Mystery Worshipper: Pewgilist
Church: Westdale Ministerial Association: Ecumenical Procession of the Cross
Location: Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Date of visit: Friday, 2 April 2010, 12:00am
The ecumenical procession through the streets of the Westdale neighbourhood of Hamilton was organised by the Westdale Ministerial Association and culminated in a service at Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church. [Editor's note: As of 1 July 2021, Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church became amalgamated with Trinity Lutheran Church.] Counting Grace Lutheran, the procession visited five churches, all mid-20th century suburban semi-Gothic save for two: McNeil Baptist, St Paul's Anglican, Westdale United, St Cuthbert's Presbyterian, and finally Grace Lutheran, a clean-lined limestone A-frame structure.
The five congregations hold joint services several times a year.
Westdale is an early 20th century planned community on the western edge of Hamilton. At the core of a spider's web of streets is a little downtown surrounded by houses and no small supply of churches. Originally very Protestant and staid, the neighbourhood is now home to many students from nearby McMaster University and has become Hamilton's main Jewish neighbourhood.
There were no obvious leaders to the procession around the neighbourhood. At each church, a different person spoke and the cross changed hands. Pastor Loretta Jaunzarins led the service at Grace Church; the readers and musicians were uncredited.
What was the name of the service?Procession of the Cross and a Service of Tenebrae.
How full was the building?
Grace Lutheran was quite full once the group of 50 who walked with the seven-foot-high cross through the neighbourhood were joined by another 50 or so for the service.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. The procession was silent and without obvious direction. The solemn mood continued into the church. I was greeted with a smile and a service leaflet at the door, though.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. Just a plain, wooden pew, but perfectly comfortable for one and a half hours.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The procession arrived at the church 40 minutes before the start of the tenebrae service. There was a little bit of very quiet conversation as the congregation slowly doubled.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Pastor Loretta's first words were: "Good morning and welcome to Grace Lutheran on behalf of the Westdale Ministerial." A brief orientation address followed. But the service proper began with: "Just last night we celebrated supper with Our Lord."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The service leaflet contained the prayers, the scripture references for the readings from St John's Passion, and five pieces of music. We sang two hymns from the Lutheran Book of Worship.
What musical instruments were played?
Principally, the organ. A piano and violin were played as well, and a soprano sang at several points. A drum provided a sombre marching beat to one song.
Did anything distract you?
The roar of traffic on Main Street, the blaring of car stereos, and my own self-consciousness (more later) were hard to ignore during the procession.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
As the procession stopped at each church, part of St Luke's Passion was read, followed by a brief meditation. The service at Grace Lutheran was solemn and quiet, but the congregation were very attentive and the singing was full-voiced. At one point the cross was laid on the sanctuary floor and the congregation were asked to take turns hammering nails into it as we sang "Go to Dark Gethsemane." Queued as if for communion, we received a nail instead of bread, a hammer instead of a chalice. I knelt in front of the cross and drove a small spike into one of its arms. I watched several people return to their seats, faces wet with tears.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Walking in communal silence with Christians of at least half a dozen persuasions, making a public declaration of shared faith. No matter our doctrinal disagreements or private doubts.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I fought self-consciousness during the procession, aware of passing cars and staring strangers and quizzical faces of neighbours. In fact, I didn't join the procession until half-way through: at first, I followed from a distance and took pictures, happy to be mistaken for a curious photographer. Like Peter warming his hands at the fire in the courtyard, one might say.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing. There was no opportunity to hang around. After the final hymn, an unseen voice from the gallery read one of the evangelist's descriptions of Christ's death. And we each went our way in silence.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No such thing was offered at this service.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – I would set aside doctrinal prejudices and doubt in order to worship regularly with these Christians, as we did this Good Friday.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Rather, I generally ask myself: "Did the service make me feel sad to be an atheist?" I don't feel comfortable calling myself anything more than a nominal Christian. And how can one feel glad to be such a thing? Except today I was glad to be even a nominal Christian. Because no matter my doubts, no matter our doctrinal disagreements, I was together with other Christians who gathered without obligation, and out of no weekly habit, to contemplate the unsophisticated awfulness of Christ's death on the cross and to wonder at the message that resonates across the centuries. So I may answer the question as asked, and say "Yes."
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
It will be hard to forget the sound of a hymn burst by dreadful hammer blows as we took turns hammering nails into the cross. The very idea sounded hokey when I read it in the service leaflet, and I intended to sit out what promised to be an awkward bit of theatre. But as it went on, I, too, found myself choking back tears.