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1658: St Paul's, Concord, New Hampshire, USA
St Paul's, Concord, New Hampshire, USA
Mystery Worshipper: Messy Christina.
The church: St Paul's, Concord, New Hampshire, USA.
Denomination: The Episcopal Church, Diocese of New Hampshire.
The building: An attractive A-frame red brick church with belfry and a tall pointed steeple. Destroyed by a fire in 1984, the church was rebuilt thanks to a generous outpouring of community spirit. The arched interior features dramatic wooden ribbing. A large gold crucifix is suspended over the altar. The pipe organ is displayed behind the altar in a very attractive case.
The church: They sponsor a Sunday school and adult education, as well as a food pantry and several youth groups. They celebrate two eucharists each Sunday, one traditional and the other "contemporary/intergenerational." A Taizé service is held one Sunday evening each month.
The neighborhood: Concord (pronounced to rhyme with "herd", not "board") is the state capital of New Hampshire. Formerly a rail hub and textile manufacturing center, the city today is home to several health care and insurance firms. It is a quaint, attractive town, with many 18th and 19th century buildings still surviving. Famous sons and daughters include Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Christian Science church; Franklin Pierce, the nation's 14th president; and Christa McAuliffe, who died in the 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster. This being New Hampshire in winter, Concord was full of snow, pushed and piled everywhere.
The cast: The service was led by the Rt Revd V Gene Robinson, Bishop of New Hampshire. He was assisted by the Revd Deacon Willis Ottery, lay readers and servers, and R.P. Hale on the organ.
The date & time: Christmas Day, December 25, 2008, 10.00am.

What was the name of the service?
Christmas Day Service.

How full was the building?
There was a sparse crowd – fewer than 50 in a church that could perhaps seat 300. The bishop said it is a tradition for him to take this service to give the regular staff Christmas day off with their families. I suspect many of the regular congregation likewise stayed home to open presents.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
No, but I went in the wrong door. The church is poised between two main streets in Concord and I managed to find the back entrance. I wandered around offices, past the men's and ladies' rooms, through a chapel and finally into the sanctuary. Coming in the back door, I was neither greeted nor given a service sheet, but these were provided to people who managed to come in the front door.

Was your pew comfortable?
The church has comfortable, padded pews.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
People sat very quietly. The mood seemed more like Good Friday than Christmas Day.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning! Merry Christmas! I look forward to this every year ... no more rushing around."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Hymnal 1982; The Book of Common Prayer.

What musical instruments were played?
Hammer dulcimer and pipe organ.

Did anything distract you?
Two vivid paintings of fearsome angels at the front of the church, draped in purple and turquoise. The angel on the right held a sword. The one on the left held what looked like a blow dart gun – likely a trumpet with most left off the canvas.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Dignified and middle-of-the-road.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
14 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Bishop Robinson gave a touching, humble, from-the-heart message, based on his personal and pastoral experiences with family and people in prison.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
This was a personal meditation on the darkness of the world, from a person who arguably knows a bit on the subject. The bishop said that he and Mark (presumably his partner) had decided to make contributions to charity in the names of their friends and family, rather than give gifts. The extra time from not shopping left him sensing the overwhelming pain in the world. A desperate Father sent his Son to a most humble station in life to let us know we do not have to be perfect and do not have to feel so bad about ourselves. People today are called to say "yes" to God so that He becomes flesh again as we feel the pain all around us and then get to work, spreading tidings of great joy to the world.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The hammer dulcimer playing was lovely and totally appropriate to the quiet, humble service. The interior of the church was likewise lovely, if not heavenly.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The service was really a bit of a downer for Christmas day – faint-hearted, lackluster singing, a dark message, and not much attempt at hospitality.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The bishop greeted everyone warmly on their way out, but there was nothing going on after the service. No one approached me to speak after the service. I assumed they all wanted to get home to their Christmas presents – or maybe they were also bummed out by the gloomy service.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There were no refreshments after the service as it was not run by the usual church personnel. The service the previous week evidently featured coffee in paper cups and, yes, really, a fruitcake competition.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – Maybe this would be a more welcoming church if it hadn't been Christmas day.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, in a somber sort of way.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The humility and genuine warmth of the Anglican Communion's only openly gay bishop, and his somewhat gloomy emphasis on the darkness of the world on Christmas day. Although there was no coffee, there was a pointedly open-to-all invitation to the Lord's table – perhaps that's all the hospitality we really need.
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