Mystery Worshipper: Pewgilist
Church: St George's
Location: Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Date of visit: Sunday, 5 November 2006, 10:30am
St George's has only recently taken up residence in the former St Margaret's Anglican Church, the latter having been closed by the diocese of Niagara. It's a rather bland little white brick church-shaped building, dating from the early 20th century, I suppose. A cenotaph in the churchyard commemorates Hamilton's war dead. The interior is very simple and harmlessly contemporary, all cream and grey with pale pews and a small wooden altar against the east wall. The clear windows on the south wall flood the church with light. Almost the only decorations appear rather anachronistic in this setting: two memorial plaques and two traditional looking stained glass windows in light boxes above the altar.
The Reformed Episcopal Church arose in 1873 out of a long debate over what was seen to be excessive ritualism and exclusionary attitudes in the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA. Today the Reformed Episcopal Church is in fellowship through concordat with the Free Church of England (otherwise known as the Reformed Episcopal Church in England) and the Anglican Province of America. In addition to a presence on the North American continent, the Reformed Episcopal Church maintains missions in India, Liberia, France, Uganda, Brazil, and Germany. St George's seems to be unusually low church by Canadian Anglican standards: morning prayer from the Canadian Book of Common Prayer, 1962 most Sundays, holy communion celebrated in choir dress, a bare minimum of gestures from clergy and congregation.
Hamilton is a city in what is called the Golden Horseshoe, a heavily industrialised area at the west end of Lake Ontario. The church is in the heart of what used to be the village of West Hamilton, but is now half student ghetto for McMaster University and half Jewish suburbia. The church, the cenotaph, and the lumber yard across the street are faint reminders of the neighbourhood's pre-suburban life.
The Revd John Smith, rector, was assisted at the remembrance service by Mr John Ross from one of the nearby synagogues, and at the communion service (at the north end of the altar!) by the Revd Deacon John Ferns. Also at the remembrance service a Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman and a naval officer provided the honour guard, local politicians laid wreaths, and a trumpeter and small choir from a local high school provided music. At the communion service there were also an organist, a server/crucifer, and what appeared to be a choir of one in the sanctuary. Mrs Helen Waters gave an address in lieu of a sermon.
What was the name of the service?Holy Communion with West Hamilton Cenotaph Service of Remembrance.
How full was the building?
The pews held some fifty people, making the church about half full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was welcomed out on the sidewalk in front of the cenotaph by a gentleman who handed me a service bulletin, asked me where I was from, and gave me a bit of the history of the parish and the cenotaph. A clergyman shook my hand as I passed through the narthex for the communion service.
Was your pew comfortable?
The pew was unremarkable for either comfort or discomfort, though I found the position of the kneeler demanded the lazy bum-on-the-pew position rather than godly, back-achey, upright kneeling.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
People milled about on the lawn and sidewalk chatting before the remembrance service. There was quiet conversation in the church as everyone filed in for the communion service.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Welcome to this community service of remembrance."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
For the Remembrance Day service, the bulletin provided the words to "Abide with Me" but we were on our own for "O Canada" and "God Save the Queen" (even the teenagers knew the words to the latter, I noted with mild surprise). At holy communion we used well-worn copies of the Canadian Book of Common Prayer, 1962 (stamped St George's Anglican) and the 1938 Anglican Hymn Book.
What musical instruments were played?
A small electronic organ was played well enough, but the instrument wasn't really up to producing an inspiring sound.
Did anything distract you?
You mean like the sound of cars driving past as I stood singing on the sidewalk?
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
I'd call it enthusiastic low-church Prayer Book, mostly said rather than sung. There was full-voiced participation, with everyone reciting some of the lines normally belonging to the celebrant. The communion instructions seemed a bit odd: to the right for the common cup of wine, to the left for wee shot glasses, and wait in you pew for full service.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
In place of a sermon, there was an address by Mrs Helen Waters, a visiting friend of one of the clergymen (and a neighbour of mine, as it happens) entitled "Reflections of a Civilian in Wartime." Since I know Mrs Waters, I will excuse myself from rating her.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Mrs Waters related light-hearted tales of near death in Southern England during World War II.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Clasping the perfect little volume that is the 1962 Prayer Book in my hands; parting its frayed covers and letting it fall open of its own accord to the start of the service; leafing the soft, curled pages; falling into the lovely old cadences of my childhood.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Whoops, it fell open to morning prayer again instead of communion. Dear God, what a lot of words there are. Wait what happened to the Gloria? "And also..." sorry, I mean "And with thy spirit." Oh, bother. Are we supposed to say this part along with the priest? I mean, the clergyman?
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The stairway leading from the narthex down to the reception hall is thoughtfully fitted with a handicapped lift, but the resulting tightness of space does create something of a bottleneck. And so I was carried along with the tight, slow crowd down to coffee hour. I fell to talking with my neighbour, Mrs Waters, and then was greeted by a friend of a relation the hazard of Mystery Worshipping close to home. It was a sit-down affair, and I chatted with a number of people at the table, all strangers to me, whom I took to be parishioners.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was average coffee in styrofoam cups, served with cookies, fruit, cheese and little sandwiches. And birthday cake.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – I could accept the more Protestant tone and monthly rather than weekly communion, I suppose, for the sake of getting to use the Book of Common Prayer every Sunday. Except that they don't use the BCP properly, which is to say exactly as I recall it being used when I was a child. Not sure if I could get over that.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
The remembrance service made me glad to be a sort-of Christian in an at least nominally Christian country; to be reminded that, in the face of the memory of horror and valour and sacrifice, we're not quite the collection of cynical, apathetic, Godless materialists we usually seem.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The communion instructions.