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1723: St George, Glendale, Arizona, USA
St George, Glendale, Arizona, USA
Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwythe.
The church: St George, Glendale, Arizona, USA.
Denomination: Ancient Church of the East. The denomination's parent church, the Assyrian Church of the East, was founded by the apostles Bartholomew, Thaddeus and Thomas, apparently with St Peter's blessing (1 Peter 5:13-14), and by the 7th century had reached as far east as China. But persecution by the Mongols, Muslims and Persians forced it to withdraw into what is now northern Iraq and eastern Turkey, where it remained isolated for centuries. Today the Assyrian Church of the East is thinly spread. The Ancient Church of the East split from the parent church in 1968 over disagreements concerning adoption of the Gregorian calendar and nepotism in the selection of patriarchs. Another breakaway group, the Chaldean Catholic Church, is in communion with Rome.
The building: A low flat brick building, painted light brown, close to the street. Inside is an oblong room with white walls and purple carpeting. Along one wall is a stage with a purple curtain, in front of which stands a table flanked by candles. Choir seating is on a raised platform to the left.
The church: St George's has no website and maintains an almost invisible profile in the community. I was able to find out nothing about any of their organizations, ministries or activities.
The neighborhood: As has been mentioned in other reports, Glendale is an independent city which is part of the greater Phoenix metropolitan area. The church is located on Northern Avenue at 53rd Avenue, a residential district consisting primarily of garden-style apartment communities. Directly behind the church is a golf course how fitting, I thought, to accommodate two favorite Sunday pastimes so close to each other. Further down Northern Avenue are a cemetery and a Salvation Army citadel. Across the street, a Walmart spoils the otherwise rather bucolic setting.
The cast: I could not discover the priest's name. It does not appear on the sign outside the church or anywhere inside the church that I could see. There was no literature lying about that might have contained his name.
The date & time: Sunday, May 17, 2009, 9.00am.

What was the name of the service?
Holy Qurbana (Eucharist).

How full was the building?
There was room for about 150 in the pews. At the start of the service about 75 people were present, about twice as many women as men. Women sat to the right, men to the left. Almost everyone was past middle age. As the service went on, more people entered, mostly younger. Young women among the latecomers found seats on the men's side, although the women's side was not full. No men sat on the women's side. All the women wore head scarves a box of scarves was set out by the door for women who needed them.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
No.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. In addition to wooden pews with purple upholstery, there was a row of upholstered benches at the very back of the church. I sat on one of these.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet. As people entered, they greeted each other by touching hands and then raising the hand to the lips.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
I don't know. A gentleman came out wearing a red deacon's stole over street clothes (no cassock or alb), kissed the table in front of the curtain, and chanted something in what I assume was Aramaic. Everyone stood and engaged in about 10 minutes of chanting, alternating between men and women. The only word I understood was alleluia, which must have been sung at least 100 times.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. There were no books, handouts, bulletins or anything else.

What musical instruments were played?
None. An electronic theater-style spinet organ (short keyboards and pedals) stood silent throughout the service. There was a women's choir vested in red robes, gold scarves and white chapel veils. It was hard to tell how many women were in the choir, as some members sauntered in as late as the consecration and, once in, tended to wander out now and then. I think there were seven present at the start of the service, and as many as 10 later on or was it 12? I really don't know. It occurred to me that the one criterion for membership in the choir was the ability to sing more or less on pitch, and louder than your average woman in the congregation.

Did anything distract you?
The whole service was a distraction. I didn't understand a thing, and the absence of a book to follow along with made it worse. Had I known, I would have printed out the Liturgy of St James beforehand to bring with me although I'm not sure that was the liturgy they used. Especially distracting was a young child in a stroller who whined, screamed, or banged on its stroller with a spoon non-stop. Also, some of the younger women were constantly adjusting their head scarves, which seemed constantly to slip down around their shoulders. Had their mothers never told them about bobby pins (hair grips, I believe, in British English)?

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was like being at the opera. After about 10 minutes of preliminary chanting described above, the curtain parted (just like at the opera) to reveal the priest flanked by four deacons standing in front of an altar on which there were six electric candles (the kind that flicker artificially). The priest wore a gold urara (stole) and gold ma'apra (cope) over a sudhra (alb); the deacons wore gold stoles over their albs (except that one wore a red stole). All were barefoot! The entire service was chanted a recitative between the altar party, choir and congregation. It seemed as though everyone were singing in a different key sort of a Middle Eastern
organum but the effect was not unpleasant. I didn't understand a word of what was being chanted. Neither was I familiar with the liturgy, although it seemed to be divided into the usual praise, instruction, offering and eucharist that we are accustomed to in the West. Several of the ceremonies were most interesting. For example, at one point the priest raised his arms (his hands enclosed in the folds of his cope), genuflected, and rose to kiss the altar. This was repeated over and over again like a liturgical calisthenics. Incense was used sparingly, but at one point a deacon brought the thurible out into the congregation for everyone to touch. We grasped the bowl in both hands and then raised our right hand to our forehead to make the sign of the cross. When everyone had done this, the deacon censed the closed altar curtain at what I assume was the moment of consecration. The curtain then opened to reveal the priest once again at his liturgical calisthenics.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
30 minutes, but it seemed like an eternity. I thought he'd never finish. The choir thought so too, as some of the dear ladies appeared to be nodding off.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
1 – The priest read the entire sermon in a monotone from papers he had in front of him again, in a language I did not understand. It may have been Assyrian. Toward the end of the sermon, about 25 children entered from the Sunday school, boys first, followed by girls.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
No idea, although I thought I hear the words "Iran," "Iraq," "America" and "green card".

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
According to tradition, the apostle St Jude Thaddeus saved a few fragments of the bread that Christ broke at the Last Supper and included them in bread that he himself broke. Throughout the ages ever since, new communion loaves have included a morsel from an older loaf, and so the bread which the church consecrates can be traced back to that which Christ himself gave to his disciples. It was heavenly to think that the communion bread might contain bits from the very bread that Christ broke in his hands.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
But alas, I felt ill-prepared to receive communion, even though in this church it is open to all baptized persons. I had not understood the service and had gotten nothing out of it. And so I stayed in my place while the others approached the priest, who placed a morsel of bread in their mouths followed by a sip of wine from a chalice ministered by one of the deacons.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Everyone left immediately after receiving communion (so that's where the Catholics got the custom from, I thought). An old lady shot me a frightening glare and muttered something under her breath as she hobbled by. Did she just give me the evil eye? I wondered or is it only in Sicily that little old ladies do that?

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
As people left church, they seemed to be headed for the Sunday school classroom wing, but I was in no mood to follow them. I had sat through two and one-half hours of sheer incomprehension and just wanted out.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – My elderly father lives in a senior citizen complex just across the street from St George's. I've often driven by, wondering what their services were like. Now I know and it's not for me!

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
No. I got nothing out of it.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Being given the evil eye by a little old lady.
 
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