Mystery Worshipper: Episcopus
Church: Ascension and St Agnes
Location: Washington, DC
Date of visit: Sunday, 16 January 2022, 10:30am
A Gothic-style building located in a mixed residential-office area of northwest Washington. The building has a spacious nave and is connected to the rectory by a covered breezeway.
The church is unabashedly Anglo-Catholic, though not as famous as nearby St Paul's, K Street. They maintain a feeding ministry after Sunday worship, led by the parish's deacon.
The neighborhood is a contrast in extremes thanks to gentrification. One can find homeless people on the same block as expensive condos and swanky hotels in nearby Dupont Circle. There are at least three other churches on the block, and another Episcopal church just a couple of blocks over. I wonder if there is any collaboration between the Massachusetts Avenue churches for outreach and social welfare ministries.
The assisting priest celebrated; one of the parish's two seminarians preached. The parish's deacon proclaimed the gospel and the rector assisted with the distribution of communion.
What was the name of the service?High Mass.
How full was the building?
Probably about 40 per cent full - maybe 50 or 70 people. I wonder if this is a function of COVID and particularly the omicron variant (with more folks watching online than normal).
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. I arrived about half an hour early, though, so I helped myself to a bulletin and a visitor card.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a straight-back box pew. Not the most comfortable, but most pews aren't.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet and reverential. The choir were rehearsing the setting of the ordinary as I walked in. Some of the parishioners lit votive candles at the altar of the Blessed Virgin Mary before mass.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The introit: ‘All the earth shall worship thee, O God, and sing of thee ...’ (Psalm 66:4), followed by the processional hymn, ‘Songs of thankfulness and praise.’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Pre-printed service leaflet, with the hymns and responses printed along with the readings and propers; the Book of Common Prayer, and The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version, were available in the pews but not used by most congregants.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ. I think there were two: the primary instrument in the gallery and a smaller portative instrument used when the organist was leading some of the choral selections.
Did anything distract you?
A couple of cell phones went off during the service, and the high altar area could use a touch-up with some paint.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Anglo-Catholic, and the whole nine yards of smells and bells. Interestingly, the priest celebrated ad orientem from the free-standing altar rather than the high altar.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 — The seminarian was very scripted and read straight from his manuscript. But preaching is an art that only practice can make better – and the sermon was otherwise good so I'm sure it's technique that he'll improve over time.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The wedding at Cana is about restoration. Mary represents the restoration of humanity as the new Eve – mother as woman. The shame of the bridegroom when he runs out of wine is turned to acclaim, but not for Jesus' glory. Miracles – particularly the eucharist – invite us to this transformation.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The singing – not many choirs could pull off a full choral setting of the ordinary each Sunday, but this choir did! Also, the incense was just right – not too overbearing.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The celebrant, God bless him, could touch up on his chanting technique.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Not much. The assisting priest briefly made conversation with me, but there was an after-service conversation going on in the nave so it was necessarily short. He did invite me to stay for the talk (which I did).
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None, due to COVID.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 — I think that the omicron variant has necessarily put a damper on stuff like coffee hour, which is usually where clergy and people shine in welcoming visitors. The beautifully executed liturgy and expert choir would certainly be enough to bring me back.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes – and specifically validated as someone of the high-church Anglican persuasion.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
‘Songs of Thankfulness and Praise,’ ‘Come thou Fount,’ and ‘Lift Every Voice’ all being sung in the same service. These three are some of my favorite hymns, and singing them brought a smile to my heart and (masked) face.