Mystery Worshipper: Oronoco
Church: Second Presbyterian
Location: Richmond, Virginia, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 26 September 2010, 11:00am
A strikingly beautiful Gothic Revival structure dating from 1848, the work of the famed New York architect Minard Lafever – his only building in the American South. Noteworthy are its pointed Gothic diamond-paned windows, tall Gothic doors, high cruciform roof, a distinctive Gothic ironwork along the front of the façade, and a 120 foot bell tower with four stone pinnacles – the bell, however, was not hung until 1995! Cruciform in shape, the sanctuary has red damask covered pews, balconies that wrap around the room, and a quite elevated pulpit backed by a spired reredos. The beautiful Gothic dark timber roof trusses are uplit, making the room even more inspiring. The stained glass was badly damaged during the Civil War and was not fully restored until 1973.
The congregation split off from First Presbyterian in 1845. During the Civil War, General Thomas Jonathan Jackson (better known as Stonewall Jackson, one of the most gifted tactical commanders of all time) was a member of the church; his pew is marked by a small brass plaque. Today, while the trend in Richmond has been to move out of downtown for the suburbs and wealthier neighborhoods, Second Presbyterian seems to be committed to urban/center city ministry. Their many activities and outreaches are well documented on their website.
Richmond has been the capital of Virginia since colonial days, and was the capital of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. Many important Civil War landmarks survive to this day. The area of downtown Richmond in which Second Presbyterian is located is undergoing something of a renaissance. With the completion of a new performing arts center and loft-style condos, the area seems to be very lively. Also, there is an Irish pub across the street from the church – favored, I understand, by some members of the congregation for "extended communion."
The Revd Alex Evans, pastor; the Revd Gail Monsma, associate pastor. Mr Tom Jefferson served as lay reader; and Ginger Evans, director of Christian education, gave the children's sermon.
What was the name of the service?Worship for the Lord's Day.
How full was the building?
The sanctuary was about two-thirds full, although I couldn't see the corners of the transepts from where I was sitting.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was greeted many times. First, by three people as I entered the church from the parking garage. Pretty much everyone was friendly and said "Good morning" as I passed. Then, by everyone sitting around me in the sanctuary. At the end, as I was leaving, another person was very friendly and invited me to worship at Second again.
Was your pew comfortable?
My pew was as comfortable as a lumpy-padded 165-year old pew could be. The proof that the human race is evolving to be larger and larger can be seen in the pew spacing at Second Church, as there is relatively little leg room. Surely the people who built this church and spaced the pews were of smaller carriage than the modern human!
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The pre-service atmosphere was friendly. As people trickled in from Sunday school and arrived for church, there was more chatter and over-the-pewback conversations. When the organ prelude began, the volume of conversation increased noticeably to compete with the instrument.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning and welcome as we gather to worship God."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Holy Bible, the Presbyterian Hymnal, and the bulletin for the worship service.
What musical instruments were played?
Music accompaniment was provided by a beautiful pipe organ. Doing some research, I found that the organ was built by Noack Organ Company of Georgetown, Massachusetts, and installed in 1996. It is a tracker instrument of 30 stops and 37 ranks. As an organist (albeit a not very good one), I have to say I was blown away by the organist at this church. The registrations were well-chosen, the performances crisp, and the hymns well played.
Did anything distract you?
Two things distracted me. First and foremost, the sound system was terrible! Both pastors seem to be soft-spoken and there were times where they were inaudible. The sound projected through the speakers that were visible throughout the sanctuary was too soft and was very muffled. Second – and this is just a personal rant of mine – if you are going to wear a digital wristwatch to church and have lost your hearing in the upper register, turn off your alarm! For the last two minutes of the sermon, everyone in the sanctuary (except, obviously, the wearer of said digital watch) heard beep-beep, beep-beep, beep-beep. Very, very annoying and distracting.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Traditional. The worship service was typical traditional Presbyterian liturgy. Being Presbyterian, I personally find the traditional liturgy comforting. I admit it. I am proud to be one of "God's frozen chosen."
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Pastor Evans is a solid preacher. I wish he would project his voice more, but that feeling might be a result of the fact that the sound system in the room was awful. While I truly enjoyed his sermon, he gesticulated a good bit. I did find myself watching his hand gestures more than listening to his sermon at times. It's not a huge issue, though. It was an excellent sermon.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
"Practice makes possible." He opened with Kierkegaard's "parable of the ducks", which got laughs. Essentially, in the parable, ducks waddle to duck church every Sunday, where the duck preacher reads from the duck version of the Bible and tells his congregation that God has given them wings, that they can fly, that nothing can hold them back, that no obstacle is too great. Amen! they reply, and then waddle back home. We have been given the gift of grace and have been showered with blessings from God. If we do not share them generously and serve God and each other as we are called to do, then we are wasting that which we have been given.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The most heaven-like part of the service was the anthem: Almighty and Everlasting God by Orlando Gibbons. It blew me away! The choir were magnificent! If they are a volunteer group then they need to go on tour! It gave me goose bumps!
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Not that I want to sound like a broken record, but the sound system stank! So did the beeping digital watch during the sermon. Also, the whole cell-phone-in-church thing is really getting old. People, almost every cell phone manufactured since, say, 2001, has either a silent or vibrate mode. Use them! Also, this is a total personal thing that comes from being a minister's kid, but I find it annoying when a minister or priest makes some weird gesture to indicate to the congregation to either stand or sit. The associate pastor here uses a weird stiff-armed action figure gesture to do this. I find it less distracting when a worship leader simply says, "You may be seated."
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I wasn't able to stand around looking lost. Several people greeted me and thanked me for worshiping with them and encouraged me to return.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
OK, this is where I fell down on the job. I got swept up in the down-the-aisle-and-out-the-door rush. I did, however, see the setup for the after-service coffee upon my arrival on my way into the sanctuary. Looked to be standard cookies and coffee fare. Also, in the next room over (a dining room?) a luncheon was being set up. I later read in the bulletin that it was a luncheon for new members.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – Solid, meaningful preaching. Great music. Social justice oriented. Engaged center city/urban challenge ministries. For someone like me who is involved in his own church, this is the kind of church I would choose.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The music was utterly memorable. The architecture is memorable. The preaching was also very good.