St Mark's, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Mark's
Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 6 August 2006, 11:00am

The building

The congregation was organized as an Oxford Movement parish in 1847 and the church was built in the High Gothic style favored by the movement. The close also includes a small courtyard at the west end, with the parish hall and rectory also opening off it. There is a bell tower with a tall spire over the south porch, one of the few towers in North America hung for change-ringing, with a ring of eight bells. The interior walls are fairly dark, but there are many bright features, including an elaborately painted chancel ceiling. The Lady chapel, given by Philadelphia's wealthy Wanamaker family, is noted for its sterling silver furnishings, including a jeweled and highly figured altar.

The church

Although about a third of the members live within a few blocks of St Mark's, others travel more than 50 miles to worship there. The congregation is mostly over 40 but has recently acquired several younger families.

The neighborhood

The church is located at 1625 Locust Street, in a largely residential area near the business district consisting of stately old townhouses as well as new residential development in progress. The Academy of Music and other cultural attractions are also nearby.

The cast

The Revd Sean E. Mullen, curate at the time but recently called to be rector, was the celebrant and preacher. Ms Diane Meredith Belcher, one of two co-organists in the parish, provided the music (although the choir was on vacation). There were several unnamed lay assistants.

What was the name of the service?

Sung Mass.

How full was the building?

It seemed nearly half full, probably about 150 people.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

When Mrs Liturgist and I entered the building, somewhat early, two ushers rushed from two different directions to welcome us and hand us service sheets.

Was your pew comfortable?

The pews seemed adequately comfortable. The kneelers were a little lower than I like but otherwise comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

It was definitely quiet and reverent. Being early, we took a few minutes to walk around the church and visit the Lady chapel and found a few other early comers praying in the chapel or at a shrine.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

We sang hymn no. 427, "When morning gilds the skies," after which the celebrant continued with "Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Most of the text (except the hymns) was in the service sheet. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer was also available, and the music, including the mass settings, was sung from the Hymnal 1982.

What musical instruments were played?

Only the organ, an excellent instrument, was used.

Did anything distract you?

There were no major distractions, but it was a bit warm and I couldn't help noticing the lady in front of me using her folding fan. Father Mullen wore a fiddleback chasuble, which is definitely not my favorite style, but I have to admit that it was very well made of a finely brocaded cloth of gold.

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

The style was definitely high-church-formal but also enthusiastic. With no choir present, the congregation sang the mass setting plus the hymns and did so very well.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

I was a little slow checking my watch, but it was very close to 12 minutes.

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

9 – Father Mullen spoke clearly and with a pleasant voice. His development of the text was a bit unusual, but very apt.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Taking the text, "Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, and when they wakened they saw his glory..." from the Transfiguration gospel (Luke 9:28-36), Father Mullen suggested that often the scriptures read like the record of a dream – sometimes, as in this case, a glorious one, but sometimes, as with John's beheading or Christ's Passion, a horrible nightmare. He then went on to say that much of life has the same sort of feel. Peter and the others woke up to confront the glory of God. May God also wake us up.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The whole service was almost perfectly done – all the participants seemed to know just what to do next, and how to do it together as a team. I have already commented on how well the whole congregation sang the mass (fortunately to a setting which I have known and used for nearly 50 years). Everyone seemed to take delight in doing everything well. For once I really cannot single out one or two individual moments.

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

The greatest disappointment was that there was no change ringing that day – Mrs Liturgist is a ringer and had hoped to join the band, whereas I merely wanted to hear them.

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

Not much chance – one of the ringers had rung with my wife elsewhere and grabbed us after the mass. Various people chatted with me while she took a tour of the tower, and Father Mullen took me over to the parish house for coffee.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

It was almost a brunch. There were hot coffee, tea, and cold drinks, as well as selections of cheeses, veggies with dips, and several different cakes on offer.

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

9 – The only real drawback is the four hour commute each way. The worship style is right in line with my (and my wife's) preferences; the sermon was very good indeed; the congregation seemed quite welcoming; and I do look forward to hearing the bells on a future visit.

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

Emphatically yes.

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

It's now more than two weeks later, and I don't think I've forgotten any of it.

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