Mystery Worshipper: Queenie
Church: St John’s
Location: Mitcham, Victoria, Australia
Date of visit: Friday, 2 April 2010, 3:00pm
The building is fairly nondescript from the outside, but the internal worship space is quite striking. As you enter from the rear of the church, all the architecture points to the cross. The ceiling rises up from either side of you toward an apex above the cross. The windows form a triangle, from a low point at the extreme left and right of the church to its highest point, also above the cross. There is plenty of light inside the building. The sanctuary seems to take up a large proportion of the floor space, giving it an open, uncluttered feel.
The parish has two centres: St John's Mitcham, and St James' Vermont, both of which have their own primary schools. It is a large and vibrant community, with many social, sporting and spiritual groups available, and with pastoral and outreach services to people of all ages, cultures and conditions.
Mitcham is in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, about 20km from the central business district. From its settlement in the 1860s, the Mitcham area was generally used for orchards, brickmaking and pottery. In the 1950s post-war expansion, it became the suburban area it is now. Mitcham is well serviced by the train line that runs through it, numerous bus routes, and the freeways that bound its northern and eastern edges. Mitcham has several significant parklands and numerous schools, making it attractive to families. And a piece of trivia: Mitcham was a filming location for the world's first feature film, The Story of The Kelly Gang, which used the area in key scenes for the 1906 movie.
The service largely ran itself! The whole thing was so well scripted that everyone who had anything to say or play knew exactly what they had to do and when. The parish priest, the Revd Mark Reynolds, played his part, much of that being the still centre of the service that largely went on around him.
What was the name of the service?Commemoration of the Passion
How full was the building?
Overflowing. The church seats about 500. I had been warned to arrive early, as this service is always well-attended. I arrived at 2.30pm and there were already over 100 people there. By 2.45 the seating was full, and people were standing around the back walls of the church. There was also seating in the narthex, where there were video screens to watch the service. At a guess, there would have been 700 people in attendance.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
There was no one welcoming people at the door when I arrived but, as I said, I was very early. When I sat down, I was introduced to the people on either side of me. There is a welcome desk inside the narthex, but this was unattended. There were several ladies showing people to the vacant seats. There were no books or leaflets handed out.
Was your pew comfortable?
Well, for a wooden pew, it was comfortable. We were all packed in quite snugly!
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
As the church filled, the volume of chatter increased, but not to an unreasonable level. There was a sense that people were happy to be together, and there was an air of anticipation. At 2.55, a pastoral associate, Maree O'Keefe, welcomed us, asked us to turn off our mobile phones, and asked us all to read the part of the crowd during the passion narrative. She then reminded us that this was a service of prayer, not a concert, and that we were not to applaud any of the music items. (This had apparently been an awkward occurrence in the past few years.)
What were the exact opening words of the service?
At 3.00, the music group started playing a gentle Taize chant, "Adoramus te Domine" ("We adore you, Lord Jesus Christ"). During this time, Father Reynolds entered the church and prostrated himself on the steps of the sanctuary, in front of the altar and the cross. He stayed there for the duration of the singing. After this, he stood, invited us to stand, and opened with the words: "Now the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There were no books used during the service. The whole order of service seemed to be known by the congregation. The words of the songs were on digital screens mounted on the walls at three points inside the worship space. These were quite discrete, with the background of the lyrics coloured red to match the decorations in the church. I found it easy to read, sitting only three rows from the front, but wondered if the words would have been too small to be read by those in the tenth row, and those standing behind them.
What musical instruments were played?
There was an electronic keyboard (playing a nice piano sound), two acoustic guitars, and an electric bass guitar. There was also a choir to lead the singing, made up of people of all ages.
Did anything distract you?
Ironically, I was most distracted by the thing that was probably designed to not distract me. The passion narrative and the intercessions were read by people sitting in the front pews on the other side of the church from me. The microphones were excellent, and I could hear them perfectly. I just found it very distracting that I could not see the people who were speaking! It was like disembodied voices. I'm sure that this was meant to save me the distraction of watching the people who were reading, but as a visitor, I found it having the opposite effect on me.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was meditative and gentle. It was woven throughout the service, with verses and choruses breaking up the reading of the passion narrative. This kept the overall mood lighter than it often is on Good Friday.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – A very inspiring and well delivered message.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Father Mark asked us the question Jesus had asked prior to his arrest: "Whom are you looking for?" He asked why we had come to church today and suggested that while it might seem like we come to mourn, in fact we come just to stop. He reminded us that at churches all around Melbourne, people were attending to stop and to be amazed. Jesus is not just anyone. It is Jesus who meets us in our pain, brokenness and despair. Through his Son, God is present with us in the darkness of our lives. When we are most lost and broken, the Son of God is there with us. God meets us at our most basic. On Good Friday, the message is that, whatever comes our way, we are not alone. We also know that this is not the end of the story. Come what may, and despite it all, thank God for Good Friday.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
It was no mean feat giving communion (bread only) to about 700 people, but they did it with a minimum of fuss, from seven different points. Once I sat back down and watched everyone else going up for communion, I had an overwhelming sense that I was watching a multitude walking together into heaven. Among the people were the blind and the lame, and people from every continent on earth. I felt like I was watching an endless stream of people coming into the presence of a God with whom they were very familiar, and whom they adored.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
You know, the whole service was done so seamlessly that the most difficult thing to deal with was my own cynicism. I wanted to argue any number of things that all came from my own prejudices. In the end, however, I came to the realisation that these thoughts of mine were the only hellish part of the service. My eyes and ears told me that this was a group of people who were just happy to be together to commemorate this special day. Everyone knew the lyrics to the songs, the words of the service, when to sit and and kneel and rise. It was an example of a people praying the service together, as one body. The parts of me that wanted to detract from that need to undergo their own death and Easter rebirth.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
At the end of the service, doors were opened in places I hadn't realised there were external doors! The church emptied very quickly, and people went home. There were a few people who stopped and waited for their turn to speak with Father Mark. Given that this was the Good Friday service, however, it seemed appropriate that people left in the same relative quiet with which they had arrived.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
From what I could tell, there were no refreshments offered after the service.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – If I were Roman Catholic, I would have no hesitation in making this my spiritual home. As an Anglican, I would be happy to come back each year for this service. It was a beautiful, gentle journey to the cross.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, it did. But part of me thinks that there is an obligation on the part of those running such a service to have something that will induce tears. I have mixed feelings about the comparative lightness of the mood in the church. I wonder if that is part of the secret to getting so many people to church on Good Friday: making it less gut-wrenching and, well, more able to be incorporated into daily living.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The chorus that we sang at the beginning and the end of the service, and at various points during the Passion narrative. The song was, "Now we remain" by David Haas. I don't think that the lyrics have finished working their magic on me yet, and I think I need to sit with them for a while. The chorus went like this: "We hold the death of the Lord deep in our hearts. Living now we remain with Jesus, the Christ."