Wednesday, November 08, 2006

All that glitters...

I'm obsessed with church. Yes, a big element of the fascination comes from the fact that most pipe organs are housed there. And much of the appeal aside from the organs lies in the "pretty factor," i.e., how the choir sounds, how involved the liturgy is, how interesting the building and accessories are, and generally how a services is conducted. However, there's also a sociological fascination that has very little to do with the physical elements, and everything to do with a feeling of amazement that humans pour such resources into places of worship. Logic rules my thoughts and my life, though it is usually well-disguised by the (calculated) inanity of my social interactions, and there is a deep disconnect for me between critical thought and the incredible faith people put in things which they cannot see and which cannot be proved.

At any rate, my taste runs towards "high church." Think Roman Catholic before Vatican II. Think incense and robes and choirs and lots of ritual. I appreciate dignity and solemnity. I weep at the thought of guitars and drums in church. I don't want to feel good during a service, I want to feel awed. And thus I am an Episcopalian of the anglo-catholic variety.

Last weekend I made a trip to Philly to visit my friend John, a truly great guy and one of my oldest friends. Naturally I sought out recommendations for pipe organs I should hear. I was given several ideas but I settled on St. Clement's, which was advertised as the most anglo-catholic of them all.

First things first: the organ is outstanding. It's an old Austin which has been carefully restored and revoiced. It occupies an appropriately honorable place at the front of the church, split between left and right. It was described as "aloof" and indeed it is, the sound seems to come from some distance, it has a softness and a subtlety, neither of which adjectives are normally associated with my favorite instruments, but in this case which work very successfully. Yes, it did come down to earth and shake the firmament when fully cranked up, and I suspect the sucessful and transparent electronic stop additions were important in grounding the music when called for. However these positive elements somehow never collected together and moved me; while I enjoyed the sound, I was resolutely in a curious mood during all uses of the instrument. It never really reached out and grabbed me as some do. Overall I found it very enjoyable and unique, just not overwhelming.

The choir was also exceptional. The director was quite animated and clearly reheared his people a lot. Even when their sound was a bit strained (about half were volunteers, half paid singers) they always had impeccable unison and timing.

The service, however, was abhorrent. I have been to a lot of Episcopalian services with many different liturgical styles. The liturgy here was vastly different than any I have previously encountered. This would have been fine had the bulliten been of any help keeping up with everything, but it was nearly useless. There were many local customs, none of which were explained or even listed in the bulliten. The effect was to leave me feeling like a bumbling idiot who had never been to mass before, a feeling I haven't had in a very long time. The place was relatively empty, filled perhaps to an eighth of its capacity, so there was so much free space between me and the other patrons that I felt my errors were on prominent display. Oddly, most of the people in the congregation were men, I saw only a handful of women. The rector was from Britain and his cold upper-class accent served to distance him from the rabble gathered there. In the pulpit he very strongly hinted that separation of church and state was a foolish idea!!! Now I realize there are conservative Episcopalian congregations, but this was just ridiculous. It was the first time I had ever considered walking out on a sermon.

I did not take communion. I was just too upset and uncomfortable to participate. I felt unwelcome.

I ran out of the church after service without shaking hands with the ministers or speaking to anyone. I will not return.

I'm sorry that my first pipe organ review must be sullied by such an unsatisfactory report on a church. Rest assured that for the next time I'm doing a special report on an out of town adventure, I'll do more research.

1 comment:

scott said...

Um, try Washington, DC. I hear there are a few nice organs here.