Epiphany, San Carlos, CA (Exterior)

Epiphany, San Carlos, California, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Epiphany
Location: San Carlos, California, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 25 August 2013, 10:00am

The building

The church meets in a charming campus of connected buildings. These are surrounded by beautifully gardened borders that enclose a small plaza and lawn without cutting the church off from the neighborhood. The overall effect is lovely. The interior of the sanctuary features a moderate amount of Gothic decoration in wood and stone, and reasonably decipherable, minimally detailed stained glass windows. The comparatively spare parish hall was built in the 1950s, and the sanctuary in the 1960s; a rectory was acquired on site in the 1980s.

The church

Elderly white people were overrepresented, though not exclusively so. Everyone seemed to be friends. In fact, my dominant impression of Epiphany was how affectionate the community seemed. During the announcements, the rector very conversationally called up a few people having birthdays and anniversaries, and blessed them at the front of the church.

The neighborhood

San Carlos is an affluent community at the northern tip of Silicon Valley, 20 miles south of San Francisco. One of the smaller towns along the peninsula, it features perfect weather, a walkable main street, and modest but expensive houses. Residents seem to be a mixture of young tech families and the original residents who bought their homes before the tech boom. The median age of San Carlos residents is 42. Epiphany is located in a residential neighborhood about a mile from the center of town.

The cast

The Revd Melanie Donahoe, rector, led the service and celebrated. The sermon was given by a parishioner, Jennifer Kitt. Also assisting was the Revd Deacon Margaret Dyer Chamberlain.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Eucharist and Music

How full was the building?

At the start of the service it was about 20 per cent full. By communion time it was about 40 per cent full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Two greeters smiled, said hello, and made eye contact as they handed me a program when I entered. The passing of the peace was a friendly time. I felt welcomed. Most people were sporting reusable name tags, which I expect has contributed positively to their familiarity with each other. I did not see where the name tags came from, so I assume visitors are not made temporary ones. This is probably just as well, since some visitors might be intimidated by the prospect.

Was your pew comfortable?

It was a standard, unpadded wooden pew with padded kneelers. I found it quite comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

It was mostly quiet, while a few people talked softly and at length. They seemed to be friends catching up. About five minutes prior to the start of the service, a bell tinkled subtly and the organist/pianist began to play a lovely, meditative prelude on the piano. Conversations continued at the same quiet level.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

The processional hymn opened the service with "Morning has broken." The first spoken words followed the hymn and were "Good morning and welcome to Church of the Epiphany."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The pew racks contained the Book of Common Prayer and the Hymnal 1982. However, the entire service was laid out in the voluminous weekly program, so those books were not used. A basic commentary ran alongside the hymns and liturgy in the program, explaining when to sit and stand, and giving a bit of background on the parts of the liturgy. The commentary was concise, well-written, and helpful for a wide variety of visitors and regulars alike.

What musical instruments were played?

Most of the hymns were skillfully accompanied by an organ, a digital electronic instrument by the Galanti firm of Mondaino, Italy. A piano, a classic Steinway grand that accompanied Enrico Caruso on tour and which bears an inscription by Charles Steinway himself, was used for the prelude and to accompany the communion hymn, "Let us break bread together." The offertory song was a flute solo accompanied by the organ.

Did anything distract you?

For about five minutes during the sermon, we could hear the whine of a vacuum cleaner in the adjoining building. Second and this was probably a distraction only to me the offertory was the Largo movement from Antonn Dvoƙks Ninth Symphony (the so-called "New World" Symphony), which features prominently in the soundtrack to the computer game Civilization V. I could not shake the mental association, and spent several minutes blissfully imagining where I would send a settler to plunk down a city if the sanctuary were a terrain map. At least it was a positive association!

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

It was traditionally arranged 19th century hymns accompanied by the organ. Some of the participatory bits of liturgy had been set to music as well. The small congregation sang enthusiastically, and the excellent acoustics of the sanctuary helped the place feel fuller. There was no clapping or raising of hands, nor did the music lend itself to those. The liturgy used was Rite II, Eucharistic Prayer B, with two notable modifications: first, gendered pronouns had been replaced with additional instances of the word "God" when referring to God in general (as opposed to a specific member of the Trinity). Second, "All are welcome at Gods table" was added as the final sentence in the eucharistic liturgy. I took this to indicate that communion was open to non-Christians as well.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

16 minutes.

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

9 – Jennifer Kitt was clearly comfortable with public speaking and held my attention easily. I was wary of the sermon being basically an extended testimony (though those have their place), but she balanced her anecdotes delightfully with teaching and biblical references. I found the sermon to be interesting, authentic, grounded, and inspiring.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The sabbath: how time is a gift from God, but we need his help to receive it as a gift. The sabbath is one way God helps us with that. It is a song of freedom that God has led his people in throughout history. There are many ways in which one can make the sabbath into a day of rest.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The piano prelude before the service was beautiful and relaxing. Second, the light coming through the stained glass was startlingly colorful. Epiphanys atmosphere is homey rather than ethereal (or industrial), and the stained glass helps bend that away from feeling stale. Third, the option of gluten-free wafers meant I could partake of Christs body in the eucharist.

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

It was disappointing not to see more young people, because they do live in the area. I was also troubled by the theological implications of covenant-free communion.

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

The tide of people carried me to the parish hall, where refreshments were available. Visitors were handed red coffee mugs to mark us out specially. Three or four people in series cornered me good-naturedly and kept me occupied and informed.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There were bagels, real cheese slices, and tasty grapes laid out on tables, around which people stood and chatted. I did not try the coffee; I looked for herbal tea but did not find any.

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

7 – I was impressed by the camaraderie and thought the service was perfectly reasonable. They have a modest range of monthly activities as well.

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

Yes. If "by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:35) then it looks like Epiphany is full of Christs disciples.

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

The colored light streaming through the stained glass windows.

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