Grace Episcopal, Astoria, OR

Grace Episcopal, Astoria, Oregon, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Grace Episcopal
Location: Astoria, Oregon, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 8 November 2015, 8:00am

The building

A circa 1886 wooden edifice with some carpenter Gothic architectural details. Entrance is through a 1950s-era parish house and then up a flight of stairs, where one finds a typical wooden nave, simple stained glass windows, and what appear to be original pews. The altar also appears original, as it's fixed against the liturgically east wall (more on this later). The baptismal font and stained glass east window are from the original 1864 building.

The church

Grace isn't just Astoria's oldest religious congregation, it's also the oldest parish within the Diocese of Oregon, having been founded in 1864. They are an officially designated Jubilee Ministry Center, a program that is (quoting from their website) "dedicated to improving the lives of the poor through programs of outreach, evangelism, empowerment, and advocacy [with] a direct and dynamic link between our theology and our ethics."

The neighborhood

Astoria is one of the oldest settlements west of the Rocky Mountains. The great American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark wintered nearby in 1805 and fur baron John Jacob Astor made his fortunes in this part of the Pacific Northwest. The small city was once known for its fishing and canning industry. It's a popular weekend getaway and is connected to Washington State via the AstoriaMegler Bridge, which spans the Columbia River. The church is situated on the bluffs overlooking Astoria and the majestic Columbia River, only miles from where Lewis and Clark discovered the Pacific Ocean.

The cast

The Revd Lance Peeler, rector and pastor, wearing a black clerical shirt with tab collar, white alb and pale green chasuble. An unknown female acolyte, wearing a white alb with cincture and pectoral cross, served as the crucifer. The acolyte also did the readings from the epistle side lectern.

What was the name of the service?


How full was the building?

There were about 15 congregants scattered across the otherwise empty nave.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I was welcomed by a gentleman who introduced himself as Art. He returned a few moments later with a small welcoming packet that consisted of a brochure on the church's history, a religious poem, and a fossilized seashell. He was extremely kind and gracious. This is also one of those congregations where everyone greets each other during the peace, which I find somewhat annoying and superficial. Several of the congregants said "Welcome" when shaking my hand.

Was your pew comfortable?

Extremely comfortable, with generously padded kneelers. The kneelers themselves were barely used, as the Rite II liturgy calls for mostly standing.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet. You could have heard a pin drop.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The 1979 Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church, the Hymnal 1982 and Lift Every Voice and Sing II were all in the pews. Most of the liturgy was contained in a service leaflet. The liturgy was essentially Rite II, although the traditional language Lord's Prayer and psalms were retained.

What musical instruments were played?

Unfortunately, the service was said and not sung. I spotted a small pipe organ and what appeared to be a guitar tucked under the pulpit.

Did anything distract you?

The service booklet, which was actually only accurate for the 10.00 sung eucharist. The said service didn't have hymns and the processional and recessionals were said canticles.

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

It's tough to classify a parish church by its early service, but I would consider this to be a somewhat stiff and broad service with little trappings of high churchmanship, outside the rector's chasuble and the processional cross.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

15 minutes.

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

5 – The rector spoke from the crossing, not from the carved wooden pulpit.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

It mostly recapped the sermon delivered by the recently installed presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The minute or two of quietness for reflection and contemplation after the rector preached. It was so peaceful.

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

The rector didn't use the altar, as it would have required him to face east. Instead, he used a small table placed underneath the chancel arch – it was literally the size of a small end table – and covered in what looked like a white runner. At communion time he quickly moved up to the altar as the acolyte put in place the altar rails and the congregation came forward to receive the bread and wine. This was confusing and disorganized.

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

The rector invited me to coffee but I had other plans and politely apologized.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

See above.

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

5 – I could get by at the 8.00 service, but I would prefer Rite I, 1928 or 1662.

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

The warmth of the congregation was comforting.

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

How empty the church was.

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