St Philip's, Durham, NC

St Philip's, Durham, North Carolina, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Philip's
Location: Durham, North Carolina, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 8 December 2013, 11:00am

The church

St Philip's is Durham's downtown parish, drawing its very diverse congregation from the whole city. It is unabashedly gender-neutral, color-blind, and LGBT friendly. St Philip's is active in the outreach community, while trying to be as gracious as possible in the face of the problems associated with those who often benefit from its charity. Their many ministries are detailed on their website; I will mention here only their Wednesday night program that consists of eucharist, dinner, fellowship and study.

The neighborhood

Durham is one of the cities comprising the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill metroplex, which altogether boast a population of about two million. Originally a thriving agricultural region thanks primarily to tobacco, Durham grew into an important textile manufacturing center during the early 20th century. Tobacco and textiles are long gone from the region's economy, but today Durham is known for culture and sports. It is the home of Duke University, a private school affiliated with the United Methodist Church that enjoys a reputation as an academic and research powerhouse. During the 1950s, Durham figured prominently in the civil rights movement, and is widely regarded to be the site of the first sit-in ever to be organized. The church's location adjoining Urban Ministries of Durham is one of its blessing.

The cast

The Revd M. Jonah Kendall, rector, was the celebrant. He was assisted by the Revd Deacon Jill Staton Bullard and an assortment of chancel assistants, i.e. verger, crucifer, acolytes, etc. One of them carried, immediately behind the processional cross, a festive "jingling johnny," homemade from two small tree branches, lots of little bells, and numerous ribbons in various shades of blue. I am told the parish has another one, with red and white ribbons, for Easter and Pentecost. The organist was Eddie Abernathy.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Eucharist with Lessons and Carols for Advent

How full was the building?

Eighty-five per cent full; a good house.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes. I was greeted and handed a service leaflet as I entered. At the peace, the other people in the pew made it clear that they recognized me as a stranger and made me welcome.

Was your pew comfortable?

Wooden pew. Totally appropriate.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Reverent but lively and alert. There was a brief organ prelude that included Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, from Bach's Orgelbchlein.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"The Lord be with you."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Almost the entire service, from the Prayer Book 1979 and Hymnal 1982, was printed in a 16 page letter size booklet, illustrated with seasonal art created by local artist Celeste Gardner; the originals were on display in the parish house.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ by Goulding & Wood, of Indianapolis, Indiana, well played by Eddie Abernathy. The choir, conducted by Abernathy, was about as strong as a parish choir could be. They sang the seven "O Sapientia" antiphons and the Herbert Howells setting of "A Spotless Rose."

Did anything distract you?

Nothing; that's right, nothing. I did have some little daydreams about visiting here in the early 1960s with my college roommate and his family, but no distractions in the smoothly flowing service. There was a verbal toddler in the back, but such as they are the hope of the church and I find their talking a good sign. There were no screaming babies and no cell phones.

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

Very solid Prayer Book, with an actively participating congregation. There were extra members in the chancel party because of the special nature of lessons and carols. Both the principals in the chancel and the congregation all comported themselves with relaxed dignity and comfortable self-assurance. Nothing looked like "we practiced this a lot," but there were no slip-ups or awkward pauses, or people falling all over each other. The vestments were all traditional, not a cassock-alb to be seen. And the choir looked as crisp as the clergy.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

No sermon. There were five lessons, five collects, and carol commentary, on the theme of the Coming; then the gospel was Matthew 3:1-2, Jesus's baptism in the River Jordan.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

I have never been in a better, more cohesive service, surrounded by enthusiastic worshippers who loved me and each other. You will know they are Christians...

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

Nothing! (And that's never happened before!) I was totally uplifted and elated. Hard to believe, especially coming from Mr Grumpy, oops, I mean Polypheme.

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

There was a gracious invitation for any newcomers to join the congregation in the parish hall (a lovely new modern room), with concise and clear directions on how to get there. I exchanged pleasantries with the people in my pew before heading for the grub.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Coffee in china cups and saucers, and juice in glasses. Tiny homemade pastries. Conversation around tables. Perfect. Based on St Philip's excellent social stance, I'm guessing that the coffee was fair-trade.

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

Easily 11! Prayer Book, great music, careful liturgics without being precious, a loving and diverse congregation who could ask for more? If I didn't live 130 miles away, I'd have them write for my letter of transfer at once. It's enough to make one consider moving to Durham!

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

Yes, it did. And, specifically, it made me glad to be an Episcopalian. And glad what some call chance plopped me down in a pew at St Philip's this Sunday.

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

The diversity, the love, the music, the feeling that everybody was glad to be there.

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