St Peter's, Tallahassee, Florida, USA

St Peter's, Tallahassee, Florida, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Peter's
Location: Tallahassee, Florida, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 26 October 2008, 9:00am

The building

St Peter's at this time is worshiping in rented quarters that have served as the "nursery" for a number of mainline churches that have organized in the city. Originally built as a Church of Christ, it is an attractive brick structure in the Tudor style. The building and the grounds appear to be well kept up, and the church maintains its offices in a dwelling house next door that, in all likelihood, was the original parsonage. The interior has a nice finish, with simple stained glass windows and Gothic tracery. The ceiling is somewhat vaulted. The pulpit/choir area apparently has been modified to accommodate a free-standing altar, beautifully appointed with golden pieces and a frontal appropriate to the liturgical season. Behind the altar is a choir screen, with choir and instrumentalists located behind it. Kneelers (see more later) have been fashioned but it is a tight fit because the pews are a bit close to one another. The parish has acquired a large tract of land in the north of the city that was part of an historic plantation. Buildings on the land are still usable, and St Peter's conducts a variety of activities from these. Architects have been engaged to erect a new Gothic style church and ancillary buildings on the site.

The church

St Peter's was formed on October 9, 2005, when a group from St John's Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, chose to separate from the Episcopal Church USA because of doctrinal differences and what they saw as ECUSA's deeply compromised witness to the gospel. St Peter's is a member of the worldwide Anglican Communion, one of over 50 churches under the authority of Anglican Archbishop Henry Luke Orombi and Bishop John Guernsey of the American Convocation of the Church of Uganda. St Peter's holds two traditional and one contemporary service each Sunday, with a healing mass each Wednesday. They conduct numerous ministries all listed on their website. Noteworthy are a lay mission to eight churches in Cuba, and support of Father Flanagan Boys Town North Florida, affiliated with the legendary Boys Town, Nebraska, for over 90 a years a leader in the treatment and care of abused, abandoned and neglected children.

The neighborhood

Tallahassee, Florida's capital, was founded on a site occupied in the winter of 1528-29 by the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto. De Soto's encampment is thought to have been the first place on the North American continent where Christmas was celebrated. Tallahassee's economy has always centered around the state government and institutions of higher learning situated there, and so the city is rather better off than many older American cities its size. It is home to Florida State University, Florida A&M University, Tallahassee Community College, and branches of Barry University, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and Flagler College. Nowadays they are calling the part of Tallahassee in which St Peter's is located "Midtown": it is a few blocks north of the Capitol and the Hermitage/Governor's Residence. Nearby is the Grove, the antebellum home of Florida's first elected governor.

The cast

The Revd Eric Dudley, rector, was the celebrant. He was assisted by the Revd John Wallace, associate rector, in the role of gospeller, and by the Revd Deacon Andrew W. Rowell, who preached.

What was the name of the service?

The Holy Eucharist, Rite II.

How full was the building?

Completely packed. The church is small, seating perhaps 300 people. Every seat was taken. There were many well-dressed young marrieds with children ranging from newborn to high school age, as well as college students.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes. A gentleman whom I recognized from newspapers and public appearances as a justice of the Supreme Court of Florida smiled broadly and handed me a service leaflet – one of the most complete I have ever seen.

Was your pew comfortable?

The pews were comfortable; the kneelers were not! The kneelers are an addition from the last use of the church and are little more than padded benches for the knees. The pews are very close together as one would expect of a Protestant church.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Very reverent. An electronic carillon played quietly.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Book of Common Prayer and the Hymnal published by Church Publishing Incorporated, the supplier to ECUSA.

What musical instruments were played?

Piano and a good electronic organ, played at separate times as appropriate. The music was excellent, the organist accomplished, the singers talented, the celebrant on pitch!

Did anything distract you?

The little boy sitting next to me was a bit active (this was a family service).

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

For north Florida you might call it high church, but only because it was a choral eucharist sung throughout. There was no incense; the leaflet as well as their website explains that incense is common at the later service but is used at the early service only on "high holy days." The clergy were properly vested in quite traditional vestments. Two vested vergers, along with acolytes, assisted in the service. The celebrant faced the congregation. The first and second readings were done by choir members who apparently are also lay readers. The gospel book was brought down into the congregation by a gloved acolyte. The congregation sang well, due in part to the good choir and talented organist. However, the sursum corda, preface, and other parts of the service music were chanted to tunes I was not familiar with and which I'm afraid I found rather lame. Communion was traditional, with the usual thin round wafers and the common cup ministered at the altar rail (which certainly had been installed subsequent to the building's Church of Christ days).

Exactly how long was the sermon?

20 minutes.

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

8 – Deacon Rowell is on his way to full ordination, having left the practice of law to enter the ministry. I'll bet he did great in the courtroom, as his delivery was concise, clear, and (when appropriate) entertaining.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The psalm for the day was Psalm 1 ("Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked..."). Deacon Rowell pointed out that this psalm is a guide for the Christian life. It outlines what good folks do, and what they avoid, and what happens to the other folks.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The music! Every university city I have ever been in has great music in their churches, and if St Peter's is typical, then Tallahassee is no different. The music at the offertory was an 18th century duet performed by a talented tenor and countertenor.

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

I don't like to go to church with children, and this was the family service. The kneelers were torture. The sound system was unnecessary. The peace was active.

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

October is the prettiest month in the South, and coffee on the lawn was a great idea. The ladies had set up tables, and as we walked out of church, coffee awaited us. The people were Deep South friendly.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There were no cakes or cookies, and no sherry, but there was no way to avoid being involved in the after-service coffee. It was also parents' weekend at Florida State University, and the church was hosting a brunch after the morning services for the students and their families. Being neither a student at Florida State nor the parent of one, I passed on that.

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

9 – I have personal concerns about the "troubles" in the Anglican communion. Nevertheless, this congregation's professed allegiance to traditional Christian values is quite attractive.

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

Yes. Although traditional evensong is my favorite service, choral eucharist well done comes in a close second. I really want to be around some day when they do Rite I at this church.

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

The lovely voice of the countertenor in the 18th century duet.

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