Christ Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Christ Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: St Gregory the Great
Church: Christ Church
Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 26 February 2006, 9:00am

The building

Christ Church was established on November 15, 1695. The present red brick building was begun in 1727 and completed in 1744, and stands as an excellent example of colonial architecture in the Georgian spirit. The tower and steeple, financed in part by lotteries managed by Benjamin Franklin, was completed in 1754. The interior is bright and airy, painted white, with box pews, clear windows (no stained glass), Roman style columns, and a balcony level. The baptismal font in the back of the church was sent to Philadelphia in 1697 from All Hallows Church, Barking-by-the-Tower, London, and is the font in which William Penn was baptized. The communion table was given by noted Philadelphia craftsman Jonathan Gostelowe in 1788. Buried in the chancel is William White, rector of the parish for 57 years, chaplain of the Continental Congress and first bishop of Pennsylvania. In the burial ground can be found the graves of seven signatories of the Declaration of Independence, including Benjamin Franklin himself.

The church

For 66 years this was the only Anglican parish in the city of Philadelphia. The church holds a significant place in American history. It publicly banished King George's name on July 4, 1776. It is referred to as the Mother Church by many Episcopalians for its role in organizing the Episcopal Church following the American Revolution. This was Benjamin Franklin's parish church. The church seems to take a lot of pride in this heritage, and makes a great effort to maintain the building and its grounds, as well as the nearby burial grounds.

The neighborhood

This is Old City Philadelphia, near Independence Hall, the Betsy Ross House, and other historical sites. Narrow cobblestone streets and old brick colonial style buildings reveal the age of this portion of the city. There is also a thriving nightlife, with numerous bars, restaurants and cafes.

The cast

The Rev. Timothy Browning Safford, rector; the Rev. K. Palmer Hartl, parish associate. The sermon was preached by the Rev. Carol Anthony, parish associate.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Eucharist and Sermon

How full was the building?

About 25 to 30 percent full. I would guess a little over 100 people. There was a fairly wide age range, from young adults to senior citizens. Several young families with small children were in the congregation.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

When I walked in there was no greeter – I just picked up a program. People were very friendly and cordial during the peace. At the conclusion of the service, the man sitting next to me introduced himself, asked me my name and where I was from, and invited me to a young adult breakfast at a nearby diner the following week.

Was your pew comfortable?

Basic wood pew with a cushion seat and a kneeling cushion. I was comfortable while seated, but kneeling was a little awkward. Fortunately, in this church either kneeling or standing during prayer is perfectly acceptable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Respectfully quiet, with some whispered conversation.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Book of Common Prayer (1979), The Hymnal (1982).

What musical instruments were played?

Piano. They do have a very nice organ, but it was not in use at this service.

Did anything distract you?

A few things. The clear windows let in plenty of light while the sun was shining, but when it went behind a cloud things got suddenly much darker. There were two very well-behaved toddlers sitting behind me, but one of them did blurt out now and then. At times I saw mothers take their children off to the sides to quiet them.

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

Neither stiff nor happy-clappy. I would describe it as relaxed low church Episcopalian. Traditional, yet casual. There was not an abundance of overly ritualistic tradition here. Traditional hymns were sung, and worship was simple and reverent. The rector's tone during the announcements was one of levity. For example, he joked about the red tape associated with the construction permits required for some ongoing projects. Definitely a light atmosphere.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

20 minutes.

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

7 – One of the parish associates, the Rev. Carol Anthony, preached a fairly traditional sermon.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Referring to the Gospel reading (Mark 9:2-9), she related the experience of Peter, James and John during the transfiguration of Christ to moments in our own lives that draw us closer to God. There are transformative moments in everyone's life when we are changed, just as Peter, James and John were changed when they first saw Jesus glorified. Such moments can give us strength, particularly in difficult times.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The comfortable, relaxed atmosphere. It made me feel very much at home, never out of place. Also the sermon – so easy to follow and so relevant to my own life.

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

I was a bit surprised not to have a greeter welcome me upon entering the church, although that hardly made me feel like I was in hell. But the sudden darkening of the church when the sun went behind the clouds was one of those moments where you expected brimstone fumes to begin rising from the floorboards.

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

Aside from the gentleman in my pew who invited me to breakfast the following week, no one else approached me. I wandered around the back of the church for a few minutes, but nothing. It didn't make me feel uncomfortable, though.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

No after-service coffee so far as I could tell. There was a rector's forum scheduled for after the service, at which the church archivist was going to speak on "What's in our archives?" I didn't attend, though.

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

9 – There are several things I really like about this church: the inclusive, welcoming atmosphere, its historical significance, the simple, relaxed style of worship. I felt very comfortable here, as the church fits well with my worship preferences. From reading their website and bulletin, they have a wide range of activities, including Sunday school, weekly rector's forums, monthly concerts, and volunteer service and outreach projects. There really seems to be something for everyone here.

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

Yes, absolutely.

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

The painted white, old colonial style interior of the church, with the box pews. It reminded me of the church my grandparents attended in Massachusetts.

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