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951: St Raphael's, Berkeley, California, USA
Other reports | Comment on this report
Mystery Worshipper: ACOL-ite.
The church: St Raphael's, Berkeley, California, USA.
Denomination: Liberal Catholic Church.
The building: This congregation meets in Grace North Church, a Congregationalist church which uses the English 1662 liturgy. The building is as eclectic as this sounds. A wood and plaster Congregationalist set-up with the choir at the east end is the setting, to which an altar and Marian shrine is added for each St Raph's service. There are no kneelers, so the congregation bring their own cushions!
The church: Well, they both seemed like very nice people. Yes, there were more clergy listed on the website (though only two present at this service) than there were worshippers other than me at this, their main weekly service.
The neighbourhood: I know of at least two other churches on this street: one very liberal, Catholicish Episcopalian place, and an evangelical house church. I wonder if that makes the neighbors any holier?
The cast: The priest, Fr. Matthias Van Thiel, was assisted by Imelda Brown, deaconess.
What was the name of the service?
+Holy Eucharist+ (their crosses).

How full was the building?
Two clerics plus three laity in a building that would probably comfortably fit 200.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
There was a Marian devotion scheduled for 15 minutes before the service, to be led by the deaconess, so she came over before that to give me a sheet for it. The priest came by a little before the service to check I had found the right books.

Was your pew comfortable?
Adequate. No kneelers.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I had a wonderful feeling when I entered that I was in for a musical treat, as I heard the most glorious sounds coming from what I hoped was the choir practice room. Unfortunately, this was just a CD and there was no real choir. However, in the absence of any musicians, quiet background chant worked very well in creating the right atmosphere.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A St Alban's Shorter Eucharist was a very easy to follow prayer book. We also had a small St Alban's hymnal. It contained full music, but everything was in very small type.

What musical instruments were played?
None. They could have done with something, just to keep the beat in the hymns. While Fr Matt (as he asked me to call him) had an admirable sense of pitch, he seemed to be "rhythm deaf," if such a thing exists. A most odd combination.

Did anything distract you?
Trying to work out what the priest was saying at times. He didn't have the most carrying voice in the world and, being congregational, the church hadn't really been designed with the idea of an east-facing mass being said. I could hear him perfectly well when he faced us, but when he turned to face the same direction as us, his sound got lost. In this situation, I suspect a west-facing mass would be preferable.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Pretty formal. I had been hoping for a mystical and numinous liturgy, but didn't find it here.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
6 minutes. Praise be to God it was no longer.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
3 – I haven't given the preacher 1, because he actually made some good points. The problem was that these points were entirely unconnected, as was the whole of the sermon. It had no clear structure.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The problem was the lack of nutshell. He mentioned the importance of perseverance; that powers and dominions are something God can protect us from; he re-narrated the story of Job; and reminded us to vote in the Presidential election on Tuesday.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
This was my first experience of communion on the tongue: that is, the priest placed an intincted wafer directly on my tongue when I came up to receive communion. I had never realized quite how wonderful this was. I shall not attempt to describe it in any way other than "kingdom-shaped".

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The music. As I mentioned, the priest had a good sense of pitch, but no sense of rhythm. He also sang hymns much too fast. The service featured three hymns and a good deal of chanting. Possibly aware of their pastor's shortcomings, the congregation joined in with very little of this. There were many embarrassing moments when it was only the priest and I singing.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Normally saying that everyone in the church introduced themselves would be a strong compliment. Here, it's simply a comment on the numbers.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The food was good and the discussion was interesting. They invited me to join them in reading The Science of the Sacraments, a book by one of the Liberal Catholic Church's founders. Here is not a place for a discussion of their theology, but several elements of it came to light during the discussion which would discourage me from attending again.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It made me appreciate my own church! The communion offered me a taste of the wonder of the Christian promise, but the service as a whole reminded me simply of how far we've fallen (and not in a good way).

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Singing "O come all ye faithful" (In England, a Christmas carol) as a fraction anthem.
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