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  1447: Christ Church Cathedral, Houston, Texas, USA

Christ Church Cathedral, Houston, Texas

Mystery Worshipper: Merchant Trader.
The church: Christ Church Cathedral, Houston, Texas, USA.
Denomination: The Episcopal Church.
The building: The work of Silas Mcbee, an amateur architect from West Virginia, this is a traditional Gothic cloistered cathedral adapted for a sunny climate. Lots of wood inside, with what I might describe as Victorian stained glass windows illuminating the slightly darkened interior with surprises of light that showcase the important bits in the sanctuary. One of the windows, the Caritas, is from the Tiffany studios. Both the interior and exterior are well illustrated on the cathedral's website.
The church: They participate in numerous social service and health ministries, including Brigid's Hope (helping homeless women achieve self-sufficiency), Compass (helping the needy find employment), and New Hope Housing (creating affordable housing for low-income single people), among many others. They also serve a modestly-priced daily lunch that attracts all comers, including office workers in the area. I dropped in on this one day and was treated to a large bowl of chili con carne with rice, cheese and onions; a fresh fruit salad; and lemonade.
The neighborhood: Most of the office buildings in downtown Houston are connected via a network of underground pedestrian tunnels. The cathedral is situated at the rougher, poorer end of downtown, beyond the reach of the tunnel system but still a short walk from the Four Seasons and Hilton hotels. Things are very quiet here during the weekend – I searched in vain for a place to have lunch after Sunday services. I presume that the congregation is a gathered congregation who I suspect arrive largely by car.
The cast: The Revd Casey Shobe, intern, was the celebrant, and the Revd Lucrecia Littlejohn, canon pastor, preached. The Very Revd Joe D. Reynolds, dean, gave the notices. They were supported by about ten servers plus a choir of about three dozen.
The date & time: Sunday, June 17, 2007, 11.00am.

What was the name of the service?
The Holy Eucharist, Rite One.

How full was the building?
It looked to me like the building could hold about 400 and it was about half full, with people pretty well spread out.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Outside the door, someone wearing a welcome badge managed a formal good morning. Just inside, someone said good morning with a nice warm smile and handed me a pew sheet. A couple of folks said good morning as I passed by them on the way to my seat. Later in the service, newcomers were welcomed as the notices were read. The peace was brief and not intrusive, but I tend to prefer it that way. I was greeted a few times after the service but we will come to that...

Was your pew comfortable?
I like pews and this was a pew! Notable was the kneeler, which was plush and sank to half its size as weight was put upon it. I could have knelt for some time on that kneeler.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quietly reverential, with some sotto voice conversations.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
The opening hymn was Hyfrydol ("Alleluia, sing to Jesus") and at the end of the hymn were spoken the words: "Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Prayer Book 1979, Hymnal 1982, and a specially prepared pew sheet containing the order of service, the collect and readings, and notices (including a page of photos).

What musical instruments were played?
Organ and choir. The mass setting was Mass in a Dorian Mode by the Australian-Canadian church musician Barrie Cabana (b 1933), with anthems by George Barcroft (d 1610) and Richard Farrant (1530?-1580). The closing voluntary was Dialogue in C by Louis Marchand (1669-1732).

Did anything distract you?
I was mildly distracted by the faint hum of the air conditioning. Was it really necessary in a cathedral in June? I found the temperature quite pleasant outside.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A comfortable Anglican Prayer Book choral service. No danger of happy clappy! However, there seemed to me to be a missed opportunity to allow the large team of servers to do more. There were no smells or bells or other opportunities for those carrying candles to show their stuff. The gospel procession, for example, only made it as far as the rood screen.

Christ Church Cathedral, Houston, Texas

Exactly how long was the sermon?
15 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – Clear, direct and almost conversational. A long way from stuffy or academic. I liked the canon pastor's style. However, I think she confused the Simon of Luke 7:36-50 (Simon the pharisee, who played the ungracious host while the sinful woman anointed Jesus' feet with oil) with Simon Peter, as she referred to Jesus' later trio of questions "Do you love me." But this did not distract from her main message, which was simple and direct.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The main theme was that all three of the day's lessons (Nathan rebuking David over Uriah and his wife, Paul rebuking Barnabas for being led astray by the circumcision faction, and Jesus rebuking Simon for his reaction to the sinful woman) were examples of someone pointing out sin to folk otherwise chosen and loved by God. God requires us to examine ourselves, repent and acknowledge our responsibility for our own actions. God offers us forgiveness. We should try to accept such a generous offer.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I felt very comfortable in a familiar type service but I'm not sure that any one thing felt like being in heaven. The Barcroft anthem was a high point, as it showed the choir at its best potential (I am not sure that the Cabana gave them the same opportunity). The musical highlight for me was the closing voluntary; pity the congregation did not stick around to hear it.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Immediately after the closing note of the last hymn everyone stood up and started talking loudly. I am used to people at least dropping to their knees for a minute or two for a final prayer, giving a short moment for contemplation and at least some acknowledgement that the service is not quite over until the voluntary is finished. It was too noisy to remain even for five minutes, even on those comfortable kneelers. And as for the voluntary, I cannot believe the lack of appreciation, with the exception of half a dozen discriminating listeners who stayed around.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I was one of the last few to leave the church, but I knew enough to know what direction coffee might be in. En route, someone extended a warm greeting and pointed out the way. However, upon arriving, I discovered that the chairs were all up on top of the tables and there was no one around. Could it be that everyone had gulped down their coffee and left while I was enjoying the Marchand? Or had all the coffee been used up after the earlier service? The coffee urn was still there, but there was nothing left in it. There was also a pitcher of lemonade and some glasses. I poured myself a lemonade and left.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I took my lemonade out into the courtyard and drank it quickly – the day was turning out to be rather warm after all. There were some stalls set up where people were gathering names on lists – I don't recall what for. I perused these a bit. A very friendly chap wearing some sort of a badge broke off another conversation he was having and came over to me. We made some small talk, and then he suggested that I might like to have a coffee which was available in the hall. I didn't bother to correct him.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – I visit Houston often, and I expect to be making this my regular place of worship when I am there, especially as it is within walking distance of the hotels. All in all I felt warmly greeted, except perhaps by the "greeter" standing outside the entrance when I arrived. No one made any effort to engage me, though, except the chap with the badge in the courtyard.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Very much so, especially when I consider the cathedral's commitment to community outreach.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
A lovely voluntary being played to an almost empty church. But I also think I have a deeper feeling of being at home there.
 
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