House of Bishops
Location: Morial Convention Center, New Orleans, USA
Date of visit: Thursday, 20 September 2007, 7:30pm

The building

The Morial Convention Center is a three million square foot facility spanning over ten city blocks alongside the Mississippi River. Opened in 1985, the Center has expanded in stages and hosts a gamut of events ranging from Mardi Gras balls, sporting events, symphonic performances – and meetings of the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church, as well as conventions and exhibitions of every kind. Hall H (where this gathering was held) is in a newer area of the building. VIP seating was arranged in several sections in front of a large stage; other seating for the general public was less favorably positioned. Two large projection screens hung on either side of the proscenium, along with a smaller round display and two stained-glass-looking windows in front of a curtain.

The church

This service was the only event accessible to the public during the Autumn 2007 House of Bishops meeting. New Orleans was selected as the venue thanks to the efforts of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts-Schori as well as Bishops Jenkins of Louisiana and Gray of Mississippi, with the goal in mind of focusing the attention of the Church on post-Katrina recovery. The Archbishop of Canterbury was invited to meet with the House of Bishops to discuss other denominational matters, and graciously worked with the Diocese of Louisiana to make this special service and his participation in it possible.

The neighborhood

The Morial Convention Center is located in the area of New Orleans known as the Warehouse District, between the French Quarter and the Garden District. Once studded with posh mansions and townhouses, the district declined steadily during the mid 20th century until it became one of the most derelict areas in the city. Beginning in 1984, when New Orleans hosted the World Fair, developers began to renovate the old commercial buildings into condominiums and apartments to entice young artists and professionals to the area, and several established painters, sculptors and photographers now call the neighborhood home. Art galleries abound, where visitors can view works of art of every description, and even buy some if they are wealthy enough. The area was spared damage from the floods following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the Convention Center became a refuge for thousands of people unable to flee. The tragic scene which played out in the building during that time was alluded to during the service, but all evidence of it has disappeared.

The cast

The Most Revd and Rt Hon. Rowan Douglas Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, was the preacher. The Most Revd Katharine Jefferts-Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, read one of the lessons. The Rt Revd Charles E. Jenkins, Bishop of Louisiana, was the officiant. Also participating were the Rt Revd Duncan Gray III, Bishop of Mississippi; Bishop J. Douglas Wiley, executive treasurer of the Life Center Full Gospel Baptist Church; and Elder John Pierre, of the Living Witness Church of God in Christ. The organist was Herndon Spillman, Mus.D., Mattax Professor of Organ, Louisiana State University.

What was the name of the service?

Ecumenical Worship Service: Humanity Renewed, Restored, Re-Centered in God

How full was the building?

The auditorium in Hall H can seat just over 4,000. The doors opened at 6.30pm and the hall was at least half full by 7.10. By the time the service began there were perhaps 100 to 200 empty seats in the far upper reaches of the hall. People had been asked to bring "age appropriate" children, so there were no babies or small children, but a few children perhaps 7-9 years old and older were around.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Admission was by ticket only, or "admit card" as New Orleanians say. Everyone wishing to attend the service had to register beforehand in order to receive an admit card. Upon entering the building, we encountered several groups of volunteers, some distributing bulletins, some checking admit cards and directing people to the appropriate seating areas, others pointing out the escalators or elevators as needed. A few people in the queues by the doors or escalators struck up conversations with others: "Where are you from? What church do you go to?" – but most were more focused on getting in and being seated.

Was your pew comfortable?

The chairs in the section reserved for the general public were decently padded, but even at my relatively average size, sitting between two average-sized ladies, I felt a little cramped. Seating on the auditorium floor was in the form of stackable padded chairs, which I suspect were a little more comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Music prior to the service was provided by Shades of Praise, a community choir whose repertoire is primarily African-American spirituals and gospel style. They sang for about half an hour, after which a few minutes of relative quiet (considering the bustle and quiet conversation of 4,000 people) ensued before the service started.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

Bishop Jenkins said, "Please be seated. Welcome, and thank you for your presence here tonight." A few words were then said about the great suffering that the building witnessed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A bulletin printed on magazine-quality paper contained everything we needed. The words (no music) for three congregational hymns were included, but their sources were credited as being the 1982 Hymnal and Lift Every Voice and Sing. Fortunately I had brought my combination hymnal and prayer book with me.

What musical instruments were played?

Shades of Praise used an electric keyboard and tambourine. Dr Spillman accompanied the hymns on a church-grade electronic organ on loan from a local music store. The Irwin Mayfield Quartet (read on!), a noted jazz ensemble, provided special music toward the end of the service.

Did anything distract you?

An event of this magnitude couldn't possibly be distraction free. During the pre-service music, the gospel group's microphones were turned up a little too high, and an older lady next to me complained at length about how "it doesn't sound like church music to me at all; why can't they do something beautiful and harmonious," etc. The seating arrangements were such that I felt a huge separation between members of the public, including myself (who were somewhat herded along to seating at the two farthest ends of the hall), the priests and "significant" folk who had been given permits to sit at floor level, and the bishops, with the result that I couldn't find many of the people I knew would be there and whom I had looked forward to seeing. But such a separation can't be avoided at a gathering of this size, and once the service began the feeling abated somewhat. Finally – need I say it? – there were the inevitable two or three cell phones going off! One was directly behind me. Just as the Archbishop of Canterbury finished speaking, another cell phone rang several rows away from me, followed by its owner answering and saying "I'll call you back" rather audibly. Irritating!

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Pleasant enough, with more people joining in the rather stiff-upper-lip traditional hymns than is usual in Episcopal churches in my experience. But then the Archbishop finished his sermon and Irwin Mayfield took the stage – after which it became happy-clappy as happy-clappy is done nowhere else but in New Orleans! Mr Mayfield is an artist in residence at Christ Church Cathedral (the Episcopal cathedral for the Diocese of Louisiana) and the officially designated cultural ambassador to the city of New Orleans. He plays a very unusual trumpet, handmade especially for him, replete with symbols of the city. He took a few minutes to explain some of the symbols, after which His Grace the Archbishop, along with Bishops Jefferts-Schori and Jenkins, blessed the trumpet. Mr Mayfield next recounted the story of how gospel and jazz music were rooted in the churches. He then introduced the other members of his quartet, and said that he had chosen to play "Just a closer walk with thee," which he had not played since the day the body of his father was found in their flooded neighborhood after the hurricane. He explained that he would play it in the style of a proper New Orleans jazz funeral procession – the first line slow and dirge-like, followed by the exuberant celebration of the second line. The first line was indeed slow and dignified. And then the quartet broke into the second line, complete with improvised renditions of "I'll fly away" and "When the saints go marching in." People began spontaneously to wave tissues, handkerchiefs, bulletins or other items, and to sing and clap. Then about a hundred or so people began to march around the floor in a line! The Archbishop, the presiding bishop, and all the other clergy began to clap and wave the ends of their tippets as well, although none of them joined the line.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

12 minutes, preceded by a minute or so of "social niceties."

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

9 – All of the lessons had been chosen in contemplation of New Orleans. None of them named the city, of course, but they were clearly applicable. The Archbishop's sermon was well-keyed to those lessons, especially Zechariah 8 (God will restore Jerusalem: "Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets ... The city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.").

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The overarching theme was the debt we owe one another as citizens of a city – a debt of gratitude, not so much of respect or dignity or an icy duty. We owe to one another what we owe to Jesus Christ. We pray for the absent faces, what they could be adding, contributing, ministering to the community. What makes for a great and godly city? Not social or commercial services, culture, etc., but rather that which makes it a safe place for old men to sit and boys and girls to play. Both the old and the young can teach us how to get used to leisure – we may well enjoy leisure for all eternity.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Oh boy ... the first half of the pastoral prayer offered by Elder John Pierre, of the Living Witness Church of God in Christ. It was really warming, full of an unusual level of acknowledgement of Christian fellowship across denominations. And the Archbishop's short but deep, prayerful sermon (delivered of course in that lovely BBC accent). And not to forget Irwin Mayfield's music. They were all heavenly – I can't pick just one of those moments!

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Well, the second half of Elder Pierre's pastoral prayer. I think he became a little overenthused, to the point of launching into his own sermonette. The heart behind it was right, but he just didn't put the brakes on in time. And then there was the feeling of disconnect that I mentioned earlier, due to the seating arrangements.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

There wasn't much looking lost to be done! I discovered that once the crowd in the hall had thinned out, I didn't need an admit card to get down to the floor level. There, I ran into one couple I know from another city and a priest I know. On the way out I made the acquaintance of a retired bishop who lives in the area and caught glimpses of another priest I know, as well as bishops and/or spouses from a few states. No opportunity to chat, though, as the bishops were hurrying to board their buses back to the hotel, and everyone else was scrambling for their cars.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Sadly, there was none. Not only that, but Bishop Jenkins informed us that the Archbishop would have no opportunity to dine outside the hotel while here in New Orleans – which elicited a collective sigh of sympathy from the assemblage!

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

6 – What makes it a 6 rather than a 4 or 5 is the combination of the Mayfield Quartet music and the high quality sermon. That said, this rating ought not carry much weight due to the nature of the event.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes, I think so. It also made me glad – oddly – that I am not a cradle Episcopalian, with the result that I could enjoy and appreciate the music and liturgy outside the Anglican tradition, and could hear some sincere appreciation of the significance of the event and of the Episcopal Church in the words of the non-Episcopalian clergy offering prayers.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

That the Archbishop of Canterbury was here! Which translates to three things: the sermon, that lovely accent, and that we'll have to get him back down here sometime so that he can enjoy being in New Orleans (read: so he can be given the grand tour of the Big Easy's great restaurants)!

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