Mystery Worshipper: Björn Egan
Church: Christ Church
Location: Waterbury, Connecticut, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 23 July 2006, 9:00am
Christ Church looks more like an old courthouse or city hall, or maybe even a condo, rather than an Episcopal church. I had already driven past it twice before my companion noticed the sign out front (the sign is of the type that one would expect to see hawking a car wash or exotic dancers). Anyway, once inside, one finds an absolutely superb sanctuary, very simply and elegantly done. It almost has the feel of a Methodist church or a Quaker meeting house. I understand that the building dates from around 1927 and was originally the parish hall, and the congregation never got around to building a church proper. And so they have been using the parish house as their church since the beginning.
They run a community day-care center and a meals for the needy program, but I was not able to obtain any more information about either program or any of their other ministries.
Once the major clock and wristwatch manufacturing center of America, Waterbury was sort of the Switzerland of America. Among other industries that thrived in the area was the brass industry – indeed, Waterbury's motto is Quid Aere Perennius, which means "What Is More Lasting Than Brass." Small machine shops and tool works still dot the area. Waterbury was also the site of Holy Land USA, a theme park representing a miniature Jerusalem and Bethlehem. A popular tourist attraction in the 1950s and 60s, the park closed in 1984 and now lies in ruin.
The Revd George Bogdanich was the celebrant. Carol Blake was chalice bearer and Michelle Beck provided the music.
What was the name of the service?Holy Eucharist and Homily.
How full was the building?
There were exactly 23 people in attendance, including the priest, chalice bearer and organist. The service was held in the basement of the building due to the heat of the day – pity, as the sanctuary was one of the most elegant I've ever seen. Even my companion, who is not prone to noticing sanctuaries, remarked on its beauty. The room was about three-quarters full when we arrived. It didn't look empty, although 23 people can hardly be called a mob. If the service had taken place in the sanctuary upstairs, I would have described it as practically empty.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Secure in the knowledge we had gleaned from the church board, newspaper notice, and the church's own telephone, we arrived at what we thought to be 15 minutes early and spied an empty sanctuary. Just then we heard some voices downstairs, and a woman came running up the stairs to tell us that the service was going on in the basement and motioned us to follow her. And so we did. She told us to sit anywhere and handed each of us a service leaflet, readings for the day, a Book of Common Prayer (1979) and Hymnal (1982). All this 15 minutes into the service, in the middle of the sermon no less!
Was your pew comfortable?
The basement is an auditorium, not meant for services. There were eight-foot long folding tables with metal folding chairs around them arranged diagonally along both walls, creating an aisle down the middle. The chairs were comfortable enough, especially since there was a table to lean on. And because of the diagonal alignment, it didn't matter which side of the table you were seated at – you didn't need to crane your neck to see the altar.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Since we got there so late, we never had a chance to experience the pre-service atmosphere.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Again, despite putting in a reasonable effort to nail down the service time, we arrived far too late to record any opening words, hymns or readings.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The aforementioned Prayer Book, Hymnal and service leaflets.
What musical instruments were played?
The organist played a portable Casio keyboard (we were, after all, in the basement). Ms Beck is a talented keyboardist, and she played the keyboard very softly and sang in a delightful light voice. All in all, very nicely done, considering what it could have been had she accidentally pressed the Salsa preset.
Did anything distract you?
Unfortunately we had gotten a glimpse of the sanctuary before heading down to the basement. With that elegant sanctuary in mind, the basement auditorium with its pipes crossing the ceiling, the linoleum floor, the 1970s era kitchen in the back, and the folding chairs and tables added up to a major disappointment.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service was dignified and respectful. It's quite obvious that everyone there knew each other quite well and were comfortable with each other's company. During the peace, everyone in the room made it a point to greet the two strangers in their midst.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
18 minutes from the point at which we arrived to the end. I don't know how long he had been going on before we got there.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
2 – Father George's technique was to take the gospel reading and explain it in minute detail, sentence by sentence. He would read a sentence from the gospel and then explain what that sentence meant. And then he did the same for the New Testament reading. And then for the Old Testament reading. I had resolved to myself that if he decided to parse the psalm, I would run screaming from the room. The other problem, which is admittedly petty and really only proves my own small-mindedness, is that he spoke with a rather thick Eastern European accent. I couldn't help closing my eyes and imagining the Count from Sesame Street up there delivering the sermon. When he was talking about the 200 denarii, the five loaves and the two fishes, I'm afraid I very nearly laughed out loud.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Part of the sermon was about selflessness. Despite how tired Christ and the apostles were from their work, and after Christ told them to come away and rest, they still ministered and preached to the thousands who gathered. But there was no one unifying theme to the sermon, and after the first ten minutes I was so confused by the preacher's jumping back and forth in the three texts that I lost the thread of the whole thing and ended up out at sea.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
After the service had ended I went back upstairs and sat in the sanctuary for a few quiet moments. The peace and tranquility were heaven-sent.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
This is apparently a church that does not expect outsiders. They are all comfortable knowing what time the services are, and are not worried that strangers will show up and be confused about the time. My companion tried to point out that it was just a simple oversight, but I was moved to anger nonetheless. And I didn't like sitting in the basement, hot church or not.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
This was not an issue at all. The kitchen was probably 15 steps or so from where the altar stood. There were only 23 people in attendance and we (the two strangers) stood out like sore thumbs. Just about everyone in the room waved us over to the back of the room as soon as the service ended.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Neither one of us noticed any coffee at all, but the day was hot, sticky and muggy and so hot coffee would not have been refreshing. We saw only a large plate of excellent cookies, a jug of iced tea, and a jug of some type of citrus juice.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 – I spoke with several people after the service and they said that the sermon was typical for Father George. I would not be happy listening to rambling, unfocused sermons like that. However, despite the meager numbers at this service, there is obviously a thriving congregation at this church. The building itself is in excellent condition inside and out. There are classrooms everywhere for both adults and children. There is an active feeding ministry going on. The people at the service were very friendly. And there's obviously a lot of community involvement.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Whenever I am in the midst of a group of people who are determined to follow God's command to love thy neighbor and do the right thing, whether they be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or whatever, I am glad that I am one of the Christian representatives in the group. These people are doing their part to better their community and help whoever reaches out his hand in need. I am glad to participate in this.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The simple beauty of the sanctuary.