Celebrating the Life of Rossweisse: St Peter's Episcopal Church, St Louis, Missouri, USA

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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Celebrating the Life of Rossweisse: St Peter's Episcopal Church
Location: St Louis, Missouri, USA
Date of visit: Saturday, 6 November 2021, 11:00am

The building

The building is a red-brick colonial style building with four pillars across the front and a white steeple. The church interior is white and dove-grey. The tall windows are clear glass and filled the nave with light. White roses adorned the altar, which was vested only in fair linen with no frontal. The overall effect was calming.

The church

The parish is noted for its music program, which includes regular choral evensong and organ vespers.

The neighborhood

The church is located in the Ladue suburb of St Louis, noted for its tree-canopied neighborhoods, friendly atmosphere, and unique shopping and dining experiences. The area around St Peter’s Church features large woodsy lots on which sit elegant middle-class houses.

The cast

The rector led the service and celebrated the eucharist. The senior associate rector preached and assisted during the service.

What was the name of the service?

A Service to the Glory of God in Celebration of the Life of Sarah Bryan Miller.

How full was the building?

There were approximately 50 people in attendance, plus two clergy and around 20 in the choir. This appeared to be about one-fourth of what the nave could hold, due no doubt to lingering concerns about Covid.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I was welcomed in online chat by other Shipmates who were viewing from around the country.

Was your pew comfortable?

Not particularly, as I was visiting my grandchildren and the chair was more suitable for a preschooler.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Serene. The liturgy was preceded by 10 minutes of organ music selected by Rossweisse: Johann Sebastian Bach’s Chorale Prelude Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele, BWV 654; the Australian/English organist and composer George Thomas Thalben-Ball’s Elegy; and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Organ Prelude on ‘Rhosymedre’. The choir then sang a setting of John Donne’s A Hymn to God the Father. That hymn’s concluding line, ‘I fear no more,’ perfectly reflected Rossweisse’s deep faith in the Resurrection and readied us for the words to come.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘I am the Resurrection and the Life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A service leaflet with the full liturgy, readings, and service music; and the Hymnal 1982.

What musical instruments were played?

A two-manual, four-rank pipe organ designed and built by Mander Organs of London, and a lone bagpiper during the retiring procession.

Did anything distract you?

Rossweisse once told me that the St Peter’s choir had a mascot, a rubber chicken on a pole, that would occasionally be carried in procession, and that she wanted the choir to include it in her funeral. Although it would have been out of character with the rest of the liturgy, I kept wondering if the chicken would make an appearance. I expect there is more of a story to this than I will know on this side of the veil, but I did promise her that I would include it in the Mystery Worship report.

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

The worship was dignified and decidedly unfussy, having been meticulously planned by Rossweisse (an excellent liturgist and musician) during her extended illness. The liturgy followed The Burial of the Dead: Rite One from the Book of Common Prayer, and the eucharist was celebrated ad orientem. The clergy were vested in cassock, surplice, and white stoles trimmed in black and gold. For service music, Rossweisse had selected the Nunc Dimittis and the Sanctus by Herbert Howells. Hymns sung by the congregation included the Episcopal classics ‘Lord of all hopefulness’ (Slade) and ‘For all the Saints’ (Sine Nomine). More about that coming up.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

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

8 — The senior associate rector was clear, concise, and delivered a straightforward theological message – that death does not have the final word – in an accessible style (mindful, I assume, of the many who would be watching the service via live-stream).

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Through her careful choices of music and scripture for her funeral, Rossweisse – a lay preacher – was giving us one last sermon emphasizing God’s promise that life is changed by death, but not ended. In the readings from the Wisdom of Solomon (‘The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God’); Revelation (‘Mourning and crying and pain will be no more’); and the words of Jesus in John 11: ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life,’ Rossweisse knew by her deep faith that God’s love does not end. The preacher noted the coincidence between the scripture passages in today’s funeral and those appointed for the following day, All Saints Sunday, when we celebrate the communion of all the faithful departed and our unending life together in the love of God.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The music was exquisite, sung by an excellent choir (with excellent diction behind masks, and quite possibly the best musical phrasing in Christendom). The offertory anthem was a setting of Psalm 121 (‘I lift up mine eyes unto the hills’) commissioned in Rossweisse’s honor by a consortium of six St Louis choirs. The best moment, however, was when the final hymn, ‘For all the saints,’ caused a flurry of messaging between Shipmates, as one recalled a conversation with Rossweisse about how this hymn must be sung with all eight verses. And eight verses were, indeed, sung, to much rejoicing.

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

There was nothing hellish about this service. I am tempted to say that Rossweisse simply would not have allowed it! It was painful to be unable to attend in person, particularly when several Shipmates had hoped to be there as well. And yet I am grateful that St Peter’s live-streamed the service and that I could chat online with other Shipmates during and after. (Yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia!)

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

I signed off, went to the kitchen, and made my own cup of tea.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

We were invited to a luncheon at a nearby hotel (but not sufficiently nearby for this Mystery Worshipper). I have no doubt it was splendid and entertaining as well, as Rossweisse’s funeral instructions included the admonition, ‘Save the funny stories for the reception.’

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

7 — I am not sure. Celebrating ad orientem does not appeal to me, but I would consider making a visit to experience sitting in the peaceful nave and hearing their superb choir in person.

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

Yes, without question.

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

The sudden rejoicing over ‘all the verses!’ and singing Sine Nomine with Shipmates across time and space (including, I believe, a certain Valkyrie).

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