At present they meet only via Zoom. In better times they worship at Campbell Community Church, a rather plain but pleasant looking A-frame structure with classroom wing attached in the rear at a 90 degree angle.
The Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church, or simply Mar Thoma for short, originated in India and traces its origin to the Apostle Thomas, who is thought to have arrived in India around AD52. Describing themselves as neither Protestant nor Orthodox, they see themselves as a bridge between Eastern and Western ecclesiastical traditions. They maintain a presence throughout the world, especially in England and the United States, and actively seek out relations with other faith communities. The website of the Phoenix congregation does not have very much information concerning the parish’s activities, but they do have a youth fellowship, a women’s group, a Saturday evening prayer meeting, and Sunday worship and Sunday school.
The Campbell Community Church is located on a quiet residential street in the Biltmore neighborhood of Phoenix’s East Side, which takes its name from the ultra-posh Arizona Biltmore resort hotel located there. Urban legend has it (although the story is probably apocryphal) that Irving Berlin wrote ‘White Christmas’ while lounging at poolside at the Arizona Biltmore. Other nearby businesses include medical and law offices, trendy restaurants, and upscale shopping boutiques.
The vicar, assisted by several lectors and intercessors, a cantor, and vocal soloists. So far as I could tell, the vicar was conducting the service from inside the church, although he may have been using a photo background – I’ve never been inside the Campbell Community Church, but I’d be surprised to learn it was appointed the way it appeared in the Zoom session. The lectors, intercessors, cantor and soloists joined in from their homes.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Worship.
How full was the building?
There were 12 people present when I joined the Zoom session. The Zoom counter reached 51 at its highest point.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I confess that I joined the Zoom session under the name Miss Amanda and using a photo that was not of me. I received no words of welcome.
Was your pew comfortable?
My desk chair was just fine.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I joined the Zoom session two minutes before start time. Everyone was waiting in silence for things to get underway; there was no conversation.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Praise the Lord! Good morning!’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
All text was displayed on the screen, thankfully in English.
What musical instruments were played?
None. The vicar chanted the service in a rich tenor voice, and the cantor and soloists sang unaccompanied.
Did anything distract you?
The text displayed on screen didn’t always coincide with what was actually taking place, and some text was not displayed at all. One of the soloists was clearly having trouble with breath control. Some of the intercessors (as luck would have it, the more long-winded ones) spoke in accents that were hard to understand, although the vicar’s accent was strong but clear.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The Mar Thoma Church uses the Divine Liturgy of St James, but that’s not what was being followed today. Today’s service was in English and was pretty much a hymn sandwich. It consisted of familiar elements (Lord’s Prayer, confession, readings from scripture, intercessions) as well as some not-so-familiar elements, plus a smattering of old standby hymns. I found the chants, especially the gospel chant, to be enthralling, but some of the unaccompanied hymns didn’t always stay on pitch.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
0 – I’m afraid I didn’t understand the vicar at all. His accent, up to now not an impediment, got in his way. He alternated between English and a language that I assume was Malayalam, and it was impossible to follow his train of thought. He also had a tendency to shout, which didn’t help matters.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
His text was Paul’s letter to Philemon, and his theme was ‘Salvation for all in Christ.’ But, as I said, I really didn’t understand the points he was trying to make.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
During one of the intercessions, the vicar chanted (in his glorious tenor voice) that old chestnut ‘Sweet Hour of Prayer.’ It was heavenly to hear the old hymn in this context.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
One of the intercessors, bless her soul, went on and on and on … and on! I thought she’d never end. Unfortunately her accent made most of what she was saying unintelligible. I didn’t time her, but a conservative estimate would be 15 minutes. I don’t begrudge her a sweet hour of prayer, but the service was not all about you, my dear!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The service ended with a prayer and some announcements. The announcements were threatening to go on endlessly, so I left the Zoom session at this point.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It was time for lunch, so I made my self a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
0 – I’ve satisfied my curiosity about the Mar Thoma Church and their ways and customs. Having done that, I’m not inspired to pursue it any further. I am not of their ethnic group, and I don’t think I would fit in at all.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I can’t honestly say it did.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
‘Sweet Hour of Prayer.’