|715: Christ Church, Riverton, New Jersey, USA|
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Mystery Worshipper: Abed-Nego
The church: Christ Church, Riverton, New Jersey, USA.
Denomination: Episcopal Church in the USA.
The building: An elegant Victorian edifice, consisting of nave, chancel and side-chapel. It is light and airy, considering its vintage, with attractive stained glass. It appears to have strong Anglo-Catholic ties, though the sanctuary lamp is darkened; the reserved sacrament has been relocated to the side chapel. There are no shrines.
The church: All ages were represented in the congregation and I suspect, judging by the immediate locale, this is a middle to upper-middle class group of worshippers. I was shocked to discover that there appeared to be no Sunday School – a fact reinforced by the absence of any mention of one in the bulletin or on the website. There were, however, quite a few children present at the service and "nursery care" was provided.
The neighbourhood: Riverton is one of New Jersey's best-kept secrets. A small township of around 2,000 souls, it is a perfectly preserved Victorian enclave, complete with gas-fired street lighting. On the banks of the Delaware River, it is a fairly short drive from Philadelphia, on the other side of the river. A new light rail line is due to open, so whether Riverton will maintain its "best-kept secret" status may be a moot point.
The cast: Celebrant: Rev. Fr. Alan K. Salmon. Guest Organist: Fay Griscom.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
About half full, around 100 people.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I received a warm, smiling welcome from a lady "greeter".
Was your pew comfortable?
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The church is undergoing some fairly extensive construction work outside. A new, rather long, handicapped-access ramp was about half completed, so the main entrance at the west end was blocked off. Since a side entrance was the only means of access, congregants were being greeted at a door half-way down on the north side and thus what would under normal circumstances have been quiet greetings were in fact rather audible.
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?
Book of Common Prayer 1979 and The Hymnal 1982.
What musical instruments were played?
A hideously out of tune organ.
Did anything distract you?
There were two things which broke my concentration. They were both connected with the acolytes. Firstly, they wore running shoes and their eyes wandered all over the place. Maybe the cause for this in one case becomes apparent in the second distraction. Just before the Gospel, one of these boys became quite agitated and tried to get the attention of the Ceremonarius. He succeeded. An exchange followed and the boy hurriedly left the sanctuary. He did return a few minutes later looking distinctly relieved! Was this the reason there was no Gospel procession? I'll never know unless I visit Christ Church again.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Middle-of-the-road Anglican, though there were remnants of an Anglo-Catholic past. For instance, the eucharist was celebrated facing east, the sanctuary party genuflected at the "et incarnatus" and the host was elevated as the bell rang.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Fr. Salmon has excellent delivery, and lightens things up with humor from time to time. However, his comedy timing is awful. He assumes we won't be amused and "steps into" his laughs. A pity, because he has the potential to be very funny.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He began by looking at the history of "Jingle Bells" (1840) and gave us the complete lyrics (they are appalling)! Apparently it was first sung by a group of Congregationalists celebrating Thanksgiving. Its association with the Christmas season came much later. The connecting thought between what could easily have degenerated into a series of anecdotes was that "God revels in dissonance." Fr. Salmon cited the heavenly choir of angels singing to a group of working shepherds; and the birth of Our Lord during a tax census. He then went on to talk of his own experiences; bringing the blessed sacrament to a hospital room while the soap-opera "All My Children" still remained clearly audible. His final illustration was of a musician in full dress – a cellist – photographed playing his instrument against the back-drop of a bombed-out Sarajevo. "Perhaps God knows that dissonance gets attention."
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The eucharist itself. The liturgy was spoken with care and reverence.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The Christmas decorations were still in place and they were not inspiring. There may have been fresh flowers or foliage somewhere, but all I recall are swags of artificial fir branches and – horror of horrors – plastic golden lilies, dozens of 'em, during Epiphany? I didn't get it. The organ, too, was pretty nasty (no fault of the organist who was pretty good), but it sounded like bagpipes being inflated!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
At the end, we headed for the door where Father Salmon was waiting to shake everyone's hands. He was very outgoing and made us feel warmly welcomed. I remember his appearance more clearly than his words. He wore a cope and a biretta. And no self-effacing biretta. It was piped in scarlet with a bright red pompom. Exceedingly eye-catching!
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was no coffee hour. I walked over to the church hall, which was immediately adjacent. A large, imposing building, perfectly restored to its original Victorian splendor, it was locked tight. It seems to me that two very important aspects of parish life missing at Christ Church, Riverton. The absence of a Sunday School, and lack of opportunity for the congregation to meet with one another. The annual meeting notice in the bulletin also promised to be a rather cold affair: "Since the only canonical purpose of the meeting is the election of officers, we will do just that. Written reports of parish activities will be distributed, not presented verbally." I would find this announcement a big turn-off.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 It's hard for me to imagine getting behind a church which seems to have absolutely no parish life of any kind. I know that the worship of Almighty God is the primary reason for the existence of any church. But the idea that worship is exclusively showing up for weekly eucharist and never setting foot in the place until the following Sunday seems rather cynical.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It's a lovely building, and the mass was offered in all sincerity. I felt very glad.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
It's a toss-up between the anxious acolyte, the foul organ and the scarlet pompom!