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317: St Virgil's, Morris Plains, New Jersey, USA
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St Virgil's, Morris Plains, New Jersey
Mystery Worshipper: Newman's Own.
The church: St Virgil's, Morris Plains, New Jersey, USA.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
The building: The exterior is non-descript brick, in the plain and boring style that is so pat that one wonders if the RC Church paid the architect once in 1955 and built every church in the tri-state area for the next 20 years. The inside is tacky: wreaths and other decorations (including bird's nests) which appeared to have been made in an introductory crafts class on the wall; banners that would win no awards, and a sort of canopy decorated with artificial roses.
The neighbourhood: Nothing of particular note. It is basically a residential, suburban area, located near a minor highway.
The cast: Sorry – I do not know the name of the pastor.
What was the name of the service?
First Communion.

How full was the building?
About three-quarters full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
No – everyone was occupied.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, average.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Noisy and annoying. The first communicants were to sit with (and approach the altar with) their families, and there was much bustle over who was to sit where.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Welcome to St Virgil's on this great day."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Leaflet printed for the occasion.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ – though it sounded more like an electric piano. The music was absolutely dreadful, from the disco-Schubert Ave Maria, which an opening soloist sang straight from the throat through the nose, and worsening when a children's choir sprinkled their off-key singing of horrid hymns throughout. The celebrant sang much of the eucharistic prayer to a "light rock" tune, which was far from effective.

Did anything distract you?
A small children's choir (probably the worst I've ever heard in a long history of Mystery Worship), who apparently were unaware they were standing in front of a microphone, talked throughout the eucharistic prayer and communion. Echoes of such sentences as "cut it out!" were extremely distracting and caused me to have a giggling fit.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Irritating stew of "let's not offend anyone" self-esteem claptrap. The trendy, dreadful music, combined with the carefully non-challenging re-wording of prayers and readings, was rather like a poor 1970s musical play. For example, during the penitential rite, rather than God's being beseeched to have mercy on us and forgive us our sins, the Almighty was requested to "be with us on our journey." The hymn at communion kept referring to our journey as well, and, though I saw no signs of the returned Messiah, our "rising from the dead" as if it already had happened.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
7 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
3 – It was a dialogue with the children, asking them basic questions about what they'd been taught. A few comments only told the kids what they already knew.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The liturgy of the word was compared to inviting a dinner guest into the living room to chat before the meal. (I have a strong aversion to the "family dinner and nothing else" approach to the eucharist, which I've noticed when Mystery Worshipping in RC churches.) The pastor is an Anglican transplant with five children of his own, so the inability to explain mysteries to kids should be no excuse.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
It was a lovely spring day, and a calming breeze was coming through the open rear door.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The "Christian lite" diet the congregation was served throughout – a far cry from the radical and challenging message of Jesus of Nazareth. The children said the Lord's Prayer with gestures, raising their arms up, down and to the side, which apparently was a tribute to the recent aerobics craze. What it symbolised is beyond me. (It was not the sign language used by the deaf.)

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Everyone was so busy taking photographs of the first communicants that they would not have noticed if John Paul II walked through the crowd.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I did not attend.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – Even one hour here probably cleared me of any time in Purgatory... it was strictly for the down home, "church is nothing but us" crowd.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Well, I suppose nothing could shake that – but it equally made me glad to be an aesthetically sensitive, happily snobbish high church Anglican.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
How tiresome the trendy becomes... though the trendy here is about 30 years old.
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