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179: Chautauqua Institution, Chautauqua, New York
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Chautauqua Institution, Chautauqua, New York
Mystery Worshipper: Eagle Eye.
The church: Chautauqua Institution, Chautauqua, New York.
Denomination: "All-denominational," according to the bulletin.
The building: The service is in a covered amphitheater, open on three sides, with some outside seating at the rear. The area under the roof seats about 5,000. The large stage area has a choir loft above and behind it capable of seating a choir of perhaps 200, although today's choir was a more modest 125 or so. Behind the choir is the massive pipe organ, thundering forth with something like 6,500 pipes.
The neighbourhood: Initially founded as a western New York summer camp for Sunday School teachers, the Chautauqua Institution is a place like no other in America. It was surely the first gated community in the country, featuring exquisite Victorian houses, cottages and rooming houses with a few hotels, restaurants and shops thrown in for good measure. The institution has a nine-week summer season, each week with a different theme. Notable preachers are called from around the world to deliver the Sunday sermon and lead a daily devotional series for the following week. In addition the institution has a full symphony orchestra, an opera company, a theater company and a dance company. It offers classes on everything from butterfly collecting to computers to the stock market, as well as lectures to challenge the mind and stir the heart. This unique environment comes with a price - rooms in some of the rooming houses rent for in excess of $1,000 per week. In addition there is a gate pass to get one in and out of the institution for another $190 per week per person. But Sundays are free, so anyone can come to worship.
The cast: Joan Brown Campbell, Director of the Department of Religion (Americans will note that she accompanied Elian and his father on their flight back to Cuba, and her former position as the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches). William B. Mc Clain, Professor of Preaching and Worship, Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, DC, was the preacher.
What was the name of the service?
Sunday Morning Worship.

How full was the building?
About 85 per cent full, which makes, by my calculation, somewhat over 4,000.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
The man who handed my my program bid me a "good morning".

Was your pew comfortable?
Not really. Experienced Chautauquans often take a cushion with them.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Bustling and chatty.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning and welcome."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. The program included all of the hymns and congregational participation parts of the service.

What musical instruments were played?

Did anything distract you?
Some crows found something interesting nearby just as the sermon was starting, and they were loudly announcing their find to their friends.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Solidly middle-of-the-road Protestant.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
Exactly 24:54 by my daughter's stopwatch.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
I'd give him a 10. His content was excellent and I'm sorry I won't be able to hear him through the coming week. The only thing that would have made it better would be a lavalier microphone. He was evidently used to turning around to look at the choir and when he did, his words were lost due to the fixed microphone on the pulpit.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The disciplines of the Spirit, in which he reminded the congregation that being a Christian is a process rather than an event. In the coming week he will address faith, prayer, humility, justice and service as disciplines of the Spirit.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The music. Sitting in the midst of thousands, all of whom seemed to sing heartily, being led by the wonderful choir and remarkably gifted organist in hymns such as "Holy, Holy, Holy", "Now Thank We All Our God" and "Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart" literally give you goose-bumps. Surely, as my brother-in-law said, "This is where God goes to church in the summer."

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

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The organist played a lengthy and robust Vierne Symphonic Finale as the postlude (from memory!) followed by a round of applause from several hundred organ aficionados.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There is none.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
This experience is over the top. I'd give it an 11. This was the first service for 2000 and there will be one each week until the last Sunday in August. Although not a church in the traditional sense, it is perhaps the ultimate summer worship experience and all are welcomed to return.

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

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