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229: St Mark's, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
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St Mark's, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Mystery Worshipper: Hildegard von Bingen.
The church: St Mark's, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.
Denomination: Episcopal Church in the USA.
The building: Victorian pile (an Oxford Movement church, built in the late 1840s), with a very dark interior. It could use a coat of light paint between the dark timbers. This was the hottest day so far and the air conditioning was broken. Lots of fans were blowing and the stonework kept things fairly cool.
The neighbourhood: Downtown Philadelphia – surprisingly narrow streets for a modern city, which gives a greater sense of the age of the city. In America this is unusual. Most cities have been built in the past 100-150 years.
The cast: Rev. Richard C. Alton, rector, celebrant and preacher. Listed in the bulletin were Rev. Michael S. Seiler (curate) and Rev. Nicholas B. Phelps (assisting priest). There were plenty of people marching around the altar, so one supposes that these gentlemen were among them.
What was the name of the service?
Choral High Mass at 11.00am, the Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday.

How full was the building?
About two-thirds full. The side rows were empty. There were maybe 125 to 150 in attendance, counting choir and clergy.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Technically, yes. I got a brief, perfunctory greeting as I was handed the pewsheet.

Was your pew comfortable?
No. They were nasty little antique wooden pews that were too short in the seat (at least for this derriere!). There were little kneeling cushions which I always find too low.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet chat in the back of the church, in the front there was what appeared to be a family group with an extremely fussy older child (at least 5 or 6 – not a baby). They didn't walk the child around or out until it became a real scene.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Alleluia! Christ is risen!"

What books did the congregation use during the service?
1979 Book of Common Prayer, 1982 Hymnal.

What musical instruments were played?

Did anything distract you?
The fussy child. With three of my own (who were happily back home with Papa Bear) I generally have a pretty high level of tolerance for fussy kids. This just got out of hand, though.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
So high church I thought I would get a nosebleed! Smells and bells, of course, and an excellent choir. I counted eight sanctuary lamps.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
Precisely 15 minutes.

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

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
If you love me, keep my commandments. The rector's wife is the bishop's secretary and apparently the rector is always getting into hot water with the diocese for being non-compliant. The diocese asked St Mark's for a mission statement and was told that the mission of St Mark's is to pray unceasingly. The diocese was decidedly unhappy about that statement. The rector thinks they wanted something like "empowered for dependency". If we are serious about loving Jesus we will find ourselves in prayer, unceasingly.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The bells. There was change-ringing, both before and after the service.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Being told from the pulpit what a wonderfully welcoming place St Mark's is and then... well... see the hanging around bit, below.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
After hanging around for the requisite five minutes looking lost and friendly all at once, I decided to plow ahead and just ask where the coffee hour was. I was directed inside the parish hall where I hung about some more. Finally a young woman introduced herself and we chatted for a while. Hardly anyone else spoke to me.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Not very good. There was some not very good iced tea as well.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4. The congregation was mostly white, the church theologically and liturgically conservative. Personally, those things would make me continue searching for a different home parish were I to move to Philadelphia.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes – you can't go too far wrong when you stick to the BCP and Hymnal. It's the beauty of Anglicanism.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Being ignored after the service and the bells. Oh, I know that's two things, but I feel I have to be fair – it wasn't all bad!
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