St Paul's, Visalia, California, USA

St Paul's, Visalia, California, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: Jill of All Trades
Church: St Paul's
Location: Visalia, California, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 13 April 2008, 10:30am

The building

An imposing, sturdy red brick complex of buildings surrounding a very nice courtyard. From the street one sees two A-frame buildings connected via an ivy-covered cloister which opens into the courtyard containing other buildings in the complex.

The church

In December 2007, the diocese of San Joaquin voted to secede from the Episcopal Church over doctrinal issues and to join the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone of America, which previously had been comprised only of dioceses in South America. Not all of the diocese's 47 parishes chose to ratify that move, however, and those which did not continued their affiliation with the Episcopal Church as the diocese of San Joaquin-Episcopal. On March 9, 2008, a majority of St Paul's congregation voted to affiliate themselves with the diocese that joined the Southern Cone, although a minority elected to form a new church, calling itself the Continuing Congregation of St Paul's Episcopal. Needless to say, all of the above has been surrounded by much controversy and litigation, a discussion of which is beyond the scope of this report. St Paul's Anglican seems quite involved in the community at large, serving the poor and visiting the sick.

The neighborhood

Visalia is located in California's heavily agricultural San Joaquin Valley, about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. At first little more than a creekside settlement, Visalia has evolved into a thriving community which maintains a small town feel amid large city amenities. Historically, Visalia has based its economy mostly upon agriculture, although its economic base has expanded in recent years. St Paul's is located in the downtown area, which can be quite busy during the week but thankfully not so much on a Sunday.

The cast

It was a little difficult to tell just who was who at first, but as best as I can figure, the Revd Tancredo R. Pastores, Jr, celebrated the eucharist and the Revd Richard I. James preached. I don't know if one was the rector and one was the curate – they are both listed merely as "priest" on the church's website.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Eucharist: Rite II.

How full was the building?

It seemed to me that the church was fairly full, but not bulging at the seams.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

As we entered the courtyard, a gentleman greeted us warmly and provided us with an order of service. After that a number of people nodded and smiled and said hello.

Was your pew comfortable?

The pew was surprisingly comfortable, considering that it was wooden with no cushions. I especially liked that the kneeler was nice and tall, which is good for a "vertically challenged" person like me.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

There was a little quiet chit-chat before the service, but for the most part people seemed fairly quiet.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Alleluia. Christ is risen."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

In the pew rack were the Book of Common Prayer, the Hymnal, and another hymnal entitled All the Best Songs of Praise and Worship.

What musical instruments were played?

For most of the songs, the organ was the primary instrument, but there were two gentlemen playing guitars and singing after communion as people were making their way back to their seats.

Did anything distract you?

In the beginning there was a cell phone that went off, a little coughing, and one particularly annoying loud yawn!

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

This seemed a very traditional Anglican service. Very ritualistic and orderly. Happy-clappy it was not, but it might have benefited from a few upbeat songs. The songs were straight out of the hymnal, which I don't mind, but perhaps a blend of the old standards and some of the newer contemporary music might be nice.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

17 minutes.

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

7 – Father James spoke very rapidly, especially in the beginning. It was as though he wanted to get the "teaching" part out of the way so that he could concentrate on some other part of the sermon. However, he really didn't ever get specific about anything, but seemed to prefer vagueness. I thought I heard some allusions to the "doctrinal differences" that had resulted in the breakup of the diocese.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Jesus is the way through which we must come to God, as he is the Shepherd and the Gate. One must be careful to heed the voices of true human shepherds and not listen to false teachings.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Well, not much was like being in heaven in this service. I didn't hear anything that was particularly thought-provoking. When religion becomes rote, we lose that element of mystery and wonder that comes with truly contemplating the glory of God. And the choir did their best to make a joyful noise unto the Lord, but ready for Carnegie Hall they aren't.

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

The one thing that I found distinctly disturbing was that Father Pastores never looked at anyone while he was ministering communion. I'm used to the priest looking at me when he or she says "The body of Christ, the bread of heaven," but this fellow kept his eyes on the wafers. It just seemed very impersonal.

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

The people seemed quite friendly and a number of people introduced themselves, welcomed us to the church, and invited us back. That was quite nice.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was coffee, tea and punch available, served in styrofoam cups. There were also cookies, cheese and crackers. A number of tables had been set up where people could register for various parish activities.

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

8 – I'm comfortable in the Anglican communion, especially in the Episcopal Church. But it saddens me that not all branches of the Anglican communion welcome those who are "different," i.e. gay people or people of color.

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

I'm always glad to be a Christian! This church provided a very traditional Christian worship experience, but frankly, it wasn't much to write home about.

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

I doubt that I will remember the sermon at all, but I suspect I'll probably recall the community service opportunities that are available.

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