Mystery Worshipper: Sancta Obscura
Church: Holy Apostles
Location: Sunshine, Victoria, Australia
Date of visit: Sunday, 18 August 2019, 10:00am
A beautiful modern building opened in 2011. It replaced an earlier structure that was built on a creek bed, leading to structural instability. The current building is light and modern, and includes the worship space and offices for various welfare organisations within the footprint of the complex.
It's a wonderfully diverse group of people, reflecting Islander, African, South Asian, and Anglo heritages. The congregation was a demographic layer cake, ranging from the elderly to the newly-born.
Sunshine takes its name from the farm implement factory that was established in the locality in 1906. Two important developments followed from this event. One was the establishment of the first factory township in Australia, built on garden city design principles. The other was a major industrial dispute in 1907, which led to the Harvester Judgement. This is the legal decision that shapes wage arbitration in Australia down to the present day. Modern day Sunshine is a cosmopolitan suburb – the Sunshine Harvester Works are long gone, and the church stands near a big shopping centre and the transport hub at the railway station.
The service was led by the locum priest, who also preached. Two servers assisted in the sanctuary, and there were two readers from the congregation.
What was the name of the service?Sung Mass.
How full was the building?
About 30 or 40. The congregation were spread around, but in true Anglican style avoided being too close to the front.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A sidesperson gave the service books with a smile and warm good morning. I found my friend inside.
Was your pew comfortable?
A padded bench. Very comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
People visiting and catching up. There was no musical prelude.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Our service today begins on page 119 of the green Prayer Book.’ This was followed by a slightly baffling fervorino. The first formal words of the service were: ‘Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A copy of the shorter edition of A Prayer Book For Australia, melody edition of Together in Song, and Soul Food, the weekly pew sheet. Readings were printed from the The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version, and read at the lectern from the pew sheet.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ and guitar.
Did anything distract you?
The priest's electric green chasuble was a serious distraction that only the colour-blind would be spared. The worship space opens onto distractions – the skylight that runs along the ridge of the roof gives a view of the sky, and Melbourne was turning on a lovely day. The servers’ robes were too short by nautical miles. On the lectern was a beautiful gospel book that sat unused.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Relaxed but reverent Anglo-Catholic. The parish has a long history of catholic worship, and the current style was developed when the new building came into being. So there are vestments and candles, a gospel procession, offertory procession, and a simple ceremonial.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
1 — The priest had a very strong accent, which made his parts of the service difficult to follow. He also had a very pious style that led to some verbal eccentricities, like constantly dropping his voice. This piety extended to asserting that the Letter to the Hebrews was written by St Paul. The last time I read any commentary defending Pauline authorship of Hebrews was in Bible study materials. I think it's fair to say the sermon had a beginning, and a middle, but didn't end so much as run out of steam.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was an unhappy melding of the epistle passage (Hebrews 11.29-12.2 – remember the lessons of faith and ‘run the good race’) and the gospel reading (Luke 12.49-59 – Jesus predicts family strife). The priest started with an attractive evocation comparing the opening of the Hebrews passage with a photograph album as images of faith. But this didn't quite follow through to the apocalyptic character of the gospel reading.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Some beautiful singing during communion from the Islander people in the congregation. The liturgy was unhurried, and moved with good grace. However …
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
… This was brought undone by one or two of the Islander women in the congregation. The music selections were good, and the organist was clearly well-prepared and enjoys sharing her talents to promote the congregation's singing. But every hymn was pierced through with improvised harmonies that didn't always relate to what the organ was doing. The result was a tuneless bawling that negated the leadership of the organist and overrode the efforts of everyone else in the congregation. I guess this wasn't what was intended, but it was the outcome. Definitely one of the more hellish sounds I've experienced, surely to be perfected on the other side of paradise.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I was with friends, so looking lost wasn't an option. I took some time to explore the building, including some nooks I hadn't seen on other visits here. A couple of people came and shared about their knowledge of the building and their pride in being able to worship here.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
A generous spread of steamed dim sum and regulation Anglican fruitcake. Tea and coffee were served in real cups, although I know nothing of the provenance of the beverages. Given the commitment of the parish to social inclusion, I would expect it is fairly traded.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 — A new priest is coming in a few weeks time, so there's an air of expectation and excitement about what this will bring. It will be good to see how things develop over the next little while.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
That electric green chasuble. It just cannot be un-seen.