Mystery Worshipper: Sursum Corda
Church: St John's
Location: Sharon, Pennsylvania, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 29 November 2009, 10:00am
A beautiful church indeed! Though the exterior is an unremarkable gray stone block, the interior is outstanding. The high altar and reredos are the work of Ralph Adams Cram, architect of the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York City and consulting architect for the Washington National Cathedral. To say the least, they are extremely eye-catching, and clearly the result of a lot of thought. They are described in detail, along with the church's other artistic appointments, on the parish website . From the tourist standpoint, this church is an absolute must-visit. Sadly, I did not have a camera with me, and the photo gallery link on the church's website was "under construction" at the time of this writing. But by all accounts, this is truly a remarkable building.
Although the ministries link on their website appears likewise to be under construction – sections entitled "Altar Guild" and "Ushers", for example, are occupied by filler describing the architecture and the most current on-line newsletter is dated October 2008 – there is mention of a music program, youth and adult classes, and pastoral care. There are two services each Sunday, the earlier following Rite I and the later Rite II, as well as Christian education.
Sharon is a city in western Pennsylvania about 75 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, near the Ohio border. Once a booming industrial center, the city today is a depressing and depressed rust-belt town. Some earnest efforts have been made to cheer the place up, but they hardly disguise a very creaky city that saw its best days decades ago. A railroad track meanders through the middle of town, with frequent freight trains. Also at the center of the town is a massive, run-down steel plant. It is unclear whether the plant is in full operation; somehow the air seems too clear.
The Revd Adam Trambley, rector, was the celebrant. Paula A. Kubik, M.M., presided at the organ and directed the choir. Messrs Frank OStafy, Jack Allen, Mike Rice and Scott Leishman were on duty as greeters.
What was the name of the service?Eucharist.
How full was the building?
Half full - just under 100 souls. The congregation seemed to be a typical cross-section of humanity, with representatives of every age group, perhaps weighted a little towards the older crowd.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
The four greeters welcomed us very warmly and charmingly, without being unnecessarily effusive. Nice job!
Was your pew comfortable?
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Mostly quiet and reverential, but things got a bit restless when a crowd streamed in from the gospel side three of four minutes before mass began. (Had they been at some meeting in the church hall prior to the service?)
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The opening words of the Great Litany: "O God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth, have mercy upon us."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Hymnal 1982; Book of Common Prayer 1979.
What musical instruments were played?
An organ, and very well, too. St John's organ is opus 839, dated 1967, of the Schantz Organ Company of Orrville, Ohio, and retains some of the stops of an earlier Skinner organ dating from 1924. Ms Kubik also accompanied and directed a well-trained enthusiastic group of 16 amateur singers.
Did anything distract you?
The sound of the freight train grinding slowly through the town was not especially distracting, but was certainly unusual. And the sound of the PA system (used only for the reading of the epistle) made me jump! It was turned up way too high. The acolytes, on the other hand – but more about them later.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Middle-of-the-road Anglo-Catholic, facing eastward. Bells but no smells. I noted the absence of the more usual Advent purples. Instead, the frontals, the vestments, the Advent wreath candles and the floral decorations on the altar were all Sarum blue. Eucharistic Prayer B, which mentions the virginal conception of Jesus, was used.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – If there is one word that describes the rector's preaching style, that would have to be "cheerful." Even though dealing with what could be a very dramatic and challenging subject - the apocalypse - he kept it light, and full of optimism. He gesticulated a lot and smiled throughout. He referred to his notes from time to time, but mostly just winged it.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Based on the day's gospel (Luke 21 – Jesus warns his disciples about the end times), Father Trambley talked about the second coming. He told us to look forward to the end of the world as a time of change for all creation. Our Lord warned us to beware of people who say the end is near. We can't help but know when he is coming. We wont miss it! So don't worry, don't worry. Our energies should be focused on readiness. So, as our Lord tells us, be on our guard against dissipation, drunkenness, and the worries of this life. His coming will be the best day of our lives. Be prepared for the Son of Man coming in a cloud in great glory and don't worry, don't worry!
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The wonder of every aspect the architecture and design of the church - so beautiful, so memorable.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Ah, those acolytes! It never fails to amaze me how so much care can be poured into an act of worship and how negatively distracting simple things can prove to be. But in the midst of gorgeous architecture and lovely music, the acolytes seemed to care little for the vital role they had to play in the drama of the mass. Their footwear was ridiculously inappropriate: one in sneakers, another in high heels, and another who could barely balance herself on a pair of mules. They chewed gum throughout, were generally uninvolved, and sometimes woefully uninformed of the ritual they had dressed up to perform. At times they didn't even kneel in the presence of the holy Sacrament.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We were immediately and warmly invited to join the congregants for coffee in the parish house. However, once in the reception room, we had to look lost for a few minutes before an enthusiastic parishioner approached us and introduced us to his delightful family.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No milk (ugh!) and styrofoam cups (ouch!) but otherwise simple coffee and cookies in the most beautifully well-ordered church hall I have ever seen. It almost had the appearance of an expensive private club set in the Victorian era - comfortable and spacious. And folks gave us a very warm welcome in their midst.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – I would probably make this church my regular if I lived on the Pennsylvania-Ohio border.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The lovely building and all the Sarum blueness (even the flowers!) of a mass for the first Sunday in Advent.