St Anne's, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

St Anne's, Toronto, Ontario, Canada


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Mystery Worshipper: Liturgy Queen
Church: St Anne's
Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Date of visit: Sunday, 23 July 2006, 10:00am

The building

The present building dates from 1907-08 and replaces an earlier building. The exterior is nondescript Byzantine with a Western flair. The interior, however, is ornately Byzantine and features a large collection of paintings by members of the celebrated group of 20th century Canadian landscape artists known as the Group of Seven – the only such collection of their religious works. In 1996, the church's interior was declared a national historic site, and in 1999 a major restoration effort was begun.

The church

The church is proud of its choir and contemporary worship, and offers morning prayer, Bible study and the eucharist each Sunday, with choral evensong at various times throughout the year. It also sponsors a garden club, community dinners, and musical and dramatic performances. Not surprisingly, there are a number of artists among the parishioners, who have an opportunity to display (and, one hopes, sell) their work in the parish hall.

The neighborhood

St Anne's is in the Parkdale section of Toronto's West End. The area features a colourful mixture of supportive housing, gentrification efforts, and houses sporting ornate religious statuary on their lawns. Parkdale is also home to the newer of Toronto's two gay villages.

The cast

The Rev. Philip Cooper, interim priest in charge, was the celebrant. The music director was Nina Wu-Cotton. Aaron Orear, a postulant and seminarian from the neighbouring Niagara diocese, whose last Sunday it was with the parish, was the homilist and intercessor.

What was the name of the service?

Sung Eucharist for the patronal festival of St Anne

How full was the building?

Considering that it was summertime, the service was quite well attended. The choir had returned from summer break especially for the occasion. The nave was at least three-quarters full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I was greeted mildly and given a service leaflet.

Was your pew comfortable?

The pew was fine, but the kneeler really blew me away. Although it was nothing to look at, it was far and away the softest in my experience.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

There was just a reassuring hum of catching up at the back of the church.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

There were prayer books in the pews, along with the older version of the hymnal Common Praise. A service leaflet based on the Book of Alternative Services was used for the liturgy, with hymns from the newer Common Praise printed in full. One or two hymns taken from the older hymnal were simply identified by title and number.

What musical instruments were played?

Just the organ, which was fine by me.

Did anything distract you?

There were a few echoing children's comments, but I find this more reassuring than offensive. At one point during the gradual hymn, a young boy went to speak with his father in the choir stall. There was also one gentleman who insisted on standing throughout the entire eucharistic prayer. In addition, the passing of the peace resembled a mediaeval marketplace.

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

It was fairly formal, but somehow congenial at the same time. The musical setting by William Mathias, Congregational Mass Setting, was used; I was not familiar with it but it was beautiful. The high altar in the chancel remained idle (I later learned that it comes out of retirement at Christmas and Easter). Instead, a makeshift communion table was set up at the foot of the altar, but even this was not used until the offertory – everything up until then was said from a bench perpendicular to the front pew. This all made for a rather cramped chancel, especially at communion. We received the eucharist standing, as there was no place to kneel. It is difficult to receive from the chalice if the person administering is shorter than you. I had expected to find a disconnect using the Book of Alternative Services in such an architecturally elaborate worship space, but it worked wonderfully. Overall, the liturgy was quite lovely.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

12 minutes.

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

10 – I thoroughly enjoyed Aaron Orear's sermon. It combined informativeness with some rather funny quips.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Well, St Anne. Who was she? We don't really know. Mr Orear summarised her story as recounted in the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James. Anne is not mentioned in the Bible, but Mary must have had a mother. Then he segued into an extremely enlightening discourse on the Immaculate Conception (which he appeared to think interchangeable with the Virgin Birth). The concept can create havoc with the Incarnation in the minds of some, and tends to divorce Christ from humanity. (Apparently this also leads to the rejection of homosexuals; I believe the psychiatric term for this phenomenon is "flight of ideas.") Although Mary is indeed a Catholic figure, she said yes to God and is thus also truly evangelical. We as a community dedicated to St Anne are called to evangelise just as St Anne catechised her daughter.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The service was overall heavenly, but particular mention must go to the gloria, the homily, and a splendid Vaughan Williams anthem.

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

The "Affirmation of Faith." In lieu of the creed, we recited the summary of the law, which is of course not an affirmation of faith at all. The authors of the Book of Alternative Services argue, rather questionably, that it is the "faith in action" corollary to the creed.

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

Mr Orear came up to me and said he did not recognise me. I introduced myself as a visitor and asked directions to the parish hall. "It's the big building we can't afford across the way," he replied. In the hall, I was befriended by the lady who runs the tours of the church. She was very knowledgeable, especially about the artwork, and answered all of my questions including the one about the altar. (Apparently the present arrangement allows the clergy to dispense with microphones and the elderly with climbing the altar steps, and also provides a more intimate feel.)

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Caffeine is not my thing, but I did enjoy the luncheon. Being it was the patronal festival, the spread was rather more elaborate than usual – some very hearty tuna salad with bits of celery, and seafood dumplings. There was a wonderful punch whose flavour kept changing as different varieties of juice and pop were added to it. Now, I fear I must warn other Mystery Worshippers that St Anne's opens the offering envelopes at the post-service coffee. A sinister little table, reminiscent of a poker game, had been set up in the corner, and the contents of all the envelopes were dumped onto it. As I was leaving, a gentleman presented me with my calling card and asked, "This wouldn't happen to be you, would it?" He was actually very charming, and mentioned that he knew the site. "I don't want to skew your review," he added, "but just so you know your cover's blown."

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

9 – If I lived in the West End, I would not hesitate to make this my regular church. It was simply lovely. I imagine this would involve returning with my tail between my legs, though.

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

Indeed it did. It was, as I say, both a friendly and a liturgically beautiful experience, and I was pleased as punch to be noticed and spoken to in the parish hall.

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

The wonderful sermon and the writhing humiliation of the final "Gotcha!"

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