St John's Cathedral, Denver, Colorado, USA

St John's Cathedral, Denver, Colorado, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St John's Cathedral
Location: Denver, Colorado, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 11 April 2010, 11:15am

The building

Constructed between 1908 and 1911, this English Gothic church screams "cathedral" in a very balanced way, from its symmetrical façade flanked by matching towers to the wrought-iron rood screen separating the nave from the chancel. The interior is lined with beautiful stained glass windows, attractively illuminated from the inside at night. The reredos behind the high altar is of hand-carved Salonica oak.

The church

They sponsor numerous ministries all listed on their website. Of special note is the Abrahamic Initiative, which provides (quoting from their website) "a forum for dialogue among Jews, Christians and Muslims" leading to "mutual understanding and appreciation for the faith perspectives of the three traditions." There are several celebrations of the eucharist each Sunday, both traditional and contemporary, including Sudanese services in Dinka and Juba Arabic. Evensong is sung on the third Sunday of each month, and morning and evening prayer are offered during the week, along with the eucharist.

The neighborhood

Denver, the capital of Colorado, is known as the Mile High City due to its official elevation of exactly 5,280 feet. It sits on the geographic feature known as the High Plains, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Modern day Denver is an eclectic collection of modern skyscrapers, Victorian houses, post-World War II building boom tracts, and contemporary communities, with lots of parkland interspersed throughout. The cathedral is only a few blocks from the state capitol building, in an area that is also home to the "headquarter" churches of other denominations.

The cast

The Rt Revd William Jerry Winterrowd, retired Bishop of Colorado, concelebrated the eucharist with the Very Revd Peter Eaton, rector and dean. The bishop also assisted at the baptisms. The preacher was the Revd Canon Andrew Van Culin, sub-dean. All were attended by a seemingly endless retinue of priests, vergers, acolytes and choristers.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Eucharist with Holy Baptism

How full was the building?

Mostly full, but not crowded.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A greeter at the front door was very friendly as he gave me the service bulletin.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes, with red velveteen cushions.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Because six people were being baptized that morning and most of them were infants or toddlers, the front pews were filled with family members chatting. Further back in the nave it was quieter, but there was a general air of celebration and tolerance of the assorted squeals and short spells of crying.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Alleluia. Christ is risen."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The service was printed on a three-fold page with nearly everything included: the plainsong acclamation, the lessons and psalm, the gospel, all parts of the offertory, hymn numbers with titles and composers, etc. A large laminated card contained the rite of holy baptism, and we sang from the Hymnal 1982.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ. The cathedral's pipe organ is an opus of the W. W. Kimball Company of Chicago. It is currently undergoing restoration, and a temporary instrument, a tracker organ dating from 1869, opus 476 of the E. & G. G. Hook Company of Boston, has taken its place for the time being. Quoting from the cathedral's website: "Hook organs of the post-Civil War era that still survive are especially noted and prized for their silvery choruses, bright, almost-liquid flutes, robust reeds, pungent but clear strings, and deep, pervading bass tone."

Did anything distract you?

Six very young persons were being baptized and they were vocal, sometimes happily and sometimes unhappily. And their siblings were vocal, too (memorably, a loud "Amen!" about two seconds after the congregation's "Amen," which brought down the house). But the sounds of children are the sounds of a growing church, and the congregation seemed bemused by all the activity.

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

This was a cathedral sung service with concelebration by a bishop (albeit retired). The procession lasted for all but the last verse of den Herren's "Praise to the Lord." Lots of ritual. But all done with a blend of intentionality and ease. The gospeller tried to begin before the choir sang "Alleluia", but who could blame her – it was only the second Sunday of Easter! Canon Van Culin paused with a smile during his sermon as a baby gave out a particularly long squeal and the congregation laughed. Children were invited to sit on the steps below the altar during the offertory. It felt like a place that likes its traditions but appreciates the human touch.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

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

8 – The sub-dean read from a prepared script but very naturally, expressively. I admired the fact that he was able to speak about a huge abstract event like the resurrection in human terms.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The fact of the resurrection doesn't change anything. Individual moments of encounter with the risen Christ are when change occurs. It was the disciples' encounter with the risen Christ that motivated them. Baptism, holy communion, and our interactions with the community of the faithful are occasions for encountering the risen Christ.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The choir was fine, but the congregation's singing was ardent. We love our Easter hymns.

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

The well-populated procession had me prepared for a stiff, pompous eucharist. Don't get me wrong – I'm all for liturgy done right, but it can be hellish when it's all pomp and no feeling. However, I felt quite at home once it became clear that baby speak was encouraged.

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

No one spoke to us after the service, but then I remembered that refreshments had been announced. Having arrived at the place where they were set out, I had a lively discussion with a charming parishioner.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Coffee, several choices of juice, carrot cake and cookies.

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

8 – The cathedral community appears to be very active, hosting a number of interesting events. If I lived in Denver, there would be a lot going on there that I might want to take part in.

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 sermon.

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