Mystery Worshipper: Orthodox Mutt
Church: St Michael & All Angels
Location: Dallas, Texas, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 5 May 2013, 11:00am
The sanctuary is best described as 1960s modern. The entire space is a hall, so there are no transepts. Also unusual is the lack of windows, stained glass or otherwise, in the nave. There are wood panels running the length of the nave where windows would be expected. The only windows are on either side of the chancel area and in the organ loft, and they are, as best I can tell, completely abstract. The eye is immediately drawn to the marble reredos with a gold cross on the left and relief images of St Michael the Archangel and a host of other angels kneeling facing the cross. The north wall is a continuous series of doors that open into a hallway, allowing easy access to the rest of the complex.
This is said to be one of the largest and wealthiest Episcopal parishes in the country. Indeed, they admit on their website that they are "a large church." They offer a broad variety of clubs, study groups, retreats, pastoral care groups, etc., all listed and described on their website. It's safe to say that there are widely varied options to suit every taste. They celebrate several masses each Sunday, including Rites I and II and a Joy Mass (for children ages 3-5), Discovery Mass (for children ages 5-10), and Celebration Mass (described as "a less formal, relaxed service").
The church is surrounded by several other churches, most notably Christ the King Catholic Church, which is directly across the street. It is also close to numerous office towers and shopping destinations. The membership of the parish draws primarily from adjacent neighborhoods of Highland park, University Park, and Preston Hollow, all among the wealthiest in Texas.
The Rt Revd Paul E. Lambert, Bishop Suffragan of Dallas, was the celebrant and preacher. He was assisted by the Revd Dr Robert S. Dannals, rector; the Revd Dr Kevin D. Huddleston, associate for outreach and mission; the Rev Lisa C. Flores, associate for pastoral care; and the Revd Brenda Sol, associate for young adults and pastoral care. The deacon's name was not provided, and she does not appear on the roster of the parish's clergy. A lay subdeacon rounded out the altar party. Additional cast included a verger, two crucifers, four torch bearers, seven communion assistants, and five other assistants (19 in all).
What was the name of the service?Confirmation and Eucharist Rite I
How full was the building?
I would estimate about 250 people were present. Even so, the building was at around a quarter of its capacity (did I say it was a large church?), and the people had spread themselves out pretty evenly.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was greeted by an usher at the door, who handed me a leaflet.
Was your pew comfortable?
The pew had a cushion and was very comfortable. I was amazed at how comfortable the kneelers were. They were padded with thick, soft foam. I wish my church would upgrade theirs with that material!
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was fairly quiet and contemplative. The organist was playing quietly and a few people greeted and conversed with one another. The service started about five minutes late.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Bishop: "Alleluia! Christ is risen."
People: "The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!"
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The leaflet provided included the order of service, page numbers, hymn numbers, and the text of the readings. Additionally, the congregation used the Prayer Book 1979 and the Hymnal 1982.
What musical instruments were played?
The very large and visually impressive organ, Opus 30 of the Schudi Organ Company of Mesquite, Texas, built in the style of the great French 19th century organ builder Aristide Cavaille-Coll. But for all its beauty, this instrument is totally inadequate to accompany congregational singing. Even when the organ is loud, it does not carry (largely the fault of the acoustics in the room). Also, the organ speaks across the gallery from both directions and slightly forward, so the choir are essentially singing from behind it, making it very difficult to keep abreast of the sound.
Did anything distract you?
This was one of the most distracting services I have attended in a very long time. First, there was a veritable soundtrack of coughing and sneezing throughout the service, with the worst coming during congregational singing. I am sorry that so many members of the congregation seemed to be suffering from respiratory ailments, but there it was. Second, few things (in my opinion) bring the beauty of the liturgy to a grinding halt faster than the interjection of page numbers between prayers. Those page numbers were printed in the leaflet, and I would think that the congregation could have managed without both the bishop and the rector constantly prompting, "Our service continues on page ___." But the flow of the service took another, perhaps more grievous, hit: it was advertised as Rite 1 but is perhaps best described as Rite 1 1/2. To be specific, the order of confirmation ignored the language prescribed in Rite 1 and instead used Rite 2. And last but not least, the mixture of styles in the altar and pulpit frontals and the vestments (including the bishop's) was jarring to the eye.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It wanted to be stiff upper lip but (as with the language and vestments) too many irregularities intervened. The servers were well trained and well drilled and executed their duties with precision. However, there was no Gloria even though it was Easter season. Nor was there a psalm or epistle. The readings went directly from first lesson to gospel. Speaking of which, the gospel ceremony seemed awkward. The verger literally raced down the aisle with procession in tow, leaving them all standing there with flickering torches while the choir finished up the sequence hymn. And after the bishop had laid hands on the confirmands, they all laid hands on each other. At the offertory, members of the congregation brought the gifts of bread and wine to the altar and placed them there themselves, instead of handing them to the clergy (forget about bowing and reverencing)!
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – Bishop Lambert read directly from his script and was not, in my opinion, particularly engaging.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It is the job of the community to act together to bring the gospel to the world. The Holy Spirit provides the necessary inspiration to go out and work for Christ's kingdom. Baptism and confirmation are the means God uses to pour out his Spirit.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The offertory anthem: Wesley's Blessed be the God and Father. There is a soft passage that ends in a long rest, after which the full organ blasts a chord that could wake the dead. The congregation were literally startled out of their seats by the sudden chord: they all stood up. Then, when the vocal line resumed, they slowly sat back down. Bishop Lambert looked very amused at the commotion, and I must say that I couldn't suppress a chuckle either.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Aside from the distractions and irregularities mentioned above, the sound system was a source of frustration to boot. The space is plagued by dead acoustics, and they've attempted to incorporate an artificial reverberation system to make up for it, but it just didn't seem to do the trick. The bishop and the rector both had issues with their microphones. The bishop's chair matched the pews in style but has been upholstered in something that can only be described as horrible.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
After the service, a woman in the pew in front of me was quick to turn around and start conversing with me. She was wearing a name tag that identified her area of ministry. So I couldn't really wander much.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Coffee was the only thing I found, and it was very ordinary. It took me a few minutes and a couple of wrong turns even to find it.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 – I could barely prevent myself from pulling my hair out over the incongruities and irregularities I encountered during this service, so I certainly couldn't sit through it week after week.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
To an extent, but that feeling was seriously mitigated by all of the bizarre stylistic choices. I certainly wouldn't want to bring a friend with me to experience it.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The congregation being startled to their feet during the anthem.