St Paul’s, Prescott, Arizona, USA

St Paul’s, Prescott, Arizona, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Paul’s
Location: Prescott, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 20 July 2008, 10:30am

The building

A small lavender colored building, with belfry, of unremarkable architecture. The interior is very plain, with frosted glass windows covered by vertical blinds, and white walls on which the stations of the cross are displayed. An east-facing altar sits on a raised platform.

The church

Morning prayer and two communion services are held each Sunday; and morning prayer, a communion service, and Bible study each Wednesday. They also conduct a Sunday school and offer nursery care at the later of the two Sunday services, and sponsor men's and women's social groups.

The neighborhood

Located in the mountains well north of Arizona's Sonoran Desert, Prescott enjoys a less severe climate than Phoenix or Tucson, with pleasant summers and snowy but not especially cold winters. President Abraham Lincoln established Prescott as Arizona's territorial capital in 1863 when the territory was split off from New Mexico; it served as such until 1867 and again from 1877 to 1889. Settled primarily by Midwesterners, Prescott lacks the Spanish adobe architectural influence so prevalent elsewhere in the American Southwest. The historic downtown area is rich with examples of turn-of-the-century Victorian commercial architecture - marred, alas, by modernized facades and paint schemes that make one wonder if the contractors thought they were working in San Francisco. Prescott's agreeable climate plus numerous lakes, campsites and hiking trails make the area a favored vacation destination.

The cast

The Revd Peter D. Robinson, FSSM, rector. The deacon and an elderly acolyte both introduced themselves, but I forgot to make note of their names and they are listed neither in the bulletin nor on the church's website. Father Robinson was vested in green chasuble; the deacon in alb and a green deacon's stole. The acolyte wore cassock and cotta, but he must remember to add a bit of bleach to the wash water next time he launders his cotta.

What was the name of the service?

Sung Holy Communion.

How full was the building?

There were about 35 people in a room that could hold about 120. There was an even mixture of young families, middle aged and elderly men and women.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Everyone did! We arrived early after a very rainy drive up from Phoenix. As we entered, the deacon and acolyte were making last-minute preparations for mass. They both introduced themselves and said they were glad we had come. They also saw to it that we met Father Robinson. As parishioners entered, they all came up to us to introduce themselves.

Was your pew comfortable?

The padded wooden pew was comfortable, as were the drop-down kneelers.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

People confined their talking to outside the church, but some conversations could be heard from within. Once inside, people quietly found seats. The acolyte lit the altar candles in proper order: first the epistle side and then the gospel side. The church bell was rung.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"The Lord be with you."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Book of Common Prayer 1928, Hymnal 1940, service leaflet.

What musical instruments were played?

An electronic organ in the back of the church, about which I'll have more to say directly.

Did anything distract you?

The electronic organ was a major distraction. I'm sure the instrument had a full range of church stops, but the organist chose (and stuck with) a registration that made it sound like a circus calliope recorded at 45 rpm but played back at 33 rpm. At communion he switched to synthetic strings and piano, but succeeded only in sounding like a gypsy guitarist trying to imitate Franz Liszt. He also had a habit of adding Frescobaldi-like flourishes to the conclusion of each hymn. Frescobaldi may have gotten away with it on Baroque pipe organs, but on this instrument? I'm afraid not.

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

1928 Prayer Book through and through. The acolyte picked up the altar missal to read the epistle, after which he switched it from the epistle side to the gospel side. The deacon then picked it up to read the gospel. The Nicene Creed preceded the sermon, and the Gloria was sung at the end of mass. The elevation of the consecrated elements was accompanied by bells, but no incense was used. There was no peace ceremony.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

15 minutes.

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

8 – The rector removed his chasuble to preach, revealing a crossed stole but no maniple. Hailing from Yorkshire, he has retained enough of a British accent to please the American ear. He spoke well, referring now and then to notes.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

He spoke on the gospel lesson for the day, the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). Each character in the parable has something to tell us. The prodigal son utters the classic cry of a penitent heart - the British Royal Family have had much practice at being prodigal sons. The reaction of the father is the reaction of God toward us: forgiving of his children who wander but return to him. We can't blame the elder son for feeling that his brother got off too easy. But the parable is not about human conduct; rather, it is about the nature of the kingdom of God. Modern society has no concept of sin and regards man as the highest being. If something is lawful, then it must be moral. Not so in the kingdom of God! We are not free to make up our own minds about what's right and what's wrong - God is the authority, and he has given us an example: love God fully, and love your neighbor as yourself. Do our actions reflect the love of God and neighbor? The prodigal son came to realize that his conduct was wrong, and so he received forgiveness. God is loving and merciful even when we mess up. We should rejoice in the abundance of God's grace.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The overwhelmingly friendly welcome we received.

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

The music. I've already described the organ. The hymns were all from the 1940 Hymnal. I'm sure there are some wonderful old chestnuts in that venerable collection, but somehow the organist managed to choose the hokiest of the hokey, give them a calliope accompaniment, and (as if that were not enough) pitch them too high. I tried to sing as best I could, but I had to stop after awhile. I just couldn't go on! The Gloria was sung to a Scottish chant, which was nice, but the woman behind me kept hitting so many wrong notes that again I had to give up trying to sing along.

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

As before, everyone spoke to us and made sure we knew about the coffee hour. The acolyte extinguished the candles once more in the proper order: gospel side first this time, then epistle side.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Coffee, tea and apple juice were all available in the church hall, along with cheese danish and a delicious chocolate walnut cake. We had an extended conversation with Father Robinson and some of the parishioners.

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

3 – The congregation were wonderful, but I couldn't take a steady dose of the 1928 Prayer Book and certainly not of the parish's musical preferences.

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


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

How much the organ sounded like a calliope on the wrong speed.

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