St Andrews, Birmingham

St Andrew's, Birmingham, Alabama, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Andrew's
Location: Birmingham, Alabama, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 20 February 2011, 10:30am

The building

A small stone church completed in 1920 in a location somewhat difficult to find if you are not familiar with the city. It has a high beamed ceiling and beautifully carved appointments in the sanctuary. A small but well voiced pipe organ hangs on the rear wall, and the choir is seated on one side of the rear of the church by the organ console.

The church

An inner city church, it serves its multicultural and academic neighborhood. The church bills itself as "an Anglo-Catholic parish in the Diocese of Alabama" and, accordingly, appears to attract congregants from all over the city who seek high church worship.

The neighborhood

Birmingham was named after its counterpart in England and was until the 1960s one of the major industrial centers of the United States. It was often called the Pittsburgh of the South due to its iron and steel production. Today's Birmingham is still a manufacturing city but the economy has also diversified into banking, telecommunications and medical care, among other fields. The church abuts the University of Alabama's Birmingham urban campus and the neighborhood caters to the university and its people.

The cast

The Revd Roy Draydon Smith, interim rector, was the celebrant, assisted by the Revd James F. Tuohy, priest associate, and the Revd Deacon Gerri Ashton, who also preached. Jason C. Turner, organist and choirmaster, was in charge of the music.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Eucharist

How full was the building?

About three-quarters full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Two gentlemen were at the door handing out service leaflets. They were quite welcoming. As people gathered, nods of recognition were abundant. During the peace, the gentlemen in the pew in front commented on my singing.

Was your pew comfortable?

The pews were moderately comfortable; they reminded me of box pews even though they faced forward and had no doors. The kneelers were of the hinged drop-down type, and although they were upholstered in leather, the padding was sparse.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The nave was practically empty when I arrived, but as it filled, people visited and it was quite folksy. Most people arrived timely, greeted their friends, and retired to their traditional sitting spots.

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 Prayer Book 1979 and Hymnal 1982, as used in almost every Episcopal church in the United States.

What musical instruments were played?

An organ. It appeared to be a rather nice 10 to 12 rank pipe organ. A small piano was also wedged into the space but it was not used.

Did anything distract you?

The building was so attractive but it bothered me that deferred maintenance was apparent. The sanctuary light was not burning (how odd!), and one baby really wailed!

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

True to its Anglo-Catholic billing, the service was up there in the clouds but didn't quite make it to the highest heaven. I was told that during penitential seasons and Eastertide they really soar beyond the heights, but this was ordinary time after all. There was no incense, nor was there any "purging with hyssop". People stood or knelt at all the right times as might be their personal preference.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

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

7 – The deacon, a delightful middle-aged lady, was pleasantly conversational in her delivery.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The sermon was based on the gospel reading of the day: Matthew 5:38-48 (turn the other cheek, love your neighbor, strive for perfection). The central thesis was justice and fairness. Although many influential figures in history such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr had their agendas, their fundamental thrust was justice. Justice differs from revenge (she mentioned a recent incident, the deliberate poisoning of the heritage oak trees on the campus of Auburn University by a rabid football fan).

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The service had the intimacy many small churches have. The choir, for its size of only eight, did amazingly well. The voices sounded trained, and perhaps even a bit professional. Their renditions were worshipful and respectably accomplished.

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

The sound system from the pulpit was hideously over-loud and completely unnecessary due to the size of the space. It always amazes me when spaces that need no amplification wind up with the worst examples. (What did they do before Alabama Power Company?)

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

I was invited to coffee hour.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

This is Alabama: no sherry! However, the temperature and strength of the coffee made up for it! A rather interesting assortment of dipping veggies, apple pie, quiche tarts, potato chips and candy made up the fare.

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

8 – I would like to have more experience with this or any church before joining; however, this would be a candidate.

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

Yes. The service was beautifully observed and the celebrant well-experienced.

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

The unusual beauty and patina of the building itself.

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