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227: St James Cathedral, Chicago, USA
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St James Cathedral, Chicago
Mystery Worshipper: Thames Swimmer.
The church: St James Cathedral, Chicago, USA.
Denomination: Episcopal Church in the USA.
The building: The outside is drab brown and tan brick. However, the inside is a surprise, with gilded Victorian stencilled patterns on all walls and ceilings. Whoever painted it, however, decided that different patterns for different areas would be a good idea, and the result is a clash – gold here, green there, flower bouquets that say "Osanna" there. The stained glass, except for the window over the main doors, is predictable Roman Catholic-like devotional. The main window is quite modern and very bold, but suffers from the fact that it doesn't face into the cathedral, but into a floor-to-ceiling narthex, and can only be seen through a cut-out in the wall. The sanctuary is quite spartan and the transepts are about ten feet deep, so are only fit for the choir on the Gospel side and the organ pipes on the Epistle side.
The neighbourhood: St James is just off the Magnificent Mile of Michigan Avenue. The city's most famous landmark, the Water Tower that survived the Great Fire, is around the corner. So are Saks Fifth Avenue, Niketown, Bloomingdale's, and those other secular cathedrals of our time. This tied right in with the sermon (more on that later).
The cast: Rev. Canon D. Maria Neighbors, Canon Residentiary; Rev. Helen M. Moore, Interim Dean; Rev. Sunny Lopez.
What was the name of the service?
Sung Eucharist.

How full was the building?
About a quarter full, I'd say. Very sparse, but many young couples, which is out of the ordinary for churches these days.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes: "good morning" as the usher handed me the service sheet.

Was your pew comfortable?
The pews were very low to the ground, made of orangey-coloured wood. I felt as if I were sitting in a trench, or squatting rather than sitting. However, there were green-coloured hassocks and cushions, so it was a comfortable trench.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Lots of paper rustling, with an undercurrent of gossip and catching-up with the week just passed. No footsteps, however, as the thick green carpet hushed our feet.

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 and 1982 Hymnal.

What musical instruments were played?

Did anything distract you?
The patterned ceiling and walls are very distracting, though beautiful. And the person beside me kept squeezing by to get out and into the pew to do various things, such as get a service sheet.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was high church as only the US can do it, with no frills or fripperies (or incense!) but with much processing around, bowing, crossing oneself and chanting. I miss these in my weekly worship in London.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
15 minutes exactly.

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

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
There are moments when the earth keeps silence and we can then take stock of ourselves. The rich young man in today's Gospel reading had such a moment, which was a "spiritual depth charge". We need that kind of moment, too, in order that we might "divest ourselves of the world in order to invest in the kingdom."

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The choir, when it sang the anthems and the psalm without the congregation, was very beautiful and sung extremely well. During the prayers of the people, the intercessor unexpectedly (to me) mentioned the name of Matthew Shepard, the young gay man murdered in Wyoming, who happened to be an Episcopalian. He is one of my heroes (though a tragic one), and I appreciated his memory being invoked.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The acoustics in the space are incredibly bad. During the hymns I felt as if I were singing in a box, as I could not hear any of my fellow worshipers singing, and could only faintly hear the choir. The organ, on the other hand, rode roughshod over anything we poor mortals could produce. The organist also committed one of the most heinous sins in the book: he truncated hymns after a few verses rather than, for example, cutting out a few of the middle verses, thus keeping the sense of the words and the conclusion.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Everyone was going to the corner of the cathedral and disappearing, so I did too. The coffee hour was under the Church Center, which is behind the cathedral. I got my goodies, retired to the rear, and backed up to a pillar looking lost. No one talked to me, however; there were many little groups talking among themselves. Even a cathedral, which has many transients each week in its pews, should have greeters who make strangers feel welcome. There were greeters, but after everyone filed into the hall and they'd finished shaking hands with each entrant, they considered their task done and went and talked to their friends. Were I an unchurched traveler who dropped into St James, I would wonder about how friendly these Episcopalians were.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The food was above average, with homemade brownies, bagels and cream cheese, and the like. However, this coexisted with powdered coffee creamer, sad to say.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6. I have hesitated to attend cathedrals since college days, when I haunted St John the Divine in New York. I was confused, but they didn't enlighten me and I've never found much enlightenment in other cathedrals.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Everything makes me feel glad to be a Christian, but the sermon was above average and made me think and concentrate. I think that in particular made me glad to be a Christian.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
As the coffee hour was breaking up, I discovered the bookshop, a room tucked in the corner. They had several books that interested me, postcards, and a very nice clerk who was the friendly face I wished I had in the coffee hour. I bought the books and postcards, and was then presented with a framed print of the cathedral as a gift (they were giving them away while supplies lasted). I'll remember Alicia's friendly smile for a long time, and I hope they promote her from the bookshop to the greeters and she shakes them up a bit.
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