St Stephen’s, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Stephen’s
Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Date of visit: Wednesday, 5 June 2019, 12:15pm

The building

Consecrated in 1823, it is said to be Gothic Revival but does not resemble any Gothic structure that I have ever seen. It is not cruciform, and the two towers flanking the west façade seem to be guarding it against encroachment by the modern world. The interior features a cleaving balcony (unheard of in Gothic churches), a mosaic of the Last Supper over the high altar, and some lovely stained glass, including some Tiffany windows. A cube-shaped wooden communion table was set up in the sanctuary. A plaque states that St Stephen’s Church stands on the spot where Benjamin Franklin performed his famous ‘kite experiment’ in 1752. According to legend, Franklin set out to prove that lightning was electricity, which was long theorized but never before proven. He attached a key to the string of a kite and flew the kite during a thunderstorm. According to his account of what was supposed to happen, ‘As soon as any of the Thunder Clouds come over the Kite … the Electric Fire … [will] stream out plentifully from the Key on the Approach of your Knuckle.’ But the whole story may be apocryphal, and scientists believe that if Franklin had actually done such an experiment, he would have been lucky not to have been electrocuted!

The church

From its inception, St Stephen’s has been a pioneer in innovative forms of worship. They do not hold Sunday services, but instead celebrate the eucharist Monday through Thursday, when (quoting from their website) they ‘focus on the lectionary of the saints and holy people … [and] commemorate important events in the year of the church.’ They are very much into the arts, sponsoring numerous concerts in a variety of musical genres (they charge artists extra to use their Steinway grand piano) and putting on theatrical productions. The church is open every day to the homeless – they provide food and drink, which can be consumed at tables set up in the back, for anyone who asks. Anyone is also welcome to lie down on the floor and go to sleep – at the time of my visit, about a dozen or so souls were availing themselves of this invitation.

The neighborhood

They are located on South 10th Street between Market and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia’s Center City district, a decidedly seedy section featuring fine old buildings that have been repurposed as nail salons and Rite-Aid Pharmacies, with a handful of shops, restaurants and historic sites struggling to be noticed.

The cast

The vicar, vested in alb and stole, was assisted by an acolyte in cassock and surplice.

What was the name of the service?

Eucharist, Wednesday in the Seventh Week of Easter, Commemoration of St Boniface, Archbishop, Missionary and Martyr.

How full was the building?

There were six of us in the congregation – four youngish to middle-aged ladies, a young gentleman, and myself.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A woman sitting at the door, who later was to appear in cassock and surplice as the acolyte, said ‘Hello’ and gave me some literature describing the stained glass windows and other artwork.

Was your pew comfortable?

The nave is furnished with wooden chairs with red cushions. Several of these were arranged around the communion table in a semicircle. They were comfortable enough.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The six of us chatted amiably while we were waiting for the service to begin. They were naturally curious as to who I was, where I was from, and how I had heard about St Stephen’s.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘We welcome you this afternoon on the Wednesday of the last week in Eastertide.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The 1978 Book of Common Prayer was available on a table, but everything we needed was provided in three handouts: one of the ordinary, one of the proper for the day, and one containing a short biographical sketch of St Boniface.

What musical instruments were played?

None – it was a said service.

Did anything distract you?

I have to admit that the array of homeless people sleeping on the floor was a distraction.

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

A straightforward by-the-book Rite II said eucharist. Several of us took turns giving the readings. The acolyte, not the priest, made the chalice at the offertory, and there was no lavabo. Everyone, including the priest, communed via intinction.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

7 minutes.

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

10 — The vicar spoke clearly and conversationally as if our small group were engaging in a talk about St Boniface.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The church has seen many martyrs over the centuries – what are they telling us? Boniface was not a young man; he didn’t set out in life with the thought that he was going to be martyred. In fact, it probably took him by surprise! Like St Paul in today’s lesson (Acts 20:17-28, Paul’s farewell to the Ephesians), he knew his work had been done and that it was time to move on. Unlike his murderers, who had no time for Christianity, Boniface had kept his trust in God, and God set his soul free. That’s an easy thing to say, but not so easy to live. But we should all persevere in trusting God.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The palpable faith of our little gathering was heavenly – as was saying the Lord’s Prayer without anyone holding hands or affecting the orans position.

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

Naturally a cell phone went off – but it belonged to one of the homeless!

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

We all continued our amiable chat from before and finally bade one another good-bye.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none – unless we wanted to break bread with the homeless. I retired to a little Japanese restaurant directly across the street and enjoyed a delicious lunch. One of the people who had been at church came in for some take-out, and we chatted at my table while waiting for the order to arrive.

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

10 — What a lovely experience! It’s not often you get to run through the daily lectionary in an Episcopal church. If only all church gatherings were this amiable. Should I ever be in Philadelphia again, I’d be happy to stop by.

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

Most definitely yes!

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

The homeless people sleeping on the floor.

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