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2834: St John’s, Southampton, New York, USA
St John's, Southampton. NY
Mystery Worshipper: Ralegh.
The church: St John’s, Southampton, New York, USA.
Denomination: The Episcopal Church, Diocese of Long Island.
The building: It is the work of New York architects Franklin and Arthur Ware, who, along with their father James E. Ware, pioneered the concept of the fireproof warehouse and the "dumbbell" tenement building – wider at the front and back than in the middle, thus providing ventilation shafts for the inner rooms. It is a small wooden church dating from 1912 with colored stones in the sand-colored outer walls. Inside, the church is quite traditional, with black crossbeams overhead and white walls, wooden pews, and a wooden rood screen. Stained glass windows are behind and above the altar. The rectory next door was built in 1730 and was recently refurbished, so it looks much newer than its actual age.
The church: There are three services each Sunday. The church is open 24 hours a day for rest and prayer. Various community groups hold meetings, dinners, and other celebrations there, including Alcoholics Anonymous. The church has an outreach committee, which has recommended donations of hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years to various projects in the community. Among the projects it supports are a Christian summer camp, a food pantry, scholarships, and a suicide prevention program.
The neighborhood: Southampton, one of "the Hamptons", as the towns in the area are known to those who can afford to live there, is located on the south fork of the easternmost tip of Long Island. It was built on lands “purchased” from the Shinnecock Indians in the 17th century. In 2005 the Shinnecock Nation sued New York State and the town of Southampton for a return of part of the land, claiming that it had been obtained via forged documents and other fraudulent means. In 2006 the court ruled against the Shinnecock, citing the legal principle of laches, in essence that the Nation had waited too long to file their claim. An appeal is still pending. Meanwhile, Southampton enjoys its status as an upper-middle-class white enclave, with the impoverished Shinnecock unable even to afford to pay for a permit to use the beaches. The town is replete with luxury hotels and resorts for summer visitors, which number in the hundreds of thousands over the course of a summer. St John's Church has a spectacular view of the sand dunes and beaches characteristic of Long Island.
The cast: The Revd Stephen McWhorter, interim rector. Other people were not identified in the service pamphlet.
The date & time: Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 22, 2015, 9.00am.

What was the name of the service?
Holy Communion (Family Worship).

How full was the building?
Not bad for a chilly winter morning – about 40 per cent full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was taking a picture of the church and noticed that the priest was coming up along the side of the church toward the main entrance. He stopped to allow me to take the picture, then he greeted me: “Good morning! I’m Stephen.” I was pleased to have a priest whom I didn’t know introduce himself simply by his first name. He was winning me over from the start. We had a nice conversation before going on into the church for the service.

Was your pew comfortable?
Standard wooden pew – reasonably comfortable, with room to kneel without feeling cramped (which is always appreciated).

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet, respectful. Some people were speaking softly, a few were kneeling in prayer.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
“Good morning. We begin this Fifth Sunday in Lent with the penitential order, found on page 350.”

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Throughout the service, the interim rector gave out the page numbers for the Prayer Book 1979, and the hymns were all from the Hymnal 1982. The service pamphlet provided the barest outline of the service.

What musical instruments were played?
A large electric organ (couldn’t find information about the make) played by a substitute organist who did a fine job with few mistakes.

Did anything distract you?
This was the family service, but there was only one small child there, a boy with his father who sat a few rows in front of me. Actually, the boy didn’t do much sitting – he was pretty rambunctious most of the service. But in spite of my curmudgeonly tendencies, I have grown to appreciate having someone so young and spirited at church services.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Certainly not happy clappy. I guess I’d have to call it stiff-upper-lip. The sort of service where no one exits their pew during the exchange of peace, just a few waves and long-distance smiles to people you know. The service (other than the sermon) was pretty much Prayer Book.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
22 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – One of the best sermons I’ve heard and, considering the subject, quite an accomplishment for the priest. Father Stephen stood out front of the rood screen between the two aisles and was warm, expressive and revealing. They apparently posted sermons on their website at one time, but as of this writing the most current one is for September 28, 2014.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Father Stephen spoke about how hard it was for him to write a sermon during his early years as a priest. To improve his skills, he would watch televangelists, in particular Robert Schuller, known for his Hour of Power program. Hearing that Schuller was going to give a retreat for ministers and priests, he signed up, but was both thrilled and terrified to learn that Schuller himself would be conducting the homiletics workshop at the retreat. Each workshop attendee was required to read one of his sermons. As Father Stephen read his theologically sound but emotionally cold sermon, Schuller looked up and said to him, "Why don’t you come out from behind the pulpit and tell me about Jesus?” He felt freed by this insight, and now realizes that all theology and liturgy is really just about telling each other about Jesus.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
At the procession that began the service, Father Stephen’s powerful baritone voice dominated the hymn singing, which made me feel free to sing my loudest. Singing hymns and liturgy frequently resonates deeply with me, so that I feel God's presence. That happened today.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The church has a wooden rood screen dividing the nave from the chancel, and during the eucharist, I found it blocked my view of the celebration. At the few churches I’ve been to with rood screens I’ve found them to be not to my liking. I feel they separate the goings on around the altar from the congregation, making one feel as if one needs a special invitation and/or certification really to be part of the service – sort of like the Shinnecocks and their "public" beaches.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Not much. People made their way out without paying any attention to me. However, as I left, Father Stephen and others in the altar party warmly thanked me for coming.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
As far as I can tell there was none.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – I presume if I became a regular, more people would reach out to me. The church is beautiful and so is the setting. The service style is to my liking, so I imagine I would enjoy being part of the congregation.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. I find that while I’ve read a lot of theological works, what sticks in my head is the simple stuff. The idea of church being a place to “talk about Jesus” means a lot to me. I can best get my mind around Christianity through simple but meaningful statements like that, which to me lead to people treating each other with generosity and love.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Father Stephen's rich baritone voice.
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