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1678: Church of Our Father, Hulls Cove, Maine, USA
Church of Our Father, Hulls Cove, Maine, USA
Mystery Worshipper: Abed-Nego.
The church: Church of Our Father, Hulls Cove, Maine, USA.
Denomination: The Episcopal Church, Diocese of Maine.
The building: A small attractive stone building on the road from the mainland to Bar Harbor on Mount Desert Island. The cornerstone was laid in 1890 and the church was consecrated the following year. It remained a mission of the diocese of Maine until 1988 when it became a parish. On arrival one is immediately drawn to the stone well, canopied by three arches and surmounted with a Greek cross. This motif is recaptured inside the church in a stained glass window in the organ alcove. Here we see Our Lord with the Samaritan women at this selfsame well! A dominant feature of the Church of Our Father is the "Coventry Cross" which hangs over the chancel. It is made out of three very large nails.
The church: They celebrate two eucharists each Sunday and an early morning Wednesday eucharist followed by breakfast. There are men's and women's groups (the former called Gospel Gents), adult religious education, Bible study, Spanish classes and a variety of other activities.
The neighborhood: Hulls Cove is a quaint little village offering majestic views of the Atlantic Ocean. Acadia National Park is not far away. The nearby Bar Harbor attracts plenty of visitors, some arriving on the large cruise ships that drop anchor there. Outlets for lobsters, crabs and clams abound. The church's immediate neighborhood is quite residential, though there are lots of nearby businesses designed to satisfy the needs of the many tourists drawn to the island.
The cast: The Right Revd Alden Hathaway, retired Bishop of Pittsburgh, was the celebrant and preacher. Anthony Sousa was the pianist.
The date & time: August 3, 2008, 9.00am.

What was the name of the service?
Holy Eucharist (Rite II) and Sermon.

How full was the building?
Full – about a hundred souls. The congregation were mostly women – probably 80 per cent – with a lot of grey hair in evidence. I suspect there were many, like us, who were vacationers. It's possible there was a high proportion of seasonal residents in what is a very beautiful part of Maine, given to mercifully cool summers.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Very much so! By the time we reached our pew, we had been regaled with seven items of literature plus extra hymns that weren't in the hymnal. I did say "yes" in answer to the question, "Would you like the welcome package?" so I guess I was inviting the deluge!

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was very talkative and restless; not at all conducive to quiet thoughts and meditation.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
I didn't get time to write down the whole greeting but it began, "People of God..." and ended with "Good morning!"

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Book of Common Prayer 1979 and Hymnal 1982.

What musical instruments were played?
Just a piano, and not very well played.

Did anything distract you?
Oh, there was so much! This was a very, very long service. I am used to masses that don't cut corners, but this one blew all records. There were so many "extras" to this act of worship. The most amazing occurred when the celebrant, having given the announcements, asked if anyone had anything to add. Suddenly a line of folks stepped into the center aisle. They were all desirous to tell us about events with which they were closely associated. This is clearly a tradition here in Hulls Cove. Congregants can make public comment on the particular part of church life about which they are enthusiastic. Many of these announcements degenerated into sermonettes. One particular moment stays with me. The churchwarden (I believe) told us that the preacher, who was a bishop, would not receive the full fee for his preaching assignment since he had failed to show up wearing a clerical collar. (The necktie was clearly visible above his cassock.) Not particularly funny, but the folks lapped it up. And then came the questions for visitors. Twenty or more identified themselves. And where were they from, etc. etc? That was followed by requests for birthdays and other special celebrations. By coincidence, this day happened to be my birthday. My friends poked and prodded me, but I absolutely refused to stand up. Heck, I'd come to a celebration of holy eucharist, not a celebration of having survived one more year!

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It edged toward happy-clappy. Somebody tried livening things up with maracas. Others waved their arms. (They looked rather silly.) A couple of hymns were from separate bits of music we were given when we entered. These tunes seemed pretty dreary to me, but they were probably supposed to be livelier than the stuff in the hymn book. They were just not very good music. And the slenderness of the musical composition was made worse by the irritatingly dull piano playing. If these songs of praise were supposed to "swing", they remained emphatically stationary in the hands of this very stiff and unimaginative musical director.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
32 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – If the bishop had kept it to the 15 minutes of material he'd brought with him, and if he hadn't wandered off into Anecdote Land, I'd give him 10 out of 10. He's a gifted and inspiring preacher. No notes, no hesitations, and plenty of eye contact. He's the everyman ideal of a bishop – handsome, white-haired, avuncular. If there's a Hollywood casting director looking for the perfect archetype bishop, he need look no further than the Right Revd Alden Hathaway. He's their man!

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
This was one sermon that is virtually impossible to cram into a nutshell. The subject was the Transfiguration of Our Lord. The bishop pointed out that "figure" means "mental image" and "transfiguration" means "suddenly seen in a different light". The Transfiguration is best seen through the the prism of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Peter, stunned by the miracle, didn't understand what had happened. But when Peter saw Our Lord transfigured, he knew. Lest his disciples become fixated with heavenly things, Jesus went on to tell the disciples to "beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees." Christ's ministry was not about heavenly things, but about things here on earth. "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Mother Teresa, on seeing the body of a baby girl on a television screen, said, "She's alive!" "Are there too many babies?" asked the bishop. No; rather, there's not enough love. To understand this, we need a transfiguration. He concluded by recalling that when he had been the bishop of Pittsburgh, he had visited an "upriver parish" where men who had a grievance against a recently closed steel works were standing in front of its padlocked gates. A Roman Catholic priest asked the bishop to come and pray with them. As the workers joined in the Lord's Prayer, the bishop saw the light of hope in their eyes. They were transfigured! They later took their grievance all the way to the United States Supreme Court – and won!

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Premonitions of heaven never crossed my mind. The nearest moment to a heavenly thought came after two hours when my friend nudged me to ask whether this was really a mass. "Oh yes," I replied, full of hope and believing what was written in the order of service. The notion that the sermon would end, that the announcements would be done with, that after every last person had shared the peace with me they would sit down and shut up, and that the piano would fall silent, was heaven indeed. And when after two hours the bishop blessed the bread and the wine, I felt it had been worth the waiting.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The dread that someone would tell the bishop that it was my birthday, and that the congregation might actually sing "Happy Birthday."

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No danger of looking lost. The greeting line took an eternity – and we were ensnared by the pianist long before we got to shake the bishop's hand. His Reverence is one very verbose fellow. Whether he's preaching or greeting, he has not mastered the art of the verbal shortcut! We simply followed the crowd into coffee hour.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
More announcements! Youngsters were just back from a camping holiday. I believe there were some awards and then a few reminiscences of happy times. I don't remember whom I spoke with. By then, I was just too weary, and was looking forward to getting home for lunch. By this point in the proceedings, real food was infinitely preferable to more words – and nibbles.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – I have a serious problem with churches that mix up worship and social interaction as if they were one and the same thing. I need a simple, beautiful, well-executed liturgy. For me, everything else, however enjoyable, is ancillary. What did Christ tell us to do "in remembrance of me"? I don't recall his mentioning "chit-chat" anywhere in the gospels.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Not miserable – but not particularly glad either.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
I think it would take less time to crown a pope than get through a eucharist in Hulls Cove!
 
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