Mystery Worshipper: Acton Bell
Church: St John's
Location: Huntington, New York, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 27 March 2011, 10:45am
The congregation was founded in 1745 and the current building dates from 1906. It is Gothic Revival with Arts and Crafts movement touches. The interior is chock-a-block with stained glass, some of which, I later learned, is Tiffany.
Their many ministries and activities are listed on their website, which also describes the congregation as "a welcoming and nurturing community whose mission is to know Christ and to make him known." Morning or evening prayer is said on alternating weekdays, with the eucharist celebrated at noon on Thursdays. Each Sunday there are three services: Rite 1, family service, and Rite 2 choral eucharist.
Even with a population approaching 200,000, Huntington seems the quintessential all-American small town. One of the older communities on Long Island's well-to-do North Shore, Huntington began as a whaling community 350 years ago, and it retains a sort of "Ye Olde" feel without being too twee. It also seems to be where the surrounding area goes to "go out," and there are many restaurants and a thriving and active nightlife. The church is right on Main Street an honest-to-goodness old-fashioned Main Street with local department store, shops of all kinds, an enormous independent book store, and dozens of restaurants.
The Revd Allen Shin, rector, was the officiant. There were two deacons, I think, but they weren't listed in the service bulletin.
What was the name of the service?Holy Eucharist Penitential Order Rite I.
How full was the building?
About 40 people.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
At first, no. And I thought that boded ill, but I couldn't have been more wrong. I think we just arrived a bit too early. I looked around for service bulletins, which I found easily (along with an unexpected surprise read on!), and we grabbed a pew. Later, an usher came over and introduced himself and asked if we needed anything. At the peace, Father Shin asked that the members stand and greet those who were seated. As the only two left seated, we were pretty much welcomed by everyone.
Was your pew comfortable?
The pew was a standard wooden one with kneeler, topped with a slightly tatty velvet cushion. The pews were very close together, so despite being rather short, I found it difficult to kneel without sitting perched on the edge of the pew.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Some people were heading out through the nave from the earlier service. About five minutes before the start, Father Shin walked through and greeted everyone. He introduced himself to us, inquired where we were from, and was very welcoming.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Bless the Lord, who forgiveth all our sins."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Prayer Book 1979, Hymnal 1982, and a service bulletin with the day's collect, psalm, and readings on an insert.
What musical instruments were played?
A particularly nice-sounding pipe organ.
Did anything distract you?
There were quite a few latecomers, especially one noisy person who seemed to bang into a pew during the prayers for the people.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Slightly starched upper lip perhaps? It was Rite I, but hardly stuffy. There were bells but no smells, reverencing without being showy. I guess the best way to describe it is formal yet unpretentious.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 – What a great speaker the rector is! He must have been speaking from notes, but he was so conversational that I wasn't entirely certain. The sermon was scholarly without being esoteric or pedantic.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
His text was on the day's gospel reading, the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. I was anticipating groaning if there was a comparison between the much-divorced Elizabeth Taylor, who died several days earlier, and the much-divorced Samaritan woman. This sermon had, thankfully, none of that. The rector began by asking who the Samaritan woman was, and pointed to the ways in which she had been "othered" or marginalized by her society. Yet, despite or maybe because of her outsider status, she received the grace to become an evangelizer herself. This is (he said) the only place in the gospels where Jesus specifically identifies himself as the Messiah, and he did so to this lowly outsider.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I hadn't expected such a smart, well-reasoned, inclusive, woman-friendly sermon. I was totally blown away.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Latecomers. What happened to sitting quietly in the back if you've arrived late?
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No chance to look lost. In a flash we were stopped by several very nice folks who asked our names, our church background, and where we were from. We were given a gift bag that included a four-color, glossy, thirty-plus page brochure about the church and the area, a mug with a picture of the church on it, and a list of parish contacts. We were also asked to fill out a form with our contact information. This was all friendly and conversational and I never had the feeling I was getting the hard sell. Those we were talking to seemed genuinely to want to know who we were. Best of all everyone we spoke to asked us to come back. Clearly these folks could be teaching welcoming classes to other churches.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There wasn't an after service coffee, but there had been a breakfast at the earlier service. We were told that there were plenty of muffins left over and hot coffee, and we were urged to go back and grab some before we left.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – When can I move? I can without reservation say if I lived in Huntington this would be my church. They did so much right, it threw my own parish's failings into high relief. Later in the week I received a letter from the rector thanking me for visiting, telling me how much he enjoyed meeting me, and asking me to return. Very on the ball!
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The great sermon and the warm welcome. Oh, and now for the the unexpected surprise. While I was looking for a service bulletin at the beginning, I grabbed something that I thought was a bulletin, but put in my pocket to look at later. On the train on my way home I pulled it out, and it was a 50-page pamphlet of Lenten meditations put together by Father Shin for each day in Lent. I'm so glad I picked it up. What a fantastic Lenten gift!