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663: First Presbyterian, Orlando, Florida, USA
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First Presbyterian Church, Orlando, Florida (USA)
Mystery Worshipper: St Urho.
The church: First Presbyterian, Orlando, Florida, USA.
Denomination: Presbyterian Church (USA).
The building: The church is a standard white-steepled brick building, spanning almost an entire city block and built up with various annexes and such. It's in stark contrast to the residential and business buildings in downtown Orlando. Think "Miami Vice" meets "The Waltons."
The church: According to the website, they are the fourth largest PCUSA church in the Presbytery.
The neighbourhood: The locals call the street the church is on "Holy Row": the Presbyterian church is right between First Methodist and Downtown Baptist.
The cast: Dr. Howard Edington, Senior Pastor, preaching; Grant Wells, Minister of Community Life, giving the lessons.
What was the name of the service?
Christmas Eve candlelight service.

How full was the building?
So full that those of us who didn't get there a full 30 to 40 minutes early were directed by ushers to go around to the back of the building to sit in the fellowship hall for the service. I wondered what feat of architecture allowed you to sit in the fellowship hall and see the action at the altar at the same time. It was the glories of technology – the service was broadcast on a screen that was placed where the cross would have been on the altar.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
The usher, who looked at us in our jeans and t-shirts, and just waved us to the fellowship hall. "Do you have anyone saving you seats, because if you do, then I can let you in, but otherwise, you have to go to the fellowship hall," he said, waving us away.

Was your pew comfortable?
Folding chair in the fellowship hall. A bit chilly, but fine so far as folding chairs go.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The hall was about half-full of families in evening wear; one woman near me was wearing a beaded gown. Quiet but buzzing with the murmur of parents fussing over children's hair and clothes.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good evening – you'll notice we're packed in pretty tight, so those of you standing in the back should go around to the Fellowship Hall..."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Only the glossy, four-color, printed, 8x10 worship bulletin, elegantly embossed with gold lettering.

What musical instruments were played?
There was a lovely brass group that played carols, and the requisite pipe organ. Also a choir of toddlers through teens singing a few carols that were, for the most part, completely unintelligible over the broadcast system.

Did anything distract you?
The vicarious worship. There was something Orwellian about singing Christmas carols to a large projection screen.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Dignified and well-arranged traditional worship. It went along very nicely with the evening wear.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
If it can be called a sermon. It went on for 34 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
1 – The pastor's delivery style was not exactly to my taste. The sermon was combined with the annual Christmas pageant, so when the opening prayer was finished, the house lights went down and back up, and there was the pastor, sitting in a rocking chair, drinking a cup of cocoa (we presume), and reading from a book.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was a dramatic retelling of the birth of Christ, using small children dressed as shepherds and livestock as props. There were a few good points made; Mary wouldn't have been much older than the fourth grader who was playing her, for instance.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I would have to say the candlelight, though I'm always a sucker for candlelight services. Apart from that, the brass group would have to be next in line. They did a splendid job.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I would say the pastor's sermon, but in reality it was the cookie and coffee hour afterward, where the only black or Hispanic people to be seen in this giant church in downtown Orlando were the helpers who were serving us, and the security guards.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I stood directly in front of the restroom and was not only ignored but was actually knocked over at one point. "Hey!" I shouted, my Christian patience already on the way back to the hotel. "Sorry, didn't see you there," someone mumbled. The coffee hour was much the same, but the helpers were good conversation. None of the regular church-goers even noticed we were around.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Warm apple cider served in dixie cups and a myriad of cookies of the usual variety: chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, sugar. Nothing fancy, but boatloads and boatloads of it.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – I know it's not fair to make such a judgment based on the Christmas Eve service, but I think the pastor's delivery style in and of itself would probably drive me to drink, homicide or Wicca.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Not particularly. I was embarrassed to be there – punch and cookies and ball gowns on the veranda of this multi-million dollar structure with junkies and homeless guys on the perimeter.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The two choir members in front of me getting their punch, vilely abusing the music for the evening, ignoring the exhausted black woman who handed them their punch, then smiling broadly at me and saying, "Merry Christmas!"
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