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2216: Church of the Holy Spirit, Phoenix, Arizona, USA
Church of the Holy Spirit, Phoenix
Mystery Worshipper: Fading Lights.
The church: Church of the Holy Spirit, Phoenix, Arizona, USA.
Denomination: The Episcopal Church, Diocese of Arizona.
The building: A rather plain building in the Southwestern style. I'd estimate it dates from the 1970s. The interior was very plain. It reminded me of a school auditorium. There was a lot of unused space inside the church, as might reflect a church experiencing a falling congregation. Indeed, the church has been closed due to declining membership and increasing financial difficulties, and the service this Mystery Worshipper attended was the parish's last. Negotiations are underway to sell the building to the nearby Arizona Christian University.
The church: For many years this congregation has worshipped under several different names: St Michael's, Holy Innocents, and finally as Church of the Holy Spirit. According to a statement issued by the Bishop of Arizona, the congregation has been faced with a series of conflicts, leadership mismatches, and financial struggles from which it has been unable to emerge despite assistance from the diocese. The bishop has also noted that a significant number of parishioners seemed interested only in a convenient space for Sunday morning worship with little or no commitment to stewardship. Such low expectations, the bishop has said, can kill a congregation no matter how dedicated its leadership may be.
The neighborhood: The building is located east of 24th Street on Cactus Road, a major east-west thoroughfare in north Phoenix. The surrounding area is filled with middle-class homes, chain stores, and fast food restaurants. There is a Seventh Day Adventist church just down the street.
The cast: The celebrant was the Rt Revd Kirk Stevan Smith, Bishop of Arizona. He was vested in mitre and green chasuble, and he carried a rather plain crosier. He was assisted by the Revd Julie O'Brien, vicar, whom the bishop has asked to stay on for the next few months to assist parishioners as they relocate to new churches. There were also two acolytes, a crucifer, and two chalice bearers.
The date & time: Sunday, July 17, 2011, 10.00am.

What was the name of the service?
Celebration of Holy Eucharist.

How full was the building?
Completely full. I'd estimate that the building can hold 125 people. The only empty area was between your Mystery Worshipper and a young couple at the end of the row.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. A gentleman at the door asked me if it was my first time at the church. I told him it was and then he asked me if I was an Episcopalian. I gave him the name of my current Episcopal church and I mentioned that I had read a recent article by Bishop Smith that the Church of the Holy Spirit was going to close, and that I think it is always sad when a church has to close its doors. I told the greeter I wanted to be in attendance for the service.

Was your pew comfortable?
Not really. It wasn't a traditional pew, but more of a row of padded chairs. It reminded me of the coach section on an airplane. The kneelers had a knob to turn to let them down. I think I was the only person to use the kneelers.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Noise, noise, noise! Everybody was talking or taking pictures with their cell phones. Even when the prelude began, people just kept on talking. Was I really in an Episcopal church?

What were the exact opening words of the service?
A layman stood up and said, "Good morning and welcome!" He then announced the processional hymn. The bishop pronounced the opening words of the service: "Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Hymnal 1982 and the Book of Common Prayer 1979 were right in front of me, but the service didn't follow the Rite II eucharist exactly.

What musical instruments were played?
Piano only. There was a choir of about 10 in the back of the church, mostly female. There was an older electric organ that was not used.

Did anything distract you?
Far too many distractions: The amount of talking before the service. No one used the kneelers. A child was eating during the gospel reading! If Jesus had been present, he would have needed to feed only 4999, as this child was snacking loudly.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
About as low church as I've ever been to. Your Mystery Worshipper dressed up but probably shouldn't have, as the temperature outside was well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and most members of the congregation were wearing shorts or other very informal clothes. There was constant conversation throughout the entire service. The liturgy was spoken – I doubt that chant was ever used in this church. The hymns were very traditional: "Praise to the Lord", "Now Thank We All Our God", and "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee." I found it annoying that the alleluia verse before the gospel was neither in the hymnal nor printed in the bulletin, but was identified only as a Muscogee Indian tune. The first part of the service was similar to a Lenten service, as we started with the confession right after the processional hymn. Your Mystery Worshipper was going to kneel, but noticed the entire congregation chose to remain standing. The dismissal, however, was more like Easter: "Go in peace to love and serve the Lord, Alleluia, Alleluia!" The response was: "Thanks be to God, Alleluia, Alleluia!"

Exactly how long was the sermon?
Tough question to answer. Bishop Smith spoke for a few minutes and then he opened up the floor for members of the congregation to talk about their time at the Church of the Holy Spirit. This was followed by a 20 minute DVD presentation of members of the congregation reflecting on their lives as members of this church.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Bishop Smith used a music stand as his pulpit! The first part of the sermon was excellent. The rating of 8 is for Bishop Smith and not for the congregational part. Your Mystery Worshipper would have preferred a regular sermon. It is regrettable that the congregation is losing their church, but listening to numerous people talk about how long they've been coming to the church and how much they will miss it doesn't make for a good sermon.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Bishop Smith compared the closing of a church to a funeral. He then invited members of the congregation to talk about their life as being part of the church.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The very young girl who read the second reading, Revelation 21:3-5 (God will dwell with his people and will renew all things), with well-rehearsed skill. She read the lesson from on top of an overturned milk crate. During the sermon, a member of the church mentioned that this young girl was the first person to welcome him to the church when he first visited the church.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Knowing that I was likely the only first-time worshipper at this church. Also, what the bishop had previously noted about some members of the congregation not being interested in the life of the parish. Needless to say, this approach to the mission of the church is not unique.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Not much at all. I felt like I was crashing a family reunion. When I was leaving, the vicar was at the door and she mentioned that she had never seen me before.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I stuck to water as the temperature was too hot for coffee. Most of the members were interested in getting a copy of the DVD that was played during the service.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 – Since the church has been closed, this question is moot. But I prefer to worship in a higher liturgical setting with people who dress and behave appropriately for the occasion.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. I'm glad I was there. I've never seen a church close before. I hope the members of this congregation will find church homes elsewhere in the diocese.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Bishop Smith using a music stand as his pulpit.
 
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