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639: St Clement's, Philadelphia, USA
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S. Clement's, Philadelphia
Mystery Worshipper: Abed-Nego.
The church: St Clement's, Philadelphia, USA.
Denomination: Episcopal.
The building: On a quiet street corner in the heart of Philadelphia, the warm red-stone of a wonderfully proportioned building seemed to beckon in both stranger and passer-by. On entering, I was not prepared for the the majesty and splendor of the ultimate expression of Victorian Gothic. Like its sister churches, St Mark's and Holy Trinity, St Clement's was designed by Philadelphia architect, John Nottman. It was consecrated in 1864. The powerful beauty of its interior rivals the brilliance of Nottman's other buildings. No words can do St Clement's proper justice.There is a generous collection of photographs past and present on the website, and they do their best to capture the beauty of this building. The spacious nave, the richly ornamented sanctuary, the chapels – all are quite perfect and superbly proportioned. But for me, the windows are the most breathtaking. Designed by Charles Connick of Boston, they were dedicated in 1941. Though the design details for these windows are highly impressive, the shade of blue that dominates the glass is memorably magnificent. Of the dozens of incredibly beautiful features within and without St Clement's church, the color of those windows will resonate in my memory for all time.
The church: One cannot but notice that the congregation is predominantly male – around 80% I suspect. And almost all these men are middle-aged and up. I noticed in the order of service sheet that there was childcare on the second floor of the parish house, and, sure enough, when coffee hour came round, the ratio of male to female – and young to old – began to look more representative of humankind in general.
The neighbourhood: There is a fair mixture of businesses and private homes in the immediate vicinity of St Clement's. I suspect that it is not inexpensive to buy or rent around here – especially since the museums are pretty close-by and Benjamin Franklin Parkway, two blocks away, is a particularly elegant part of town.
The cast: Rev. Fr. Robert W. Offerle, celebrant. Rev. Fr. Joshua C. Aalan, deacon. Rev. Fr. Lawrence Sipe, sub-deacon. Peter Richard Conte, organist and choirmaster. Bernard Kunkel, associate organist.
What was the name of the service?
High Mass II.

How full was the building?
This service was depressingly poorly attended. Perhaps 60 or so congregants – in a building which must seat 600 – might not seem so dreadful in other circumstances. But here, in what many consider the unofficial cathedral of Anglo-Catholicism in America, this seemed a pitifully small number of the faithful.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A polite "good morning" as I was handed an order of service. The gentleman also pointed at a specially designed booklet that contained the complete liturgy, but I decided to survive with the simple bulletin. It was enough.

Was your pew comfortable?
It's odd just how comfortable the pews are. The rather thin leather-covered hassocks don't seem at first sight to be up to the job of providing sufficient support for the knees. But the proportions work. They're small enough not to be in the way when one is standing, and yet they are at just the right height to make kneeling rather comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Absolute reverential silence. The associate organist, Bernard Kunkel, played the entire "Plymouth Suite" by Percy Whitlock with imagination, wit and energy, and really lifted our spirits. I felt ready for an inspired service of worship – and I was not disappointed.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Asperges me Domine hyssopo", sung in a polyphonic setting by Victoria.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Book of Common Prayer (1928), English Hymnal (Melody only).

What musical instruments were played?

Did anything distract you?
It was Harvest Festival Sunday, so there were fine floral displays everywhere, including a large harvest display on the gospel side of the sanctuary (maybe a sheaf of wheat), a lot of gloriously arranged sunflowers on the altar, and a curious collection of gourds along the low stone wall that approximates as a rood screen. A minor distraction was that the men of the choir sang different English translations of the propers than those printed in the order of service.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This was about as good as it gets. The music centred around Herbert Howells "Collegium Regale" mass (the whole thing, including the credo). The propers were all intoned in English in Gregorian chant – no drab, over-simplified "English gradual" settings here. And the motet was Elgar's "Fear not, O land".

Exactly how long was the sermon?
9 minutes – though it seemed longer.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
3 – Fr. Offerle was over-reliant on his notes and spoke almost on a monotone. It was hard to concentrate on what he was saying. The quality of the preaching was far below that of the music and ritual. What a pity that when so much care was lavished on the latter, apparently so little was expended on the homily.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
I'm not quite sure. It started off well enough. Based on the Gospel for the day (the parable of the wedding feast) the sermon likened God's love to a banquet held in a banquet hall filled with guests. What was the cost to attend this banquet? The price was that our values be turned upside down. I then lost the thread of what the speaker was trying to say. He referred to Isaiah 25, and the prophet's vision of a divine banquet. But without any quotations from this passage, I couldn't make out the cross-references. Then there was an oblique reference to Psalm 23 which I didn't figure out until I was driving away. "Thou shalt prepare a table ..." of course, but all I could think of at the time was "The Lord is my shepherd" ... and so my mind wandered away from the subject as I contemplated roast lamb and mint sauce as the main course for this banquet we were imagining.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The music. Peter Richard Conte heads the best church musical program I have experienced. With an 18-voice professional choir and an assistant organist, almost all the sacred repertoire is available to him. I was familiar with the CDs issued by the Dorian label of St Clement's choir under Mr Conte's leadership. But they did little to prepare me for the splendors of this choir live. The blend, the expressive range, the tuning and the musical focus of these men and women is overwhelmingly inspiring. The magnificent vestments, the perfectly executed ritual and the beauty of this building drew me closer to God; but the sound of that choir made me feel I was already in the presence of the angels.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The homily. To be surrounded by all that was lovely, and to learn so little from the preacher was hugely disappointing. I can only hope he was having a "bad sermon day".

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
All three priests were poised and biretta'd to greet us at the west door. We accepted the invitation (posted in the bulletin and at the foot of the stairs in the narthex) to "join us for refreshments". On this Sunday, it was sponsored by the servers' guild, and a fine spread it was too. We met Mr Conte and thanked him for his music; and and then we made for the door, inspired by the friendship and fellowship being shared by a lively group of congregants – and their children, who, it turned out, belonged largely to choir members.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Pita bread and hummus, crackers and cheese, and an extensive choice of all kinds of sweet goodies, as well as fresh coffee and a selection of teas. Well done, the servers of St Clement's!

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – If I lived in Philadelphia, I'd be thrilled to make St Clement's my home church. What a privilege for the people of this city to have such a very special place in which to worship God. I would have given a score of 10, but for that sermon.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Overwhelmingly. The only saddening aspect was the small congregation. On one level, St Clement's offers a heart-warming Christian experience. On quite another level, it's the best "free concert" on the east coast. What a wonderful outreach program could be spurred by the music program, and how many people who loved beautiful music could find their way to the redeeming love of Christ through this medium. I felt very glad indeed to be a Christian, and very sad that so few of my fellow Christians were there to help me celebrate.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Parking the car, glancing across the road at this beautiful building and realising that my path from the sidewalk into the porch was lined with the most beautiful flowers, trees and bushes. It was such a gently unassuming welcome, but I felt near to my Maker before I even stepped into the church.
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