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702: St Stephen's, Providence, Rhode Island, USA
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St Stephen, Providence
Mystery Worshipper: Ralegh.
The church: St Stephen's, Providence, Rhode Island, USA.
Denomination: Episcopal Church in the USA.
The building: St Stephen's is a stone church in the English Gothic style. Built in 1862 and designed by Richard Upjohn, the chapel is separated from the nave by a metal rood screen and the choir sits in wooden benches facing the altar. A large pipe organ sits just to the right of the chapel, and there is a lady chapel to the right of the nave. The stone walls struck me as ancient, making the church seem much older than its real age.
The church: The church is right next to the Brown University campus and has a long relationship with the college. From the website, it appears to be an active church with many parishioners from the neighborhood and the university.
The neighbourhood: Brown University is next door, as mentioned, and also nearby is the Rhode Island School of Design. There are a number of other churches in the neighborhood and some of the oldest homes in Providence. This is a quiet residential neighborhood on a hill just a few blocks from downtown.
The cast: Rt Rev. Arthur B Williams, retired suffragan bishop of Ohio; Rev. John D Alexander; Rev. MP Schneider; James Busby, organist and choirmaster.
What was the name of the service?
Solemn Mass.

How full was the building?
About a quarter full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
As I walked into the narthex, a woman was standing with program in hand. She stepped eagerly toward me, said "Welcome," and handed me the program.

Was your pew comfortable?
Wooden pew, with worn, but comfortable red cushions. There were individual padded kneelers (very comfortable).

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet and reverential. People waved and said quiet hellos to friends as they entered, but then once in their pews engaged in silent prayer and waiting for the service to begin.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
After an organ voluntary, we sang a "Lent prose" which began with a cantor singing "Hear us, O Lord." This was followed by a sung introit. The first spoken words were "Bless the Lord who forgiveth all our sins."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A mass booklet, the program, and the 1982 hymnal.

What musical instruments were played?
Beautiful Austin pipe organ made in 1917.

Did anything distract you?
As the bishop gave the sermon a reflected light formed a shiny rectangle on the top of his head, which held my attention throughout.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
High anglo-catholicism. Processions in and out, lots of incense, careful positioning of the bishop, rector and deacon throughout the service reminded me both of a ballet and, dare I say it, the three stooges. The worshippers themselves genuflected, triple-crossed themselves, and stood and knelt in an awe-inspiring demonstration of familiarity with the long and complicated service.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
5 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – The bishop began warmly with reflections of the time he spent at St Stephen's when he was a college student. However, when he read a letter from the US bishops, he settled into a monotone and finished without comment.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The bishops' letter asked for prayers for the soldiers and their families as well as for the people of Iraq and for a just, peaceful conclusion to the war in Iraq.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The choir, particularly during portions of the service such as the introit, Kyrie and the Agnus Dei, where the singing reminded me of Gregorian chant.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I am not usually bothered by incense, but there was too much of it for me in this service. At the reading of the Gospel, the procession stopped right next to me and I got a good, strong dousing.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I couldn't hang about at the back of the church, because I desperately needed to visit the men's room. However, at the coffee service a man noticed me sitting alone. He came up, introduced himself, and we had a nice conversation. As I was walking about, other people smiled at me and said hello.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Coffee kept warm in a thermos was served in Styrofoam cups. A nice spread including bagels with two cream cheeses (plain and vegetable), butter, and jam. Also a number of cakes and a plate of chocolate chip cookies. There was also what looked like iced tea in a glass pitcher.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – The people were friendly, and this service was nice to experience, but I wouldn't want this much fanfare every Sunday. As you might have guessed, this was my first experience of a full blown "smells and bells" service. It was a bit like watching church on television with all the action framed by the rood screen. I felt more like an observer than a participant.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. Particularly since the people seemed so happy to be there.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The expression on Mrs Ralegh's face as she tapped her watch when I exited the church after an hour and 45 minutes.
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