St John's dates from 1815 and is the work of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who oversaw construction of the U.S. Capitol and supervised the Capitol's rebuilding after it was destroyed in the War of 1812. A neo-classical cream-colored building, the church is somewhat dwarfed by the structures around it. The interior, however, is a different story, with beautiful cream interior, tastefully decorated with gold. More than 20 stained glass windows, including a vertical representation of da Vinci's Last Supper above the altar, date from the 1880s and are the work of Madame Lorin, curator of glass at Chartres Cathedral in France. The steeple bell was cast in the Boston foundry of Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere. It is said that whenever the bell is tolled to mark the death of a sitting president, the ghosts of six men wearing white robes briefly appear in the President's Pew and then vanish.
Every U.S. president since James Madison has worshipped here. Pew 54 is officially designated as the President's Pew, although as a matter of protocol the president usually sits in the front pew. Their website is very good and is clearly designed to reach the casual visitor. It details all the usual parish activities and organizations, and mentions an exchange program with a church in South Africa (there were visitors from this church at today's service). Clearly this is a very busy congregation with lots going on.
Lafayette Square is located directly opposite the White House. Over the years the square has been used as a race track, a graveyard, a zoo, a slave market, an encampment for soldiers during the War of 1812, and many political protests and celebrations that continue to this day. The area is the site of several government buildings and fashionable hotels.
The Revd Dr Luis Len, rector, led the service. The preacher was the Ven. Sharron Dinnie, director of the Kwasa Center in Vukuzenzele, South Africa.
What was the name of the service?Holy Eucharist
How full was the building?
At the start, about a third full, but with latecomers this quickly increased to about two-thirds. There were people in the gallery too, but from where I sat it was hard to see how many.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, although not quite in the way I was expecting. I walked in, clearly a tourist, with a small rucksack containing camera, etc., and was asked to leave it in the porch. I felt quite uncomfortable about doing so, and had a quick rummage round to remove any valuables. One of the ushers said, quite loudly, "We're all God-fearing people here!" as if to tell me it was OK to leave my wallet, etc. in the bag in the church porch. Not quite the welcome I expected!
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, it was comfortable, with cushions on the back and seat.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I arrived just on time so didn't get a chance to notice.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Alleluia! Alleluia! Christ is risen!"
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A 32-page full-size book printed on high-quality paper specially for the day, with sheet music, words, readings, and names of donors, servers, etc. At the end were 10 pages of notices.
What musical instruments were played?
An organ, played very well, with a talented choir. The Gloria was by John Rutter.
Did anything distract you?
For most of the service, I was wondering whether my bag was still there!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
About right. It was quite reverent, but felt a little rushed. The leader and readers spoke a little more quickly than was suitable for a nice contemplative service, and the organ was a little fast. Having said that, I found the overall atmosphere quite serious.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – The Ven. Mrs Dinnie was a little quiet and took some unusual pauses during the sermon, as if slightly under-rehearsed. She repeated over and over again: "You are the body of Christ!" Effective, but a trifle overdone.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Jesus wasn't just a spiritual body, but had a physical body too. God exists in all our bodies. We are now the body of Christ, called to do his work in the world. We are his checkbook, his net banking. We are everything as his body. We eat his body and become his body.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The uplifting style and atmosphere of the service, and the John Rutter Gloria.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Trying to sing the John Rutter Gloria!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
People left fairly quickly. There was apparently a parish lunch but I didn't get where it was, and wanted to go off sightseeing. I hung around for a while after collecting my camera from the porch. I chatted with an usher and a "welcomer" who were both, at least now, very friendly. The rector also took the trouble to welcome me and seemed to know most of his congregation by name. Many of the congregation also spoke to me and told me how wonderful their rector was.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I didn't see any coffee.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – I could do so. The people were nice and I actually enjoyed the service very much and liked the atmosphere. I just felt it was a little superficial and didn't have the depth and pauses that my local church has.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, it did. It was also encouraging to hear people speak well of their rector. It was a shame he wasn't preaching today as I'd have liked to have heard him.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
"You are the body of Christ!"