St George's, Laguna Hills, California

St George's, Laguna Hills, California, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: Zimmy
Church: St George's
Location: Laguna Hills, California, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 25 October 2009, 10:00am

The building

An imposing mission style complex dating from the late 1960s, of which the church is only one component, sitting stylishly back from a busy street near (and visible from) the frenetically busy Interstate 5, also known as the San Diego Freeway.

The church

This congregation has existed from the late 1880s. They place a special emphasis on youth, sponsoring St George's Academy for pre-school and kindergarten, and the Pathway School for elementary and secondary students. They also sponsor several health ministries and support Habitat for Humanity, which helps to provide affordable housing for the working poor. There are two celebrations of the eucharist each Sunday, the earlier service following Rite I and the later service Rite II (described on their website as including "all the pomp and majesty of the best we can offer to God)".

The neighborhood

Laguna Hills is in Orange County, southeast of Los Angeles, at the intersection of Interstates 5 and 405 (known as the El Toro "Y"). During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the region was dominated by a small number of wealthy landowners who raised oranges, avocados, strawberries and other fruit on huge plantations. One such landowner, Walter Knott, had heard tales of a hybrid berry produced by crossing a raspberry, blackberry and loganberry. Exploring a deserted farm, he discovered a vine that bore the hybrid. Calling his find the boysenberry, after the farm's original owner, Knott cultivated the berry and sold it at a roadside stand – an enterprise that eventually grew into the theme park known as Knott's Berry Farm. Agriculture in Orange County declined after World War II, and the plantations were subdivided into housing tracts. Today Orange County consists primarily of upscale residential communities interspersed with large shopping malls. The sprawling retirement community known as Leisure World (which wags refer to as Seizure World) is a dominant feature of the region. St George's Church is located in a leafy, middle or perhaps upper-middle socio-economic community where the streets are wide, leaves are green, and (judging by car park capacities) churches are not numerically challenged.

The cast

The Revd Norman Freeman, rector, was the celebrant and preacher, assisted by a plethora of individuals and families. A pianist par excellence and a handbell choir played significant parts in the service.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Eucharist, Rite II.

How full was the building?

Probably three-quarters full, with a delightful mix of age groups, except I thought that teenagers and young adults were under-represented. All other ages were plentifully abundant. There were about 160 people present altogether.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I arrived a bit too early, but once someone was on deck, I was quite formally but pleasantly welcomed in the narthex. I found my own way to a pew.

Was your pew comfortable?

I've rarely sat in a pew so comfortable. Not cozy fall-to-sleep comfortable, but welcome-and-let's-do-this-well comfortable. Hats off to the craftsmen!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The pew bulletin notes, "We observe a 15 minute period before each service for prayer and meditation." In fact, what happened was that the handbell choir rehearsed (a performance to die for!). This segued into silence, which in turn segued into a magnificent prelude.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning and welcome."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Every redwood tree in California must tremble in fear of its life each time St George's puts out an order of service. The service booklet consisted of 20 very large and beautifully presented sheets of paper. Everything we needed was included, and more.

What musical instruments were played?

This is a faith community of musical excellence. Father Freeman took a master of music degree from the Juilliard School of Music and is a highly accomplished jazz musician (so the website tells us), and so music plays an important role at St George's. The piano, organ and handbell choir were the primary music sources. We're not talking grandpa with wobbly fingers here: from the Variations on Amazing Grace onward, this was broadcast quality!

Did anything distract you?

One of the candles kept doing its obligatory fluttering and threatening to go out – or did it actually go out? Also, it seemed to me that the traditional epistle and gospel sides had been reversed. And during the children's sermon, two of the little ones at Father Norman's feet amused themselves with a game of rock, paper, scissors – not everyone was as enthralled with his sermon as this Mystery Worshipper, I guess.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

This was a glorious interfusion of the best of formal high-side of middle Anglican liturgical tradition (gospel procession but no bells or smells) with family-friendly atmosphere. Only the hymnody dumbed down the traditions. The happy-clappy spiritual "This Little Light of Mine" struggles to work on a church organ with all the stops out.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

9 – A polished sermon from a preacher who crafts his art. It was pitched for young families and incorporated a brilliant enactment of trust and visual blindness. The rapport between Father Norman and the children was clearly well established and a joy to behold. The children's component segued (that word again) seamlessly into the adult component.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Do people ever recognize life while they live it? Do we ever seem to have time to look at one another? Carpe diem! (without the big words). Like blind Bartimaeus, whom Jesus healed, we need to have our eyes opened. (And here, of course, was the Christological rub I hoped for.) Jesus opens eyes!

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The handbell choir. Oh my goodness, they were a delight – and their sheer joy in their art, both rehearsing and in the liturgy, was utterly joy-infectious.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Parents seemed to be incessantly popping up with cameras to take photos of their little darlings. Why? Was this a special service? And why, oh why, did the crucifer need to wear white gloves? Would human hands uncovered defile the sacred cross, or vice versa? And then there was the BMW Z4 parked in the "Clergy Only" parking spot. (Did I say that Orange County is upscale?)

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

Father Norman noticed I was a visitor, but instead of bidding me welcome and pointing me toward coffee, he actually said, "Bon voyage." But I hung. And hung. Finally I sidled up to a lady and asked where coffee was being served. She turned me in the right direction but then was gone in the blink of an eye! In the hall, those who stayed were enjoying coffee at their tables, but made no room for a stranger.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Ghastly. Sort of wet and brown and watery coffee-like substance. I am sure that no coffee bean, fair trade or otherwise, sacrificed its life for it.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

6 – Perhaps, as the cameras suggested, this was a special service, and therefore a stranger went unnoticed. If not, then this church has, for all the spit and polish, some serious issues about welcoming. I felt invisible.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Absolutely. But the after-mass function left a bitter taste – and not just the coffee.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The concentration and joy on the faces of the handbell choir.

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