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3118: Emmanuel Episcopal, Back Bay, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Emmanuel Episcopal, Boston (Exterior)
Mystery Worshipper: ACP.
The church: Emmanuel Episcopal, Back Bay, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.
Denomination: The Episcopal Church, Diocese of Massachusetts.
The building: The building style is Neo-Gothic and dates from 1861, the work of architect Alexander Rice Esty, who designed numerous churches, schools and public buildings. A beautiful building, it incorporates the work of the finest Gothic Revival craftsmen of the day. The stained glass is especially striking. Emmanuel Church was built for a large and affluent congregation who migrated to the suburbs during the mid-20th century, leaving a small congregation responsible for a large, historic and expensive edifice. The congregation have applied for, and fortunately have received, several grants to aid in upkeep. They are mindful of the historical significance of the building and go to great pains to keep it in good repair.
The church: There are three notable things about the community: (1) They are overtly welcoming to the LGBT2 community, the female rector being married to a same sex partner. (2) There is a strong social outreach to the underclass of Boston. (3) They consider themselves an interfaith family and sponsor a rabbi in residence who preaches at services at least once monthly. Please see their website for a full description of their many ministries and outreaches. Within, they seem to have a very good music ministry that is very important to the community.
The neighborhood: Back Bay, literally a bay before it was filled in and developed beginning in 1857, is one of the finest examples of 19th century urban design in the United States. In addition to rows of Victorian brownstone town houses, there are several architecturally significant public and private buildings and commercial institutions. The church is on Newbury Street, the upscale shopping street of Back Bay and just a block from Boston Public Garden and Boston Common. However, unlike the summer, when tourists and sightseers abound, the winter months see the locals out and about in abundance.
The cast: The Revd Pamela L. Werntz, rector, presided and preached. She was assisted by the Revd Deacon Robert Grenier and Jamie Bonney as subdeacon.
The date & time: Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, February 19, 2017, 10.00am.

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

How full was the building?
Unlike my previous visit last summer, when services were held in the adjacent chapel, this service was conducted in the main nave, which is significant in size and volume. However, it was only about 20 per cent full with 75-100 people in the congregation.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Not exactly. I was handed the order of service when I entered, but no words of welcome were offered.

Was your pew comfortable?
The pews are the classic New England sectional pews (but without the doors). They did have seat cushions, making them comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Rather quiet and echoey. Soft organ music was playing.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
Though the welcome came from the warden giving notices, the actual first words of the service were: "Blessed are you, Holy and Living God."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The order of service handout and the Hymnal 1982.

What musical instruments were played?
You name it!! Well, not quite. Besides organ, there was a 14 piece string ensemble – about which more later – who were part of the service.

Did anything distract you?
The big space with little in it was a distraction, to start with. But for most of the service I was drawn to the beautiful reredos. It is the work of Francis Richmond Allen, who designed many of Back Bay's historic houses. Busy with depictions of various saints, Christ adored by angels, and a Last Supper, its scale fits the place and rather overtakes the altar that was added later to facilitate westward-facing celebration.

Emmanuel Episcopal, Boston (Interior)

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was for the most part decidedly middle of the road as far as hymns, liturgy and prayers go. The music (instrumental and choral) was far more classical and formal and wouldn't be out of place in a cathedral (well, except perhaps Boston's, bless it). However, this was a mixed blessing – see below.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
15 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The rector's occasional interplay with congregants and use of humor was well placed. But she concluded by comparing the eucharist to weekly diaper service. At the end of the week we drag our pail of dirty, smelly diapers to church and leave with a bag of clean, fresh ones. An unusual comparison, to say the least, but I guess it works!

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The rector's text was the day's reading from Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 (various laws handed down by God). We hear this lesson only in years when Easter is a little late and there are indeed seven Sundays after Epiphany. Some of God's laws fall a bit hard on our 21st century ears, such as the prohibition against wearing clothing made of two different fabrics, to say nothing of those against homosexuality or against eating certain foods. But the core message is how to be God's holy people, how to become and stay right with God – how to get right and keep it that way. One of the most important of God's laws is to love your neighbor as yourself, which Jesus himself quoted.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sermon was good and the music excellent. Where can you go on a Sunday morning and hear high quality music provided by 15 musicians and 13 choristers? Music is the hallmark of and integral to a quality service in the Anglican tradition. However ...

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
When the choir moves out of their stalls to center sanctuary in front of the altar to sing the psalm (motet based on psalm 119) and then moves back, it crosses into being a performance rather than part of the service. And when communion had concluded and we were expecting the closing prayers, you can imagine my surprise when chairs were set up in the sanctuary (again, center stage in from of the altar) and the crucifer processed 14 musicians down the aisle. We were then treated to a beautiful "mini concert" for 20 minutes. Yes, it was very good, but what was it doing there? This was a service of holy eucharist, not holy eucharist with concert!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Sorry, I didn't have time to hang around looking lost. We had been in church for almost two hours and I was decidedly late meeting friends!

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I couldn't stay – see above.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – If holy eucharist with concert, along with the extended timing, works for you, then don't be put off by this report. But as for me, I question the selection of music. The liturgy has an established flow that allows us to come to the table right with God and right with our neighbor. We come in joy knowing we are healed. We take communion and leave full of the joy of the Spirit. Consequently, no matter how good the music is, and even overlooking its excessive overextension of the service, to have lyrics that conclude with "I am a poor lump of earth, on earth I know no comfort" is not what I need to go out into the world full of the joy of the Holy Spirit. Lent will be here soon enough!

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. The sermon was good, as was the music. Just wrong sort, wrong timing.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The mixed feeling of whether I was at holy eucharist or a concert.
 
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