“Story Time”

(a guest post by Christopher Wagner) 

“PJ, like pajamas.” Martin and I shook hands with the animated musician and introduced ourselves as well. PJ wasted no time with small talk after that. He jumped immediately to the good stuff.


PJ: “How did you like the incense? Was there too much?”
I paused briefly to choose my words with care. After all, I was a guest. St. James is an Anglo-Catholic parish with a very High-Church liturgy in the poorest part of Vancouver. The burning of excess incense during a public service is to me somewhat like Mary who poured expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet (see John 12:3), an act of adoration. This is what I think it means to be “High-Church.” To place a high value on the people (the church), and to worship God in a style that reflects this value with artistry that tantalizes the senses of others.


Me: “I don’t know if one can have too much incense, but there was certainly an abundance!”


PJ: “That was the correct answer.”


By this time, today’s preacher had joined our group. Rob had only immigrated from England three weeks ago to take a position at the school where Martin graduated with his MDiv last year. Whether the conversation was to turn toward church music or toward ordained life, Martin was sure to carry the conversation from here, or so I thought.


I briefly shared a few things I liked about the service, such as how intentionally the two candle-lighters worked in tandem. Each with three candles to ignite on their respective ends of the altar, the one on the right could have done the job in half the time. Instead, he paused after each lit candle to ensure his counterpart caught up before he moved to the next. To focus on the beauty of the flames would be to miss the momentary partnership held between these two people, a functionally unnecessary but ‘High-Church’ kind of partnership that seemed to say, “I’m worshipping God by valuing time spent with you.”


Among my appreciations was something I’d not experienced in church before. It was a sound, or maybe it was a physical feeling. The pitch was so low that my vital organs vibrated as much as my ear drums. It was like the ringing of a gong but so deep it was akin to the sound added to intense movie scenes where time is running out. There’s the constant tick-tick-tick of the clock’s second hand in the audio foreground to build anxiety but a much slower but equally rhythmic boom—–boom in the background that seems to remind you that your anxiety will not save you from the action unfolding on the screen. It was THAT sound which I was hearing, and it came during the words of institution. “Whenever you do this (tick-tick-tick), do so in remembrance of me (boom!).”


PJ explained that I was hearing the vary largest of the bells in the church tower. From the exterior, it sounds much more inviting, but from the inside it is quite formidable. And then came the question which would secure the rest of our afternoon. “Would you like to see it?” asked PJ. Within moments, Martin and I, along with Father Rob from London and another couple whom had been enjoying coffee in the parish hall were following PJ on an impromptu tour. It was fascinating! There are three ways to ring the church bells.


The first method is with a tiny organ-like instrument in a back hallway that had only one octave’s keys, each key for one of eight bells having the appropriate pitch. From the back hallway of the tall building made entirely of solid cement, the sound was faint, but noticeable to the attentive listener. We then traveled to the back corner of the sanctuary where we had just been worshipping and stopped at a heavy rope that dangled from a hole in the ceiling. PJ offered, and I was not about to decline the opportunity to pull on that rope!




That was exactly what I was hearing during the service. PJ explained that this rope is attached to the largest bell, a pitch of C, but now it was time to ascend the bell tower to see it in person. Before opening the small door, he suggested the five of us each count the steps to see if we could finally answer the question. It seemed such a small request given the behind-the-scenes tour we were getting at no charge, and so our ascent began up the narrow spiral staircase with no handrail.


It was at around the thirtieth step when I began to realize PJ’s wisdom. He knew exactly how many stairs there were, but counting them would give our minds something to focus on as we slowly twirled toward the sky: Ninety-two. Stepping through the door and into the sunshine, one could see all the way to the lighthouse. PJ shared a bit of history about the Vancouver landscape and of the church, and then we re-entered the building through another door, just one step this time.


We were in the attic-like space above the sanctuary, octagonal in shape, with a square room in the center. Above the room hung the enormous bells which were donated to the church anonymously, except that the bell-maker mistakenly revealed his identity by inscribing his name on the inside of his artwork. After a bit more fascinating trivia which has since escaped my memory, we entered the central room from a door decorated with a handwritten sign reading, “Do not enter. Danger!”


This was the holy of holies, so to speak. The center of the room was surrounded by a wooden rail, not to keep us from something but to keep us from the nothing. Another octagonal shape, this time in the floor, is where the giant bells were hoisted into position from the sanctuary below. In the far corner of the room we found the third and final way to ring the bells. Eight wooden levers at about elbow height were connected to wires reaching through the ceiling to the bells directly over our heads. The resistance of the levers was so great that to play them one had to strike them with a closed fist in a forceful downward motion. We surely irritated the urban core of Vancouver with our “music” as each of us took a turn playing from C to ringing C.


Up until this point, despite the warning of danger, none of us had died. PJ, however, instructed us to exit the square room to stand in the attic space and watch the bells in action. This, he said, could actually kill someone if they didn’t plug their ears. I did as I was told, exited the room, plugged my ears, and fixed my eyes on the clappers. PJ began to play. Yes, it was as loud as it was dusty!
The tour was then over, sort of. We still had to descend the 92 sliver-wide stairs in dizzying circles, and I had no problem leading the way, setting the slower pace. My knees were shaking when reaching ground level, but I have no regrets. What I experienced in that tour was a privilege, and a stark contrast to the lack of privilege seen as Martin and I returned to the tent-lined, urine-scented, vomit-covered sidewalks of East Hastings Street.


As Martin put it, one could hardly imagine a more exemplary Anglo-Catholic parish. St. James’ truly embodies the ethos of their tradition by not shying away from the needs of the world around them. They support shelter programs, feeding programs, and of course, offer a sacred welcome to those who wish to worship with them. No matter what any one of us smelled like, there was an abundance of incense to overpower it. Perhaps, one might argue, the perfect amount.


Christopher Wagner is a Salesforce professional who has studied Ministerial Leadership and lives in Renton, Washington, with his husband, Martin Pommerenke, a postulant in the Diocese of Olympia in The Episcopal Church.