St Luke's, Fort Myers, Florida, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: Rossweisse
Church: St Luke's
Location: Fort Myers, Florida, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 23 April 2006, 10:00am

The building

It's a modern campus, with an openness that reflects the tropical climate. The church itself has a cruciform nave: the organ and choir are at one end, and there are pews for the congregation on three sides. However, everything seems to focus on the pews directly in front of the altar and pulpit, so I'd say the arrangement is more traditional than might first meet the eye.

The church

This is, according to the website, one of the "mother churches" of the Diocese of Southwest Florida, founded in 1885. It's Anglo-Catholic, affiliated with the very conservative Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes, and was about to welcome two Nigerian bishops as speakers. But despite literature available in the narthex that might suggest otherwise, I thought I detected a healthy gay presence in the parish, if the two male couples sitting near me were any indication.

The neighborhood

Fort Myers, in the western part of Florida and snuggling up to the Gulf of Mexico, is a tourist magnet as well as home to many retirees. However, most of those people live in the newly built-up areas to the south and west. The church is more toward the northern, older end of town, not as wealthy an area.

The cast

The Revd Philip D Read II, SSC (Society of the Sacred Cross), rector; the Revd Deacon Robert Millott (well, there was a deacon, and he's the only one in the staff listings). There was also an elderly priest whose name was not given, and lots of assisting clergy who I assume were among those listed as such on the website. The organist was Mr James E Lorenz.

What was the name of the service?

Solemn High Mass.

How full was the building?

There were plenty of empty pews. In fairness, it was Low Sunday, the week after Easter Day, when Episcopalians traditionally worship at St Mattress instead of going to church.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Members of the altar party greeted us in a friendly fashion and directed us to the nave.

Was your pew comfortable?

It was a fine pew, very comfy.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

It was reasonably quiet – nothing too distracting.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Alleluia. Christ is risen."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Hymnal, 1982; The Book of Common Prayer, 1979; and an unusually complete bulletin that included an alleluia verse and psalm setting as well as the usual lectionary readings and announcements of coming events.

What musical instruments were played?

A very nice pipe organ.

Did anything distract you?

There is a very large, very modern, very ugly statue of the risen Christ smack dab in the middle of the nave that was pretty hard to ignore. I was close to tuning it out by the end of mass, though. And several things about the altar party distracted me: First, its sheer size. There were a half-dozen men strung out behind the free-standing altar. Second, despite having such forces at his command, the rector seemed to be a one-man show: he led the service, he preached the homily, he preached the children's sermon, he was the celebrant, etc. The unnamed elderly priest, so far as I could tell, stood with hands folded and did nothing in particular for most of the service. Third, the thurifer and boat boy seemed to have their minds on other things. Fourth, the organist took the service music (the gorgeous Missa Marialis, adapted by Charles Winfred Douglas, which I was glad to see listed) at breakneck speed, as if he were trying to catch a train. That was worse than distracting.

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

It struck me as more Really High Church than the advertised Anglo-Catholic, which I associate more with whatever the Roman Catholics happen to be doing at the moment). There was no asperges. The clergy all marched in wearing birettas, however, and there was a fair amount of incense. The liturgy was Rite I, which works for me.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 to 12 minutes, although in what could possibly be attributed to divine (or diabolical) intervention, my watch chose to die during the sermon. There was also a children's sermon, for which the rector plunked himself down on the altar steps amidst the kiddies and spoke for several minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

8 – Father Read doesn't have the most resonant speaking voice, but he had a strong message, and that makes a difference. I can't remember the last time I heard a homilist affirm that one must believe in Jesus Christ to enter the kingdom of heaven.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

It was a strong affirmation of the truth of the resurrection – very sincere and quite moving.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Getting to say the older, more traditional version of the Nicene Creed. Also the friendly greetings we received.

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

The choir, overall, was not bad, but it seemed to have one Designated Stinker in each section: an edgy, non-blending falsettist, a matched set of out-of-tune alto and baritone, and one incredibly bad tenor whose fortississimo (and atonally uglissimo) splattering at the end of the anthem drowned out all around him and completely wrecked the work of the better singers. The all-Y chromosome group at the altar bothered me, too. The crucifer was a woman, as was one lay reader and one torchbearer, but they didn't get to hang out near the Holy of Holies. It seems odd – but in the list of clergy and staff appearing on their website, the only female names are connected with church school and secretarial functions, while all the names of the platoon of assisting clergy – seven of them – are male. Isn't there even room for tokenism?

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

We sat to hear the voluntary, carried off so well by Mr Lorenz that I almost forgave him his mad dash through the service music. As we left, several people greeted us.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

We had to get to another appointment, and so missed it.

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

7 – Incense and birettas are fine, but the boy-band aspect of the clergy would bother me. So would regular exposure to that gawdawful tenor.

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

Yes, it did. I felt a real commitment to the gospel and to the sacraments there.

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

The horrific final measures of Hans Leo Hassler's Cantate Domino.

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