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2481: St John's, Mobile, Alabama, USA
St John's, Mobile, AL (Exterior)
Mystery Worshipper: Preacher's Kid.
The church: St John's, Mobile, Alabama, USA.
Denomination: The Episcopal Church, Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast.
The building: The present building dates from 1956 and replaces a wooden structure that stood for over 100 years. It is a hall church with no transepts. The chancel is a narrowed space and was contemporary for its day: laminated beams forming a Gothic arch. The sacristy is on the left and the choir and organ on the right. The ceiling is lined with what appears to be acoustical tile. As a result, the room is completely dead, requiring electronic amplification for even the loudest crescendo from the choir. In the rear, on each side of a smallish narthex, are a chapel and the baptistery with a beautiful carved font. It is apparent that the chancel furniture and the altar came from the original church, as did the altar piece, which is back-lit stained glass.
The church: Billing itself as Anglo-Catholic – and probably the only one between New Orleans and Jacksonville – St John's celebrates a sung mass each Sunday and morning prayer each weekday, with a eucharist on Wednesdays as well. They sponsor Women in the Church and Men in the Church, plus Christian formation classes for children, teens and adults.
The neighborhood: Although originally established by French Canadians (or, better put, French from New France), Mobile became a part of Spanish West Florida after the War of 1812, and part of the United States when Spain ceded its Florida provinces in 1820. The culture of Mobile, like most of the historic coastal cities that were under significant Spanish and French control, is historically and predominantly influenced by its Roman Catholic heritage. In point of fact, Mobile is where Mardi Gras began as a seasonal celebration in the South. Mobile still retains some of its grand boulevards lined with massive oak trees that form a tunnel for pedestrian and auto traffic. Antebellum homes, stately hotels and churches of all denominations line Government Boulevard, one of the most scenic avenues in the South.
The cast: The Revd Thomas Heard, rector; The Revd Deacon Jayne Carson; Louis F. Daniel, organist and choirmaster. Lay readers, crucifer and thurifer were not named.
The date & time: The Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ, January 6, 2013, 10.00am.

What was the name of the service?
Solemn Mass.

How full was the building?
The church appears to seat between 175 and 225 people, but there were fewer than 75 people there, most of whom sat on the back three rows. The congregation appeared to be comprised totally of grandparents – and perhaps great–grandparents. Young families with children were conspicuous by their absence.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was greeted by a gentleman who later read the first lesson.

Was your pew comfortable?
The pew– certainly a different purchase from the chancel furniture – was quite comfortable, although the kneeler could have used a bit more padding.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
This is one of those churches where everyone talks to everyone else, and not in stage whispers. Everyone talked during the organist's voluntary and no one quieted down until the commencement of the entrance rite. The Westminster Chime rang out from the steeple. I've heard plenty of electronic bells in my time, some good, some bad, but I am sure that these bells are real – or else they are very good electronic ones.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" chanted by the rector.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The complete service was contained in a leaflet, including the settings for the psalm and chants. However, the Hymnal 1982 was required for singing.

What musical instruments were played?
The church's antique Kimball pipe organ, probably transplanted from the old church.

Did anything distract you?
The incessant talking and visiting prior to the service and during the choir's respectable rendition of the contemporary English composer Malcolm Archer's setting of Brightest and Best. But the biggest distraction was discovering that one of the stained glass windows had been given in memory of one of my relatives – someone I hadn’t thought of in 40 years.

St John's, Mobile, AL (Interior)

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Although the Kid equates Anglo-Catholic worship with high church, it was hard to tell whether St John’s was low church with overtones of high, or the opposite. To be sure, no noses bled. The thurible was not carried in procession even though incense was used at all the customary places. But the use of Rite II in an Anglo-Catholic service is, to the Kid, an oxymoron. Or perhaps these folks are adherents to Vatican II. The service was almost entirely chanted, including an Anglican chant setting for the psalm. The celebrant (not the deacon!) chanted the gospel fom the center of the congregation.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
10 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4 – The rector read his sermon and was clear and understandable, although the Kid didn't think the sermon itself was particularly intellectual.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
History cannot be certain as to how many Magi came to visit the baby Jesus. Were there three, or only two? We assume three because the three gifts are mentioned by name. At any rate, the Magi disobeyed King Herod, but in doing so they protected Jesus.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Under any circumstances it is pleasing to see the use of incense and to participate in a sung service, albeit Rite II.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The passing of the peace was a disaster. People gossiped, walked up and down the center aisle greeting each other, and even (if the Kid's ears did not deceive him) placed bets on an upcoming football game!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
One of the choristers introduced herself to me and invited me to coffee. The gentleman reader engaged me in conversation, and one lady insisted that she "knew me from somewhere."

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Coffee was served in in mugs, and it was quite good; however, no extra goodies were to be found.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 – The Kid prefers a Rite I service where the congregation seem more attuned to where they are and why they are there.

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

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The Westminster Chime and the use of incense.
 
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