26 June 2011

Visiting Episcopalians

Photo taken a few weeks ago. 
For a few weeks now I have wanted to attend a morning service at my local Episcopalian church (St. Paul's) for various reasons. It's a beautiful building, and strangely enough part of me wants to associate with it. The Episcopalians I've met have all been so kind, and the church's stances so liberal and progressive, that I thought I might feel at home.    I knew it would be an altogether strange experience for me, seeing as the only kind of church service I've ever attended has been Pentecostal.

Also taken a few weeks ago.
I arrived early to ensure I had a parking space, and met one of the rectors in the courtyard, who I recognized from the church website. St. Paul's  has two rectors: a bearded man in his late fifties or sixties, and a woman in her forties. I met the man, who represented his tradition well -- being an altogether friendly fellow who sounded like Mr. Rogers and who answered all my questions. After giving me a bulletin, he left to get ready for service. The sanctuary was only then being unlocked, so I was privy to some of the dedicatory ritual.

Photo taken last summer, though my viewfinder was not functioning at the time so it's a bit off-center. 

The interior is crossed shaped, the majority of the sanctuary being a great long shaft where the rows of pews are arranged. Beautiful stained-glass windows representing scenes from Jesus' life ran down the walls. The aisle-shaft ends at the entrance doors on one end, and at the altar at another. The altar was made of stone, though covered by cloth, and had a large golden cross upon it. On either side of the cross were candles, which robed individuals solemnly lit as the organ played. Before tending to this, the robed individuals stopped in front of the cross and bowed gently to it.

Also taken last summer.

While the Pentecostal churches I attended in my earlier years consisted of loud, active sound services following by a screaming sermon, the Episcopalians were decidedly more low-key and 'reverent'. As the rector told me, Episcopalians have a liturgical service in which Bible readings, creeds, and prayers (interspersed with hymns played on an organ) are central. The readings and prayers vary from service to service and from season to season, but since they're all from the same Book of Common Prayer,  everybody following it will have the same essential service. The sermon, or homily, appears to be prepared to complement the verses and prayers for that day
As I sat reading the order of service in my bulletin and attempting to find the readings and such in the Book of Common Prayer  people filtered in silently. While a few shook hands with friends, they maintained an atmosphere of reverence. Some stopped before entering their pews to bow gently toward the cross, while others sat and knelt in their pews.  Among them was my old history professor, a beloved old retired Marine and professional curmudgeon who reminds me of Mark Twain. I thought him a strict rationalist, so it surprised me to see him enter, take a pew a row or so ahead of me, and kneel. "Bless his cynical old soul," I thought, "Is he praying?"

The service began at ten o'clock, where a procession appeared behind my shoulders singing beautifully.  They were all robed: the man in front carried a large golden cross on a pole, and behind him another man held a golden book in his white gloves They sang as they marched up the aisle toward the altar, and I enjoyed the spectacle while keeping a solemn look on my face. The clergy appeared to be dressed in green, and there were other members in the processing wearing white robes and green sashes. It reminded me of university  graduation processions, where a man in medieval costume escorts graduates while holding a golden miter proudly in his hands.

The opening service consisted of music (played on an organ, which the audience sometimes sang along with and sometimes didn't),  Bible readings,  and back-and-forth prayers in which the rector read half of a bible verse or prayer and the congregation read the other.  While I looked through the Book of Common Prayer I could not make sense of the table of contents, so I just remained silent throughout the service, sitting and standing on cue by following the lead of others before me. (I messed up once, when we were told to pray: three people on the other side stood up, and I stood up with them -- but the rest of the church entered a kneel, so I swore quietly and found a more prayerful position.) A man from the audience read a passage of the Bible in which Abraham is told by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, and nearly does but God sends him a sheep.  This is one of my least favorite bible stories: if you have enough faith to kill at God's command, you have too much faith. The cross-and-golden book procession appeared from the altar and moved into the center of the congregation while more prayers were said.

Presently, one of the rectors -- a female, which pleased me -- gave a short sermon or homily on the topic, "Give it Up". This was based off of the earlier lay reading, but she spoke on the acceptance of loss and the need to give up some habits and attachments which diminish us.  After this they said a blessing, and some people stood up to leave.  I though service was over, but after people talked and shook hands for a few minutes the other rector  stood up and I scurried back to my seat. My professor was one of the ones who left, and I realized we were about to go into the Communion part of the service.

After a few more readings and songs (among the ritual, the Nicene Creed and Our Father prayer), they took up offering. I gave a few dollars out of thanks to the Episcopal church for its progressive stances on various things, and my professor -- let's call him Mr. Twain --  reappeared and suggested I  fill out a visitor's card.  Another procession went up the aisle, this time carrying a golden bowl of purple fluid (wine, I assume) and another dish, which I think might have been the host for Eucharist. I started filling out a card as soon as we sat down, which I think was a mistake because people went utterly silent while the rectors or priests were blessing the communion articles.

Both the professor and the lead rector told me I was welcome to take Communion despite not being Episcopalian,  but it seemed inappropriate to me so I decided I would sit in my pew. The itch to see what happened up there overrode that, though. I knew from the rector and a Catholic deacon that I could cross my arms once I got up there and have a blessing said over me instead, so I chose to do that instead.

I stood in line at the altar platform, ascending the steps as the line moved.  In front of the altar was a long, golden rail, and a place for people to kneel in front of it. Behind the rail, clergy officials -- the rectors and a few others -- gave pieces of the host, or crackers (this was a very serious moment and I was trying to be respectful, so I didn't ogle much, and couldn't confirm what kind of bread it was) to people who were kneeling. As soon as space cleared up,  I carefully knelt down. The female rector came to me, and I crossed my arms as instructed. She asked my name, and I whispered, "Stephen", then played my hands in a prayer position upon the rail as she made the sign of the cross upon my forehead and told me, among other things, that I was a special creation of God. I closed my eyes and bowed my head as seemed appropriate, so I didn't see how the wine was administered to others. I then took my place in the pews again.

After another prayer and song (a prayer which somehow incorporated astronomy and evolution into the Christian story), we began to get ready for dismissal. The cross-and-golden-book procession moved into the back again, singing beautifully as they had done the first time,  and soon the grand old doors opened and everyone was coming by to say hello. They were friendly, and afterwards I had lemonade while Mr. Twain gave me a tour of the church's innards.

I promised to come back, and I will. Although I can't say things like the Nicene Creed, I enjoyed witnessing the ceremonies. The people were very friendly, and I'd love to spend more time with my old mentor.

Photo taken last year.


Jonathon Edwards Sawyer said...


I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your experience at St. Paul's Episcopal Church. Your summary of the service was beautiful.

Was Mr. Twain surprised to see you?

What other things did the female rector say in the blessing?

Do you recall what hymns were sung?

What portion of scripture was the homily based on?

Thank you for sharing!

I look forward to reading about your experience when you visit the Papists. :)


smellincoffee said...

He was, which delighted me. I think I'm one of his prize students. I can't recall a lot of the blessing, and I didn't catch any of the words in the hymns given my unfamilarity with them and the different style in which they were sung. The homily was based on the near-sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham.

One of the men told me afterwards that a Catholic service would be quite similar. Have you been to one yet?

Jonathon Edwards Sawyer said...

What was the nature of your conversations with people afterwards?

smellincoffee said...

They said they were glad I came and hoped to see me again, for the most part. I enjoyed a more extensive conversation with Twain and a man dressed in black (not one of the rectors, but probably an official some of kind --) about various things. He teased me about the Bible I'd brought to church...said, "The Baptist church is down the street."

Which of course, it is! They're right next to each other. I also asked him about the Catholic church and attempts at ecumenism...he said with a laugh that every time they rubbed shoulders with Catholics, the Catholics tended to make comments about how they (the Episcs) were welcome to rejoin the One True Church any time they wanted.