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1866: St Francis, Fair Oaks, California, USA
St Francis, Fair Oaks, California, USA
Mystery Worshipper: Amazing Grace.
The church: St Francis, Fair Oaks, California, USA.
Denomination: The Episcopal Church, Diocese of Northern California.
The building: The main church is an attractive, large, well-lit, and airy modern building. The beautiful stained glass windows are scenes from the life of St Francis. There is even a quiet room for people with fussy children. They have a separate chapel, a social hall/multipurpose room, and education buildings. The church shares parking lot space with a service dog training outfit.
The church: They are famous for their Red Wagon Ministry, providing toys to disadvantaged children. They also maintain a pet information center that provides information about service animals as well as the therapeutic effect that pets can have on the ill, elderly and lonely. They received very favorable press from the local daily newspaper for sponsoring a community Christmas Day dinner, originally for military families, but now open to all in the community, with presents for the visiting kids. (Good stuff, too; the picture was of a very happy little girl with a new Radio Flyer wagon!)
The neighborhood: Like its neighbor, the very large Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church, St Francis Church is located outside the village in a pleasant residential area.
The cast: The Revd Tom Johnson, assistant priest, was the celebrant and preacher. The Revd Marcia Engblom, rector, administered the sacrament of holy baptism. There was also a deacon whose name was not given, but she may have been the Revd Deacon Aileen Aidnik, who is listed on the church's website. The pianist and lay assistant likewise were not named.
The date & time: Thursday, December 24, 2009, 4.00pm.

What was the name of the service?
Christmas Pageant with Holy Baptism and Eucharist.

How full was the building?
The space seemed no more than about a quarter full, although my quickie head count estimates that there were close to 80 people there. It seems to be an age-diverse congregation; there were lots of children, from a tiny baby (who was baptized) on up through teenagers, with parents and grandparents.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, I was given a pleasant "Merry Christmas" with my bulletin even though I was very late (see below).

Was your pew comfortable?
Standard issue pew – plenty of legroom.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I arrived at 4.25 for what I thought was to be a 4.30 service, but I had misread the start time – the service actually got underway at 4.00. Thus, I am afraid I cannot report on it. I imagine it was fairly lively due to the presence of the large family groups, though.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
I missed this as well, but the order of service shows that the blessing of the creche was first up.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
In the pews were the Prayer Book 1979 and Hymnal 1982, but everything was projected onto screens. I knew the tunes for the carols and the service music anyway.

What musical instruments were played?
Piano only. A couple of young piano students contributed their talents during the offertory.

Did anything distract you?
Besides my not getting the correct start time? I arrived just as the pageant was finishing. The actors went behind the back pew and decompressed. No problems there, except that they were not attempting to keep their voices down and I was close enough to hear them clearly. The babies were much quieter. (And then there was the overhead projector, more below.)

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was the Christmas pageant service, so it was all over the map. I’d call it informal, because it didn’t particularly stand on ceremony, but others might not because Father Tom chanted the eucharistic prayer (quite presentably) and there were loud sanctus bells at the consecration. Mind you, this Mystery Worshipper is something of a glad-handler, but the exchange of peace went on long after I would have gladly sat back down.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
7 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – While Father Tom started out well, he sort of waffled through the rest of it and seemed to be mumbling a bit as well. Good subject, not great delivery, but it was mercifully short.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He began by asking who had performed the first Christmas pageant and delighted the congregation by informing them it was their own patron, St Francis. He segued from there to Jesus as the Lamb of God.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I am always delighted to be a part of any service where babies are being baptized. The small children were front and center to see little Miss Abigail being welcomed into the family of God. One of them was still wearing her angel dress and tinsel halo. On this night, and in this church dedicated to the Saint of Assisi, I was also delighted to have well-behaved animals in the church with us. The roles of some of the angels in the pageant had apparently been taken by dogs, and there was a toy poodle being a Very Good Dog in his owner’s arms. I was reminded of the old church cat, of late lamented memory, in my home church.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The order of baptism was projected onto the screen in front of the church, but the font was located in the back. I know the baptism rite is also given in the Prayer Book, but I couldn't find the page, and so I got a bad case of tennis neck turning back and forth. A brief mention to the effect that "You may follow the order of baptism beginning at page 301" would have been unobtrusive and to the point, and may have kept some more of the focus on the ceremony itself.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I couldn’t stick around, but I was immediately spotted for a visitor by the clergy on my way out the door. I was greeted warmly and asked to sign the guest book.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I'm not sure there was any, but there were a lot of notices about the community Christmas potluck the next day that would be open to all in the community (and at which the little girl would receive her new wagon – see above).

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – There were a lot of glitches – it was the Christmas Eve pageant after all – but it felt like an authentic family of God celebration. They seem like a friendly, inclusive bunch and were obviously happy to see each other.

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

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The children and dogs, silent in awe of Christmas, and the love and joy this congregation so evidently felt.
 
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