Mystery Worshipper: Paterfamilias
Church: St Thomas
Location: Battle Creek, Michigan, USA
Date of visit: Saturday, 6 November 2021, 11:00am
A cruciform design, although the sides of the transept are quite short. Organ is in the right transept, a shrine to Mary on the left. There is a free-standing altar, with the choir seated behind the altar. There is a balcony with a beautiful (recently restored) rose window. There are Stations of the Cross (painted) in the nave. Plans are to restore the remaining stained glass windows, which should be quite impressive once restored.
Two notable features: as an inner-city church, they became acutely aware of the food insecurity that many inner-city school children experience on weekends, when they are no longer able to have breakfast and lunch at school. So they offer breakfast to all comers on Saturday mornings. And they have an extensive choral program, after the Royal School of Church Music model, and offer a full range of choral services. Their choir embarks on tours, and is currently planning (and fundraising) for a trip to England this coming summer. They have two services each Sunday: a 10.00am eucharist, and a service at 5.00pm which is choral evensong on the first and third Sundays of the month, a parish evensong on the second and fifth Sundays, and a eucharist geared for youth on the fourth Sunday. Morning and evening prayer are prayed each Monday through Saturday.
Battle Creek is known for its pre-Civil War involvement in the Underground Railroad, which helped slaves escape to freedom in northern states and Canada. The noted abolitionist and former slave Sojourner Truth made her home in Battle Creek after gaining her freedom. In 1894, a chap by the name of Will Keith Kellogg, who managed a local sanitarium along with his brother, accidentally spilled liquid cornmeal on a hot surface, thus turning the liquid into what is now known as corn flakes. Kellogg wanted to keep his discovery a secret, but his brother allowed a visitor to the sanitarium, one Charles William Post, to observe the manufacturing process. The Kellogg Company and Post Cereals remain rivals to this day, and Battle Creek is often referred to as ‘Cereal City.’ St Thomas’s Church is squarely in downtown Battle Creek; in the immediate vicinity are a small but attractive park, a large building serving as both library and headquarters for Battle Creek schools, and a large Catholic church.
There was a priest who celebrated; a liturgical deacon (pastor of a Congregational church in Battle Creek), who also preached; and subdeacon, thurifer, two torch bearers, crucifer, ushers, and two lectors. Musically, a choir director, organist, three instrumentalists, and a choir of over 20.
What was the name of the service?Pandemic Requiem Mass.
How full was the building?
Perhaps two-thirds full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
An usher handed me a service leaflet, and also a card on which I could write the name of someone who died during the pandemic for whom I wished to request prayers. Shortly before the service, one of the ushers went through the congregation collecting the cards; these names were then read during the intercessions.
Was your pew comfortable?
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet and reverent.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Good morning and welcome to St Thomas.’ Then celebrant then asked if anyone had picked up a service leaflet with his name on it; when no one responded, he replied, ‘Never mind.’ He gave a brief introduction to the service, noting than during the pandemic's height, many were not able to grieve for their loved ones in a liturgy; he hoped that those who were unable to do so would find this service a consolation. He then invited the congregation to be seated for the introit (from Gabriel Faure's Requiem; all of the Faure was sung during the service).
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the Hymnal 1982, and Wonder, Love, and Praise, a hymnal supplement published in 1997, were in the pews. But only the 12-page service leaflet was used.
What musical instruments were played?
A two manual, sixteen rank pipe organ, E. M. Skinner's Opus 788. Also, harp, violin, and cello.
Did anything distract you?
As the choir was singing the Agnus Dei and communion antiphon, the liturgical deacon conferred twice with the celebrant before going out through the doors leading to the parish hall. Perhaps he was taking communion to the luncheon preparers?
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A celebration with priest, liturgical deacon, and subdeacon (vested in chasuble, dalmatic, and tunicle, respectively) is likely to be fairly up the candle. Incense was used in all of the usual places, and bells were rung during the eucharistic prayer. On the other hand, the altar is free-standing, and we stood to receive communion. The service was Rite I, except for a blessing of new vestments and paraments, which was in modern language. Except for Psalm 23, chanted to Anglican chant, the only music was that of Faure, and an organ prelude and postlude (C. H. H. Parry's Elegy and Bach's St Anne Fugue, respectively). The Faure and Rite I don't fit together naturally; whoever planned the service did a pretty fair job of fitting these two disparate elements together. The Pie Jesu was sung in the middle of the eucharistic prayer; Libera me and In paradisum were sung during communion and before the blessing. Faure set the Agnus Dei and communion antiphon as one movement; this was sung following the fraction.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 — The Congregational pastor was an effective speaker; very elevated diction.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He noted that he tended to downplay the pandemic in its early days. After a friend of his father died from covid, he began to realize that nothing in his seminary education had prepared him for what he was facing. The colossal in-breaking of this virus led him to ask, ‘Where is God found in all of this? What is God's will for us?’ He returned to the gospel from the day, from St John: ‘This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.’ For twenty months, we lost the ability to embrace one another physically, but not the ability for our hearts to embrace each other.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The choir was splendid – absolutely splendid!
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Not hellish, but a ceremonial feature I found odd. During the eucharistic prayer, the thurifer stayed in the left end of the transept, as far from the altar as she could get.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I stayed in my pew to listen to the postlude (splendidly played). By the time it was over, most of the congregation had either made their way to the parish hall or out the front doors of the church.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No coffee, but a luncheon. It was a long service (90 minutes), and I faced a 75 minute drive back to Grand Rapids, so I made my way home.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 — Difficult call. A vested subdeacon, ad orientem, and Rite I are not my cup of tea, although I acknowledge that is a matter of taste. And I have no way of knowing if this special service reflects what they do on a Sunday morning or not. The sense I had was of a rector of decidedly Anglo-Catholic sympathies, but of a congregation who have not embraced a full-throated Anglo-Catholic worship style (no one stood when the thurifer began to cense the congregation, for example). There might, though, be a return visit to hear this splendid choir (one of their choral evensongs, perhaps).
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 choral singing.