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864: St James Cathedral, Chicago, Illinois
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St James Cathedral, Chicago, Illinois
Mystery Worshipper: Misericord.
The church: St James Cathedral, Chicago, Illinois
Denomination: Episcopal Church in the USA.
The building: This is the oldest Episcopal Church (1857) in Chicago and one of the oldest buildings in the city. The style is "Victorian" Gothic revival with a handsome bell tower.
The church: The cathedral seems to have a parish community giving it a nicely multi-ethnic, intergenerational core along with the usual visitors drawn by its prestige and location.
The neighbourhood: The immediate surroundings include 40 story hi-rise apartment towers on nearly every block. The cathedral is only a block away from the Michigan Avenue retail mecca, and so is in perhaps the densest and surely one of the most affluent areas in the midwest.
The cast: Rev. Peter Siwek presided; The Rt Rev. Victor Scantlebury, assistant bishop, was preacher; Bruce J. Barber II, director of cathedral music.
What was the name of the service?
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, 10.30am Sung Eucharist.

How full was the building?
The church is listed as holding 700 and was about one-third full, with 200-250 people.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, I was greeted by an usher and handed a service sheet with some inserts. The exchange of peace was friendly and reverent, not chatty.

Was your pew comfortable?
The pews appear quite old, but are very adequate with the episcopal-style kneeling cushions tucked under the pew in front. I welcome the shooshing sound they make in place of the klunking of fold-down kneelers.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The organ processional was under way, and people were settled and quiet. I didn't observe any chit-chat. Quite reverential by my standards.

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?
1982 Hymnal and the Book of Common Prayer. One hymn was inserted into the service sheet.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ. It sounded quite nice to me, though I have heard organists complain about this instrument.

Did anything distract you?
I am used to admiring various church decor and sacred art, and many a boring sermon is relieved by stained glass, but I found this interior too busy. I guess the church was restored with all the original stenciling and other paint treatments. There are no plain surfaces in the sanctuary. On the other hand, nothing was distracting about the service or the people there to worship.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Fairly standard episcopal service, which is to say orderly and reverential, but I would not call this high church. There was no incense, and I didn't see as much bobbing and crossing as in some places. There were processions at the entrance, the gospel and a retiring procession. The congregation sang pretty well, which tells me the music leader and choir have been doing their job well over the years.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
12 minutes, give or take.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – I was pleased to find the assistant bishop present, and his preaching was superb.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Bishop Scantlebury stuck to the gospel reading, emphasising that Jesus Christ has come into our lives, and that by grace we are called into a union of love with God himself. He urged us to stand firm in this promise. He used at least three ancedotes that verged on joke-telling, and he inserted them deftly into his message, including one to start the sermon. Even though this technique can seem like a threadbare means to hold people's attention, his anecdotes were so adroit and fresh that I was totally taken in by them.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The choir was good (especially for high summer), but my position at the very side of the nave was bad for hearing them, so after communion, I shifted to a different pew to better hear the Howells anthem (the second of the service). Their psalm was beautifully done with cantor over sustained choral chords. I would also say the sermon was pretty heavenly, and I felt I was really taught or instructed in faith from the seat of the diocese. Better preaching than in my home church, for sure. The third heavenly detail was a very cute two-year old girl peak-a-booing at me over her pew during the prayers of the faithful.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
If anything was a negative, it was the busy pattern-on-pattern decor, and maybe the ugly carpet in the aisles. There is stained glass in all the windows, but of widely different quality, including some fine Gothic-style windows in mainly blue and red, some Victorian romantic style pictorial translucent glass windows, and (my least favorite) a modern west window installed in 1963. At least this one is behind the congregation. I wondered if the services during the rest of the year would be a bit more high church... Perhaps I will go back.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Someone I knew slightly appeared, and we chatted awhile, but when I headed out the door, I discovered coffee, punch and some nice cookies in the narthex with a friendly gentleman "pouring". He and the goodies were positioned near their plaque commemorating a visit to the church by Abraham Lincoln in 1860 prior to his move to Washington DC. This is quite startling, given the short history of Chicago compared to cities farther east, and given the devastation of the Chicago fire of 1871.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Given the August weather, I took the punch in lieu of the coffee. There were plastic cups with napkins for the cookies, (which I also skipped, but they looked like they would do the job).

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – I actually am considering it, although there are many other good places to worship nearer to my apartment.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Oh yeah. Good preaching and good music are a winning combination.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The good sermon from Bishop Scantlebury, and the cute little two-year-old smiling at me over the back of mommy's pew.
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