Holy Trinity, Toronto, Ontario, Canada


Info and corrections →

Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Holy Trinity, Toronto
Location: Ontario, Canada
Date of visit: Sunday, 3 March 2024, 10:30am

The building

Holy Trinity is a Gothic Revival building, built in 1847. It has a large, beautiful worship space, with incredible stained glass windows, old and new. A large three manual Casavant organ was purchased by the church when a United Church was forced to close.

The church

The church was built due to an anonymous donation from a woman in England, whose identity was eventually revealed as Mary Lambert Swale. She gave £5,000 to John Strachan, the first Anglican Bishop of Toronto, with the stipulation that the church must be called the Church of the Holy Trinity, and the pews must be free of rent in perpetuity. Right from the start, this concept of tolerance, justice, and equality for all is still a mainstay of the church’s mission. Holy Trinity has been performing an annual depiction of the Christmas story every December since 1937.

The neighborhood

The church is surrounded by the Eaton Centre shopping complex on the north, south and east sides. In the 1970s, Eaton’s wanted the church pulled down to make way for more of their shopping centre, but the parishioners resisted, and God beat mammon. There are many homeless and street people in the immediate area of the building, and the church provides social assistance to all.

The cast

The rector was present but did not play an active role in today's service. Instead the presider was on a Zoom screen and led the service from Thunder Bay in north-western Ontario, which is 1,380km (858 miles) from the church! Due to Covid and having a small child, the music director had video taped the hymns and songs on her home piano. The homily was given by another congregation member who will soon start training for ordination.

What was the name of the service?

There was no service bulletin, so no official name was given. I asked another parishioner if this was a communion service and was told that was the case.

How full was the building?

The church is a very large space, and if it had traditional pews could easily seat 300 people. However, the chairs were placed collegiate style with a screen dividing the sides and with the altar at the other end. There were 16 people in the church and around 18 on Zoom. Street people, who were sleeping in tents outside the doors, would occasionally come in and help themselves to the coffee, and some sat down to listen for a while. It was very pleasant to see them included in this way.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

About five minutes after I arrived at the church, the greeter for the day arrived, and immediately engaged me in conversation. She explained that they have no service bulletin or books, that everything would be on the screen, and invited me to choose whichever chair I liked. She noticed a music logo on my sweater and so brought me a music edition hymn book. I'm glad she did, for the book also gave me something to write my notes on.

Was your pew comfortable?

To the side of the nave, there were a few of the original wooden bench pews, but we each had our own padded chair with arm rests, which was quite comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

It was nice and quiet when I got there, while I was having my chat with the greeter, and then shortly after the rector came and introduced herself. Then I was taken aback when the screen burst into life and was covered with little screens of different people, probably all over Canada, who were all talking at once. Not being used to this type of electronic gadgetry, it took me some time to figure out from where the conversations were coming.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

I was experiencing serious aural overload from the noises on the screen and in the church, but I think the Thunder Bay presider finally said, ‘Well, good morning everybody on this dark, grey day – at least it is up here! Welcome in.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

There were no books, except for the hymn book I was given. I should say how ecumenical the congregation is. They don’t use Common Praise Canada, but rather use Voices United, which is the hymn book of the United Church of Canada!

What musical instruments were played?

The music director played her Baldwin upright piano on a pre-recorded video tape from her home, and also sang along with the hymn.

Did anything distract you?

Being an Anglican who is used to books and bulletins, I was incredibly distracted by having to look at the screen all the time and not having any printed back-up. The lady next to me admitted that their service format ‘takes some getting used to.’ She wasn’t wrong!

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

The worship was recognizably Anglican, with some familiar prayers, but they also used modern poetry and a very good revised version of the Lord's Prayer that had been written by a parishioner.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

25 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

8 — The preacher was the laywoman who will soon be training for ordination. The homily was very interesting, and I always appreciate it when the homilist ties in historical biblical information to further enlighten us on the reasoning behind the Gospels.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The Gospel text was John 2:13-22, where Jesus overthrows the money-lenders' tables. The reading before that was the poem ‘Table’ by the Turkish poet Edip Cansever. The homilist was impressed by Christ’s display of real human anger in overthrowing the tables and removing the animal sellers. She likened this to Jesus dismantling the system, removing the societal status quo, and reminded us that we are often called to make the tables change in our lives too. She concluded that the one table that does not change in a Christian’s life is the communion table on which every week we receive God’s love.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

I was impressed by the logical flow of the service, and the obvious work that had gone into choosing the readings and the complementary hymns.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Ah! Since Covid started this, was the first time I have received communion. The bread was a lovely loaf, but the wine was this appalling yellow stuff the Anglican church has latched on to using which causes immediate heartburn! If I had eaten the muffin offered to me before the service I might not have had such a dramatic reaction to the wine. Since this was my first time dealing with their screen format, the intercessions seemed to go on and on, with voices popping in and out from all sides. I was so confused at trying to figure out who was saying what to whom that I sinfully thought, please God, let’s have a five minute power failure!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

I was going to, but the wine caused me to bolt for my car to grab a Rolaid as quickly as possible.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Actually, it wasn't ‘after-service coffee.’ I had been encouraged before the service to help myself to coffee, and that’s when I should have eaten the muffin too!

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

9 — Everyone in the world needs to attend a service at this church before they die. If I didn't have to drive 40 minutes to get there I would go more often. Suffice to say that the Spirit of the Lord is definitely in that place. I have heard very good things about their annual depiction of the Christmas story, so I may try to get a ticket for that.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Not only glad to be a Christian, but very proud to be a Toronto Anglican and to know that we have a church like this to call our own.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

To thank the church’s 19th century donor, Mary Lambert Swale of Settle, England, who got the ball rolling those many years ago, and how the current liturgy is peacefully organized and thought-provoking.

Our Mystery Worshippers are volunteers who warm church pews for us around the world. If you’d like to become a Mystery Worshipper, start here.

Find out how to reproduce this report in your church magazine or website.

Comments and corrections

To comment, please scroll to the end of this report and add your thoughts there. To send us factual corrections, please contact us. We also discuss reports on our Ecclesiantics bulletin board.

© Ship of Fools