|672: The Ascension and St Agnes, Washington DC, USA|
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Mystery Worshipper: Abed-Nego.
The church: The Ascension and St Agnes, Washington DC, USA.
The building: This is one of the loveliest churches in Washington, DC. Built in the gothic revival style, the proportions are exquisite. The exterior is precise and clean cut. The interior is unashamedly focused on the sanctuary and the huge and elegant painting above the reredos.
The church: Since the service I attended was the amalgamation of two congregations, I was not in the best position to judge what might have been special or individual about the people of Ascension and St Agnes. I suspect that they have somewhat similar backgrounds to those people in my former parish: predominantly middle-aged, majority white middle-class, very familiar with the ritual of the high Anglo-Catholic tradition, incredibly friendly.
The neighbourhood: The church seems to sit on the border between Embassy Row and the residential wilderness that stretches up to Union railroad station. It has recently found a new neighbor in the just completed conference center.
The cast: Celebrant: Rev. Fr. Lane Davenport, Rector, Preacher; Rt. Rev. Rodney R. Michel, Suffragan Bishop of Long Island, New York; Conductor/Choirmaster: Dr Haig Mardirosian.
What was the name of the service?
Solemn requiem for All Souls day.
How full was the building?
Bulging at the seams.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was quietly welcomed and handed a very substantial order of service.
Was your pew comfortable?
The pews are a little awkward rather tightly packed and the seats slope forward, so you feel you have to correct your posture to prevent an early floor-wards demise. The individual kneelers are also tricky. They seem to have little minds of their own once one has committed one's knees to them a feeling not unlike the first venture with skates on ice!
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I suspect that the two men behind me had come for the performance. They were engaging in pre-concert small-talk. Everywhere else, reverential silence was maintained.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Requiem aeternam dona eis: et lux perpetua luceat eis."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
What musical instruments were played?
Orchestra of strings, woodwinds, brass and timpani.
Did anything distract you?
The bishop of Long Island was interestingly attired in a purple zuchetto, mozzetta and cassock and a white lacy cotta.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This was a very serious and formal act of worship. The music, Mozart's Requiem, was beautifully prepared and executed by a fine choir and orchestra, and good soloists. The organ was not turned on. There were no hymns. The requiem for All Souls was performed in its entirety in black vestments, and concluded with the absolution at the catafalque.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 In my experience, bishops are not noted for their preaching abilities. Bishop Michel is the exception that proves the rule. His message was accessible, filled with anecdotes and allegories. He is straightforward and commands one's attention throughout. A change in pace here and there would be welcome. Everything was delivered with the same level of emphasis.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The text was: "The dead will hear the voice of God. Those who hear it will live." All Saints/All Souls is the time that the church pauses, recalls, and celebrates our mortality. In former days, Christians would go "a-souling" visiting cemeteries, praying and lighting candles. Now is the time to remind ourselves that we shall die, and we are called to do so by the church on a November day, when the trees are bare as the days grow shorter. Today the faithful departed join with us to continue reshaping fractured humanity. The bishop reminded us of Christ's promise of eternal life for "anyone who hears my word and believes in me", and called for a time of silence while we prayed for those who were near to us but had gone before us. The bishop then broke the silence by quoting Dylan Thomas: "Though lovers be lost, love shall not, and death shall have no dominion." It was very moving moment.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Funnily enough, in the midst of all this sublime Mozart music, my spirits were lifted highest by the glorious plainsong chanting. Thank you, Dr Mardirosian, for the beautifully blended and idiomatic delivery of the propers.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Well there was that musically frightening moment that I'd rather forget. The trombonist, I'm sure, feels the same way. His introduction to the "Tuba mirum" was, to say the least, wayward.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Not a chance. I headed down to the undercroft for the most sociable after-church get-together one could imagine.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
This must be the best room in Christendom for a post-service party. It's spacious, beautifully lit and not at all "churchy". The wine was good and plentiful and all kinds of delicious nibbles were being served on trays by younger members of the congregation. I particularly enjoyed the giant prawns on a mountain of ice.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 It's difficult to make a snap decision about becoming a regular at Ascension and St Agnes based on a single mass offered in the presence of two congregations, and under such exotic musical circumstances. Even so, if the regular Sunday service even begins to approach the beauty and reverence of this All Souls requiem, I feel sure I'd be happy to call this place my church home.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
I will remember that "more is more". So often Christian worship seems scaled down and minimized for fear the worshipers will be overwhelmed or bored by length of the service. Here was proof-positive that less can never be more.