Mystery Worshipper: Meet and Right So to Do
Church: St James
Location: Cheboygan, Michigan, USA
Date of visit: Friday, 3 April 2015, 1:00pm
A simple Carpenter Gothic structure with a big red welcome sign plastered on the side. It was built in 1880 for $1,400 (in 1880 U.S. dollars) and was once called "one of the neatest in the diocese." The edifice has clearly been renovated with newer additions the vestibule, south porch, parish hall, drop-down ceiling masquerading the Victorian-era architecture. Within the last month or two the chancel was renovated, with the wooden altar moved out from the east wall. The quire was moved to the back of the altar, which struck me as somewhat Methodist. The nave had simple stained glass windows, and plain white walls, and creaky floors covered in red carpeting.
Having been built at the height of Cheboygan's prosperity during the late 19th century, the church has seen the community go through the best and worst of times. According to their website (which doesn't seem quite up-to-date), they promote the sale of Bishop's Blend coffee, an organic fair trade brand from Central America, and they participate in Walk for Warmth, an annual event that raises money to help pay utility bills for people who need it. Again according to their website, they have two services each Sunday during summer months but only one in the winter.
Cheboygan, Michigan (not to be confused with Sheboygan, Wisconsin, which sits on the shore of Lake Michigan) is a city located in the uppermost part of Michigan's Lower Peninsula, on the shore of Lake Huron. The origin of its name is thought to be a Chippewa word meaning "place where ore is found," although mining has never figured in the local economy. Lighthouse enthusiasts point to several examples of that iconic structure either visible from the lakeshore or only a short boat ride away. The area is a popular vacation spot for fishing, hiking, cross country skiing, kayaking, hunting, and numerous other outdoor activities. St James' Church is located one block to the west of Main Street, which means the liturgical east is in actuality the geographic west. It is surrounded by older homes that mostly date to the 1920s, with some late Victorian homes scattered about the neighborhood too.
The church recently lost its rector. Two lay readers one gentleman, one lady conducted the service. The lady told me later that her name was Cindy, but I never did learn the gentleman's name.
What was the name of the service?Good Friday Service.
How full was the building?
Mostly empty, with about ten congregants seated in the nave's wooden pews that comfortably could accommodate a congregation of about 100.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
When I arrived about ten minutes before the stated service time, a lady who turned out to be Cindy, one of the lay readers, made a point of telling the other lay reader, "We have a visitor!" But neither said anything to me, at least at the time, even though I had to walk by them to get to a pew. It was a weird moment that made me feel like an endangered species. I picked up a service booklet and took up my seat in a pew near the back of the nave.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was neither comfortable nor uncomfortable. The kneeler and shelf containing the prayer books and hymnals infringed upon my legroom. In addition, the pews felt as if they had been shrunk, as they were rather short in height.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
With so few people present, plus having been noticed but not greeted, what atmosphere was there to report on?
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Blessed be our God."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The service booklet contained the liturgy for all Holy Week services. In the pews, however, were the Prayer Book 1979 and Hymnal 1982, plus Lift Every Voice and Sing II. The service booklet notably did not contain text for the readings.
What musical instruments were played?
Unfortunately, the organ was quiet for this service. An unknown lady pianist played an unknown type of piano for the psalm (Psalm 22) and one hymn ("Were you there").
Did anything distract you?
The pre-service "atmosphere."
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was very bland and low church. It was difficult to tell if this was because the rector had recently left. At any rate, the congregation is clearly without a minister and, as a consequence, without spiritual and liturgical direction. The other congregants seemed unfamiliar with some of the liturgy. The gentleman lay reader, who chanted the gospel in a beautiful voice, tried his best. However, the congregation didn't seem comfortable participating in the recitation of liturgy.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sung gospel.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
By far the pre-service "atmosphere" as well as the piano.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I sat in my pew for about five minutes after everyone left, as the church was open for reflection and prayer until 3.00pm. Eventually I made my way out the south porch, where the lady reader finally introduced herself as Cindy and seemed quite warm, actually.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – It is difficult to assess the church fairly without attending a Sunday service. However, if Sunday were reflective of what I observed on Good Friday, then I probably would look elsewhere.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Considering the church was essentially empty, I certainly felt special compared to the heathens carrying on about town.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
"We have a visitor" but leaving it at that.