Old South Church, Boston, Massachusetts, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Old South Church
Location: Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 31 January 2016, 11:00am

The building

Photo: © Paul Geffen and used under license This is one of the most famous churches in the country – it's a National Historic Landmark. Built in an Italian Gothic Revival style, its grand proportions and splendor are somewhat lost today amongst the buildings and noise of Copley Square. However, once entering the church, one cannot doubt that this is a particularly special building. The stunning stained glass windows and wonderful - carved dark oak inside contrasts with the fact that this is an airy, open sanctuary flooded with light.

The church

Old South traces its roots back to the early Pilgrims and Puritans and was founded in 1669. Old South Church has a long history of political and social activism that carries on to this day. It was from here that the infamous Boston Tea Party was initiated, leading to the Revolutionary War. Later on, abolitionists met to organize and fight against slavery and recruit for the ensuing Civil War. The tradition of activism continues to the present day, with the church being one of the first in the United States to ordain women, African Americans, and openly gay ministers.

The neighborhood

Copley Square is just a short walk from the lovely shops and galleries of Newbury Street and the cobbled roads and gas lamps of Beacon Hill. A little awkward to access by car, with parking particularly hard to find, it is just seconds from the Copley T station on the Green Line of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
The church itself sits on the northwest corner of Copley Square, diagonally opposite to the impressive Trinity Church and across the street from the much loved Boston Public Library. Copley is one of the most popular areas for visitors to Boston, and hence you will find many tourists, restaurants and hotels around the church. In contrast to all this activity, Copley also attracts many homeless people – one of whom, sadly, became the focus of the sermon we listened to.

The cast

The service was led by the Revd Nancy S. Taylor, senior minister. The sermon was given by the Revd John M. Edgerton, associate pastor.

What was the name of the service?

Festival Service.

How full was the building?

Though there were people sitting in the balcony, most sat downstairs. Overall I would estimate that the church was around three-quarters full and I would guess there were a little over 200 people present.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A nice hello and smile from one person on the door and an equally warm welcome from the person giving out service sheets.

Was your pew comfortable?

Not bad, and certainly not uncomfortable, with plenty of legroom. As the church was not filled to capacity, there was room to stretch a little and lay out the service sheets and hymn book.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet and relaxed. We felt very comfortable and welcome.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Behold, I show you a mystery!" (1 Corinthians 15:51)

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The New Century Hymnal.

What musical instruments were played?

A very impressive EM Skinner organ, opus 308, with 7,625 pipes set in 115 ranks. It was originally built for the Municipal Auditorium Theater in St Paul, Minnesota, and acquired by the church in 1985. There were also hand bells rung by the Old South Ringers and quite possibly ukulele or banjo mixed in! But as we couldnt actually see the musicians who played behind us, so it was difficult to tell what the stringed instrument was.

Did anything distract you?

The organ, though played beautifully, overpowered the excellent choir at times, which was a shame.

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

Formal though not excessively so. Quite relaxed, in fact. The service itself was traditional in structure, though there was no confession of sin element to it. l found it easy enough to follow.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

20 minutes.

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

7 – Pastor Edgerton gave a moving, impassioned, and at times emotional sermon. He kept my attention throughout despite a little repetition of the core theme. Overall a good preacher, though he did not have the full command of the pulpit that a great preacher would have had. I was not totally sure where he was coming from at times theologically, but then I know little about the United Church of Christ and its various positions, but nonetheless the sermon was heartfelt and moving.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The sermon was focused on the death of a homeless man outside the door of the church earlier in the week. A man called Michael, aged 57, had bedded down for the night. Sadly it turned out to be his last. Nothing else seemed to be known about the man or the story of how he came to be sleeping there. Death is the great equalizer. In death (as in baptism) we leave everything behind us and start our personal journey toward the light of God. All we have in death are faith, hope and love, and that love is the essence of God.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The congregation and choir singing a slow and gentle "Abide with me" following the sermon that actually brought a tear to my eye.

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

Nothing really, though the organ volume at times distracted me.

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

Nothing much. Nobody approached us or reached out in any manner. That being said, I did not feel slighted, just naturally overlooked in the post service hubbub.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was an awkward mix-up on my behalf. Once we had left the church, my wife asked me why we did not go for coffee. I answered grumpily, "Because nobody asked us to." She then pointed out that in the service booklet there was a written invitation to join for coffee in the Gordon Chapel after the service. In my defense we were given (I counted) a total of 15 pages of various service-related sheets and clearly I had not read them thoroughly. As we say in America, "My bad."

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

6 – Difficult to say. I certainly enjoyed my visit and would certainly recommend it to any visitor to Boston. I would be happy to return at some point. But as an Anglo-Catholic who loves the High Church, I am not sure that this would really be a good fit for me.

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

Very much so. It was a lovely service.

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

The touching eulogy/sermon for "Michael."

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