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1537: St Martin's, Houston, Texas, USA
St Martin’s, Houston, Texas
Mystery Worshipper: Merchant Trader.
The church: St Martin's, Houston, Texas, USA.
Denomination: The Episcopal Church, Diocese of Texas.
The building: A new church, dedicated on Easter Sunday 2004 and modeled on a French or English cathedral, complete with cloister, on a large campus which includes two halls, the old church, a chapel which was an even older church, plenty of parking, gardens, play area, and a wayside chapel. Although of cathedral proportions and style, the outside is brick but the inside is grey stone. The ceilings look like traditional vaulted ceilings and the feeling is light and airy, partly because of a wider than traditional nave with relatively narrow north and south aisles, presumably enabled by modern technology not available to medieval builders. From the wooden pews, one looks toward the altar, behind which is a wooden choir screen and modest choir stalls, the pipe organ in a traditional case, and (high up) a very attractive rose widow. The choir screen would not look out of place in a number of larger English parish churches, but it is more transparent than those that completely cut off the choir in major English cathedrals. A traditional English Anglican could feel quite at home while enjoying the benefits of more space, modern lighting, pleasant temperature and more comfortable and spacious pews. The rose window kept catching the eye (I haven't labeled it distracting below) but is complemented by modern stained glass in traditional form along the side of the church. In my opinion the building is a triumph and completely transforms the site.
The church: St Martin's was Mystery Worshipped in 2001, before the new church was built. My last visit was in 2003, and I was curious to see what had happened since the new building had been opened. The church claims upward of 7000 members. Their website describes numerous ministries and outreaches as well as a full history of the parish.
The neighborhood: Houston, in southeast Texas near the Gulf of Mexico, is the fourth largest city in the United States. An important railhead and deep water port, it is home to several major energy industries as well as to NASA's (National Aeronautics and Space Administration's) Johnson Space Center, the so-called "Mission Control" for manned space flights. St Martin's lies in the heart of the affluent inner suburbs of West Houston.
The cast: The preacher was the rector, the Revd Dr Russell J. Levenson Jr, although another member of the clergy presided. The sanctuary party numbered 15 and I counted 40 in the choir.
The date & time: November 11, 2007, 11.00am.

What was the name of the service?
Holy Eucharist, Rite One.

How full was the building?
I estimated about 500, including those at the sharp end. Comfortably full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
The person handing me the service sheet wished me a good morning. People were very friendly and welcoming during the peace ceremony.

Was your pew comfortable?
Very much so – conventional pews with end to end comfy cushions. Matching drop down kneelers. Plenty of space. Also good sized book holders attached to the pews in front.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet to light conversation.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning. Please stand to sing the opening hymn."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
We were given a comprehensive 46 page service sheet containing the order of service, readings, hymns and notices. Judging from the notices, this is a very active community. Bibles and hymn books were available but redundant.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ and choir.

Did anything distract you?
Only trying to estimate such a large congregation.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
I understand that they consider themselves high church, but there were no smells or bells. The procession was impressive and included flags and banners. The service began with the singing of the National Anthem, which everyone belted out with great enthusiasm. Of the three large Houston churches that I have reviewed this year, this is the one that uses the kneelers most.

St Martin’s, Houston, Texas

Exactly how long was the sermon?
20 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The rector included a moving story about the beginning of his prison ministry, where he encountered Jesus in a prisoner who ended up ministering to him. He also mentioned Lord of the Streets, an Episcopal Church ministry aimed at Houston's homeless. The church's bookshop carries a collection of sermons on CDs, and I believe they can be ordered online as well.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
His sermon was entitled "Punching holes in the darkness." Good works are like the gas lamps that, in the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, poked holes in the darkness of an Edinburgh night. Houston's streets must look very dark to the city's homeless population. However, darkness must not weigh us down to inaction. Matthew 25:31-46 makes it crystal clear that we should act to help the hungry, the thirsty, strangers, those without clothes, and those in prison if we want to serve Jesus and to meet him. Jesus talks about unconditional giving – i.e., we should help the needy without first expecting them to look for a job. We should follow the example of St Martin. People will look at the towers of St Martin's Church and say, "There are the ones who punch holes in the darkness."

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Before the service began, the choir sang Anton Bruckner's beautiful motet Locus iste. While the offertory and communion anthems were also very uplifting, the Bruckner stole the show, especially the bass and tenor voices. The choir seems rather better than I remember from my last visit in 2003.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
It all seemed so perfect, almost to a fault. It saddened me to think that such perfection and organization is possible only in a congregation the size of this one, with its ample resources. I was actually relieved to notice one line of a response dropped by mistake.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
One could easily be overlooked. They had a greeters desk, but I didn't learn about it until after I had read through all the literature I had picked up. Coffee was served in a nearly empty hall. There were supposed to be donuts as well, but apparently they had run out. I picked up a coffee and walked around the cloister to the bookshop. Then I turned and headed back toward the church. No one appeared to notice me, although on the last leg of my walkabout some folks did say good morning and some even greeted me by name (I had picked up a name tag earlier). Finishing the coffee, I then decided to walk to my car past the sign-up stalls which lined the way. Some very friendly people at the Lord of the Streets stall were the first to engage me in conversation. But I could have walked back to the car without being spoken to at all, had I not actively decided to walk past the sign-up stalls.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Standard, unexceptional coffee in urns. Unfortunately I was too late to sample the donuts.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – The service as well as the surroundings were lovely. Despite being for the most part left alone, I felt that with so many activities available, it would be easy to become a part of this community once one began volunteering for the various ministries.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
St Martin's triggered joy and sadness. Joy because it seems so successful and they do so much good. Sadness both because some churches I know could do so much more if only they had the commitment I saw at St Martin's, and because I know some struggling places with commitment which could do so much more if only they had a portion of St Martin's resources.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The singing of the National Anthem. I found it very moving even though I am not American.
 
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