St Alban’s, Wickenburg, Arizona

St Alban's, Wickenburg, Arizona, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Alban's
Location: Wickenburg, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 9 March 2008, 10:30am

The building

A simple, modern A-frame building on a green patch of land. The exterior is rather plain. The interior is narrow and features a wooden-planked pitched ceiling somewhat resembling an inverted Roman warship. Small but attractive stained glass windows are dedicated to various saints and include the symbol by which each saint is customarily depicted in art (keys for St Peter, etc.). The overall effect of the interior is warm and tasteful. There is no statuary, but all crucifixes were veiled in purple for Passiontide.

The church

They appear to be an active, caring congregation, with all the usual church ministries. Most people in attendance were middle-aged to elderly, with a smattering of young adults but hardly any children.

The neighborhood

Wickenburg, located about 50 miles northwest of Phoenix, sits on the main highway between Phoenix and Las Vegas. A former gold mining town, it was once known as the dude ranch capital of the world due to the abundance of vacation resorts offering a Wild West lifestyle. The historic business district has been carefully reconstructed to look like something out of an old western movie, with saloons and saddlery shops and one of the last still-active, single-screen, grindhouse-style movie theaters left in the country. The town's economy relies heavily on the tourist industry, with some of the former dude ranches having retooled themselves as health resorts. The church is located on a quiet residential street along with several other churches, somewhat removed from the tourist area.

The cast

The Revd David L Thom, STM, rector, was the celebrant. Ms Janelle Downing presided at the organ.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Eucharist.

How full was the building?

The church can hold about 80 and was almost completely full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A lady at the door nodded, smiled, said good morning, and handed me a service leaflet. During the peace ceremony, several people near me asked my name and where I was from - to my downfall, as I was about to discover.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes. The brown oak pews were cushioned and spaced well apart from each other. The fold-down kneelers were also comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet for the most part, although the greeters made some noise at the back of the church. After finding their seats, people sat quietly; some prayed. There was some subdued conversation. The organist offered a quiet, meditative prelude, and an acolyte in alb and girdle came out to light the candles. Miss Amanda hates to sound like a broken record, but to all you acolytes out there who think you can wear anything you want under your robes: jeans and sneakers are not OK. Black slacks, black socks, black shoes, please. All else is simply wrong, wrong, wrong! (Unless you are a monastic, that is, in which case sockless sandals are perfectly acceptable.)

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Bless the Lord who forgiveth all our sins. His mercy endureth forever."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Prayer Book 1979; Hymnal 1982, service leaflet. The Prayer Book wasn't needed, as the full text of the service was included in the leaflet.

What musical instruments were played?

An electric organ, competently played by Ms Downing. It was just right for such a small church, although even at full volume it wasn't going to shake any rafters. There was also a choir of 10 voices.

Did anything distract you?

Not during the service, but before the service I noticed that people tended to arrive in bunches. A dozen or so cars would pull into the parking lot in quick succession, and then after a brief interval a dozen or so more. I was also distracted by the gaudy window treatment in the Baptist church directly across the street. They had hung multi-colored drapes in the windows, perhaps to emulate the effect of stained glass, but at least from the outside they looked quite tacky.

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

A very nicely done Rite 1 low mass (although the language of the Creed was Rite 2), no smells, no bells, no elevations. The choir were vested in red cassocks and white cottas; the priest in alb and a purple chasuble embroidered with a cross in which was set the chi-rho symbol. As the entrance procession reached the sanctuary, the priest kissed the altar before reciting the opening sentence, and he kissed it again before giving the final blessing. The hymns were all traditional and were well chosen for Passiontide. During one of the hymns ("I am the bread of life" one of my favorites), one person who should have known better (read on) raised his hands; otherwise everyone acted quite dignified throughout.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

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

9 – Father Thom spoke well and was easy to understand. He held a Bible but did not refer to it. He peppered the serious bits with some light-hearted remarks - for example, one of the readings was Ezekiel 37:1-14, and he said he probably should have asked the choir to sing that old spiritual "Dem dry bones."

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The incidences of bringing people back to life mentioned in the Old and New Testaments differ from Christ's resurrection. Those people were destined to die again, but Christ was destined to live forever. Christ was also "different" after his resurrection - he could mingle with his disciples for hours on end without being recognized, he could suddenly appear in locked rooms, etc. We have eternal life through Christ's death, but we have to die first. In Passiontide we become aware of our justification and that we live in Christ. Let us use the remaining weeks of Lent to reconcile ourselves to God and to each other.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

I thought that everything blended together to make for a heavenly experience: the attractive church interior, the dignity with which the liturgy was conducted, the aptly chosen music, the attentive, responsive congregation, etc.

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

Even so, I do have some critiques. After the exchange of peace, it was "let's play spot the visitor." The priest asked visitors to stand and introduce themselves. I chose not to, but my seatmates who had been so friendly during the peace ceremony wouldn't have it - they pointed to me and said "Here's one" repeatedly until I was left with no other choice. However, there were other visitors as well: an Anglican clergyman and his wife stood up. Good, I thought, maybe they'll think they're the ones who dropped the Mystery Worship calling card in the plate. This same clergyman was the one person who waved his arms during "I am the bread of life" - shame on him! And the acolyte was guilty of more than just wearing jeans and sneakers. At communion time, Father had to open the altar rail gate by himself with one hand while juggling the communion wafers in the other, so he could minister communion to some disabled persons. Where was the acolyte? Sitting on the sidelines not paying attention, or perhaps staring at his sneakers, instead of watching Father.

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

Not lost, but found! Several people came up to welcome me and to tell me how much they had enjoyed my singing, and would I please consider joining the choir. They also made sure I knew about coffee.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Hot, tasty coffee served in styrofoam cups. There were also some chocolate and vanilla sandwich cookies. A group of people invited me to sit down at their table, and we made pleasant small talk.

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

10 – If Wickenburg were not a 40 minute drive from where I live, I would make this my home parish in a flash! I really liked the friendliness and involvement of the people and the dignity with which they approach the liturgy. Good music and good preaching also merit high marks. I'll be back.

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

It most certainly did.

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

How full of life this parish seemed.

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