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716: St Margaret's, Palm Desert, California
Other reports | Comment on this report
St Margaret's, Palm Desert
Mystery Worshipper: Emerson.
The church: St Margaret's Episcopal, Palm Desert, California.
Denomination: Episcopal Church in the USA.
Comment: We have received a comment on this report.
The building: This is a lovely, large church set at the base of mountains in wealthy Palm Desert. The building is quite contemporary with no statues or icons. A large parking lot is on one side of the church and administration buildings and a parish school are on the other.
The church: St Margaret's serves a very affluent community, as was apparent by the people there for this service. It is virtually all white and well heeled. Fur coats were in abundance.
The neighbourhood: Palm Desert is one of several villages serving the Cochilla Valley. The church is only about a mile from El Paseo, the "Rodeo Drive" of this end of California.
The cast: Robert Certain, rector and celebrant, and Frederick Swann, organist in residence There were three other priests in the procession and a choir director, but they were not named in the bulletin, so I don't know who they were.
What was the name of the service?
Christmas Eve.

How full was the building?
The church was maybe 80 per cent filled. Quite a few pews were only half-full and a large set of folding chairs which had been brought in for the overflow were unnecessary.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
The ushers were quite friendly and handed me a service book for the evening and welcomed me to St Margaret's. Many people in the congregation seemed to know each other and there was considerable visiting across pews before the service began.

Was your pew comfortable?
The pews were conventional, with folding down kneelers. There was ample room between the pews to kneel comfortably.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Anything but reverential. People walked around visiting. The rector made several passes up and down the aisles and acolytes ran back and forth from the sacristy (front of church) to the narthex. Because this was Christmas Eve, people tended to arrive early.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
After about a 30-minute music program, the rector greeted everyone from the back of the church: "Behold I bring you good news of a great joy..."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Everything was printed nicely in the service booklet for the evening.

What musical instruments were played?
Frederick Swann was his usual professional self at the organ. A small group of instrumental musicians presented a short musical prelude and joined the organ in some of the choir presentations. The choir director (never named) played the piano for a couple of the featured pieces.

Did anything distract you?
Yes. I was bothered by the lack of reverence for the space and the service. An older couple near me talked loudly throughout the service. A younger couple kissed deeply and passionately about every three minutes. There were obviously many children visiting their parents for Christmas and many visitors who had no idea what the service was or how to listen and/or participate.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
St Margaret's is essentially a low church in its liturgy. It was clear this night that the main focus was on the music and not the eucharist. When the priests gathered around the altar, the prayers of institution were functional but formulaic and recited without much feeling.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
The sermon was short, about 6 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
2 – It seemed clear that the rector had not prepared much more than a sketch of ideas, probably often recited in previous services. The sermon was a stitching together of cliches and not much more. He seemed disinterested or distracted. It was clearly not an Anglican sermon with depth and careful planning.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Christmas has memories, good and bad. But there are always more good than bad if we think about them. This was strung out between personal comments and a couple of inappropriate attempts to be funny. It ended with a brief prayer that simply recited the main ideas of the sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The music was simply glorious, and it carried the evening. I found the final singing of "Silent Night" very moving: the choir, with candles burning, knelt quiely at the communion rail in the darkened church.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The almost circus-like atmosphere that included talking, waving at friends, walking up and down aisles. And, too, there was seeming confusion at communion where there was a very awkward flow of communicants.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
It was nearly 12.30am and people were in a hurry to leave. A couple of the priests, including the rector, were in the narthex to greet those who passed by and wanted to be greeted.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Since this was a special service, there was no coffee hour.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 – I would go back for the music, but certainly not for the type of sermon or liturgy that I experience that evening.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
The music did, yes.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The large choir kneeling and singing "Silent Night" in the darkened church.
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