Grace Church, Newark, New Jersey, USA

Grace Church, Newark, New Jersey, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: Brother Juniper
Church: Grace Church
Location: Newark, New Jersey, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 5 October 2008, 10:00am

The building

The exterior, designed in 1848 by the English-born American gothic revivalist Richard Upjohn, is dark stone, very typical of the architecture of churches from the period and place. The interior is most impressive – dignified and very tasteful. There are various clearly Catholic touches, such as Marian paintings, the stations of the cross, well executed statues of saints, and a lovely side altar where the Sacrament is reserved in a tabernacle. Yet it remains within the bounds of elegant Anglican restraint – there are none of the somewhat precious "overly Roman" touches which sometimes place Anglican Catholic churches a bit over the top. The stained glass windows portray delicate scenes from the scriptures, and there is an impressive stone depiction of the crucifixion behind the main altar, flanked by statues of Mary and of Christ the King.

The church

I have had no previous contact with anyone from the church, and the leaflet did not show any particular details which would tell me what they contribute to the community in areas other than worship. However, they clearly remain faithful to the initial goal, as set forth on their website, "to be the standard-bearer for Anglo-Catholicism in northern New Jersey." Their liturgical practices show a definite dedication to a high standard of common worship.

The neighborhood

Newark is an odd combination in that, whereas most residents are poor to working class, the downtown area contains a number of large businesses, a new performing arts center, and many social service, governmental, and law enforcement agencies. The church is directly across from the federal building. There are several large apartment buildings nearby, but overall this section is not primarily a residential area. The imposing agency structures are interspersed with many small businesses.

The cast

The Revd J. Carr Holland III, rector, was celebrant and homilist, and a priest who introduced himself as Father Brewer served as deacon. Joseph Arndt, director of music, led a small choir and cantor, all of high quality, in the choral and solo pieces.

What was the name of the service?

Sung Mass

How full was the building?

About 30 people were in attendance for the service, filling the church to perhaps 25 percent of capacity.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

There were several elements of being welcomed which I did appreciate. Earlier in the week, I had sent an email to the parish's address, asking for information about weekday services. I was impressed that the rector, who had been delayed a few days in responding, assured me in his email to me that this had been because of schedule overflow, not a lack of caring. I was greeted by an usher as I entered the church. As I returned from communion, I further appreciated that this same usher, when she apparently noticed that I was suffering pain from my arthritis, took hold of my arm. At the coffee hour, a church warden greeted me and introduced me to several others present.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes – standard, with ample kneeling pads.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The organist and choir were rehearsing when I first entered the church, and there was an organ prelude (Olivier Messiaen's Apparition de l'glise ternelle) directly before the service. I was pleased to see that the congregation were quietly at prayer as they entered, displaying a very reverent devotion.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Let us go forth in peace, in the name of Christ, Amen." The service began with a procession from the chancel through the entire church, consisting of crucifer, an acolyte, lector, deacon and celebrant. The clergy wore gold brocade vestments, the others cassock-albs.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Hymnal 1982, plus a very thorough printed leaflet containing the text of the service and music for the chants.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ. The standard of music was notably high, particularly since the choir consisted of only a few voices. The organist was excellent, as was the cantor.

Did anything distract you?

There were two distractions. During the first reading, the lector used vocal emphasis and gestures that reminded me of televangelists or a story-teller, and this seemed at odds with the highly dignified manner of the service. The other was that, again in strong contrast to the general tone, the exchanging of the peace was an exercise in walking all about the church to say hello to everyone present.

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

Impeccable Anglo-Catholic, a Rite II sung mass celebrated at the high altar (not facing the people). Much incense was used – before the gospel, at the offertory, during the eucharistic prayer. The choir sang their customary parts, the cantor chanted the psalm, and the deacon intoned the gospel. The congregation chanted the responses and joined in the hymns, although not, I didn't think, with any degree of gusto. (To be fair, the 30 or so people present were spread all around the church.) Everyone seemed engaged in a reverential, prayerful fashion. The overall dignity struck me at every turn. The service included a litany of thanksgiving directly before the intercessions, with specific reference to the contributions of those who had worshipped in the church since its inception, and for the worship the congregation continues to offer.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

16 minutes.

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

9 – The homilist clearly had a gift for setting forth deep truths, in this case about prayer and worship, in a thought provoking yet very clear style. There was a combination of sincerity and reserve which I found very appealing – letting the ideas speak for themselves, with no theatrical techniques or homey anecdotes to spoil the effect. There was much vivid imagery, with some references to both scripture and the preacher's own experiences of prayer.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The basic theme was about sacred spaces and finding in them peace, a sense of being home, silence as a way of being aware with the Wholly Other. The Sacred Other always is looking for us, but, though God is everywhere, the sacred spaces themselves are enriched by their history of being spots where we seek God and his response. He stressed the holiness of God and our holy potential in our creation, and how it is our vocation to go forth and infuse the world with faith.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

I was very impressed by the dignity of the liturgy, which seemed to me to capture exactly what Liturgical Movement or Oxford Movement fathers would have intended (even if the latter had no vision of Rite II.) The sermon also was exceptionally thought provoking, and contained ideas I shall undoubtedly use for later meditation.

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

The exchange of peace was annoying. Everyone seemed to be running about to greet the others. Considering the very formal quality of the overall liturgy, I was sorry this distraction came up. Other than that, though, the service was not hellish, but Newark has much to remind one of pain, struggle, and suffering. Knowing the area well, I am perfectly aware that the majority of its residents are hard working, committed people, with a strong sense of family and community. Yet Newark has a high degree of poverty and the highest crime rate of any city in the United States.

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

A church warden, apparently spotting an unfamiliar face, approached me, introducing himself and one of the clergy. He then presented me to others at the coffee hour.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The announcement of this event as "coffee hour" was a pleasant understatement, since it was an actual meal. Families in the parish take turns providing a repast after the main Sunday service, and quite a feast was available: meat balls, rice, vegetables and dessert. When I was ready to leave, someone who knew I was going for the bus asked if he could try to arrange a ride home for me. This seemed to be a genuine courtesy, not a ploy to get me to join the church or offer volunteer service. There was none of the "overdone friendliness" which seems artificial and which I've often seen elsewhere.

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

10 – An affirming Catholic parish with such an emphasis on liturgy and prayer is indeed a rare treat. I also was very glad to see that, although nearly everyone in the congregation was black (though the clergy were not), there were no awkward insertions of spirituals or trendy hymns that sound like blues. Obviously this congregation (few of whom were under 50) are very much accustomed to Anglo-Catholic forms of worship. I love it when the Prayer Book services are just allowed to "be."

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

Most definitely. To see such attention given to worship and instruction was a pleasure, since too many churches I have visited unduly emphasize "us," to the exclusion of turning to God first.

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

How the Wholly Other is always looking for us. And, on a plane more human than sublime, that I just might visit now and then so I can eat!

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