Mystery Worshipper: Sparrow
Church: Church of the Redeemer
Location: Toronto, Canada
Date of visit: Wednesday, 22 February 2012, 6:00pm
Completed in 1879, it is in the Gothic Revival style. A major renovation project was launched in the early 1980s, financed by proceeds from the sale of church lands to a hotel chain. There are three large stained-glass windows behind the altar depicting key moments in the life of Jesus and his disciples.
The church is lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender friendly. It also has an "open door" policy: passers-by can stop in for prayer or a quiet moment of contemplation – an especially useful provision given the building's location at a busy downtown intersection.
The church is situated at the corner of Bloor Street and Avenue Road, sandwiched between the University of Toronto and the posh Yorkville shopping district, and just a stone's throw away from Queen's Park. It is also just a short walk from any of three subway stations: St George, Bay, and Museum.
The Revd Canon Andrew J. Asbil, incumbent.
What was the name of the service?Sung Eucharist with Imposition of Ashes
How full was the building?
About half full, or around 150 people, comprising a mix of university students, young professionals, middle-agers, and grey hairs (the capacity is 300). The dress was mostly casual, except for a few "suits" who probably came straight from work.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was silently handed a service leaflet and the Book of Common Praise by a greeter as I walked in. Later, as we exited the church, Canon Asbil personally thanked everyone for coming and shook everyone's hand. I also shook hands with five or six people during the passing of the peace, but no one in the congregation tried to make conversation with me then or at any other point.
Was your pew comfortable?
The front part of the church had pews, and several rows of wooden chairs were added in the back, some cushioned and some not. I'm not sure whether these chairs are normally out or if they were added as additional seating for the Ash Wednesday service. The chairs were fine, but there was nowhere to kneel during the prayer. Most people just bowed their heads.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Still as the night. Most people were sitting by themselves, silently
meditating or looking over the order of service. The few who came with
someone else were whispering quiet conversations to their friend or
partner beside them. There was no pre-service music.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"The Lord be with you."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A leaflet containing the order of service, based on the Book of Alternative Services, and
the Book of Common Praise.
What musical instruments were played?
There were both an organist and a choir.
Did anything distract you?
Smack in the middle of the service, a middle-aged woman with flaming red hair and large costume jewelry walked in late and headed straight down the centre aisle to a pew at the front of the church. Three or four people also ducked out right after taking their communion. I can only hope that these are the "Christmas and Easter only" type of church-goers, rather than their regulars.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
We sang traditional Anglican liturgy from the Book of Common Praise, led by the choir and accompanied on organ. The choir was quite good, especially the soloists, but the organist was almost resistant to playing the music in time, which was confusing when I was trying to sing along with the hymns. Since it was an Ash Wednesday service, the congregation approached the altar rail not once but twice: the first time to receive the Sign of the Cross marked with black ashes on each person's forehead, and the second time to take communion. On a personal note, one of the hymns was "When I survey the wondrous cross," which was sung to the tune of Rockingham, but I much prefer the Lowell Mason version.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The sermon was necessarily broad, given that it was an Ash Wednesday service. Canon Asbil's voice was almost completely flat, but somehow it didn't make my mind wander; rather, it drew me in and helped me to focus on his message, rather than his delivery.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Canon Asbil started with a personal anecdote about watching divers practicing their technique at a pool. He used this story as an entry-point for talking about spiritual discipline during Lent. There was no one take-home point from his sermon, but rather a broad array of points about the importance of Lent. Lent as a call to self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. The sermon emphasized the importance of discipline through the Lenten season and the need to support each other as a community during this time.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Taking communion to the sound of the choir singing "Jesus, remember me." The hymn itself is quite simple, but the choir gave a beautiful rendering that helped me to reflect on the meaning of the ritual.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The communion wine was taken from a common cup; no individual plastic
cups were offered. Just the thought of all the lips that have touched
that cup makes me shudder.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Canon Asbil greeted everyone personally on the way out. He thanked me for coming to the service but didn't try to make any conversation beyond that. Several groups of regulars were chatting with each other at the back of the church, but no one came to talk to me. Most people just headed straight out the door, since there was no after-service coffee, and it was dinnertime by then anyway.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – Personally, I found the formality of the service too emotionally distancing for me to want to make this my regular church. However, Canon Asbil was a great draw. He's a compelling speaker, and I would be interested to hear him again in a regular weekly sermon, which would perhaps be more focused in content.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Sure. Not in any particular way, but I'm also just glad when a church doesn't do or say anything horribly offensive. The community seemed very open and inclusive.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Walking out of the church onto Bloor Street and seeing other people with a cross of ashes on their forehead. It made me feel that the Christian community is not just limited to the walls of the church, but in the rest of our lives as well.