Christ Church, New Haven, Connecticut, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Christ Church
Location: New Haven, Connecticut, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 23 December 2018, 7:30am

The building

Completed in 1898, when Anglo-Catholic architectural patterns held full sway, it’s in the Gothic Revival style. It is one of the foremost examples of the work of architect Henry Vaughan, who was instrumental in shaping and implementing Gothic Revival in the United States. The stone of the exterior has a reddish hue and contains both rough and smooth textures. It was designed to be specifically English and late-medieval style; the bell tower imitates that at Magdalen College, Oxford. Inside is an intricately carved rood screen separating the nave from the chancel, which contains the high altar against the east wall. The nave has chairs and not pews. The Lady chapel is on the south end of the church and is separated from the nave by a partially windowed wall; there are pipes for the organ at this wall as well as at the entrance.

The church

Christ Church has continued its Anglo-Catholic theology and worship since its founding and remains well known among those of a high-church persuasion as the foremost Anglo-Catholic parish nearby. Solemn high mass is celebrated with a fully professional choir on Sundays throughout the academic year. Evensong and benediction take place on occasion, in addition to a regular choral compline service. The church often hosts the abundant musical talent in the area; ensembles from Yale School of Music, ranked as one of the best conservatories in the world, are heard at Christ Church both at concerts and in services during the academic year.

The neighborhood

Christ Church is close to Yale University, one of the foremost institutions of higher learning in the world and home to Yale Divinity School, a widely recognized seminary. The church is one of many in downtown New Haven. The community is constantly in flux and is home to many highly educated people from around the world. This enclave of academia, however, stands in stark contrast to an underprivileged urban area immediately outside downtown New Haven. Though rates of crime vary throughout the city and parts have become safer in the past decade or two, the city has been ranked as one of the most violent in the United States.

The cast

The rector led morning prayer and gave the reading at mass; the curate presided and preached at mass.

What was the name of the service?

Morning Prayer and Low Mass.

How full was the building?

The Lady chapel (where morning prayer and low mass are held on Sundays) seats 35 on wooden chairs. Besides the two clergymen and myself present, there was one congregant for morning prayer and seven for mass.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A young man gave me a nod of acknowledgment as I entered and helped myself to a mass leaflet. I neither expected nor desired more in the still, silent church. I recognized later that the aforementioned man was the curate of the parish.

Was your pew comfortable?

As does the nave, the chapel contains chairs for seating. They were quite comfortable, and sufficiently sturdy and wide.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The other congregant before morning prayer was kneeling in prayer; sighs and groans were audible. Before mass, the congregants prayed silently and reverently. A beggar came into the chapel and said something about needing socks. He kept saying that he thought he would reach out, seeing as this was a place of worship. I felt conflicted about what to do, not wishing to disturb the silence, behave inappropriately in the church, or be uncharitable toward my fellow man; I ended up inviting him to stay inside for mass and told him I would talk to him afterwards. (He did not stay.)

What were the exact opening words of the service?

At morning prayer: ‘The service begins on page 42. Page 42. Please rise.’ At mass: ‘Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Book of Common Prayer (1979) and the Hymnal (1982), as well as cards containing the text of the Angelus and Regina Coeli, were used. Though both services were said, the hymnal was used for the text of the Benedictus antiphon. The leaflet for mass was quite comprehensive.

What musical instruments were played?

None. This was a said service; there was no music.

Did anything distract you?

Thinking about my interaction with the beggar occupied my mind for part of mass; the situation was particularly ironic given that the gospel reading included the Magnificat. I was very near to the celebrant during the first part of the liturgy, and was observing the construction of his blue maniple. The altar frontal caught my attention too from time to time. It probably hangs there all year round, as it is not particularly Advent-themed; it was antique and dark-colored, lavishly made though damaged through age in places, and embroidered with the words “Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum.” I was also distracted trying to place the accents of both clergy, not very successfully.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

The service was straightforward and unaffected. Having a reputation as an Anglo-Catholic parish did not keep the rector from mentioning page numbers at morning prayer or from giving brief announcements before the offertory at mass. Morning prayer was followed by the Angelus. The mass was soberly high-church: straightforwardly from Holy Eucharist Rite I, with vestments, celebrated ad orientem. At the Sanctus and at other places in the eucharistic prayer, a standing (bowl-style) bell was rung. The peace was not severely abbreviated, and there were no Anglo-Catholic interpolations such as the Ecce Agnus Dei or Domine non sum dignus (though breast-beating was present at the Kyrie). We knelt for the eucharistic prayer and knelt at the altar rail to receive communion.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

8 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

7 — The curate seemed nervous, perhaps. He ran words and sentences together, and it was sometimes difficult to make them out. His simple content and method of delivery could have set the stage for a really meaningful sermon. Unfortunately, my attention failed at what was perhaps the most crucial point in the sermon, but that is likely my own fault as much as anything. A slightly longer sermon (perhaps one more suited to a larger service) may have provided the crucial links for making the sermon the exposition of the gospel that it almost was.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

A recent article has been making the rounds on social media about the revolutionary nature of the Magnificat. The author had hardly encountered the person of the Virgin Mary before – an experience that could not have been more different from that of the preacher, who grew up in a home with multiple statues of Mary. Mary’s song is truly subversive, and reached special fulfillment in the life and ministry of Jesus.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Kneeling in relative silence after receiving communion in the early morning. Though I’m a singer myself, I really did appreciate this quiet celebration of the eucharist.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The cold. My feet were freezing, and I was self-conscious about how cold my hands would be when I would greet people after mass!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

One of the parishioners came to me right after mass and introduced himself, while we were still in the chapel. Both clergy greeted me, welcomed me, asked if I was just visiting; the curate and I discovered we have a mutual friend (the now-curate at my own parish).

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none – though during the announcements we were invited to the coffee hour after solemn high mass later that morning!

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

9 — I would love to make another visit, especially as morning prayer and low mass are surely not the parish’s flagship services. I feel comfortable with high-church worship generally, but seeing that at this service it was tempered with naturalness (and adherence to the rubrics), I would be even more eager to spend time again in this community.

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

Yes! It was wonderful to pray the words of morning prayer, which I say on my own, together with others, and to take part in the holy communion in this corner of Christ’s church.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

Feeling conflicted when approached by the beggar before mass.

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