St Stephen's on the Green, Middlebury, Vermont

St Stephen's on the Green, Middlebury, Vermont, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: Inscriber
Church: St Stephen's on the Green
Location: Middlebury, Vermont, USA
Date of visit: Wednesday, 18 November 2009, 12:05pm

The building

St Stephen's is a gray stone Gothic structure built in 1827, with very consistent-looking additions (due to its historic building status) made in recent years. Outside by its windows (not of "real" stained glass but painted, as I was told) was some scaffolding, as the windows required maintenance. I did not see the main sanctuary, but went from the foyer through a substantial library to the sea-green chapel were the service was held.

The church

Their website describes a congregation well-endowed with children and parishioners of all ages, although I did not meet very many. Four priests serve this church. The congregation seem to be active in local outreach, and last year sent a volunteer crew to Nicaragua.

The neighborhood

Middlebury is a small college town in west-central Vermont, having a fine view of the Green Mountains. As per its name, St Stephen's lies on the Green, a park-like area in the center of town. Other churches surround the Green: a tall-spired Congregational church is atop a hill at one end, while two Baptist churches flank the other. At one end of the Green, right up against the church, lies a deep gully through which runs a railroad line. A little past the tracks is Otter Creek, crossed by a bridge just before it reaches a waterfall.

The cast

The Very Revd Diane Nancekivell, retired dean of Trinity Cathedral, Trenton, New Jersey, now assisting clergy at St Stephen's.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Eucharist

How full was the building?

The entire congregation consisted of myself, five middle-aged to elderly ladies, Dean Nancekivell, and a small tan-furred dog who seemed quite accustomed to church. But as the service was held in a small chapel in the second floor, this was enough to fill the room.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I was warmly welcomed many times: first by the two ladies who led me to the chapel, and again as each additional worshiper made her way in.

Was your pew comfortable?

No pews, but fold-up plastic chairs – comfortable enough for the short service.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

We talked quietly among ourselves as we filtered in, until the officiant arrived.

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?

The 1979 Book of Common Prayer, and a printout of Psalm 122.

What musical instruments were played?


Did anything distract you?

The traffic had been surprisingly loud for a small Vermont town, but thankfully it was much softened inside. A phone rang in another room. As this was the first Episcopal service I had attended in years, finding the right pages was a bit troublesome.

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

The liturgy was Rite II of the Book of Common Prayer, with the creed, the confession, and more cut out. It was quite informally done, with the officiant midway through the service appointing one to "pick any prayer" to read!

Exactly how long was the sermon?

7 minutes.

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

6 – Dean Nancekivell spoke well, but given the size of the group it was more of a intimate talk than a sermon.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Dean Nancekivell spoke of Hilda of Whitby, the saint commemorated that day. Of Anglo-Saxon royal blood, Hilda became a nun, and later abbess of Whitby. She took part in the Synod of Whitby in 664, where the English Church resolved, with her support, to follow the Roman, rather than the Celtic, use. This resulted in the tragic loss of Celtic feminine spirituality to the male-dominated Church.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

When all else seemed doomed, I was greatly lifted by the Lord's Prayer said in traditional language. And any worship with fellow Christians is at least a foretaste of heaven, this one especially so with the sense of community it invoked.

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

I'm afraid it was just too "modern" for me. The celebrant used eucharistic prayer C, but instead of asking the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to open our eyes, we prayed instead to the God of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah (although Dean Nancekivell hesitated a moment as if she couldn't at first remember their names!). The translation (if it can be called one) of Psalm 122 spoke of "harmony with the Cosmos" while somehow not mentioning God. Also, one of the worshipers kept saying "God's" whenever the dreaded masculine pronoun came up, while the rest of us said "his". The most painful part was that the day before I had bought, in a used book store, a copy of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer (printed in 1956) which had been discarded by St Stephen's Church! Reading its beautiful lines, I could only think how the mighty have fallen.

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

The small congregation dispersed rather quickly, but I spoke with some people for a few minutes in the foyer (and sneaked in my Mystery Worshipper card by a stack of magazines, there being no offering).

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

No refreshments were served.

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

5 – In fairness I really can't judge it on such a small service, but from the hints I received I don't think I'd be entirely at home.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes, despite all else.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The small amount, and friendly community, of the worshipers.

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