Mystery Worshipper: The Shy Soprano
Church: Old St Peter's
Location: Tacoma, Washington, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 26 February 2006, 9:30am
A picture-perfect little gem of a building constructed of wood painted white, set in a small garden, with a bell tower fashioned out of a 300-year-old cedar tree. The interior features a single stained glass window behind the altar, but I can't remember whom it depicts.
Old St Peter's appears fiercly proud of its independent heritage. They have three services every Sunday, with special events celebrated throughout the year. A special emphasis is placed on youth ministries. Bible study, altar guild, and a Willing Hands Guild are also offered.
Tacoma, not far from Seattle, is a major west coast deep-water port on Puget Sound. In days gone by, sulphurous discharges from the city's paper manufacturing industry gave rise to the term "Tacoma aroma." Modern advances have all but eliminated the source of that moniker, however. The neighborhood called Old Tacoma, which is where Old St Peter's is located, was settled in 1865 and became the western terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad. The church sits on a street that divides modern Old Tacoma's boutique-oriented shopping district from single family housing and townhomes.
The Rev. Ginny Torres and an unnamed altar server.
What was the name of the service?Holy Communion
How full was the building?
I slid into the last empty seat when I arrived at 9.35am. The building was full up with about 30 people.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
The woman I sat next to smiled at me and handed me a Prayer Book open to the right place.
Was your pew comfortable?
No, not at all! The pews looked attractive, all dark-stained wood and slats, but the padding was less than adequate and the width left something to be desired.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I missed it. Funny story, actually. I wasn't planning on going to church that Sunday, let alone Mystery Worshipping, but I got lost after stopping for gas in Tacoma and just happened across this adorable little church with a sign out front that read "9.30am worship." I threw the car in reverse, parked on the street, and went inside.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"The service of holy communion will begin on page... of the Book of Common Prayer."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
1928 Book of Common Prayer and a hymnal that I didn't catch the name of. I had never been to a 1928 Prayer Book service before. The hymns were posted on a board behind a pot-bellied stove.
What musical instruments were played?
Stereo system. The priest cued it up with a remote control.
Did anything distract you?
First of all, they were observing Quinquagesima, so the vestments and altar cloths were purple. I wasn't ready for it to be Lent already! Next, there was a small child a few pews up who was doing small-child things. His mother was the one who was distracting me, hissing at him to be quiet and sit still. Then I spent some time trying to figure out where the music was coming from. Turned out to be a couple of speakers hidden under white cloths behind the altar. Finally, while people were still receiving communion, others were wandering around, talking to each other in quiet voices. The church is so small that I could hear each conversation clearly.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Somewhere in the nebulous middle. Very little crossing and bowing went on, even when the priest blessed the congregation. However, they were celebrating Quinquagesima, so maybe more toward the starchless-upper lip end of the spectrum.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4 – Rev. Torres read from notes. At times I had problems hearing her. An announcement was made that new speakers and a wireless microphone setup would be installed later that week, so I must not have been the only one unable to hear.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
She spoke on the epistle and gospel lessons, 1 Corinthians 13 and Luke 18, basically re-reading them and adding commentary as she went. But by minute 9 I was totally zoned out, to the point where I wasn't remembering I had my notepad out. I think she said something about how the readings tie in with Lent, but I can't remember it.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
When we hit that last hymn, I tried to restrain myself, I really did. But then I heard an alto a few pews over start to harmonize, and we just took off with it. We were only supposed to sing the first two verses, but the priest let us sing all six. I definitely prayed twice that day.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Well, along about halfway through the intercessions, the kneeler decided to play a game with my sciatic nerve, and I felt shooting, stabbing pains all up and down my leg. I kept trying to wiggle a little bit to get the pressure off, but I discovered that the pews and the kneelers were not attached to anything at all, and in fact had a tendency to slide about. So I spent a good part of the eucharistic prayer in pain and worrying I was going to knock over all the pews in a horrible domino effect.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
As soon as the service ended, my pewmate introduced herself with a hearty handshake. Then several more people complimented me on my singing, and by that point they'd herded me to the door, where the priest shook my hand, asked me to sign their visitor's book, and pointed me toward the hall with the coffee. People kept me occupied in small talk and wished me safe journeys as I left.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It was OK. Real sugar cubes were offered, along with the granulated stuff. Some store-bought pastries were available.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – Its the size I like, and it's got some areas where I could see my talents fitting in. But it would be a long commute for me, and I'm not sure I could survive those kneelers!
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
People leaning over pews and talking while others were still receiving communion.