All Saints Church

11 Irving Street, Worcester, MA

I first heard of All Saints Episcopal Church of Worcester while attending worship across town at the Unitarian Church.  After that service I complement the music director on a truly spectacular experience which included a gumbo of high-and-mighty pipe organ, timpani, African-American Gospel (sung remarkably well by a predominately white choir) and modern (“Broken Hallelujah”–a particularly fitting piece on that September 11th Sunday).  “If you like good music,”  the director admitted, “our main rival in town is All Saints.  The choirs are phenomenal.”

Recently I found a book in our local library entitled Excellent Protestant Congregations:  The Guide to Best Places and Practices by Paul Wilkes (2001).  Wilkes and his Lily Endowment funded project mentioned over one hundred excellent churches including, in Massachusetts, Boston Chinese Evangelical Church, Chinese Christian Church of New England (Brookline), Azusa Christian Community (Dorchester), and All Saints Episcopal Church (Worcester).   The project singled-out the nine most intriguing churches that “Impacted the lives of their people and were making difference in their communities, local churches that were beacons of hope and guidance and examples of what it means to be a practicing Christian today” (p. x).  All Saints made the list of nine.  So surely I could put All Saints Episcopal Church on my list!

I visit the website and am struck immediately by a dingy, dark, picture of the sanctuary where images of service books in the backs of stiff-looking pews are brighter than anything else.  I strain to find service times embedded in that awful picture and see I have options of Eucharist at 7:45 (not gonna happen), 10:30 Sung Eucharist (cool) or, best of all for me and my 12-year-old, 9:00 Family Eucharist.  That is the best time.  That will allow us to attend an ultra-contemporary new church start called The Journey meeting at the high school.  (The journey Website is awesome compared to All Saints.)

So the three “Points of Excellence” found by Paul Wilkes and his research team?

1.  Different Approaches to Spirituality (Check-out the cool labyrinth the youth group created)

2.  Linking Church Power to City Needs (The church has a reputation for re-sanctifying areas of Worcester that have been marred by violence)

3.  Need For and Use of Clerical Sabbatical (The pastor visited Iona in Scotland and Taize in France)

It’s November fourth, a day when some churches commemorate “All Saints Day” by remembering loved-ones who have died.  Why not attend All Saints Church on All Saints Sunday?  Will I find excellent music, excellent diverse spirituality, excellent engagement with the city and excellent, sabbath-informed leadership?

November 6, 2011      9:00 Family Service


Door to the nave, six inches thick!

Architecture.   I learned online that All Saints was designed by the same architect who designed the National Cathedral in Washington D.C., Philip H. Frohman.  He rebuilt most of the burned-out church in 1932, but the tower is older.  In fact the entire interior of this place feels much older even than 1877.  The wood door at left is but one example of the craftwork.  The video below will also reveal the majesty of the sanctuary and the nave.  The place echoed unmercifully and the old wicker chairs were uncomfortable, but those annoyances seemed oddly welcome.  The church building does not extend high above tree lines as other Worcester landmark churches do.  Rather, it seems to squat, tenaciously, on a corner like a bulldog.  But the interior is airy and light and did actually remind me a little of the Washington Cathedral.

Children invited to dip fingers in font as they help to bless the water for baptism.

A Family Service.  I don’t know how well the service “worked” for adults here in this cathedral, but I admire the church for trying.  Yes, with children scampering around it was noisy.  And no, I did not get to hear any great sermon, choir or congregational song (see my negative reaction under “walls” below).  Still, even with only 65 in worship (20 of whom were likely here for the baptism), we were a community.  The rector and deacon stayed in the nave with us.  The children were addressed directly.  Families could stand at candle-strewn tables together remembering departed saints.  The candles were low enough for children to do that.  A child read scripture.  And my favorite part was the baptism, where children and the baptism family all gathered around the font for the liturgy.  Children were invited to place hands in the font as a communal blessing of that water.  Very sweet.  Very cool.  The picture is a little dark to do it justice.

Engaged in City Issues.  The Rector reminded us to vote Tuesday.  A spied a temporary sign in a nearby yard that said “If millions of people can vote for an America Idol, one thousand can vote for city council.”  I wonder how many other churches encouraged civic responsibility.  More to the point of “Linking church power to city needs” which Pal Wilkes addressed in his book, we were invited to a forum with the director of Worcester Common Ground, a non-profit foundation.  From the WCG website:

Worcester Common Ground, Inc. (WCG), a Community Development Corporation (CDC) was founded in 1988 in response to concern about absentee ownership of land and property, the high cost of housing, the displacement of families from their homes into shelters, and the fading dream of home ownership and economic opportunity for those living in the most underserved neighborhood of Central Worcester, Massachusetts. Our member-based organization is composed of land trust residents, concerned citizens, housing advocates, and community leaders. We are an open membership, not-for-profit organization run by an elected board of land trust members.

WCG-CDC acts as a developer of last resort, rehabilitating abandoned housing and acquiring parcels of vacant land for new construction to provide area residents with affordable rental units, the opportunity to own their own home, and an avenue to contribute to an increased level of neighborhood investment, pride and stability.

I wasn’t able to stay for the Sunday forum but I am impressed with a church that stretches beyond simple charity toward systemic change.


Obvious Church Division.  I pause before entering the church building to take a picture of the exterior.  A man set to drive away instead parks haphazardly and rushes over to me.  “I saw you take a picture of the church. Do you know the history?”  I assume he wants to tell me the history of this congregation and instead he launches into a dissertation about how he believes the church will be one again.  “I have two bishops–one on Plano [he offered the name of some guy whose name now escapes me] and this other one, a woman in New York [whom he does not name, suggesting to me that he does not respect her, but that’s just a guess].”  He tells me the Episcopal church has left the Anglican fellowship but he believes they will return.  “And this isn’t about sex, it is about doctrinal purity,” he emphasizes.  The middle-aged man named “Roger” does not seem angry, sarcastic or cynical.  He seems down-right evangelical in his belief.

I had two problems here.  First, why would he assume I know anything (or care) about division in the Anglican Church?  I asked him the standard questions I ask members of other churches when I visit:  What kind of message came through worship for you today.  Why do you need Jesus?  Why do you need the Church?  why do you need this particular church?   To the question of message, he responded “We learned about the rapture and about the seven virgins.  I have heard others talk about these topics and…” and then he lost me.  He spoke in religious gobbledygook.  And he seemed to suggest that he didn’t really value today’s lesson HERE on this topic but that his information came from somewhere else.  The rest of his answers were equally hard to remember.  But I did remember his response to why he needed this church.  He had been Episcopalian all his life, but when he got in with the Jesus People in California after the war, they taught him to “wake up”.  He brings that missionary zeal to this church.  “People here are from my generation, the Baby Boomers, and they like to do things their way, not God’s way.”   So I figured Roger is the resident John the Baptist.  Someone needs to tell John to stick to the church leadership and leave us newbies in the parking-lot alone.

My second problem had to do with the axe this prophet was swinging.  I know about the difficulties Christians are experienced across the global family.  I know that not all Anglicans agree about the authority of scripture and its application to current social realities such as human sexuality.  I know former Episcopalians who side with more conservative members of the global church and prefer to align entire congregations with those conservative…well let me just be frank, homophobic views.  These people wield the same axe that Roger did as they tell me it is not about sexuality but about “doctrinal purity”.  In that way the axe is made to look somehow useful to the church–a pruning axe.  But in my experience this position is actually more of a tomahawk thrown in spite at a group of people.  That axe nicked me outside of the church Sunday.

B-Side Worship.  When my son entered the rear entrance alone (while I dealt with Roger in the parking lot), he was greeted by a man with a clipboard who presumed he was in the choir.  (The same guy ignored me.)  I expected to hear one of the great All Saints choirs and after that encounter I was sure we’d experience the Children’s Choir.  We did not.  I had also hoped to hear a sermon, especially if it did somehow deal with rapture and virgins.  A sermon was listed in the program but it was not offered.  A children’s message was inserted instead.  That lesson was a nice attempt at engaging kids, but my son and I found the speaker and her humor uncomfortably dry.  As she spoke of “celebration” we would have enjoyed seeing joy register on her face, but she did not crack a smile once.  “But” I kept telling myself, “at least we get to sing ‘For All the Saints’ at the end.  I can’t wait to hear that big organ play that great walking bass-line.”  Three verses were shaved-down to two.  We didn’t even sing verse 4, the best words for All Saints Sunday.  As they say on Monday Night Football, “Come on, man!”   I suspect the later service is a more fanciful affair with a larger crowd, but does that mean that Families deserve only abbreviated church?  I felt like I purchased a classic album and wound up only with the B-side hit.

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