Christ Church, Waltham, Massachusetts

Christ Church, Waltham, Massachusetts, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Christ Church
Location: Waltham, Massachusetts, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 27 August 2006, 9:00am

The building

This English-style country church was consecrated in 1902, although the parish dates back to 1848. It was built using fieldstone collected from the property of Robert Treat Paine, great grandson and namesake of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. The interior has brick walls and a wooden framed ceiling. Extending from the wooden arches overhead are beams that end in carved angel heads – a trifle creepy to my taste. A large round stained glass window contains images representing the various industries that sustained Waltham as a young growing community, including automobile manufacturing and watchmaking.

The church

As the city grew, so did the church. Now, however, it suffers from problems similar to many American mainline churches: an aging, dwindling congregation and an expensive building to maintain. Christ Church has been without a rector for a number of years. They share their space with a couple of other religious groups and are making a concerted effort to reach out to Brandeis University and Bentley College, which are both in the city. Among the few ministries still active is Grandma's Pantry, a food pantry open to senior citizens. Still, they manage to put on two services every Sunday plus a Wednesday evening Taize service.

The neighborhood

Located just west of Boston but worlds removed in atmosphere, Waltham was once a thriving manufacturing center known especially for its wristwatches. Most of the factories are now closed, but a number of high-tech companies have settled into the many office parks that dot the highway exits. Christ Church is located in downtown Waltham, which features a colorful assortment of shops, restaurants and bars, and a throbbing nightlife. Weekly outdoor concerts are sponsord each summer, free of charge. I must say that downtown was bustling the Saturday evening I was there, with one of these concerts in full swing.

The cast

The Rev. Sara H. Irwin, priest in charge; Joe Johnson, organist. A single chorister and an acolyte were not identified in the leaflet.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Eucharist

How full was the building?

Only about one-fifth full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A very friendly greeter saw me taking pictures of the church before I came into the service. He asked me about myself and told me much of the history of the church and a bit about himself in the process. One of the warmest greetings I've ever received coming into a strange church.

Was your pew comfortable?

Simple, unadorned wooden pews. The pew itself was comfortable enough, but the padded kneelers were worn and could have used some more padding.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet on the whole, save for three elderly ladies in front of me who chatted animatedly throughout the entire prelude.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning and welcome to Christ Church. We're glad to have you with us."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

1979 Book of Common Prayer and the 1982 Hymnal.

What musical instruments were played?

A pipe organ with visible pipes on the right side of the nave, but the organist and the organ console itself were hidden from my view by the pulpit.

Did anything distract you?

The priest was a young woman (I would guess she was in her mid to late 20s) with straight hair that made her seem younger yet – or is it just that I'm getting older? When she came up to me during the exchange of peace, I noticed that her left nostril was pierced with a post ending in a small gemstone. Then, as she delivered her sermon, she stood at the altar rail rather than behind the pulpit. But, not having anything to hold herself steady, she sort of tilted back and forth as she shifted her weight from foot to foot.

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

Middle-of-the-road Episcopal. Quiet, attentive, serious.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

8 minutes.

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

7 – Mother Irwin was relaxed and an effective speaker. She seemed well organized, and yet at the end I wasn't quite sure what her final point was. In the nutshell description, you have my best guess.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Beginning with Paul's exhortation in Ephesians 5:21-33 for wives to be submissive to their husbands (a passage she finds distasteful – "Paul was confused, I like to think. Paul was a product of his time and culture, and he was in many ways ahead of his time in his thoughts about the marital condition."), she went on to talk of how there may be many parts of the Church's history and theology that we are unhappy with. We can't wish these things away, however – we have to accept what we've been given and deal with it. Jesus calls us to give up what we own and cherish, and submit ourselves to him. To lose your life is to save it.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Just being a part of this apparently close and affectionate community on a Sunday was like being in heaven.

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

That hard kneeler provided some hellish torture!

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

As soon as the service was over, the greeter appeared behind me and told me about the large circular stained glass window in the rear of the church. Then as I was studying it, the priest came over and introduced herself to me, and we had a pleasant conversation. My ever-friendly greeter also sat across from me at coffee, and we were joined by one of the vestry.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

A large selection of juices and iced tea plus a plate of cookies. There were pots of coffee, but no one appeared to be serving. Eventually a woman moved behind the table and began to pour. I asked her for a cup of coffee, but she said she was only getting one for herself. (She served me anyway.)

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

7 – If I lived in Waltham, this is probably where I'd end up. It ranks as one of the friendliest churches I've been to, but its struggles are reminiscent of my own church, and I would be a bit worried about its future.

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

Yes. From my conversations with them, these seem to be not only friendly people, but thoughtful and committed Christians.

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

The building itself, constructed of fieldstone with a figure of Jesus looking as if he is emerging from the stone.

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