First Presbyterian, Asheville, North Carolina, USA

First Presbyterian, Asheville, North Carolina, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: Søren of the South
Church: First Presbyterian
Location: Asheville, North Carolina, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 24 May 2009, 10:55am

The building

"Decent and in order" is the phrase often invoked to characterize Presbyterian polity. The tag also fits the exterior and interior of First Presbyterian Church, Asheville. The manicured grounds, staid brick exterior and steeple of trim lines, stone vaulting in the nave, spotless slate flooring but, more important, the loving attention focused on the coat racks and hat storage outside the sanctuary, with not one rogue jumper in evidence, all suggested a dutiful approach to worship. On a misty Blue Ridge Sunday, light filtered gently through stained-glass windows cast in blues.

The church

In the church bulletin, prayers are asked for Madagascar in the wake of a coup d'état, the latter spelled correctly, with diacritical mark, for perhaps the first time in the history of congregational desktop publishing.

The neighborhood

Asheville is a city in western North Carolina nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, so called because of their bluish, hazy vistas. The city, which has long distinguished itself for a progressive social conscience, hosts innumerable social-service organizations catering to itinerants who make Asheville their destination. Located on an idyllic side street in this funky county seat of improvisational Blue Ridge music, hostelries and bakers of dog biscuits, the church bills itself as "a spire in the mountains." First Presbyterian Church helps provide hospitality for homeless women as well as mattresses, sheets and blankets for this ministry.

The cast

The Revd J. Layton Mauzé III, interim pastor, and the Revd Margaret LaMotte Torrence, associate pastor for pastoral care.

What was the name of the service?

Service for the Lord's Day.

How full was the building?

The sanctuary was filled to three-quarters capacity – impressive for a holiday weekend (Memorial Day). Transept seating, however, remained empty. I saw not one person of color in the congregation; nor did I see any of the vagrants who shuffled along outside the church and who ducked into stairwells to smoke cigarettes.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I exchanged meaningful nods with a female usher who handed over the order for worship. Congregants offered quality handshakes, delivered ritualistic greetings, and maintained eye contact during the programmatic "passing of the peace."

Was your pew comfortable?

The pews were buffed to high gloss and the seating regions covered in red felt - a reminder of Woody Allen's remark in Shadows and Fog that a predetermined portion of any church's proceeds goes toward velvet pillows and related accoutrements.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

An organ voluntary lent a meditative backdrop to throat clearings and last-minute communications among ushers. The choir filed silently into place to begin the proceedings.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"The Lord be with you."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Presbyterian Hymnal; The Holy Bible, King James Version. Placement of the latter appears to have resulted from doctrinal compromise, since the officiants used a more contemporary translation for the readings.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ only.

Did anything distract you?

The choir's pincer movement at the close of worship, during which they formed human cordons around the pews, sealing off all means of escape, came across as mildly threatening. Had they been deployed to herd us into the fellowship zone?

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

Based on one visit, I cannot accurately judge the extent to which worshipers here participate in the liturgy. It was a musically challenging service: A four-pronged move of sung call to confession, prayer, forgiveness and response left a lump in my throat. The female cantor, at prayer's conclusion, sang to the lofted places, "Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy on us." A tenor soloist offered prayers of the people in Korean as I said grace for being part of the church universal. A little girl sitting in front of me, flipping through a cartoon book of horses, turned not so much as a page during silent prayer. There was a baptism, which I will return to directly, and the congregation affirmed their baptismal vows in a sullen murmur – but with conviction.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

17 minutes.

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

2 – In such a thoughtfully crafted liturgy, the sermon was the weak link. Pastor Mauzé, in indigo robe and with baritone twang, seemed to be trying to channel North Carolina-born evangelist Billy Graham, but came across instead as a parser of the Greek text with limited application to listeners' everyday lives – although, if truth be told, the verses in question do not constitute one of Jesus’ most crystalline formulations.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The pastor preached on John 17:20-26 (Jesus prays that all believers may be one in faith, as Jesus and the Father are one). The noted Swiss theologian Karl Barth advised the faithful to "take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both." Pastor Mauzé mentioned the local newspaper, the Asheville Times-Citizen, but he failed to connect the scriptural emphasis on oneness to divisions in community and country. Why, he might have asked, do the well-coiffed sit inside consecrated space while the down-and-out snub cigarette butts in the stairwells?

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

At one point a child skipped down the center aisle toward the apse. "There should be more skipping in church," the associate pastor remarked. But the most moving interval took place when the father of a squirming baptismal candidate, feet flailing in white ankle socks, knelt to receive baptism himself. The pastor moistened the man's scalp until it glistened.

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

Each pulpit-based prayer, while strong in diction, was accompanied by the seminary-standard gesture of entreaty arms spread to the side, palms upraised - a motion that in billowy dark-colored polyester garments resembled a prehistoric bird brandishing its full wingspan in order to frighten reptilian predators.

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

A lesson in fellowshipping efficiency. Congregants were shepherded past the clergy for reception-line greeting. First-time visitors such as myself were received at a designated table. From said table a church matron was dispatched to procure a frozen slab of home-baked banana bread, packaged in plastic and tied with a green bow.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

For the first time in memory I received post-church coffee in a porcelain mug. Freshly baked cereal-and-marshmallow sweets as well as store-bought mint-and-chocolate biscuits adorned a table draped in white linen. I had some interesting chat about baseball history and local bicycling conditions, sealed by a folksy church mom with perhaps the world's most powerful handshake.

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

4 – I do not have the wardrobe to attend this church regularly. Only when the suit has been properly dry-cleaned, white dress shirt pressed, and cuffs and tie checked for pesky soy-sauce stains would I venture again among this handsome group.

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

The experience shows that liturgy works magic.

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

"There should be more skipping in church."

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