It’s spring break, and my wife and I planned a short trip to Washington, D.C. for a few days. We now live close enough to enable us to hop in the car and be in the D.C. metro area within about four hours, including a dinner stop. Our plans included leaving on Saturday afternoon, enjoying the drive, and having some down time to relax in a hotel room and get a good night’s rest in order to attend worship services at historic Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia on Sunday morning. Christ Church has been in existence since the mid 1700’s, and was the home church for both George Washington and Robert E. Lee. It has hosted all but a few U.S. Presidents in its worship services, and was visited by both Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill on the same day.
We chose a hotel just a few blocks from the church, so that we could walk, because parking in the old part of Alexandria is not easy, especially around Christ Church on a Sunday morning. The church offered three worship services, with the 9:00 a.m. service billed as a “family” service with sermon and choir in addition to the Eucharist. We decided to attend that particular service. Of course, the church facility is its original building, dating back to somewhere around 1765, with some renovations and modernization having taken place since then. The pews are, for the most part, original, and they are the old fashioned kind, up off the floor a step, with a door leading into the row and a divider down the middle. We were seated in pew that Robert E. Lee frequented, a thrill for a history major.
But here’s where the wondering comes in. I was raised in the Baptist tradition, in a small, Southern Baptist church in Arizona that was more influenced by Southern, rural culture in its worship style. The church tended to call pastors from that perspective, and the individual who led worship for the entire time I was growing up was from the Western Panhandle of Virginia, the mountain region, which affected his worship style as well. So when I think of “church,” what comes to mind is the spontenaity and relative lack of formality in the service. We sang hymns by Fanny J. Crosby and sometimes out of the old Stamps Baxter or Broadman hymnal, accompanied by piano and organ if there was someone there to play it. The scripture was read by the pastor before the sermon, which focused the entire service on the invitation at the end. Occasionally, there were personal testimonies, and there were a group of men who were always called upon to pray publicly. We took communion on the first Sunday of every month, grape juice and a piece of cracker, served by the deacons row by row. And though most of the churches I’ve attended since then were different in many ways, the basic order and atmosphere of spontenaity were similar.
The Episcopalian service at Christ Church was much different. It was very formal, and very ordered. There was a definite distinction between the people “up front” who were leading the service, and those seated in the congregation. During the processional, a cross was carried at the front of the choir, which entered at the back and paraded around the entire church. As it passed, people bowed. The service altered between readings from the Book of Common Prayer and responses sung from the hymnal. There were two hymns. The sermon, which utilized the New Testament reading from the lexionary, was delivered by an African American female associate pastor from a pulpit elevated six full steps up off the floor. It lasted all of ten minutes, and its purpose was to emphasize the scripture passage and Christian calendar date, not to point to some other part of the service.
Holy Eurcharist was a whole other experience, taking up a full fourth of the worship service time. Christ Church is a sizeable congregation, and there were probably three hundred people in the service. It took a long time for them to line up and kneel around the altar at the front, in groups of 15-20 at a time, and be individually served the bread and the cup. And I was quite surprised, in this day and age when people are so fastidious, that it was a common cup. If intinction were offered, I didn’t see it.
And while I was kept busy keeping up with the pages and the books, and following the order of service, and it was a new experience for me, I can see how difficult it would be for someone who has been raised in a different kind of church setting to see this as a church worship experience. I would find that difficult, though I will say I did make the effort. On the other hand, the church was fairly full, and I’m told is generally packed at 11:00, with people who obviously do experience worship of God. Everything that was done in that service had a meaning or purpose behind it, something that those who were familiar with it certainly understood.
Nor did I hear or see anything that would have offended my Baptist trained sensibilities. The scripture was central to the service, and the associate pastor who delivered the sermon made a point to make it clear she believed it to be the written Word of God, and focused her message around a clearly literal interpretation of the passage she preached from, regarding the Samaritan woman at the well. In fact, I think there are some Baptist preachers who could take a page from her book, she made two clear points and was finished and concluded in about 10 minutes.
I thoroughly enjoyed the historical experience. Hopefully, I learned something about myself from the worship experience.