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310: Church of the Ascension, Chicago
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Church of the Ascension, Chicago
Mystery Worshipper: Abed-Nego.
The church: Church of the Ascension, Chicago, Illinois.
Denomination: Episcopalian.
The building: The Church of the Ascension was founded in 1857 as a mission of St James' Church, which is now the cathedral. The most attention-grabbing thing about the exterior is a life-size crucifix attached to the building and immediately adjacent to the sidewalk. The first thing you notice on entering is the large sanctuary – virtually the width of the entire building and separated from the nave by a wrought-iron rood screen. Unusually, the screen does not obscure the altar or the ritual of the mass, and while giving indication to the worshipper that the events about to take place are sacred, they do nothing to exclude one from full participation in the service.
The church: The Sisters of St Anne, whose convent is immediately adjacent to the church, were represented by a single sister in full habit. There were no children or teenagers present, but the younger generation may well have been at the mass which preceded the one I attended. I suspect that the 9 o'clock liturgy may have been less formal and more "family-oriented".
The neighbourhood: The area around this downtown church appears to the casual observed to be relatively prosperous, with gentrification and newly constructed homes in evidence. The most unusual – or at least unexpected – thing for me was the large car park which belonged to the church and provided exclusive parking for visitors to the church. There was also a particularly lovely, well-tended garden between the convent and the church. It's hard to imagine a more welcoming locale for a church set in the midst of a large city.
The cast: Rev. Fr. Gary Fertig, Celebrant; Rev. Fr. Richard Higginbotham, Deacon; Steve Lord, Sub-Deacon; LaVerne Saunders, Master of Ceremonies.
What was the name of the service?
Solemn Mass and Sermon.

How full was the building?
The nave was about one-third full, with 70 or so worshippers in the congregation. There were also 17 choir members plus the organist in the gallery, and eight acolytes in the sanctuary.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
On entering, I was welcomed by a young lady with a friendly smile and a simple "good morning". She handed me and my wife an order of service with two pages of parish notices inserted. The Peace was simple and short, though a charming couple in the pew in front of us begged off – very politely, let me add – because she was suffering from a cold.

Was your pew comfortable?
The pew was very comfortable both for sitting and kneeling. Victorian ergonomics at work!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The atmosphere in the church before the service was very reverential, as if every single person was waiting attentively and with anticipation for an important event. The organist played the Prelude to Bach's "St Anne" fugue quite beautifully, and in character for the Easter season.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Alleluia, Christ is risen."
"The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Book of Common Prayer 1979; The Hymnal 1982; Cantate Domino (a supplement to the hymnal).

What musical instruments were played?

Did anything distract you?
Although nothing really distracted me, I did wonder why the stations of the cross needed to be quite so large. They might have looked more at home in a cathedral.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship style was very traditional, and singing was important for everyone – choir, congregation and priests. It was quite remarkable to find myself positioned between very well prepared ritual at the altar, and very well prepared singing in the choir gallery. The choir sang the Kyrie Eleison, the Sanctus and Benedictus, and the Agnus Dei from Mozart's C Major Mass (K259). The Gloria in Excelsis and the Creed were enthusiastically sung by the congregation. Oddly, the Mass was celebrated in Rite II with the exception of the Creed and the Our Father, which reverted to Rite I.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
9 minutes exactly.

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

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was based on the events of the Gospel reading for the Third Sunday of Easter – St John's account of the appearance of our Lord on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias following his resurrection. Fr. Fertig was easy to follow, clear-headed and lucid. He compared the events to a children's story. But tales with happy endings don't have any Monday morning blues. Here was Peter back at his old job – fishing. Jesus' ministry was ended. The excitement was over. The post-Easter bills had to be paid. And suddenly there was the Lord again – and once again telling Peter to cast out his nets. Fr. Fertig ended his sermon quite suddenly by pointing out that there is a happy ending and that we can all "live happily ever after." I would love to award this message a full 10 points – but he distanced himself slightly by reading from a prepared text.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The whole liturgy was pretty near to heaven – as far as my mortal mind can figure.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
An ambulance went by (the church is located on a main throughfare) with sirens in full blare, and a couple of motorbikes did a little revving-up practice, but these were only momentary reminders of "the other place".

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was no time to look lost after the service. We listened to David Shrader, the organist, play Bach's "St Anne" Fugue rather well. And then we made for the exit. Both Fr. Higginbotham – the curate – and Fr. Fertig greeted us warmly as if they were visiting with old friends. They were full of smiles, laughter and joy.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The coffee, iced tea and lemonade were served in a lovely hall adjacent to the church from cardboard cups. I was delighted to find a decent coffee of the decaffeineated variety. My wife and I were drawn into conversation by a man who told us something of the history of the church, including the fact that during his tenure, the former Bishop of Chicago, James Montgomery, used to celebrate two weekday masses every week at this church. We were then greeted by a lady who travelled some distance every week because she loved the services at the Church of the Ascension. She told us was a widow who was enjoying returning to the episcopal fold after marriage to a Roman Catholic. Before leaving we treated ourselves to a tiny slice of very sweet cake.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I cannot imagine feeling more happy about living a life rooted in the Christian faith. It was steadying and reassuring to attend episcopalian worship like this. Would that all Anglican liturgies were like this!

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
I will remember the rood screen at the Church of the Ascension. It was as if the gates of heaven had been left ajar and I was allowed to peer in for a moment.
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