Mystery Worshipper: Liturgy Queen
Church: St John the Evangelist
Location: Montréal, Québec, Canada
Date of visit: Wednesday, 15 August 2007, 10:30am
The building is described in great detail on their website. It is known locally for its distinctive red roof. The interior is notable for the absence of pews, and follows the guidelines of the Cambridge Ecclesiological Society, which advocated a return to the medieval church style in all its splendour.
This is Montréals premier traditional Anglo-Catholic parish. Established in 1861 and faithful to the principles of the Oxford Movement right from the start, it was the first Anglo-Catholic parish in Canada to celebrate daily mass and to reserve the Blessed Sacrament. It was also the first Anglican parish in Montréal not to rent pews. In the late 1960s they experimented with modern innovations such as free-standing altars, westward celebrations and contemporary language rites, but in the end rejected them as detrimental to parish life.
The church is situated in downtown Montréal, behind Place-des-Arts, the city's performing arts centre, and very close to the strip of hotels along Sherbrooke Street, where the Dowager Liturgy Queen and I were staying. The neighbourhood is not a residential one, and thus does not provide much of a geographical parish.
The rector, the Revd Keith Schmidt, SSC, was the celebrant and homilist. He was assisted by a deacon and subdeacon, neither of whom was identified. The sacred ministers were vested in the most beautiful high mass set of gold with blue orphreys. The crucifer wore a tunicle and the other servers wore tasteful lace cottas.
What was the name of the service?High Mass.
How full was the building?
The nave was less than half full. We could easily have sat in the quire since there was no choir for the summer.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
An elderly gentleman handed us each a Book of Common Prayer (Canadian 1959/1962) and an English Hymnal, as well as a leaflet with the propers of the mass and some history of the day's feast. An early tradition, it was expunged from the 1549 Prayer Book, restored in 1959 as a black-letter day under the title "The Falling Asleep of the Blessed Virgin Mary," and included in the Book of Alternative Services (no copy of which was to be found in the church) as "St Mary the Virgin," a holy day.
Was your pew comfortable?
We were seated in chairs with kneelers on the backs of them. They were reasonably comfortable for sitting, but there wasnt enough room underneath them to tuck my legs in order to do the "Anglican crouch" while kneeling.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was very quiet, which was not surprising given the dearth of people.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Well, now, it was so far into the mass before anything was spoken. During the entrance hymn, the sanctuary party appeared to be saying some form of the prayers at the foot of the altar. They turned, bowed, and struck their breasts as prescribed by the rubrics of the Confiteor. Then an introit was sung, followed by the Kyrie, Gloria, and collect. The first clearly audible spoken words were the first lesson, which was read in French.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A bilingual mass book, based on the 1959 Canadian BCP, with interpolations. Of note were the instructions for communion, the most severe I have ever seen in an Anglican church. Non-Anglicans were invited to receive the eucharist provided not only that they were validly baptised (the standard criterion in the Anglican Church of Canada) but also communicants in their own churches, believers in the real presence, and properly prepared.
What musical instruments were played?
A fine pipe organ in the loft, the work of the distinguished Canadian firm Hellmuth Wolff et Associés. The church's website describes the organ in great detail. The organist played wonderfully.
Did anything distract you?
There seemed to be no common custom regarding posture. At any given time, some were standing and some kneeling.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Certainly by Canadian standards, this was nosebleed high. The mass was celebrated eastward, which is quite rare in Canada, and not universal even amongst Anglo-Catholics. It was also (and it pains me to admit this) the first occasion that I have seen birettas worn. Even then, they were only worn as the chancel party entered and exited. The propers were sung responsively to plainsong by cantor and congregation, and were evidently taken from one of the books in the English Missal family. The collect spoke naughtily (as I don't think the words were those of the authorised province liturgy) of Mary's being "taken up body and soul." It was not clear what lectionary was being used. The gospel (but not the epistle) was chanted.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Father Schmidt was rather historically didactic but I appreciated hearing some background and he was not dry. I was also thankful for the brevity.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Expanding on the historical note in the leaflet, he briefly outlined the history of the development of the Assumption as a devotion as well as a doctrine. Mary's role in the Incarnation and the grace bestowed upon her make her prototypical of the salvation promised to us. We are all prepared a spiritual body, the seed of which is planted at baptism, but in the case of Mary, she was reunited in her natural body with her Son.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The organ music was uplifting, and there was just enough incense used.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The lack of a choir was disappointing. I realise it was summer but I had hoped that they would make a special appearance for such a festal day. Also, I hoped that the Angelus might be sung (something I have never witnessed) but it was merely said. The sanctuary was distant and what was spoken there was inaudible. Finally, the communion wine that became via consecration the Most Precious Blood tasted, I'm afraid, like turpentine! What is it with Anglo-Catholics and white wine?
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No one approached me. Ironically, the rector whizzed by me to greet some other newcomers. I was beginning to give up. Finally, the rector noticed me and asked if I was visiting from out of town. I replied that I was. Neither of us made any further effort at small talk. By that time the main door was being locked, and so he helped me find a side door.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I was unable to stay, but noticed that there was a cold buffet supper served. Coffee appeared to be the only beverage, but there was a respectable spread of pasta salads, cold cuts and bread, and other picnic-type items.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – If I were to live in Montréal (and it's one place I'm considering going on a student exchange) I would certainly become a regular here.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Absolutely. It was just the kind of other-worldly, majestic liturgy that made me want to become an Anglican.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The splendid gold and blue high mass set, and my first sighting of birettas.