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1079: The Community of St Mary the Virgin, Blackburn Hamlet, Ottawa, Canada
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The Community of St Mary the Virgin, Blackburn Hamlet, Ottawa
Mystery Worshipper: Theoros.
The church: The Community of St Mary the Virgin, Blackburn Hamlet, Ottawa, Canada.
Denomination: Anglican Church of Canada.
The building: When it outgrew its small rural church building twenty years ago, this parish made a deliberate decision not to build a new church, but rather to make a permanent arrangement to meet for worship and other activities in rented space in a local high school. It wanted to live out the often-heard claim that the church is not its building, but its people! The exterior of the high school is nondescript, but the combination of an agora and the school's auditorium into which it leads provides a malleable worship space. Since the liturgy is very experimental and in constant evolution, this arrangement seems ideal. The auditorium has no windows – let alone stained glass ones – so the parish has created a good deal of fabric art. Banners for the different seasons are used to disguise some of the auditorium's fixtures. In general the fabric art is very successful – the Easter frontal for the altar was particularly striking.
The church: This is a stunning parish. The words that come to mind for it are those that Pope John XXIII famously used of the Taiz? community: "that little springtime." I've simply never seen anything like it, and it gives me hope for the Church (otherwise in short supply!). You would never find St Mary the Virgin unless someone told you about it. But a friend had mentioned that she had heard it was an unusual and interesting place, even though she herself had never been there, so we decided to give it a try. What struck me instantly was that these people all know one another well, and they are all intensely involved in the life of the parish.
The neighbourhood: Blackburn Hamlet is an outer but settled suburb to the east of Ottawa, with comfortable houses, large lawns and mature trees.
The cast: The Rev. Rae Fletcher, rector.
What was the name of the service?
The Great Vigil, followed by Festal Eucharist of Easter – actually two separate services, as will be seen.

How full was the building?
Half full (about 40 people) for the vigil, and bulging (about 100) for Easter mass. Not a large congregation, but just right for the space.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
The welcome was immediate, genuine and warm. The vigil service took place not in the auditorium, which is the normal place of worship, but in the atrium outside the auditorium, an open space surrounded on three sides by a series of wide steps – a bit like a Greek theatre. Before the service people milled around in this area, talking quietly. We were personally welcomed by a quarter of the people there. Moreover, they didn't just say "welcome," they asked who we were and what had brought us there. The next morning at Easter mass, many who had talked with us the previous evening introduced us to other members of the parish. It was so unusual.

Was your pew comfortable?
At the vigil service in the atrium, people mostly sat on the broad wooden steps or else on some plastic chairs that had been brought in. At mass the following morning in the auditorium, there were concentric rings of movable chairs – comfortable enough.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Happy but quiet conversations, both before the vigil and before mass.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
The vigil began with the sound of a "singing bowl" – a kind of gong – and the words: "The worship space has been in darkness since Good Friday. Only a single light on a bare cross reminds us of the Easter victory. For a time tonight, we will be the children of Israel wandering in the darkness of the wilderness and reliving the drama of salvation as the stories are told of God?s mighty acts."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
At the vigil there was only the specially-prepared service booklet. At mass the words of the songs were projected onto the side walls of the auditorium.

What musical instruments were played?
There was a small orchestra: electronic keyboard, violins, trumpets, trombone, guitar, and various percussion instruments.

Did anything distract you?
This is a parish that energetically welcomes children. Although there were no young children in evidence at the vigil, there were lots at Easter mass – and since it was a festal day there was no church school. It was good to see them so happy and so welcomed, but perhaps it was a bit distracting.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It is hard to find adjectives to describe the style. It was open and easy, but there was a clear sense that there were strong liturgical principles and deep classical liturgical knowledge underlying it all. The liturgy, in general, was highly creative, but the departures from tradition were considered ones. For example, the vigil service did not run right into Easter mass, with a sort of second-run Easter mass for the faint of heart on Sunday morning. Rather, the vigil ended at 10.00pm and Easter mass resumed on Sunday morning as a separate service. And instead of starting with the lighting of the new fire and the exsultet and then moving into the rather sombre Old Testament readings, the order of the vigil was reversed. The sombre readings came first, followed by a period of darkness and then the lighting of the new fire, the singing of the exsultet (to a trumpet fanfare and a wonderful modern jazz-like tune), and then the proclamation of the Easter gospel. I thought it made much better sense than the classical order. Finally, I was initially taken aback by the celebrant's performance of a rabbinical dance around the altar at the end of the Easter mass, but after a short moment it seemed natural and right. This congregation, it turns out, is used to liturgical dancing.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon at the vigil. At Easter mass the sermon lasted 15 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – The preacher's style was vigorous and direct. He seemed to have thought hard and perceptively about the text on which he was preaching.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was essentially about the differences between John's report of the resurrection and that of the other gospels. Its main emphasis was on the fact that John appears to understand resurrection as awakening to fullness of life in Christ, rather than as temporally sequential life after death.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
This was for me an experience of constant delight and surprise – the combination of freedom and discipline, classical lines and new departures, old words and new music. Perhaps the two most transcendent moments were the trumpet fanfare at the exsultet and the celebrant's rabbinical dance around the altar at the end of mass.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
There was only one thing that slightly disappointed me, although it certainly wasn't like being in the other place! Instead of the full ten Old Testament readings at the vigil service, we had a shortened form and used only five. I know this is very standard practice in parishes, but in this really serious and thoughtful parish it sounded a strange note.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We had no opportunity to look lost. We were whisked to a quiet reception after the vigil, and then to a very grand lunch after Easter mass.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The reception after the vigil consisted of tea, coffee, juice, and finger foods of various sorts; it lasted about an hour. After Easter mass there was a fine lunch: sandwiches, casseroles (I particularly remember the Swedish meatballs), and so forth. I learned that the parish has a pot luck lunch after mass once a month. This is a parish that socializes together a lot.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – I'd love to belong to this parish. My only fear is that my commitment to it might become too complete for my own good!

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Goodness, yes. I felt as though I was exploring rich aspects of Christianity that are almost never on view, that there was a real spirituality here, and that it showed itself wonderfully in the way these people cared for one another. It made me think of St Paul: "See how these Christians love one another." It was unforgettable.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The celebrant's rabbinical dance around the altar at the end of mass. But I'll remember that, and much else, for a lot longer than seven days!
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