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Presbyterian, Asheville, North Carolina, USA
Søren of the South.
Asheville, North Carolina, USA.
"Decent and in order" is the phrase often invoked
to characterize Presbyterian polity. The tag also fits the exterior
and interior of First Presbyterian Church, Asheville. The manicured
grounds, staid brick exterior and steeple of trim lines, stone
vaulting in the nave, spotless slate flooring – but, more important,
the loving attention focused on the coat racks and hat storage
outside the sanctuary, with not one rogue jumper in evidence
– all suggested a dutiful approach to worship. On a misty Blue
Ridge Sunday, light filtered gently through stained-glass windows
cast in blues.
In the church bulletin, prayers are asked for Madagascar in
the wake of a coup d'état, the latter spelled correctly, with
diacritical mark, for perhaps the first time in the history
of congregational desktop publishing.
Asheville is a city in western North Carolina nestled in the
Blue Ridge Mountains, so called because of their bluish, hazy
vistas. The city, which has long distinguished itself for a
progressive social conscience, hosts innumerable social-service
organizations catering to itinerants who make Asheville their
destination. Located on an idyllic side street in this funky
county seat of improvisational Blue Ridge music, hostelries
and bakers of dog biscuits, the church bills itself as "a
spire in the mountains." First Presbyterian Church helps
provide hospitality for homeless women as well as mattresses,
sheets and blankets for this ministry.
The Revd J. Layton Mauzé III, interim pastor, and the Revd Margaret
LaMotte Torrence, associate pastor for pastoral care.
The date & time:
Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 24, 2009, 10.55am.
What was the name of the
Service for the Lord's Day.
How full was the building?
The sanctuary was filled to three-quarters capacity –
impressive for a holiday weekend (Memorial Day). Transept seating,
however, remained empty. I saw not one person of color in the
congregation; nor did I see any of the vagrants who shuffled
along outside the church and who ducked into stairwells to smoke
Did anyone welcome you
I exchanged meaningful nods with a female usher who handed over
the order for worship. Congregants offered quality handshakes,
delivered ritualistic greetings, and maintained eye contact
during the programmatic "passing of the peace."
Was your pew comfortable?
The pews were buffed to high gloss and the seating regions covered
in red felt – a reminder of Woody Allen's remark in Shadows
and Fog that a predetermined portion of any church's proceeds
goes toward velvet pillows and related accoutrements.
How would you describe the pre-service
An organ voluntary lent a meditative backdrop to throat clearings
and last-minute communications among ushers. The choir filed
silently into place to begin the proceedings.
What were the exact opening words of the
"The Lord be with you."
What books did the congregation use during the
The Presbyterian Hymnal; The Holy Bible, King James Version.
Placement of the latter appears to have resulted from doctrinal
compromise, since the officiants used a more contemporary translation
for the readings.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
The choir's pincer movement at the close of worship, during which they formed human cordons around the pews, sealing off all means of escape, came across as mildly threatening. Had they been deployed to herd us into the fellowship zone?
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip,
happy clappy, or what?
Based on one visit, I cannot accurately judge the extent to
which worshipers here participate in the liturgy. It was a musically
challenging service: A four-pronged move of sung call to confession,
prayer, forgiveness and response left a lump in my throat. The
female cantor, at prayer's conclusion, sang to the lofted places,
"Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy
on us." A tenor soloist offered prayers of the people in
Korean as I said grace for being part of the church universal.
A little girl sitting in front of me, flipping through a cartoon
book of horses, turned not so much as a page during silent prayer.
There was a baptism, which I will return to directly, and the
congregation affirmed their baptismal vows in a sullen murmur
but with conviction.
Exactly how long was the
On a scale of 1-10, how
good was the preacher?
2 In such a thoughtfully crafted liturgy, the sermon
was the weak link. Pastor Mauzé, in indigo robe and with baritone
twang, seemed to be trying to channel North Carolina-born evangelist
Billy Graham, but came across instead as a parser of the Greek
text with limited application to listeners' everyday lives
although, if truth be told, the verses in question do not constitute
one of Jesus’ most crystalline formulations.
In a nutshell, what was
the sermon about?
The pastor preached on John 17:20-26 (Jesus prays that all believers
may be one in faith, as Jesus and the Father are one). The noted
Swiss theologian Karl Barth advised the faithful to "take
your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both." Pastor
Mauzé mentioned the local newspaper, the Asheville Times-Citizen,
but he failed to connect the scriptural emphasis on oneness
to divisions in community and country. Why, he might have asked,
do the well-coiffed sit inside consecrated space while the down-and-out
snub cigarette butts in the stairwells?
Which part of the service
was like being in heaven?
At one point a child skipped down the center aisle toward the
apse. "There should be more skipping in church," the
associate pastor remarked. But the most moving interval took
place when the father of a squirming baptismal candidate, feet
flailing in white ankle socks, knelt to receive baptism himself.
The pastor moistened the man's scalp until it glistened.
And which part was like
being in... er... the other place?
Each pulpit-based prayer, while strong in diction, was accompanied
by the seminary-standard gesture of entreaty – arms spread to
the side, palms upraised – a motion that in billowy dark-colored
polyester garments resembled a prehistoric bird brandishing
its full wingspan in order to frighten reptilian predators.
What happened when you
hung around after the service looking lost?
A lesson in fellowshipping efficiency. Congregants were shepherded
past the clergy for reception-line greeting. First-time visitors
such as myself were received at a designated table. From said
table a church matron was dispatched to procure a frozen slab
of home-baked banana bread, packaged in plastic and tied with
a green bow.
How would you describe the after-service
For the first time in memory I received post-church coffee in
a porcelain mug. Freshly baked cereal-and-marshmallow sweets
as well as store-bought mint-and-chocolate biscuits adorned
a table draped in white linen. I had some interesting chat about
baseball history and local bicycling conditions, sealed by a
folksy church mom with perhaps the world's most powerful handshake.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 I do not have the wardrobe to attend this church regularly.
Only when the suit has been properly dry-cleaned, white dress
shirt pressed, and cuffs and tie checked for pesky soy-sauce
stains would I venture again among this handsome group.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
The experience shows that liturgy works magic.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
"There should be more skipping in church."
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