Mystery Worshipper: ChaplainJ
Church: St Mark's
Location: Prattville, Alabama, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 22 July 2007, 8:30am
St Mark's is a beautiful old brick building sitting on a corner lot in the heart of Prattville. Dating from the early 1900s, it is wonderfully well preserved and cared for. The lawn, hedges and plantings were well thought out and really enhanced the appeal of the property. The interior features some lovely stained glass, most notably a large window in the west wall depicting the baptism of Christ. By contrast, the window in the east wall behind the altar is of plain colored glass surrounding a host and chalice.
They celebrate two eucharistic services each Sunday and sponsor the usual ministries – altar guild, Sunday school, choir, Episcopal Church Women, etc. They also participate in Kairos, an ecumenical outreach to prisons. Each year on the feast of the Epiphany, they hold an ecumenical service with the local Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches.
Prattville is a small town with a quaint old-fashioned air about it, very close to Montgomery, the state capital, and within an hour's drive of Birmingham. St Mark's is in a neighborhood full of churches, so many that they all share a common parking lot. On this particular Sunday morning the number of cars in the block or two around St Mark's was quite impressive!
The service was led by a lay leader, as the priest was on vacation.
What was the name of the service?Morning Prayer Rite I
How full was the building?
Less than half full, but not so much as to seem almost empty.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
We were greeted outside the front door by an usher, who handed us each a bulletin and shook our hands. It was a very warm and personal welcome.
Was your pew comfortable?
As pews go, this one was adequately comfortable. It didn't stand out as a great pew, nor as one that would require me to get my back realigned on Monday.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Definitely quiet and reverential. I was impressed that people weren't chatting in the pews, but rather sitting or kneeling quietly.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"The service today is morning prayer, and we will begin on page 41."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Book of Common Prayer 1979, Hymnal 1982, a service bulletin with the readings and psalm on an insert.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ and flute during the prelude, with organ alone for the remainder of the service.
Did anything distract you?
Now that you mention it, it was a bit cold at first, especially for someone not used to air conditioning in church! But that ceased to distract me before very long. I was also a bit distracted by the verbal rubrics (see below).
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service was definitely relaxed, but not happy clappy. More of a relaxed semi-formal, the knit golf shirt and khaki pants of worship. I got the impression that these folks had a lot of practice worshipping together, and were able to do just that without worrying over making the service perfect or highly formal. It was being led by a lay leader – who later commented it was her first time doing so – and had a few bumps, but they really didn't take away from the overall worshipful feeling. It was as though a bump or two were expected, and that was okay.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – I loved her use of a personal life example, something that had deeply touched her. And I was very impressed by the fact that this was her first time leading worship and preaching as a lay person.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was about turning the busy, complicated, messy, difficult moments of our lives over to God. Choosing just to be present and listen, as Mary did, rather than bustle about like Martha. The answers we seek are often in those quiet listening moments.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The music. There were only two hymns, but they were old favorites that I haven't had a chance to sing in my home church for quite some time, and they were played and sung quite well. It was wonderful joining my voice with those around me, and blending in praise!
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I won't say "nothing," but due to the relaxed, prayerful atmosphere of the service, there wasn't a lot that jumped out as awful. I was expecting a service of eucharist, of course, and was disappointed that it turned out to be one of the daily office only. (I'll return in a few weeks when the priest is back to make up for that!) I will admit that the verbal rubrics (turn to page so-and-so, where we will say such-and-such, please stand, please sit, etc.) grated a bit, but then I am perfectly comfortable with the prayer book and the offices, whereas the congregation may not have been.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was absolutely no chance to look lost. The moment the service was over, one of the regulars was at our pew, introducing himself and welcoming us. He was followed by another, and another, and so on, until someone mentioned that there were coffee and goodies in another space, and we were escorted in a gaggle over there. We were even given a mini-tour of the church. One of the regulars asked us to help him find all the stained glass windows in which Jesus was depicted. There were two windows where Jesus was hard to spot, and he said he could never find those two – but we did!
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I regret to say I am not a coffee drinker, but my friend said it was fine. I enjoyed the juice, and the pastries, though store bought, were excellent.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – I'd want to come back for the eucharist and meet their rector, but the hospitality had me hooked from the first moment.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The hospitality, no question. People say that's just the way southerners are, but I've encountered an unspeakable lack of hospitality within 10 miles of this church.