Desert Mission Anglican, Phoenix, Arizona, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Desert Mission Anglican
Location: Phoenix, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 12 May 2019, 9:30am

The building

A long, low, flat, rather plain building with a pitched roof and a rather minimalist campanile/clock tower, the clock forever frozen at five until four. The inside is plain save for classical-appearing Stations of the Cross. They have been renting the building from the Evangelical Methodist Church since 2012; a drive is currently underway to raise funds to purchase it.

The church

They appear to be trying hard to fit into the community, with movie nights, parenting classes, food drives for the needy, potlucks, and the like. They have one worship service each Sunday (their bulletin announces that it is their ‘principle’ service; surely they mean ‘principal’) followed by catechesis. The Anglican Mission in America has at various times been associated in one way or another with other Anglican churches, but they are currently not in communion with Canterbury. Indeed, their website states that the ‘Archbishop of Canterbury … [is] unable to sustain our common life and unity worldwide.’ Googling the denomination’s name will find a range of articles discussing their history.

The neighborhood

They are located on Alice Avenue south of Dunlap Avenue, in the Sunnyslope neighborhood of Phoenix, a decidedly plebeian residential district. In the early 20th century the area was popular with tuberculosis patients looking to benefit from Arizona's warm, sunny climate. Legend has it that a newcomer, admiring one of the nearby hills, exclaimed, ‘What a pretty, sunny slope!’ and the name stuck. In 1931, wealthy Ohio businessman John C. Lincoln relocated here with his wife, Helen, whom doctors had given two months to live due to advanced tuberculosis. Mrs Lincoln lived on to the ripe old age of 102. Over the years the Lincolns donated large sums of money to the hospital where Mrs Lincoln was treated, and today the John C. Lincoln Health Center (as it is now called) is one of Arizona's major facilities for the treatment of breast cancer, heart disease and deep vein thrombosis. Its campus is on Dunlap Avenue very near the church.

The cast

The pastor, assisted by another priest, crucifer, acolyte, lay reader and eucharistic minister. Both priests were vested in alb and white stole; the crucifer and acolyte in cassock and cotta (and, I’m pleased to report, correct haberdashery). The pastor preached. The other priest read the gospel and the eucharistic prayer, but the pastor did not concelebrate with him.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Eucharist.

How full was the building?

I counted room for about 100 and it looked a little more than half full. A goodly mix of all age groups.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Several people said hello, welcome, and asked me my name.

Was your pew comfortable?

Padded wooden pew – it was OK. No kneelers, though (this was once, after all, a Methodist church).

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Lots of mingling, chatting and visiting. The musicians were rehearsing.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Good morning. Please stand.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Everything was projected. Worn, beaten-up copies of The Holy Bible, New King James Version (hardbound) and New International Version (paperbound) were in the pews.

What musical instruments were played?

Digital keyboard, acoustic guitar, bass guitar, violin, drum. There were three vocalists.

Did anything distract you?

A young man apparently forgot (for surely he was taught) that gentlemen remove their hats indoors, especially in church. Actually he removed his baseball cap for prayer but then put it back on again before 'Amen' had gotten to the 'en.' But even with it off, he couldn’t resist playing with his hair, which kept falling over his eyes. His seatmate, another young man, was hatless but kept sipping on a jumbo container of beverage he had brought in with him. A lady was wearing one of those dresses that look like the sleeves are ripped at the shoulders and will fall off at any minute. At least her shoulders were free of tattoos.

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

I’d call it mildly happy-clappy. The music was, for the most part, of the empty, feel-good, lite Christian rock variety with a decidedly Country and Western twang to it (the violin, or I really should say fiddle, contributed to that feel). One song, a freely translated version of Psalm 23, almost rose to the level of being interesting and would have done so if it were not for some unfortunate turns of phrase (e.g. ‘Surely goodness and mercy will hunt us down’). People clapped along and waved their arms. The liturgy was loosely based on Rite 2 of the Prayer Book – I say ‘loosely’ because there was a Trisagion but no Gloria even though it was Eastertide; an entrance bell but no bells at the consecration; no elevation at the consecration nor a ‘little elevation’ at the Per Ipsum; some differences in the wording and the sequence of events from what Episcopalians or other Anglicans might be used to; and other anomalies. At the Lord’s Prayer we were told to reach across the aisle and hold hands with those on the opposite side; I made believe I didn’t notice the person who tried to take my hand. We received communion in the form of pieces of real bread (no wafer-thin hosts or tiny cubes here) that we intincted into a chalice of grape juice.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

22 minutes.

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

7 — I thought the pastor started out rather weakly but improved as he went on. He spoke clearly and passionately and appeared to have prepared his sermon well.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

He said he had recently attended the funeral of a friend, much beloved by her fellow congregants, in an old and very imposing church. Such an experience can communicate a different reality from everyday affairs. Funerals mourn death but also celebrate life; they are comforting as well as challenging. They lead us to contemplate what God is really like. And what is God really like? God is a shepherd – he leads his flock to where they should be (a shepherd’s life is not an easy one), but he is also a lamb. When we think of God the Father, we envision a stern judge, quick to anger; and when we think of God the Son, we envision the merciful, compassionate, forgiving Jesus. But Jesus said that Father and Son are one and the same! There is no separation. God’s fundamental posture is not wrath, but love. Life is in the end unsatisfying – everyone experiences loss. But to love God is to find one’s true identity and ultimate protection.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

There was only one thing that I thought heavenly, and that was this: After communion, both priests came down into the congregation and prayed over a gentleman who was confined to a wheelchair, and the entire congregation turned and stretched out their hands toward the man.

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

My pen ran out of ink just as I started to take notes! I took a quick look around and spotted a pencil on a table out in the vestibule, and commandeered it for my use. A gentleman sitting behind me sang all the songs lustily but with absolutely no concept of pitch. I’ve heard dogs howl in better tune! I contemplated switching my hearing aids off.

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

As the priests were praying over the wheelchair-bound man, the musicians struck up an endless dirge of songs of the same genre as before. This continued even after the priests had returned to the altar. I took it as an opportunity to run screaming from the place, which I did. Well, no, I didn’t scream, but I did utter a mild expletive after I was well out of earshot in the safety of the parking lot.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

If there was any, I didn’t stay for it.

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

0 – I don’t begrudge this church or their style of worship to the people who obviously enjoy it and keep coming back for more, but it’s not my thing. I cherish too deeply the long, glorious tradition of Western sacred music to throw it all away for a fiddle and goodness hunting me down. And I like my liturgy a little tighter, with fewer liberties taken.

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

Not particularly, although I am of course glad to be a Christian.

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

The priests praying over the wheelchair-bound man.

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