St Clement’s, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Clement’s
Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Date of visit: Thursday, 30 May 2019, 7:00pm

The building

The church was built in 1855, being designed by John Notman, the 19th century architect known especially for his use of brownstone. The donor of the land was not particularly religious, but felt that a church would improve his residential development projects. In the early 1870s the church began to take on Anglo-Catholic influences; these include confessionals, a six-foot shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and a statue of the church’s patron, St Clement. A tall spire was removed in 1869, being too heavy for the foundations.

The church

St Clement’s is one of the few places in the US that use the English Missal, essentially an English translation of the pre-1955 Roman Catholic order of mass. They are well known for their faithful adherence to the best of Ango-Catholic tradition. St Clement’s also hosts a choir in residence, who sing polyphonic mass settings and motets as well as the complete minor propers in Gregorian chant (introit, gradual, alleluia/tract, offertory, communion).

The neighborhood

Though the area was sparsely developed when the building’s foundations were first laid, today St Clement’s is near Logan Square in Philadelphia, an area full of cultural institutions and museums, including the Academy of Natural Sciences, the Franklin Institute, the Rodin Museum, and the Barnes Foundation. The Catholic cathedral, the Basilica of St Peter and St Paul; as well as Philadelphia City Hall; are mere blocks away.

The cast

The rector both celebrated and preached, assisted not by vested ministers, but rather by acolytes in cassock and surplice. There was also a vested choir, who were seated before the procession began. I was actually a bit confused by this: one or more of the choir members donned copes during the procession, but took them off for mass.

What was the name of the service?

Procession and Solemn Mass.

How full was the building?

Perhaps 15 congregants in the nave, besides choir and ministers. The church would have sat several hundred.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

As my companion and I walked into the church, I looked lost searching for the holy water stoup. A helpful greeter directed me to the right place. I was again greeted by another person distributing leaflets for the service.

Was your pew comfortable?

It wasn’t particularly remarkable – not the most comfortable, but I didn’t end up using it very much. The thin leather cushions that were hung up on little hooks were probably used more, and they were quite serviceable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

I arrived quite early when the choir were still rehearsing, but they stopped with more than enough time for meditation and prayer – I was not alone in silent kneeling. A few minutes before the service began, the organist struck up a Messiaën prelude.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

The procession began with a bidding: ‘V. Let us go forth in peace. R. In the name of Christ. Amen.’ The mass began with the choir chanting the introit in Latin: ‘Viri Galilaei, quid admiramini aspicientes in caelum?’ (Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up to heaven?)

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Besides the service leaflet, we were provided with photocopies of the Nicene Creed in Latin. The pew racks had copies of the New English Hymnal and the Hymnal 1940, of which we used the former.

What musical instruments were played?

A pipe organ.

Did anything distract you?

The six-foot, decked-out statue of the Virgin Mary was definitely something to catch the eye. In the course of the service, keeping track of the Gloria being sung by the choir as well as said silently by the priest was distracting – it felt weird to sit while the words of the Gloria were still being sung, as if my attention were being drawn to two different places.

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

Anglo-Catholic high church liturgy enacted like clockwork, with plenty of music, incense, and bells. The most distinctive element here was the silent canon, or eucharistic prayer – from the Sanctus until just before the Lord’s Prayer, the priest’s words were not audible. The choir sang the polyphonic Sanctus and Benedictus during most of this time.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

5 minutes.

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

4 — The preacher was straightforward and brief – too brief for the concepts to have a tremendous impact, but straightforward enough to communicate at least something without distracting from worship! After a few brief announcements, he made his points very succinctly, quoting key sentences.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Christ’s ascension tells us about the nature of his glorious resurrection. If Jesus had merely been resuscitated, it would have been good news for him and his family and friends, but not for us. Instead, he has brought our human nature with him into heaven.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The choir’s singing of Victoria’s Missa ‘Ascendens Christus’ was truly wonderful and invited prayerful participation in the liturgy. It was also thematic, connecting musically to the communion motet Ascendens Christus in altum by the same composer. The hymns were beautiful, and I relished the opportunity to hear the full chant propers.

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

I really could have done without the light organ improvisation on the musical themes of Victoria’s mass during the elevation. I know it is a matter of taste and that there is historical precedent, but the truth is that a silent canon is an extreme rarity in the Episcopal Church, and that minute of fun came at the cost of what could have been a really special moment of contemplation.

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

I didn’t get the opportunity to reach the back of the church without being directed to the refreshments. Once there, I found myself a seat and was left alone for five minutes or more before two other congregants decided to strike up a conversation.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was quite an assortment of red and white wines (and water and juice), grapes and dried apricots, crackers and cheese, and coconut-caramel-chocolate cookies.

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

8 — I do like to experience traditional western liturgy every once in a while. This is partly for its own sake: a service that invites interior rather than exterior participation, especially if it includes chant and polyphony, is refreshing. It also reminds me of what I appreciate about the liturgical renewal of the past century and makes me love my home parish even more.

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

Yes. It made me feel more connected to the broader Christian church – in sect, land, and time. It made me appreciate the range of range of means of experiencing God. And it was a wonderful thing to be able to celebrate the great feast of the Ascension so richly, whether or not the pews were all full.

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

Mary vested in crown and cope.

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