Mystery Worshipper: Fading Lights
Church: Trinity Cathedral
Location: Phoenix, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 31 August 2008, 10:00am
A very attractive building with an imposing presence in the very familiar Southwestern style that is prominent throughout the Phoenix area. The tan color matches Phoenix's desert locale quite well, although the cathedral is close to the central business district of a major American city. The cathedral itself is well kept, but is located in an area of town that has seen better days. The grounds are unremarkable except for the courtyard, which contains a labyrinth replicating the one at Chartres Cathedral. I was so fascinated with the labyrinth that I had a hard time actually finding the entrance to the cathedral itself. There are some outstanding stained glass windows that are well described on the cathedral's website. One's attention is immediately drawn to the great window. When I first saw the window, I thought the design was spectacular, but was unsure as to what it represented. The website describes it as "the Trinity ... represented by overlapping white wings ... and ... a symbolic representation of the living earth, woven together from the primal elements."
There are three Sunday services: a spoken 8.00am service, the main service at 10.00am, and a Spanish language service at noon. I noticed the large number of outreach ministries this cathedral supports, including spiritual formation, fellowship, and crafts – all described on their website.
The cathedral is located on Roosevelt Avenue just west of Central Avenue – not a section of Phoenix you'd send picture postcards of. The housing stock is primarily early 20th century, rare to find in these parts, and is occupied by working class folks. There are, however, some new upper class condos behind the cathedral, as well as renovated and gentrified older homes. This part of Phoenix has also been disrupted by the construction of a light rail system.
The Very Revd W. Nicholas Knisely, dean, was the celebrant and preacher. A layman whose name was not given read the Old Testament lesson, and the Revd Deacon Maeve Johnson read the gospel.
What was the name of the service?Choral Eucharist was the name of the service. However, the choir is away until October.
How full was the building?
About half full. I estimate the cathedral can seat about 300 or so comfortably. There were about 175 people in attendance over the Labor Day weekend. The congregation were dressed in a wide variety of styles, which I appreciated. I'd have a hard time joining a church where every member wore a business suit in 120 degree Fahrenheit weather at 10.00am on a Sunday. Members were dressed in everything from suits to shorts. Everyone seemed to mesh together quite well. Teens sat next to elderly people.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. I was welcomed several times. First, when I wandered into the Sunday school area by mistake. Second, when I actually found the entrance to the cathedral itself.
Was your pew comfortable?
Average. The kneelers aren't ones I'd like to spend 30 minutes on. The pew was unpadded but comfortable for an hour long service.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Fairly quiet, except for some noise from children. There was a bit of whispering, but no audible conversations.
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?
1979 Book of Common Prayer, 1982 Hymnal. The Prayer Book was available in Spanish as well. The eucharistic prayer was taken from the book of supplemental liturgical materials entitled Enriching Our Worship and was reproduced in the bulletin. I had never heard of Enriching Our Worship before, and the materials seemed not quite as politically correct as those I'm more familiar with from the United Church of Christ.
What musical instruments were played?
Piano and violin for the prelude. Organ only for the rest of the service. The choir is said to be excellent, but they are in recess until October.
Did anything distract you?
Yes, the children. In particular, the two children attempting to climb over me while I was kneeling after communion.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Very low key service. No raising of hands or commentary from the congregation. But people would choose to stand or kneel at different times throughout the service. I was disappointed that there was no incense. At coffee, a member told me they do use incense for special occasions. The vast majority of the service was spoken, but the eucharistic preface and sursum corda were chanted. I was quite happy that the hymns were all traditional hymns from the 1982 Hymnal, but the organist took them at a very slow tempo – a trend I'm eager to see end! The congregational singing was not very enthusiastic, perhaps due to the low attendance for Labor Day weekend. The exchange of peace is always something to be avoided in my opinion, but this one was relatively tame – limited to shaking hands with those in the pew in front and in back. The announcements seemed a bit long, but since I came from a church that did 15 minutes of announcements, I'll accept Trinity's seven minutes.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – The first part of the sermon was excellent, definitely one of the most interesting sermons I've heard all year. The dean spent some time talking about the Tetragrammaton (God's name written in four letters, the Hebrew letters represented as YHWH in English), which I found fascinating. He clearly held everyone's attention and the congregation seemed comfortable with the length of the sermon. Sure, I would have loved a lengthy discussion of Hebrew worship practices and a commentary of the book of Exodus, but I don't think that would have appealed to the rest of the congregation. The dean spoke very clearly, and if he used notes, I certainly didn't see them.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Most of the sermon covered the Old Testament lesson from Exodus 3:1-15 (God reveals his name to Moses) and focused mainly on God being "I am who I am." This service took place right before the arrival of Hurricane Gustav, and the dean mentioned he wanted to include that in his sermon but did not rewrite the entire sermon to focus only on that event. He said that we should not try to interpret actions such as hurricanes as God being angry at the United States or Louisiana.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The skill of the reader of the Old Testament lesson. Too often lay readers mumble the lesson and I have to tune them out and read it myself. Not so for this gentleman. He read the lesson very well without being overly dramatic or drawing attention to himself. Also, the deacon's reading of the gospel. She also spoke very clearly and the lesson was easy to understand without having to read along in the bulletin.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The very loud screaming from one of the infants in the congregation. I could not hear the epistle lesson very well.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
A member of the congregation came up to me after a couple of minutes and engaged me in conversation. He invited me to brunch and answered my questions about the absence of the choir.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The coffee was fine, but the cathedral really outdid itself with the selection of food available free of charge. There were plenty of baked goods available and they looked delicious. This Mystery Worshipper decided not to partake, however, since brunch awaited. The coffee was probably fairly traded, as an establishment called the Fair Trade Cafe is located just off the cathedral's parking garage.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – I've just moved to the Phoenix area and am looking for a church home. The diversity at this church makes it worthy of strong consideration. The people were a mix of ages including many children. The congregation were dressed from suits to shorts. Same sex couples were listed in the anniversaries section of the bulletin.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, 100 per cent. My day was better because of this service.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Singing "Lift High the Cross" as the recessional hymn. At my previous church, this hymn was only used during Lent.