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||1503: St John the Divine, River Oaks, Houston, Texas,
Mystery Worshipper: Merchant Trader.
The church: St John the
Divine, River Oaks, Houston, Texas, USA.
The building: A large, modern, airy building on a larger site that
includes a reception hall, cafe, bookshop and other facilities. The interior
feels spacious and full of light, with atmosphere created by the high roof,
blonde wooden rafters and pews, red carpeting, white walls and modern stained
glass. The new pipe organ by the Létourneau firm of St Hyacinthe, Quebec,
Canada, positively gleams in shiny chromium steel.
The church: Their numerous ministries are all detailed on their website.
There are six eucharists in a variety of styles every Sunday. The church
is closely integrated with the adjoining St John's School although governance
is separate. St John's School bears the honor of having rejected the young
George W. Bush for admission.
The neighborhood: Houston is the fourth largest city in the USA and
the largest city in Texas. Its warm, humid climate makes it especially prone
to violent thunderstorms with heavy winds and spectacular lightning displays.
The River Oaks neighborhood is an affluent community located in the geographic
center of Houston, featuring large wooded lots on which sit the multi-million
dollar homes of oil barons and other wealthy professionals. The Allen Parkway,
a limited access road connecting River Oaks with downtown Houston, was constructed
especially so that the residents of River Oaks could have easy access to
the downtown business district.
The cast: I am going to assume that the celebrant was the Revd Jan
Wiley, assistant rector, although this was not clear from the service sheet.
I counted a total of 17 persons in the sanctuary party, plus about 25 or
so in the choir. The guest preacher was Mr Phil Workman of the Faith
The date & time: October 14, 2007, 8.45am.
What was the name of the service?
I sampled two of the six eucharistic services but will limit my report to
one of those: Holy Eucharist, Rite Two.
How full was the building?
People arrived late. There were about 100 present at the beginning of the
service, which number rose to about 150 by the end of the gloria. By communion
time there were about 200 present, making the church comfortably full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Someone started to ask me my name at the peace ceremony, but I squelched
it by uttering a formal "God's peace be with you" lest it turn
into an opportunity for conversation.
Was your pew comfortable?
Very conventional pews with end-to-end fitted cushions in a complementary
tan. Matching drop-down kneelers. Plenty of space. Also good sized holders
for all the books.
How would you describe the pre-service
A light buzz of conversation.
What were the exact opening words of the
"Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness."
What books did the congregation use during the
We were given a comprehensive service sheet, plus a welcome leaflet and
four other notice sheets. Hymnals, Bibles and prayer books were available
in the pews although the latter were not needed.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ and choir. The choir sounded a little operatic for my English cathedral
chant tastes, but to each his own.
Did anything distract you?
A delightful lady in a very red suit and very red floppy hat was carrying
a lapdog. It turned out that the lapdog was there to advertise the blessing
of the animals service later in the afternoon. I also felt that the day
was cool enough to warrant their turning off the air conditioning, although
overuse of A/C seems to be common in Houston.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or
Middle-of-the-road to highish Anglican, as might be expected with a sanctuary
party of 17. However, no smells or bells, bowing or elevations. The gospel
procession, although accompanied by lots of candles, only got as far as
the beginning of the nave so very few of the congregation had to turn. We
stood for the prayers of the people but knelt for the eucharistic prayer.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 Mr Phil Workman's message was simple, direct and drawn from his
considerable experience, and included a number of stories to illustrate
his point. He was applauded at the end of his presentation.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon
When John the Baptist saw Jesus passing by, he said, Look, the Lamb of
God! Two disciples began to follow Jesus and asked him where he was staying.
Jesus replied, Come, and you will see. People want to know what Faith
Alive is about; the answer is, Come, and you will see. The aim of the
Faith Alive weekend is to renew the baptismal covenant; reject Satan, repent
and follow Jesus – to move from believing in Jesus as a historical
figure talked about on Sunday to having a personal relationship with him.
God may use the Faith Alive weekend in unexpected ways. Members of the church
need to come and see and not delay. Satan may be satisfied not if he can
get Christians to deny the Bible, the historical Jesus, the resurrection
or the need to come to Jesus, but just to convince everyone that rejecting
his wiles and snares is something they can delay until the eternal tomorrow.
Which part of the service was like being in
The benedictus, from the Schubert Mass in G, somehow engendered
a hugh feeling of unity. The last verse of the final hymn, Praise to the
Lord, did the same, with the choir having processed out via the center
aisle and then continuing to sing from the side aisles.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
During the notices, a lady gave us more details about the upcoming Faith
Alive weekend, and asked us to say "Faith alive" whenever she
paused. Just when I thought I could tolerate no more of this, she concluded
her talk – to a round of applause.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
A very nice lady persuaded me to join her adult Sunday school class, where
a Mr David Grizzle spoke on Acts 4 (Despite being arrested and warned not
to preach, Peter and John continued to do so and to encourage the sharing
of material possessions). The class was followed by break-out groups where
we grappled with questions such as: "What holds you back from being
more generous with those who have needs?" and "Why is the Christian
community today not more unified and trusting of one another?" Following
this, I popped over to the hall where the contemporary eucharist was just
getting started, and stayed until the sermon (which was the same as the
one I had already heard).
How would you describe the after-service
I retired to the on-premises cafe, where the coffee was good and lunch was
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 as an average. I'd give the service a 7 but I'd rate the community
as a 10. If I were to relocate my family to Houston, this might well be
the church of choice. I suspect it would be perfect for a family with teenagers.
As far as personal liturgical taste goes, I would prefer an even stronger
choral tradition and a higher liturgical practice, but could be happy here.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
Oh, most definitely! I've got to admire a church that can carry off six
eucharists in one day, all in different styles and all equally engaging.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Being invited to such a wonderful Sunday school class.
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