The worship space is a rectangle, with a simply appointed altar, and a cross on the wall behind the altar. Outside, near the entrance, is a labyrinth. The congregation sit in chairs, not pews; for this service the chairs were arranged in a circle in front of the altar. A small table was in the center of the chairs, with candles and ashes on the table.
This is a combined parish of Lutherans (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) and Roman Catholics. At their founding some thirty years ago (when they were known as Mission of the Atonement), there were two co-pastors, one Lutheran and one Catholic. When the Catholic co-pastor retired, they were unable to replace him. In his place they hired a lay Catholic pastoral associate. Supply clergy celebrate Catholic eucharists. There are two Sunday services: at the 8.30, services alternate between Lutheran and Catholic celebrations of the eucharist. At 10.45, the two denominations share the liturgy of the Word, and then separate and celebrate the eucharist in two different rooms.
Beaverton is a suburb of Portland, some seven miles west of downtown Portland. It has a population of about 90,000, and is home to the headquarters of Nike, the maker of athletic shoes and other apparel. The area around Spirit of Grace is largely residential, with lots of apartment buildings.
The parish's interim minister (Lutheran) and Catholic pastoral associate shared presiding duties. A pianist accompanied congregational singing.
What was the name of the service?The bulletin just said ‘Ash Wednesday.’
How full was the building?
I counted 28 in attendance; there was another Ash Wednesday service in the evening that probably would draw a larger congregation.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Several parishioners greeted us.
Was your pew comfortable?
Our chairs couldn't have been more comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The interim pastor welcomed everyone, then gave a introduction to the parish (probably for our benefit, as my wife, brother-in-law and I were most likely the only visitors).
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Two hymnals: the Roman Catholic Gather, a publication of GIA Publications in Chicago, and Evangelical Lutheran Worship, a combination service book and hymnal (2006).
What musical instruments were played?
A baby grand piano.
Did anything distract you?
Lots of announcements, pointing us to which hymnal to use, and page numbers. These may, again, have been for our benefit, as neither of the presiding ministers had any way of knowing that we had visited the parish a couple of times previously.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Very informal, but also prayerful and reverent. Neither presiding minister was vested. After the opening hymn was announced, the pianist asked, ‘Pastor, how many verses should we sing?’ There was no eucharist at this service, just a Liturgy of the Word, distribution of ashes, and intercessions. When it came time to administer the ashes, we received the ashes from the person seated to our right, then administered them to the person seated on our left. There were no ‘set’ intercessions; everyone was invited to share their prayer concerns. The service concluded with the peace.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
A ‘reflection’ by the pastoral associate, lasting 12 minutes.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 — The pastoral associate noted that this was her first time to preach since almost a year previous, when she suffered a serious fall.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
After noting the gospel reading (‘Beware of practicing your piety before others’), she noted that we would be administering ashes in a few moments – and then go to the grocery where everyone would see our ashes. She compared this to a market study that concluded that people will be more likely to buy a hybrid automobile if the word ‘hybrid’ is clearly visible – we want our neighbors to see how responsibly we are behaving. She noted that Lent was a time for reflection, and that the parish had already been reflecting, as their long-time pastor had just been selected as an ELCA bishop, and she herself had been absent from ministry for many months. Lent is a time for our personal reflection, but we should also reflect communally, on the future of this ecumenical community, on the upcoming election, on global warming.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The administration of ashes, as we sang the Taizé refrain ‘Jesus, Remember Me.’ There weren't a lot of us, but the congregation sang really well.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Well, our party of three all agreed we missed not celebrating the eucharist on Ash Wednesday.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
As I noted, the service concluded with the peace; several folks took the time to welcome us to their community. I sense there are no strangers in this congregation.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 — This Lutheran and his Catholic spouse would love to see an ecumenical parish like this in every synod and archdiocese. Probably not in my lifetime, though.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
A story related to me by a parishioner. When Mission of the Atonement was being founded, William Levada (not terribly progressive) was Roman Catholic Archbishop of Portland. One of his aides was quite surprised that he approved the experiment, and asked him, ‘Why did you do that?’ He replied, ‘Oh, let them try it; it won't last six months.’ Thirty years or so later, this vibrant, welcoming community is still around and going strong.