|440: First Presbyterian, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina|
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Mystery Worshipper: Eagle Eye.
The church: First Presbyterian, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.
Denomination: Presbyterian Church USA.
The building: Large modern cruciform church, built in the "island" style of gray cedar with clear glass windows from ground level to about eight feet up, then arched to the top. The chancel area is huge (the church is the home to the Hilton Head Orchestra) with a vast elevated hardwood area containing a beautifully carved communion table and behind it and up a step or two, a similarly carved pulpit both on casters for easy removal. Behind the pulpit is a large choir loft facing the congregation and a massive pipe organ on either side of a very colorful stained glass window. Both transepts feature seating on the floor and gallery level.
The church: The church is a part of a large complex of buildings including Sunday School rooms, a day school, offices, a columbarium and a large fellowship hall which was formerly the sanctuary, as well as a free-standing small white clapboard chapel in which the church started. It appears that the entire original chapel would fit in the chancel of the present church.
The neighbourhood: Americans know that Hilton Head Island is the place to retire. A golfers paradise, it features a myriad of courses and tennis courts, bike paths through the carefully maintained forests, white sandy beaches and a near perfect climate. It is also a prime resort destination for middle-aged execs. Very upscale. Very nice. To give readers an idea what "upscale" means, the day of my visit the church day school was sponsoring a "silent auction" where items which have been donated are listed, each on a separate bid sheet. There were hundreds of items available all posted in groups on various hallways between the church proper and the fellowship hall. In addition to the usual items like "Dinner for two at La Bella Bistro value $35" there was a 9' x 12' oriental carpet and a "2002 Chrysler PT Cruiser minimum bid $22,000." First Presbyterian is evidently the "biggest toad in the puddle".
The cast: Senior pastor, Rev. Dr William J. Runsey; assistants, Revs. Lydia M. Rappaport and F. Scott Simpson.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
About three-quarters full. Full to the front pew in the central nave, less full in the transepts and galleries. Certainly several hundred.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. There are designated greeters who greet everyone.
Was your pew comfortable?
Standard pew, cushioned with removable cushions all done up with upholstery-covered buttons. IÕm not sure if I was sitting where two sections of the pew came together or if I had my buttons out of whack, but something was lumpy.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Very chatty. Old friends greeting one another and trying successfully to be heard over the organ prelude.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning," followed by an extended welcome to visitors, announcements for the week and a brief address by a parishioner seeking contributions for a church-sponsored childrenÕs home.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. Aside from the scripture reading, everything, including the hymns, was printed in the bulletin.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ, and as an offertory, handbells.
Did anything distract you?
Not really, although the minister started what I perceived as the sermon without reading the scripture lesson and I wondered for a while if we were going to get through the entire service without one word from the Bible. After speaking for about six or seven minutes, he finally read the lesson and continued with the sermon.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Neither. Sort of bland.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
Counting the prologue and the brief lesson, 20 minutes. About 12 minutes if you donÕt count the prologue.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6. He was obviously well prepared, gave us a couple quotations and two rather lame jokes, but did not light any fires.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Presbyterians are fond of titling their sermons. This one was entitled "The Gift of Our Tradition". He extolled us to have faith, mentioned repeatedly the fact that our forebears had faith that endured through time, remarked that the faith was just one generation away from disappearing (with the implication that we had better hand it on) and reminded us that although our faith was the true faith (but never using those words) that we must be respectful of other faiths. He never actually got down to telling us what we should have faith in (aside from God, in a sort of grandfatherly way) or why (except that our forefathers did this and they were right). It never really related to the lesson, which was Revelation 21:1-6a and is generally read at funerals, in my experience.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
None. The service lacked any transcendent moments. The last hymn was "Our God, our help in ages past", and it was well played and sung, but not heavenly. No descants, interludes or alternate harmonizations, just more stops on the organ. It was as good as it got, though.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
None, except perhaps the few portions of the service read or recited by the congregation, which seemed painfully s-l-o-w, pausing at every opportunity. I wonder how this question would be answered by another reviewer, from a different ethnic or socio-economic group. I have seldom seen such a homogenous congregation. Virtually everyone there was over 50. Everyone but one person was white. Everyone was well dressed. Lots of present and former CEO types and their wives tall, healthy specimens, each with a pleasant golferÕs tan, used to being in command. Everyone was nice. But when the children from this large congregation went forward for the childrenÕs sermon, there were just six, one of whom was so young she had to be taken by her mother.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Not a chance. They pass around a sign-in sheet while the collection is being taken and visitors are to put on some small blue self-adhesive labels that say "visitor". The folks in your pew know you are a visitor when you sign in and after the service everyone else knows too. I was repeatedly greeted.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Near mayhem. To get there you had to walk down the hall where the silent auction items were posted. Once in the fellowship hall, there is a table laid out with all manner of cookies with iced punch at each end. Coffee is also available. The fellowship hall also had tables around the perimeter selling Christmas-related handcrafted items. The crowd was so thick that, after repeated glimpses at the food and repeatedly being greeted due, in part, to my little blue visitor badge, I put my shoulder down and dove for the cookies, which were wonderful. On the way out I passed a sign which said that occupancy of the hall by more than 270 was unlawful. I found myself wondering about that as I often do in an overcrowded elevator...
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6. There are an unbelievable number of activites at this place. A full meal is apparently produced after the late service on a weekly basis for about 100 and the fellowship hall was fragrant with fresh baked bread and pies for the weekly repast. There are activities for virtually every interest group and a weekly schedule in very small type fills the back of the Sunday bulletin. Still I fear that the homogenous congregation would produce a stagnant world view and faith in the status quo instead of challenging me to think "outside the box".
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I guess so.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?