|386: St Philip's, Charleston, South Carolina, USA|
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Mystery Worshipper: Sole Fido.
The church: St Philip's, Charleston, South Carolina, USA.
Denomination: Episcopal Church in the USA.
The building: The current building (the third in St Philip's history) is a late Georgian-style landmark that dates from 1835-38. The exterior has three Tuscan porticoes and the simple but grand interior features Roman columns and Corinthian arcades. The steeple soars above low-lying Charleston you can't miss St Philip's.
The church: St Philip's was founded in 1680, is the mother church of the Diocese of South Carolina, and attracts Charleston's upper-echelon conservative Episcopalians. The diocese is famously conservative, has opposed women's ordination, and regards homosexual activity as contrary to scripture. My views are the utter opposite, but I was curious about this landmark church, am fond of morning prayer, and simply wanted to worship on Sunday.
The neighbourhood: The church is in the center of Charleston's historic area, surrounded by a large churchyard with graves dating from the early 1700s, including those of several post-colonial governors, five bishops and John C. Calhoun.
The cast: Rev. J. Haden McCormick, rector.
Comment: We have received a comment on this report.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
Perhaps half-full, but it felt fuller.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Barely. We arrived 35 minutes before the service. Several parishioners and choir members rushed through the narthex, but none acknowledged us. A well-dressed parishioner was ushering and handing out service leaflets at the door; he barely greeted us and seemed unsure of how to deal with visitors. A visiting couple and their child stood stiffly in the narthex and also were ignored. We went outside to the churchyard, where at least 20 parishioners chatted animatedly in groups. Two men said a brief good morning as they went to chat with others. That was the end of it. We've never encountered such chilliness in a house of worship of any altitude, denomination or faith.
Was your pew comfortable?
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was much chatter as people entered, then a silence that wasn't so much prayerful as dutiful as if people were gathered for a secular assembly.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"I was glad when they said unto me, 'We will go into the house of the Lord'."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Service leaflet and Morning Prayer (Rite I) from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, but the 1940 Hymnal instead of the 1982 Hymnal. (The '40 is favored by many conservative congregations.)
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
There was an unusual amount of bustle and pew-thumping from unruly children. The woman behind us kept up a sotto-voce conversation with a pewmate. The couples in front of us were very visibly bored and chatted quietly on and off or stared ahead. The processional featured paired acolytes carrying the US and Episcopal Church flags. Outside of July 4, I find this kind of church-state mix jarring in a religious service. The doxology was immediately followed by the fourth verse of "My Country 'Tis of Thee". Again, it resembled a civic exercise more than it did a worship service. This was exacerbated by the rector's announcements, which were so prolonged that I felt as if I were trapped in an office meeting.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
People hardly participated, and their responses and singing were almost inaudible. Real-life stiff-upper-lip participation would have been an improvement. The service was so deadly pedestrian that one member of my party (who usually is quite attentive during worship) almost dozed off.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
3 He spoke clearly and robustly, but his message was minimal. In addition, he was oddly hail-fellow-well-met, as if he were delivering a toastmasters' club address or a sales presentation.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
To manage life's difficulties better, we should follow a four-point plan: turn to God every morning, think of his promises, trust in him and communicate and pray with Christian friends. It was generic inspirational-pamphlet material and seemed more suited to children than to adults in the mother church. Later, it occurred to me that no one was listening anyway.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The building was absolutely beautiful.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The dismissive non-welcome and the sense that this was a private club, rather than a house of prayer for all people.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Anyone who hung around would be lost, period. After lying subliminally low for an hour, the congregation suddenly awoke and shouted, "Thanks be to God!" at the dismissal. There was a roar as most of the congregants immediately launched into loud conversation, called to friends across the nave and pushed out of the pews to socialize in small groups, completely blocking the aisles. The organ postlude was almost drowned out, and it took nearly 10 minutes just to navigate the chat groups and reach the narthex. It was like a private party.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
We didn't see any, and coffee hour was neither announced nor listed in the service leaflet. The leaflet stated that communion would follow five minutes after the dismissal, but no one seemed to be staying for that, and the noise continued for at least 10 minutes.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 The congregation was singularly uninvolved, the service was merely dutiful, and the church seemed like a convenient social venue. I've really tried to be fair, but there you have it.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
No, but it was educational, since it clearly illustrated the pitfalls of a closed system.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The unwelcome, and that big roar at the dismissal.