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2473: Christ Church of the Ascension, Paradise Valley, Arizona, USA
Christ Church Ascension, Paradise Valley, AZ (Exterior)
Mystery Worshipper: Old Rackensack.
The church: Christ Church of the Ascension, Paradise Valley, Arizona, USA.
Denomination: The Episcopal Church, Diocese of Arizona.
The building: The church sits on a large campus that includes a chapel, school and parish hall along with the church proper. It was built on land donated by the family of the late American conservative politician Barry Goldwater, who was a member of the congregation, and was dedicated in 1967. The architect was Bennie Gonzales, who designed hundreds of public buildings and private homes in the Southwestern style throughout Arizona as well as a handful of buildings abroad, including a palace for the Saudi royal family. The interior is of white brick with clear glass windows and a tile floor. Altar, lectern and pulpit are of marble.
The church: The parish was formed in 1963 and held its first worship service on Christmas Eve of that year in an abandoned television studio, using a plywood altar, a cross fashioned from an old utility pole, and choir robes from Goodwill Industries. In 2007, approximately 40 per cent of the congregation voted to leave the Episcopal Church and form a new worship community under the care of the Bishop of Uganda. The remaining parishioners, however, claim to be a very active congregation. Their website mentions dozens of ministries described as "a variety of Christian activities for all persons, of all ages, and of many different persuasions." They are sponsoring a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela for September 2013, although from what I can gather, the pilgrims will be making the trek not on foot, but rather via air conditioned motor coach.
The neighborhood: Paradise Valley is a small but very affluent suburb of Phoenix, located just west of Camelback Mountain and with spectacular views of Camelback and the rock formation known as the Praying Monk (see photo below). The church is located on East Lincoln Drive in an area of large expensive homes nestled in the mountainside.
The cast: The Revd Clayton Ingalls, assistant for liturgy, visitations and teaching, was the celebrant. The bulletin listed the Revd Phillip A. Jackson, rector, and the Revd Thomas Davidson, assistant for pastoral care and ministry to seniors, as "assisting priests", although they didn’t do much except attend in choir. Norman Summer, music director, and Ann Hollman, organist, were in charge of the music. Other participants were named in the bulletin but are too numerous to list here.
The date & time: Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Monday, December 24, 2012, 5.00pm.

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

How full was the building?
It can hold about 400 and was completely full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
An usher said "Good evening" and handed me a bulletin.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, although it was not cushioned.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Noisy, especially in the back of the church. There was some visiting in the pews, but most of the noise came from crying babies and screeching toddlers. There was lots of bustle in the sanctuary as the ladies of the altar guild fussed over the contents of the Nativity crèche in front of the altar. The string quartet tuned their instruments – a chore that seemed to take forever. One-half hour before start time, the choir began a medley of eleven Christmas carols, only three of which the congregation were invited to sing.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us" as the crèche was blessed.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A service booklet contained everything we needed text-wise. Hymns were from the Hymnal 1982.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ and string quartet. The organ console and pipes are located in the rear gallery, which also housed the choir and string quartet.

Did anything distract you?
The entire service was a distraction, as will be seen. I’ll mention here only that a woman sitting a few rows ahead looked like Rose from the British comedy series Keeping Up Appearances, and a gentleman sitting immediately in front of me looked like the American political satirist and TV host Stephen Colbert. I told him so during the exchange of peace. He seemed amused to hear it, as did his wife.

Christ Church Ascension, Paradise Valley, AZ (Interior)

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Did I say the entire service was a distraction? Where shall I begin? Many in the congregation kept talking during the carols that preceded the service. The cacophony of crying babies and screeching toddlers never let up throughout the entire service. The mass itself was a standard Rite II liturgy, without chanting, bells or incense, although the celebrant was vested in chasuble and the "assisting priests" in albs and stoles. The elements were not elevated at the consecration, nor was there a "little elevation" at the great Amen. But the biggest distraction of all was the "sermon", which word I enclose in quotes for reasons that will become apparent.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
20 agonizingly long minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
1 – Again, for reasons that will become apparent.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
I believe it was the rector who mounted the pulpit. He began well, saying, "Tonight we journey to Bethlehem. How will we get there? The children will lead us." But the last sentence marked the start of a children’s pageant that re-enacted the Nativity, complete with real live infant. The lady who brought the infant in missed her cue, prompting some awkward ad-libbing by the rector to the effect that "the baby is late" and much laughter from the congregation. The children lisped (as children do) a simplified version of the biblical narration as they flapped their angel wings and waved tinfoil stars about. It finally ended with all parents being invited to bring their children forward to "receive a star from the manger." One lady walked out. I would have joined her had I not been Mystery Worshipping. As it was, I was tempted to leave and try to find a service in another church, but I decided that a report should be written.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I searched long and hard to find something about this service that was heavenly. The only thing that comes close is the choir’s offertory anthem, which was the delightful A Spotless Rose by Herbert Howells. Not that I could hear it very well over the crying and screeching. The organist struck up a lively tempo to support the congregational singing. This worked for the most part, but not for...

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
..."Silent Night", which came across as a jump-rope jingle rather than a lullaby. And when will congregations learn that pre-service music should be an aid to devotion, not background music for visiting and talking? When will parents realize that other people regard their children not as endearing, but tiresome at best? A Christmas eve service, likely to be attended by first-time visitors who may be looking for a church to join, is not the time to trot out the little darlings in their fey costumes. Had I known this would happen, I would have chosen to attend a different service.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
A goodly portion of the congregation left during communion, including "Stephen Colbert" and his wife and everyone else in my pew. Others left during the closing hymn. When the dismissal was finally pronounced, I turned to see the choir, up in the gallery, struggling to get out of their robes. I left as fast as I could by the nearest exit.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None was announced. I don’t think any was on offer. I wouldn’t have stayed anyway, Mystery Worship or not.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
0 – Not in a month of Sundays!

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
No.

Christ Church Ascension, Paradise Valley, AZ (Praying Monk)
Photo: © James Bo Insogna and used under license

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Nothing, I hope.
 
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