This Sunday, maplestar and I visited a local parish. The clergyperson there knew we were coming, and there are circumstances that I don’t want to get too into at this time or in this place. But we had a visit, and it was a nice one. [Note: Pictures in the post below are not from the parish we visited, for the sake of their own privacy.]
The parish is in an urban downtown area, and the campus consists pretty much of the church building itself, the parish house that sits snugly next to the church, and a small parking lot. Like some downtown parishes I’ve been to, the big entrance doors to the nave are rarely used; most of the parishioners enter the nave from the parish house, past the sacristy and the chancel. The worship space is glorious, with a beautiful stained wooden ceiling, lovely stained glass, and a sanctuary that positively shines. The pews are cushioned, and rather than traditional kneelers, you find cushions about 8″ thick beneath the pew in front of you. A parish banner is in the chancel, behind the choir, and the US and Episcopal Church flags stand in the back of the nave. The praise band for the contemporary service occupies a niche on the left, and on the right is an area designed for families with young children, with an overflowing toy basket.
When we parked in the lot shortly before the contemporary service, we got smiles and nods and good-mornings from others who were arriving. We all entered through a rather imposing door to the parish house; I’m not sure the exact reasons why, beyond the urban downtown location, but a cipher-lock at the door indicates that entrance isn’t always as easy as it is on a Sunday morning. Inside the door, there is a sign to indicate which way to go for the nave, the music room, the classrooms, and the office. Some informational materials are available on a table, and the atmosphere is attractive.
We headed straight for the nave, picked up bulletins (not needed for the contemporary service, but good for the later Rite II service. About half of the worshipers this morning wore nametags from the large bulletin board in the hallway; I did not see supplies to make a stick-on nametag. This is one thing that our current parish home does really well: (1) everyone wears nametags on Sunday mornings, and (2) stick-on nametags and sharpies are at both ends of every pew in the church. As a visitor, you’re wearing the same kind of nametag as most others, so there isn’t quite so much a sense of being clearly labeled an outsider, and everyone can address everyone else by name. I’ve already forgotten most of the names I learned this morning!
A few different people greeted us in the nave before worship. About 45 were in attendance at the contemporary service, mostly sitting within the first five or six rows in the nave. After a greeting from the priest, this service opened with three praise songs; the words were projected onto screens, and the priest came out to sit in the pews so that he could see them, too. We heard the epistle reading, stood to hear the gospel, and settled in to listen to the sermon.
Maplestar and I are quite spoiled by the amazing preaching we encounter at our parish home. This morning’s sermon was good, and could have been equally amazing with just a little polishing. The preaching was solid, and important points were made, and there was a good flow; the sermon retold the gospel story, included some wry jests, and related God’s extravagant love and forgiveness for us. So the sermon gets an A. 🙂 The creed following the sermon was one written by St. Patrick, and the words were beautiful and inspiring.
The service of the Table commenced with an offertory anthem that neither maplestar nor I could parse out; we were told later that the text of the praise song was based on the appointed psalm, but few words were intelligible to us. It would have been nice if there were a way to show the text on the screens, but somehow indicate that it’s an anthem by the praise band and congregational singing isn’t necessary. We used Eucharistic Prayer C (the “Star Wars” prayer – my favorite!), and the Sanctus was spoken rather than sung. Worship ended with the blessing, final praise song, and dismissal.
Though powerpoint-and-praise-band worship is not my preference, I found this service energetic and uplifting, and I know that there are many who prefer this style of worship. I love that the Episcopal Church is broad enough to include everything from this worship service to super-high-church “smells and bells” worship with clouds of incense and lots of ceremony and genuflections and bows and candles and bells and everything.
When contemporary worship ended, we wanted to the parish hall, where coffee and many pastries were available for snacking. I walked a circuit of the parish hall, looking for calendars, invitations to parish ministries, meeting schedules, and the like. I did find a complete print-out of the parish’s weekly newsletter, a list of contact people for various church ministries (but not a clear description of what each one is and includes), and one (ONE!) invitation to join in a pastoral care ministry. I was pleased to see a detailed budget report on the bulletin board. I was disappointed to not find quite a number of things, though. No indication when the choir and praise band rehearse. No indication what Sunday school offerings were available or where to find them. No overall parish calendar for the week or for the month, to show what’s going on in the building, when the various committees/commissions/ministry groups meet; big parish events (annual meeting, annual festival) were advertised, but not the day-to-day stuff. No sign whether any twelve-step groups meet in the parish. Were I new to this parish — and/or new to the Episcopal Church — I wouldn’t know how to begin finding my place within the community.
We wandered through the hallways a little bit, finding the rector’s office, the parish office, the music room, and most importantly, the restrooms. Then we returned to the parish hall, realizing that it was too late to sit in on any classes during the Christian Formation time. We did have a few nice conversations with members; my habit tends to work very well as an ice-breaker. 🙂 In time, we made our way to the nave for the traditional Rite II service.
This later service had a mix of music, traditional hymnody as well as more recent praise music. This service had a full procession, with acolytes, choir, lay minister, and priest, and the choir and congregation sang with gusto. Worship was authentic and energetic, and we were greeted by a number of people around us. I would not be surprised to find this service in any Episcopal Church in the country, and that is one of the great gifts of our church.
Now, those eight-inch cushions? They were JUST RIGHT for my Little Person legs, so that I could sit properly in the pew with my feet flat on the cushion. This was the first Sunday in many, many years when I did not feel like I was paying a terrible price just to worship in church. I did not intentionally seek this out, but I don’t remember the presence of accessibility features. Because there were several steps up into the chancel, it would be difficult for someone in a wheelchair or walker to come forward for communion; sadly, this is true in a number of historic church buildings.
My overall impression of this congregation is positive. All of the people we met were friendly and welcoming, and I was convinced that this congregation sincerely and authentically loves God and loves each other. The parish gets an A+ for this!
Unfortunately, there are many, many, MANY congregations that are full of welcoming people, but that end up not being welcoming to visitors and new members. There are a number of very important and intentional things that a parish can do to be fully welcoming, and they take energy… but they’re pretty easy. The best way to spot these, quite honestly, is via a mystery worshiper… or by mystery-worshiping in another parish and seeing how their welcome goes. It’s all about communication, and that communication is not all in words. It was sad to see the beautiful doors at the rear of the nave — this church’s doors to the world around it — remain closed for the entire morning. It may be more convenient to enter through the parish house, but what message does this give to the neighborhood? To me, it would say, insiders know better than to use these doors; if you aren’t already here, then we’re just fine without you. But you know what? We’re not just fine without you. We need you, like your hand needs your shoulder.
If we were looking, maplestar and I can both see ourselves making this our church home. I hope I’ll have another opportunity to worship here again in the future!