Photo: © Corey Seeman and used under license A Presbyterian church has stood on this site since 1814, although not the same building and not occupied by the same congregation. The first two buildings were destroyed by fire. The present church, originally called First Presbyterian, dates from 1848 and is the work of Pennsylvania architect William Strickland, a champion of the Greek Revival style who designed many historic buildings in Philadelphia (several of which, alas, no longer exist) as well as the Tennessee State Capitol. One of the few examples of Egyptian Revival architecture in the United States, Downtown Presbyterian features a façade reminiscent of St Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, also designed by Strickland. The wildly colorful interior is awash in Egyptian motifs – one would not be surprised if King Tut himself emerged from the vestry to conduct worship. The building has been renovated and expanded over the years, and the present congregation has occupied it since 1955.
Their logo reads: ‘Where you are welcome. No exceptions.’ Like St Stephen’s in Philadelphia, Downtown Presbyterian conducts a very active outreach to the homeless, including providing computers and Internet access for their use. The church is a member of NOAH (Nashville Organized for Action and Hope), a multi-racial and interdenominational faith-led coalition. An art gallery called the Browsing Room features works by local artists. They sponsor both an artist-in-residence and a composer-in-residence program. In-person worship is currently suspended, but the Sunday worship service is pre-recorded and posted each week on Facebook.
Nashville, in north-central Tennessee, is the state’s capital. Founded in 1799, it was named for Revolutionary War hero Francis Nash, who commanded nine regiments in General George Washington’s army. A Confederacy stronghold during the Civil War, Nashville was the site of one of the first chapters to be organized of the Ku Klux Klan, which remained active until well into the 1980s. Nashville was also one of the last southern American cities to desegregate in the wake of the Civil Rights movement. Today Nashville is a major center for the music industry, especially country music, and is often called the Music City. As its name implies, Downtown Presbyterian Church is located in the heart of downtown, very near the Cumberland River. The Nashville Public Library; the Ryman Auditorium, a popular live music venue; the Nashville Symphony; the Johnny Cash Museum and Café; and several hotels and restaurants are all nearby.
The pastor, wearing a purple stole over a black Roman clerical suit and sporting a pectoral cross. He was assisted by a cantor; a woman who lit the Advent candle and gave announcements; the Children’s Education Director, who gave the children’s message; and a woman who read from the Old Testament.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Worship.
How full was the building?
The Facebook counter showed 27 at its highest point, although it fluctuated during the service.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Was your pew comfortable?
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The Facebook feed showed a countdown clock, followed by a shot of the communion table covered with a cloth and set with a single candle. The organist played some twiddly bits.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Friends: sisters, brothers, siblings in Christ: Peace to you in the name of our Lord Jesus, and welcome to worship today.’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. There didn’t seem to be a bulletin available for download. Words to the hymns, but not the readings, were displayed.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ. A cantor led the singing.
Did anything distract you?
The service was obviously pre-recorded and there were some sudden jumps between scenes where dead moments had been cut out.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Straightforward. We began with a hymn and the lighting of the Advent candle, followed by another hymn. Then came the confession and assurance of pardon. Announcements followed. Then came the children’s message, a prayer, and the readings from scripture. The pastor preached his sermon. Another hymn came next, then intercessions (we were asked to type our concerns into the comment feed) and the Lord’s Prayer (debts/debtors). At the Lord’s Supper we were reminded that we weren’t being served locusts and honey – that was John’s meal – but rather a holy meal provided by Christ himself: his Body and Blood. The pastor pronounced the words of institution and invited us to partake of any food and drink we wished (I did not have any wine in the house, but I consumed a wheat cracker). A post-communion prayer and hymn, followed by the dismissal and blessing, concluded the service as the organist played a postlude.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 — The pastor referred to notes now and then and spoke with a clear, conversational tone. I really liked his premise.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The pastor said he had attended many shows that included an opening act. A good opening act grabs our attention and transitions us into the main event. John the Baptist was a great opening act. He set the stage for Jesus. He was weird enough, with his ragged clothes and odd diet, to grab people’s attention. He stood out among the magicians and false prophets of the time. People hoped he would have something new to say, and so they made their way out to see him. And John did not disappoint. What mattered to John is that he followed the pulse of his conviction – he followed the will of God, wherever it might lead. Jesus, on the other hand, witnessed oppression, predation, despair and hypocrisy, and took it all in – until it was his time. And then he let his power sweep over humanity. Sometimes we are more receptive to change than at other times. John the Baptist invites us to a dinner table where the host is our meal. And change has only just begun.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sermon, by a long shot. I also liked the traditional music and the clear way in which the service had been organized.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Only that we are still prevented from in-person worship in many places.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Not much. It was lunchtime and so I retired to the kitchen.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I had a barbequed pork patty with carrots and spinach for lunch, followed by a cookie for dessert.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 — I don’t see myself visiting Nashville when it is safe to travel again, although it appears to be a nice enough place despite its shameful history. But if I should visit, I wouldn’t mind stopping in to Downtown Presbyterian for a bit of worship.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
That John the Baptist was weird. Yes, I guess he was.