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1682: Christ Church, Woodbury, New Jersey, USA
Christ Church, Woodbury, New Jersey, USA
Mystery Worshipper: Abed-Nego.
The church: Christ Church, Woodbury, New Jersey, USA.
Denomination: The Episcopal Church, Diocese of New Jersey. The rector is a member of the Society of the Holy Cross.
The building: Modest in size, elegantly laid out, and clearly well cared for. Christ Church is an A-frame building with a central aisle, quite pretty stained glass, and a lovely if rather small sanctuary. The pyx above the altar is so burnished it glows! The church dates back to the mid 19th century and was designed by that excellent architect of holy shrines, John Notman he who also brought into being the magnificent trio of Episcopal churches in the heart of Philadelphia (Holy Trinity, St Mark's and St Clement's). The building was consecrated on September 17, 1857. A fire in 1911 was extinguished before extensive damage could be done, with the ladies of the parish (according to a contemporary news account) braving the flames to rescue the Bible, altar linen and bishop's chair.
The church: The congregation are involved in a number of ministries, including a mission in Nicaragua; Project Linus, a non-profit organization that knits blankets for seriously ill or traumatized children; and the Greater Woodbury Cooperative Ministries, which provides food and financial support to the needy. Two eucharists are celebrated each Sunday, with one on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday (Wednesday's being a healing mass), and evening prayer on Friday.
The neighborhood: Woodbury, New Jersey, is located just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. It was founded by Henry Wood, a Quaker who left England for the New World so that he might practice his religion freely. Woodbury is the county seat of Gloucester County, and as such boasts more than a sprinkling of the kind of administrative buildings one might expect including a very dignified old courthouse. As I was driving in from the north, I noticed a large hospital that I suspect is a major employer in the area. I also noticed nearby a startling and horrific burned-out Victorian mansion a glorious edifice that had obviously been the victim of a recent fire. More about that later.
The cast: Celebrant and preacher: the Very Revd Brian K. Burgess, SSC, rector and dean of the Woodbury Convocation. Organist: Richard W. Kurtz.
The date & time: First Sunday after Epiphany/Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ, January 11, 2009, 10.00am.

What was the name of the service?
Choral Eucharist with Rite of Christian Initiation (three infants and a young child were baptized).

How full was the building?
Absolutely crammed – between 200 and 300 people. The average age of the congregation was around 30, but the age range was extraordinary, with congregants who had probably been attending this church for decades mixed in with young families and their children. There were probably 50 or 60 youngsters who were present from the beginning of the service through the communion; they were attentive and well-behaved throughout the entire proceedings. It all felt very natural and as if somehow the entire community of Woodbury was represented in this cross-section of Episcopalian Christians.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
There were four ushers. One gentleman shook our hands and greeted us with a warm "Good morning." Another handed us the service bulletin.

Was your pew comfortable?
The pew was perfectly fine, although some shuffling was required to cram everyone in. The kneelers were of the fold-down kind but were free-standing. They tended to take on a life of their own at unexpected moments!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I noticed on the first page of the bulletin in large letters: "Let quietness... characterize your entrance into the House of God." The congregation had clearly not read this injunction. They were rather chatty and sociable. But then there were a lot of children.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The service bulletin contained everything but the hymns, for which we used the Hymnal 1982. The bulletin was a 12 page document, beautifully laid out, making participation easy for regulars and strangers alike. All the service music was there and in four parts when needed. There was pointed Anglican chant for the psalms. Rubrics included with the text of the mass made it easy to know when to stand, sit and kneel. And finally there were four pages of parish notices.

What musical instruments were played?
A pipe organ with a rather "boxed-in" sound. At first I wasn't sure whether I was listening to an electronic imitation. But according to the church's website, a new pipe organ was installed in 1895, replacing an old hand-pumped instrument. The 1895 organ was rebuilt in 1951 and again in 1968. So during the closing voluntary, I moved further forward towards the chancel area. I looked up and spotted a large, pipe-filled chamber. Would that the whole congregation could hear this perfectly respectable instrument in a more open acoustic! The instrument was played by Richard Kurtz, who proved an excellent executant keeping things moving at a nice clip.

Did anything distract you?
I couldn't take my eyes off the sanctuary party and the altar. There were no fewer than six acolytes, a thurifer and boat person, and two chalice bearers. Apart from the chalice bearers, all other participants were children or teenagers. And everyone seemed to know exactly what to do and when to do it! For the record, the bulletin listed no fewer than 65 lay ministers who had roles to play in the service, the Sunday school and the coffee hour!

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was about as Anglican as it could be. The Mass setting was that good old sing-along Healey-Willan. The congregation managed the psalm chant pretty well. The spoken and sung responses were full-throated. A vested choir led the musical proceedings with plenty of conviction. Mass probably sounded and looked like this 50 years ago in this place, but nothing about it felt tired or passé. Incidentally, the PA system was excellent.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
12 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 – Father Burgess is a brilliant public speaker. He has mastered the art of blending just enough humor to keep one's attention, along with poised anecdotes, memorable phrasing and a smile that is extremely winning. You feel as if he has something to say about which he cares deeply. Throughout the sermon he remained focused on the theme of the gospel and kept his message simple, direct and uncluttered.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He opened with an attention-grabbing anecdote about the neighborhood he lived in during his first parish assignment in Florida. Although he lived in a house of no note, the immediate area was replete with ante-bellum homes. His street, a tourist attraction, had hardly changed since the 1890s. Three houses down the road was a de-sanctified Roman Catholic church with a "gem of a graveyard behind." His thoughts then turned to sacred places. A holy space, he mused, is a promise that the full majesty of God will be in us. We who are baptized are either in a state of grace or need restoration. And so we have God's invitation continually to come home to seek nourishment in holy communion. That is why we come to mass, for all who can embrace the eucharist can embrace the life of the world to come. Like that sacred building just down the road from his first home in Florida, we should look at each other the way we look at holy places.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The whole experience was pretty heavenly. But the parts of the service that stand out are: (1) The delivery of the lessons by readers who were obviously well prepared – no stumbles, no mispronunciations. (2) The teenage girl who carried the thurible and censed the altar party and the congregation with great dignity. (3) The peace, which was offered by the celebrant and that was it! No hand-shaking, smooching or general visitations. (4) The little girl in the pew in front of me of me who followed every word of the liturgy and tried to sing every hymn. She couldn't have been more than eight or nine years old. Finally, it was also pretty heavenly to be spared any notices. They were well laid out in the bulletin and no further reminders were needed.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Something had to go wrong in such a well-ordered setting. The communion motet was discomforting. It was not that the quartet who sang it had bad voices quite the opposite. But they seemed to have virtually no grasp of how to perform music from the 1500s. Better that they stick to more standard literature.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No chance of looking lost; no chance of hanging around. We were spirited away, not so much to a coffee hour as an adult education class.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
We had a cup of quite good coffee in a styrofoam cup, along with a slice of sweet cake. No time to socialize, though. Father Burgess was soon at the podium giving one and all a slide show on the history of the Amish. He once again proved his capability as a public speaker and whisked us through the origins of the Anabaptists, all spiced with wit and good humor; showing that he was not only an excellent theologian but also a knowledgeable historian. Then we socialized!

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – This is the best attended and most welcoming Anglo-Catholic church north of Washington DC that I have been to.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
That recently burned-out Victorian mansion we had noticed with horror on our way to the church. It was the answer to a mystery we had been pondering ever since we had visited the Christ Church website. In the January newsletter, Father Burgess had written a word of thanks to the parishioners of St Patrick's Roman Catholic Church for graciously offering the use of their building for the funeral mass of a physician and his wife, members of Christ Church, who had recently died. It wasn't until my wife and I got home and checked the internet that we confirmed what we had suspected – that the burned-out house had been the home of the deceased couple, who had died as a result of injuries they suffered in the fire. Father's message stated that Christ Church will present St Patrick's with the gift of a Vatican flag as a reminder of the very special ecumenical spirit that was evident on the occasion.
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