|920: Grace Church, Pittsburgh, Pensylvannia, USA|
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Mystery Worshipper: Abed-Nego.
The church: Grace Church, Pittsburgh, PA, USA.
Denomination: Episcopal Church in the USA.
The building: A blackened exterior high atop Mt Washington, Grace Church is an unexceptional building, recontructed after a disastrous fire on Easter Morning 1923. The new building was dedicated October 7th, 1928. Its grim outward appearance is no doubt the result of decades of industrial grime, and does little to prepare one for the beautiful, well-appointed house of God within.
The church: It felt as if the congregation was locally based no car park evident, and few cars parked in the street. The area around the church, though very pleasant, consisted of the fairly humble homes of hard-working Pittsburghers.
The neighbourhood: Turn left out of the church doors, and head a short distance up the hill and you have a dramatic, almost aerial view of the city of Pittsburgh.
The cast: Rev. Fr. John A Porter, rector and celebrant. Dr McGlinn ("whom many of you know well") was the preacher.
What was the name of the service?
Solemn high eucharist for the second Sunday after Pentecost.
How full was the building?
A small church, comfortably filled with about 100 congregants.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
There was no welcome of any kind.
Was your pew comfortable?
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Things did not start well. There was a lot of talkativeness, a considerable amount of fussing about arranging and re-arranging things in the sanctuary, and the service began late.
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 and The Hymnal 1982
What musical instruments were played?
Organ. Interestingly, the organist left his bench and became the cantor for the psalm. He led us in song rather well.
Did anything distract you?
All that fussing about before mass. With a little forethought it could so easily have been avoided. It became clear during the course of the service that what was at issue was the blessing and presentation of some stoles. Three or four members of the church had been ordained deacons the previous day, and to celebrate this, scarves had been handmade for them by one of the congregants. These tapestry (I believe) adornments were later blessed in a ceremony that involved not only the deacons but the maker of the scarves. There was a further distraction caused by the departure of a family who had had a close association with Grace Church.They were summoned from their pew and wished well e'er they departed for Columbus Such procedures are probably best carried out after worship. But no harm done all these "in-house" celebrations were warmly enacted to the obvious pleasure of the church members, and before the eyes of bewildered strangers and newcomers like myself!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
In a proper Anglo-Catholic manner
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 This man really knew how to deliver a good sermon. He had an easy-going manner, was relaxed and coherent, well-prepared, and made a lot of brilliant observations and practical applications. He made no use of notes. We learned at some point in the proceedings that Dr McGlinn was a member of the faculty of Nashotah House Theological Seminary. (Maybe he teaches his students how to "sermonize"?)
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was based on the Gospel for the day, the story of the lady who anointed our Lord's feet with the alabaster flask of ointment. Dr McGlinn began by praising some excellent strawberry shortcake offerred him during dinner served by the rector at his home. In fact, the whole meal had been very good. But what if the dinner experience had gone badly? It is present-day convention not to criticise the host. If that is true now, it was a much more obligatory practice in our Lord's time. It was absolutely unthinkable that a guest would malign his host. So imagine the shock when Jesus criticised the Pharisee's hospitality... The preacher went on to invite us to consider the three characters in this Gospel story: firstly, our Lord; then, the woman with the alabaster cask, a prostitute with whom our Lord had had previous contact, and who was looking for a way to say "thank you" to Jesus; and finally, the disagreeable, arrogant, self-righteous Pharisee, Simon, who invited our Lord to dinner. Simon had omitted to provide water to wash his guests' feet a major breach of etiquette. He had failed to kiss his guests' hands in welcome. He had not provided oil for their heads. The way in which the prostitute had gained entrance to Simon's house was that it was customary for a host to leave his doors open so that the poor could come in and gather round the edges of the room. And she had brought the tools of her trade with her. Alabaster sweetens the breath and makes the ears taste good! The oil she brought is essential for practitioners of "the world's oldest profession". As for her tears, Dr McGlinn asked us to consider just how many tears it might take to wash two feet. And drying them by letting her hair down is a "huge no-no". To all of this activity, Simon the Pharisee says to himself, if Jesus were a prophet he would have known just what kind of woman this was. But Simon lacked the insight to see she was a sinner. So our Lord says to him, "I have something to say to you." At this point, Dr. McGlinn turned scholar, and pointed out that the translation of our Lord's words was not good. It ought not to read that "her sins... are forgiven, for she loved much", but rather, "her sins... are forgiven for she loves you". (It puts a different slant on the story, and is also the only thing we actually know about this woman's character.) To end with, we were invited to draw some conclusions. Firstly, that the forgiveness found in Jesus enables us to love someone we might find it hard to love. And secondly that forgiveness comes first if we hope a person will change. In fact, our forgiveness frees them to do what is right.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Well, the sermon, of course (otherwise I would have given a much briefer overview)!
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
All that restlessness before mass. The order of service encouraged me: "Before mass, speak to God". It wasn't easy...
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We were warmly invited to come to the coffee hour.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It turned out to be a lovely, friendly affair, with an art exhibition in all kinds of media made or painted by various parishioners. Very imaginative.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 I don't know if the standard of preaching reaches these exalted heights on "regular" Sundays. Becoming a regular might depend on that.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Very much so.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The blackness of the church building, and the brightness of the sermon.