Mystery Worshipper: Cassandra
Church: Bethesda Episcopal
Location: Saratoga Springs, New York, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 16 March 2008, 10:00am
Photo: © Peter Flass and used under license A fortress-like, Gothic gray stone building dating from the 1840s, built on land donated by a local hotel owner who was received into the Episcopal Church after finding a prayer book left behind by one of his guests. Bethesda's principal architect was J. Richard Upjohn, noted for his design of New York City's Trinity Church. The building is replete with motifs of three, representing the Trinity: three doors leading into the nave, three windows in each of the transepts, etc. The interior is extremely beautiful, with a smashing wrought-iron choir screen, heavy use of carved wood, and outstanding stained glass, some from the Tiffany studios.
I was baptized in this church over half a century ago but had not been there for years. It is one of the largest parishes in the diocese of Albany, claiming 800 members. They sponsor a number of social events throughout the year whose focus is to create an atmosphere of Christian fellowship, and make a special effort to keep in contact with the sick, shut-in, and bereaved of the parish. There are three services every Sunday and a healing service on Wednesdays.
Saratoga Springs is a city in the easternmost part of New York State, about halfway between New York City and the Canadian border. From colonial times it was well known for its mineral springs, thought to have medicinal properties. The church's name was derived from the healing waters described in the gospel of John (John 5:2-4). During the 19th and well into the 20th century, people flocked to Saratoga for its mud baths, waters (for drinking as well as bathing), and (after the bath) horse racing. I remember the throngs of people who descended on Saratoga every August when I was a teenager, largely for gambling and racing. Saratoga's glory days are long gone, but people still visit for the horse races and spa treatments, and bottled Saratoga drinking water with its crisp, slightly sweet taste has a loyal following. There is also a vibrant night life – Bob Dylan and Arlo Gurthrie have both performed in Saratoga, and it is said that singer Don McLean wrote his hit song American Pie while sitting in a bar on Caroline Street. Saratoga Springs is home to the prestigious, elite Skidmore College.
The Revd Thomas T. Parke, rector; the Revd Paul Evans, priest associate; Farrell Goehring, organist and director of music; Anthony Holland, Mus.D., choral director.
What was the name of the service?Liturgy of the Palms and Mass of the Passion.
How full was the building?
Almost completely full. I estimated between 150 and 175 people.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A very pleasant "Good morning!" from two people handing out bulletins.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. Nice cushions and comfortable back rests.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Some quiet conversation but overall a feeling of expectation and anticipation.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Let us pray." A tasteful change from the "Welcomes" or "Good mornings" or "Howdys" too often heard elsewhere.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Prayer Book and 1940 Hymnal were available. There was also a handout – a little crowded, perhaps (maybe they were trying to save paper?), but functional.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ and four French horns (on loan from Skidmore, I believe). There was also a very good choir of about 20 singers.
Did anything distract you?
A child made a few modest little noises that couldn't hold a candle to some of the outbursts I have heard in other places.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
I would call it relaxed Anglo-Catholicism at its best. Incense, gong (not bells), proper genuflections and elevations. No strange bizarre arrangements. The ordinary was the Missa Simplex, which I thought at first would be rather stark, but the organist provided a beautiful accompaniment. There were two motets at communion: one by Anton Bruckner and another by the late renaissance Italian composer Giovanni Francesco Anerio – both lovely.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 – Actually, off the scale. Father Parke spoke without notes, from the pulpit, as an abbott might speak to his order. Unhurried, distinct delivery, unaffected. If only all sermons could be so good.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He contrasted the joy of Palm Sunday with the somber atmosphere of Holy Week. He compared Jesus' silence to modern trials, where it seems that nobody ever stops talking. How awful it is to be punished when you are innocent. He made a quick reference to the legal troubles of New York's former governor Eliot Spitzer, who appeared to be guilty of his crimes. When bad things happen to us, the example of Jesus can get us through them. "Come down from the cross," Jesus' scoffers cried. But Jesus did better than that.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Where to start? The grand building, the great preaching, the wonderful liturgy, enthusiastic congregational singing – where indeed!
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I can find only slight fault with two aspects of the mass. No hymn numbers were given, which meant that if we didn't already know the hymns we literally had nowhere to turn. And I like to sing the bass part. Also, there was no Anglican chant. What's an Anglican service without the beautiful chant so characteristic of our liturgy?
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Not much. Several people smiled and said hello, and the rector was extremely cordial at the door, but that's about it.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No announcement had been made, but I found my own way to the reception. Coffee, tea and juices were available – no wine or anything stronger. There were also some very acceptable finger foods: cake, cookies, etc. The rector came and sat with me for a bit.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – Definitely.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Very much so. This is clearly a parish in which there is no gossiping, backbiting or any other underhanded maneuverings. How do I know? You can sense things like that, and that was my sense.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Strangely, the closing hymn: "O sacred head now wounded." I knew where that one was in the hymnal, and what a treat it was to be able to sing the bass line!