Saint John’s, Washington, DC


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Saint John’s
Location: Washington, DC
Date of visit: Sunday, 7 June 2020, 6:30pm

The building

Photo: The White House Historical Association A Greek Revival landmark dating from 1815, the work of neoclassicist Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who designed the central portion of the United States Capitol as well as the White House (in collaboration with Thomas Jefferson and the Irish-American architect James Hoban); Latrobe also designed churches, schools, banks, private homes and other buildings throughout the eastern United States. Expanded and modified over the years, the building was somewhat damaged by fire the night of May 31, 2020, during protests that erupted over the death of George Floyd while in police custody. The next day, the building found itself at the center of controversy surrounding a photo-op by the current occupant of the White House.

The church

Every U.S. President since James Madison (President from 1809-1817) has attended services at one time or another at Saint John’s, with several Presidents becoming regular parishioners. Pew 54 is permanently reserved for the President, although as a practical matter the President usually sits elsewhere when he attends. At the forefront of social action ever since its founding, Saint John’s lists their numerous outreaches and ministries on their website. They are proud of their extensive music program and support an orchestra in residence, among other activities. Although in-person services have been suspended at the moment, at other times they celebrate a daily eucharist with homily as well as three eucharists each Sunday, one said and two with music.

The neighborhood

Lafayette Square is a public park located across from the White House. It is named for Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, a French aristocrat and hero of the American Revolutionary War. Over the years Lafayette Square has been used as a racetrack, a graveyard, a zoo, a slave market, an encampment for soldiers during the War of 1812, and many political protests and celebrations, which latter use continues to the present day.

The cast

From the clergy’s website photos, I am guessing that the deacon took the service. I couldn’t be sure, though – she didn’t introduce herself and her name was not given in the service sheet.

What was the name of the service?

Evening Prayer. The service was conducted via Zoom.

How full was the building?

There were eight of us in attendance, including the officiant.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

When the Zoom session started, the officiant greeted each of us by name as we joined.

Was your pew comfortable?

My desk chair was its usual comfortable self.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

I opened the Zoom session a bit early but the host hadn’t started the meeting yet. So I busied myself opening the necessary files on my computer (service sheet, draft MW report, Photoshop, Zoom) and arranging the windows. The meeting started right on time, but I waited a few seconds for the host to let me, and the other attendees, in.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.’ (Psalm 141:2)

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A service sheet in PDF format was available for download. I needn’t have opened it on my computer, however, as the officiant had it open on her shared screen.

What musical instruments were played?

None. It was a spoken service.

Did anything distract you?

The usual Zoom glitches – at one point my camera shut itself off and I had to click it back on again.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Standard order for Evening Prayer, Rite II, from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Most of us left our microphones unmuted. Some of the participants (but not I, unfortunately) were asked to read various parts of the service. We all gave the responses as appropriate, and we were all also invited to make our petitions known.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

There was no sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

It was heavenly to be attending an actual live service via Zoom and to be able to speak and hear – as opposed to the pre-canned services I’ve been attending on YouTube and Facebook.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

But we weren’t actually there, were we?

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

We all introduced ourselves, said where we were from, and mentioned how we had come across tonight’s service. We continued to chat for about five minutes or so.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I had a pot of spaghetti sauce simmering on the stove, and I went to stir it and contemplate what else I would be doing in the kitchen in short order.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

10 — What a lovely way to end the day – and the week!

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Most definitely yes! The text of the Collect for Protection seemed especially poignant: ‘Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night …’

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

How intimate and real the service felt, even if only virtually.

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