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178: St Luke's, Atlanta, Georgia, USA
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St Luke's, Atlanta
Mystery Worshipper: Judith.
The church: St Luke's, Atlanta, Georgia, USA.
Denomination: Episcopal Church in the USA.
The building: Boxy red brick with stone trim. The interior has a charming, English feel, with a brick aisle and modernistic Stations of the Cross somewhat jarringly added. However, far and away the most distinguishing feature of the building is that it is entirely surrounded by serious fences. A new tower is under construction and the building site must need defending. A permanent fence surrounds the churchyard, two meters high and built of solid but attractively designed wrought iron. Much of the perimeter is additionally reinforced with a two-and-a-half-meter chainlink fence topped with barbed wire, which also goes across the front door. Other fences also zig-zag across the property such that one section of the churchyard is separated from the street by at least three of them.
The neighbourhood: The nature of the neighborhood explains the fence: it's an eclectic and thoroughly urban section of Atlanta. Proximate features include graffiti-scarred parking lots, an abandoned warehouse, a sign-making shop, the Doctor's Building of Crawford Long Hospital, a couple of restaurants and/or bars including the American Shakespeare Tavern, and a 14-lane Interstate highway. Cookie-cutter townhouses form a rear guard, while glass office towers loom in the middle distance.
The cast: Rev Dr Spenser Simrill, Presider; Rev. Richard Britton, Preacher.
What was the name of the service?
Holy Eucharist Rite I, First Sunday in Lent.

How full was the building?
Packed! Part of the nave was unusable because of renovations, which pushed everyone into a somewhat smaller space than usual, but still, it was a good crowd by any standard.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
No – I got a smile from the usher who handed me a program.

Was your pew comfortable?
It wasn't a pew, it was one of those flimsy plastic folding chairs made by Torquemada Industries (they also manufacture airline seats). In short, NO. In the church's defense, the nave is being renovated and the regular pews were all stacked up in the back. One presumes they'll return when the floor is finished. We live in hope.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Social and lively. People greeted each other and conversed in subdued but distinctly audible tones. A few even chatted through the Bach voluntary before they were brought down to earth, so to speak, by a bell opening the service.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"God the Father."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The 1979 Book of Common Prayer and 1982 Hymnal.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ, with a handbell to start off the Litany.

Did anything distract you?
Being unable to kneel. I like to kneel. It's an important liturgical posture that tends the mind to prayer, and I kept wanting to and couldn't.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Straightforward, a little stiff what with the Litany and all, and with an excellent choir.

St Luke's, Atlanta, Georgia

Exactly how long was the sermon?
16 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
Content: 9; delivery: 10. The preacher's incisive, engaging, and slightly theatrical style caught and kept my attention. But the sermon could have benefitted from including some useful information that applies to real life.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Temptation is everywhere; when we give in to it we abandon our deepest values for something that is counterfeit. Through our baptism, the Holy Spirit gives us strength to resist temptation. Inspiring as the preacher may have been, I felt the need for more specific tools of resistance, since the ones I use haven't been working all that well. As Mae West once said, "I can resist anything except temptation."

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The bread! Usually the priest says, "The bread of heaven" and hands you a dry metaphor that deliberately offers no carnal satisfaction. Not at this church. The bread was indeed heavenly – chewy, moist, slightly sweet, with a faint aroma of yeast. I still regret not going back for seconds, which I could easily have done. Perhaps my ability to resist temptation is better than I give it credit for.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
It happened while the priest was singing the service. Just at the Sanctus his ability to carry a tune finally departed for good and the last few notes wandered off into a previously undiscovered key. At that point the choir rescued the situation by leaping in smartly with full voice and accurate pitch.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing. I got a brief handshake from the preacher, who was busy talking to some parishioners, but nothing was said or implied about coffee. It seemed that everyone knew each other already. Perhaps they may not have been used to strangers; though their phone message is welcoming the barbed wire is a bit off-putting. Another possibility is that they get so many visitors they just wait to see if someone comes back before trying to get acquainted. I also had the sense that the real social action happened between services, which would explain the chatty mood at the beginning.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none, so I went to Starbuck's, where my tall whole-milk latte was just fine, thank you.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
Oddly enough (given their treatment of strangers) 10. The congregation had a diverse mix of ages, races, and so forth, yet people seemed very pleased to see each other and hung around talking for several minutes after the service. I felt that anyone who started to show up regularly would eventually be adopted into a caring, supportive fold that valued a wide range of personalities. But I could be wrong.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, of course. That's why I went. Being an Episcopalian can sometimes cause embarrassment, however.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The lovely processional cross, which was also an image of a leafy tree. And the barbed wire, of course. It's not a feature I usually associate with churches.

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