Mystery Worshipper: Five Pints
Church: St Paul's
Location: Natick, Massachusetts, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 5 August 2007, 9:00am
An unremarkable 1920s red brick building on Natick's main street, with lots of rooms underneath the main worship space and in the hall behind. Inside, a traditionally laid out church, with dark wooden pews and whitewashed walls.
The bulletin, their website and my conversations with worshippers showed St Paul's to be an extremely active and growing church, attracting people of all ages and backgrounds. I was told that in recent years a significant number of Roman Catholics had joined the church, unhappy about scandals and upsets in the Catholic diocese of Boston. Interestingly, I met people who hailed from Baptist fellowships in the south as well as a congregation in Virginia that has recently left the Episcopal Church, who told me that their faith had been nurtured and deepened at St Paul's. With a lively children's ministry, adult Christian nurture, overseas mission links and a feeding program for the homeless, St Paul's appears to be a community seeking to be truly inclusive. The congregation on my visit seemed predominantly white and middle class.
Natick lies about a 30 minute drive west of Boston, in the area known as Metrowest. The village was established in 1651 by the Puritan missionary John Eliot as a settlement for "praying Indians." Despite such an auspicious beginning, hostilities between colonists and natives grew over the years, and by the early 1700s white settlers were in the majority. After the American Revolution, the town's predominantly farming economy gave way to industry, and by 1880 Natick was America's leading shoe and boot manufacturing center, a claim to fame now long gone. The distinctive figure-eight pattern for stitching baseballs was also developed in Natick. Famous sons and daughters include Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin; Henry Wilson, 18th vice president of the United States, whose tiny 1860s cobbler's shop is still preserved on the edge of town; and Horatio Alger, Jr., author of a series of children's books with a "rags to riches" theme. Today's Natick boasts an historic quarter dating from Victorian times, and the town has a prosperous but unpretentious feel to it.
The Revd Canon Edward Rodman presided, assisted by the curate, the Revd Mark C. McKone-Sweet, who also preached. We were informed that the rector, the Revd Jon Strand, was on a month's vacation.
What was the name of the service?Holy Eucharist Rite 2
How full was the building?
About half full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A smiling usher handed me the bulletin as I walked in the front door and said, "Good morning."
Was your pew comfortable?
So-so: a traditional wooden pew without very much legroom.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet, with a few whispered conversations going on among people in their seats.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning. Please, would you sit down." We were then encouraged to shake hands with those around us.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Lots! The Book of Common Prayer, the Hymnal 1982, and an additional green hymnal whose name I didn't note down. There were also responses, prayers and readings for the day printed in the bulletin.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ. The choir, I was told, was on holiday.
Did anything distract you?
My eyes scanned the 12-page bulletin more than once. It was packed with information, even in this quiet midsummer season. Also, I was intrigued to see children carrying up baskets of food along with the usual gifts at the offertory; I was later told this was a collection for a local homeless ministry.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Fairly restrained and traditional. The congregation missed not having a choir or vocalists to give us a lead. There were a couple of quite rousing hymns in which I naturally could have let rip with my voice and raised my hands. However, glancing around me, I decided this would be a definite no-no! This felt strange, since during the notices people broke into spontaneous applause on a number of occasions. The energy and passion of the curate was complemented by the relaxed and unfussy way in which Canon Rodman led the eucharist. He ambled around the sanctuary like a friendly favorite uncle, and at the end informed us that it was his 65th birthday and he had brought a cake with him for coffee hour. His invitation to share cake with us was very moving; I will summarize it in the final question below, as I will remember it for a long time.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Curate McCone-Sweet was full of enthusiasm, pacing up and down the church, eyeballing the congregation as he delivered his sermon.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
His text was Luke 12:13-21, the parable of the rich fool – the man who planned to live a life of luxury on the proceeds of his bumper crop, but whose life was demanded of him that very night. "What is the most important thing in life to you?" the preacher repeatedly asked. He drew on his experiences of the summer which included a mission trip to El Salvador and helping run a summer camp for disadvantaged city kids. He also referred to the aftermath of the collapse of a highway bridge in Minnesota, which happened during the week.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
On the back page of the bulletin was a list of about 40 names of people involved in the church's various activities. At the top, above the clergy entries, it stated: "Ministers: All the parishioners of St Paul's." I liked that, as I'm from a tradition where the priest is often over-exalted.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I attend worship regularly, but I struggled to find my way around the various hymn books, prayer book and liturgy inserts in the bulletin. They ought to simplify it.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We all retired to the hall, where people generally welcomed me and we enjoyed tucking into Canon Ed's birthday cake as we chatted.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Filter coffee in a paper cup. I've tasted worse! There was no notice to say whether it was fairly traded. Tea and juice were also available.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – In spite of it appearing quite conservative liturgically, I got the impression there is lots of life in this parish, as I was visiting at a quiet time of the year. I was attracted by their desire for inclusivity but I might struggle with the music, although I expect they vary their styles for different services.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Canon Ed's invitation for us to share his 65th birthday cake: "Y'know, it's not about the things that you have, but the relationships and the people you have. As Jesus said in Matthew 6: 'Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven... for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.'" In the middle of a holiday in a country which seems overflowing with material blessings and abundance, I needed to hear those words!