Mystery Worshipper: Wandering Cantor
Church: St John's
Location: Worthington, Ohio, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 20 September 2015, 11:15am
A stately, historic brick church, completed in 1831, with lovely add-ons over the years. The exterior bricks were handmade and fired on a local farm. The rich interior woods are all hand hewn native hardwoods (cherry, butternut and black walnut). The white marble high altar replaces a previous one of wood, which now is used for the freestanding versus populum altar. The worship space itself is surprisingly small given the parish size.
St John's was the first Episcopal church west of the Allegheny Mountains. They have a book group, a young adults group called Saints and Sinners, several groups that provide clothing for the homeless, children's groups, and many others all described on their website. There are two services each Sunday plus a weekday service on Wednesdays.
Worthington is a northern suburb of Columbus, Ohio's capital. Founded in 1803, it was named after a local politician who later became governor of Ohio. It is a charming first-ring suburb, with tree-lined streets and a thriving arts community. The downtown area has been spruced up to resemble what it must have looked like in the early 19th century, and is replete with boutiques and eateries. St John's is situated on the village green near several other churches.
The Revd Philip College, rector, was celebrant and preacher.
He was assisted by the Revd Deacon Deniray Mueller. Sara Seidel, coordinator of music, played organ and piano and directed the choir.
What was the name of the service?Holy Eucharist
How full was the building?
Half full. It probably seats about 200.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. Two people greeted me as I walked from the parking lot to the worship space, and one usher said hello as he handed me my bulletin.
Was your pew comfortable?
No. Pews were presumably original to the 1831 church, and not at all comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Choir rehearsal in the space ended 10 minutes before the service began. After that it was basically quiet from the departure of the choir through the prelude. Several people were praying, and the reader checked the lectern for her readings.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Hymnal 1982 and Prayer Book 1979. The large bulletin had the readings, prayers, and some service music printed in it.
What musical instruments were played?
Primarily pipe organ. Piano was used on one communion hymn.
The prelude included a violist; the communion hymn included a flautist and some hand chimes.
There was also an adult choir who sang an anthem by Herbert Howells, the psalm, and a few descants. The organ dates from 1983 and is a three manual opus of the Schantz Organ Company of Orrville, Ohio.
Did anything distract you?
Halfway through the sermon a family of four entered, who were distracting in a manner I'll get to below. But the most distracting part was the slow speed with which the lector read the lessons and prayers. I had the impression that she was struggling with new glasses. The oddly shaped church was also distracting. I kept trying to decide if the ceiling was too tall or if the room needed to be lengthened, and how the chancel made any sense.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Stiff upper lip. The celebrant followed strictly the words prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer (Rite II) until the announcements. At communion time, the sopranos had to fold up their music as they were singing the anthem to allow the ushers to pass by with the communion elements.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The family mentioned above who had entered late kept responding "Yes!" and "Amen!" to points the rector was making. I understand this is an integral part of the African-American worship tradition, but it was rather distracting after a while and didn't fit in at all with what else was going on in the service. The rector did not react to any of these interjections. But I do think that he rambled on a bit too long, though I'll admit that he kept my attention for longer than most preachers could over the course of 20 minutes.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Transformation and welcome. The gospel for the day was Mark 9:30-37 (Jesus rebukes the disciples for arguing over who would be first). The rector told a long story about his former career as a physical therapist and how one of his patients, in order to learn how to walk again, had to be willing to change, learn, and grow. We as a church are called to be a community of physical therapists to the world, helping to welcome and heal. Invite others and welcome strangers.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The congregational singing was good on the several hymns that were led by the organist. I would call the celebrant's leadership style delightfully transparent. Instead of the annoying "please sit", "please stand", etc. he made do with slight gestures of the hand. This allowed us to experience God and the worship without the rector's personality getting in the way.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I was disappointed that in spite of the sermon being all about welcoming the stranger, very few people were actually friendly to me (see below). Plus I thought the entire service was actually too long one hour and 25 minutes! I am the last person to whine about church being long, but you'd normally expect a service of that length on Christmas Eve, with lots of people to commune, or a big choral event, or even just at a baptism. But this was a straightforward eucharist. Pick up the pace, people!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No one initiated conversation with me in the church. In the gathering area, one person from the choir eventually noticed me and chatted with me. As I made my way out to the parking lot, no one stopped to say hello.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The after-service treats were very classy I think I remember silver on the table. I also think that someone actually baked something at home and brought it in! In that sense I felt welcomed.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – The music and liturgy were good but they really do have to work on trimming the service down to a manageable size. Also, I got the impression that despite a personal welcome, they'd be ready to welcome me if I made an affirmative move in that direction.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes and proud to be a Christian as well.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
That St John's is probably a welcoming church when all is said and done at least they're not a pushy/nosey church, thrusting visitor cards and name tags and "Will visitors please stand and tell us your life history" at you as soon as you park your car. All of that can be welcoming for some, but incredibly off-putting and even scary for others.