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2326: Cathedral Church of the Advent, Birmingham, Alabama, USA
Cathedral of Advent, Birmingham, AL
Photo: © Curtis Palmer and used under license
Mystery Worshipper: William Dewy.
The church: Cathedral Church of the Advent, Birmingham, Alabama, USA.
Denomination: The Episcopal Church, Diocese of Alabama.
The building: The sandstone neo-Gothic building dates from 1883 and replaces an earlier building that was destroyed by fire. It was elevated to the rank of cathedral in 1982. The tower and portico are impressive, and the building and grounds are scrupulously well kept. The interior is a reverent mix of stone, wood, and stained glass.
The church: According to their website, the cathedral as parish church is blessed with some 3,700 members. There are many diverse groups and events, including book groups, organ recitals, clothing drives, cursillo, a respected music program, and intercessory prayer teams. One remarkable effort is the Lenten lunch program, which features guest preachers and lunch prepared by parish volunteers. With the exception of Good Friday, lunch is served every weekday in Lent at a nominal cost and the proceeds go to support the outreach ministry. It appears that if you want to be connected to the community, the parish has some place for you to serve.
The neighborhood: Birmingham, Alabama's largest city, was once a major industrial center and was called the Pittsburgh of the South due to its iron and steel production. Nowadays, Birmingham is known for its banking and financial activities. The church building is in the business district in the heart of downtown Birmingham, very close to Linn Park, a public park where festivals and performances are held throughout the year.
The cast: The Very Revd Frank F. Limehouse, III, dean, preached, and the Revd Canon Joseph A. Gibbes celebrated.
The date & time: Sunday, January 15, 2012, 7.30am.

What was the name of the service?
Holy Communion.

How full was the building?
There were about 50 people scattered throughout the church. Since the nave could seat several hundred people, it had a rather empty look.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
One woman gave me a friendly little wave of the hand while we were approaching the building. A moment later, when an usher opened the door for me, I imagined he was speaking to me, but he was talking very quietly with another usher.

Was your pew comfortable?
The padded wooden pew was comfortable enough for sitting. The fold-down kneeler, however, was at an awkward slope. I moved to another kneeler, but it had the same angle. It seemed conducive to the "Anglican squat" where the faithful rest their weight on their knees and their backsides.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Very reverentially quiet. One or two worshipers spoke as they entered from a side room, but their voices stopped as they entered the church. There was a deep sense of respect for the quiet preparation of the other worshipers.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Let us pray."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Prayer Book 1979 and Hymnal 1982 were in the pews, but we didnít use them. The service, which was from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, was contained in a gray leaflet separate from the bulletin (with its calendar and announcements) and yet another sheet with the lessons.

What musical instruments were played?
The organ, which was played by Charles M. Kennedy. His very fine playing started with a voluntary of J.S. Bach's Wie Schön Leuchtet der Morgenstern and ended with a rousing, if brief, fanfare on Engelberg by Charles Stanford.

Did anything distract you?
The lighting in the church changed for the sermon. The lights brightened in the pulpit (though the preacherís face was somewhat shadowed) while the nave lights were dimmed so dark that one couldnít read. It took a moment for the nave lights to come back for the creed, which was in a print so small on gray paper that one needed to have it memorized.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was like being in church in a museum. The handout with the propers said the service setting was by John Merbecke, but it failed to warn us that it was the mass setting as it appears in the Hymnal 1940. I suppose that when one goes to a 1928 BCP communion service, there is an expectation that the worshipper is familiar with the rite.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
11 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – The preacher had a friendly unassuming style. And a cough, which got edited out of the recording featured on the website.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was somewhat formulaic, starting with an anecdote about fortune cookies. This segued into "Follow your star," which is apparently a "new age" approach to spirituality, self-discovery, and developing human potential. We were told to avoid following our star and to follow Jesus instead. When he told us for the second time that Jesus advocated book burning, I was dismayed.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Being in the worship space with the wood and stone surfaces, the stained glass, and a sense of the beauty of holiness.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Aside from teetering on my slant board kneeler, participating in a congregation whose responses were nearly inaudible. The Merbecke setting was sung so feebly by the people, I almost wondered whether we were supposed to be singing.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The people filed out through doors at which the priests were standing, waiting to greet them. I dawdled about in the back looking at the stained glass windows while the dean finished up his conversation with two parishioners. It then being my turn, he said, "Peace be with you" and asked if I had been to this service before.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None was offered.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – I would like to visit again for a different service, but I would want to belong to a more high church parish.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, but it wouldnít have converted or persuaded me.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Being appalled that a preacher could suggest book burning as a means of rejecting the world, the flesh and the devil.
 
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