A Non-Believer in Church: St. Peter's Episcopal at Oxford

As a college student, the end of the semester is good about throwing me off of my regular routine, but I found some time to visit St. Peter's Episcopal Church here in Oxford. This was my first time inside of an Episcopal church so once again I am asking any readers who are familiar with this denomination to elaborate in the comments. The service was so wrapped in symbolism that I felt completely lost.

I attended the 5:30 PM service of the Holy Eucharist, which is designated to fit into the busy schedules of local college students. There were about 50 people in attendance. Nearly all were college students wearing typical college student garb. The music was the best that I've heard in any church visit yet. The music at The Orchard was good, but felt mass produced. The music at First Free Will Baptist was country folk singing at the top of their lungs. Here we had a small band of mostly acoustic guitars and a violinist playing a set of honest and beautiful songs. If I could get a CD of this small band, I would.

Most of the service was foreign to me. The services began with a procession of people in white robes holding various holy relics like a Bible or a Cross. I did not understand a single action of the minister. He had a metal ball that produced smoke that he started swinging at a candle. There is a deeper symbolic reference here I'm sure, but I've read the Bible from cover to cover and must have missed the references to a metal ball, the smoke, and the candle. There was part of the service where everyone recited a prayer while staring at a stain glass window of Jesus . There were parts where we were requested to kneel during a prayer. At another point, the assistants brought all of the holy relics to the center of the auditorium while the minister produced a lot of smoke from his metal ball and began reading from the Bible. Like the Presbyterian service, the congregation recited the Nicene Creed, and many did it from memory. I felt uncomfortable (and very weirded-out) for not understanding any of the symbolism.

The minister asked everyone to greet those sitting around them. When people shook my hand, I made the mistake of saying "hello." The word of these people was "peace." I began to stick out.

The minister's sermon was on the ascension of Christ which takes place in Acts Ch. 1, but aside from reading the passage, he didn't use any scripture to support his lesson. His message was that Christ meets you regardless of how strong your faith is. (My faith is nil, so I'm curious how far Jesus has to stretch to reach me considering that I don't believe him to be divine.) He wanted everyone in attendance to act in a manner which is "countercultural and foolish for your faith." To some extent, I can agree. He wanted the people to practice peace. Peace is certainly counter cultural, but it is not foolish, and peace is good whether it is done in the name of your faith or not.

Near the end of the service, the minister prepared the communion with a series of elaborate actions involving two cups sitting on a table. All of these actions had a symbolic meaning but it was all lost on on me. Like the Presbyterian service, communion was served by everyone coming to the front of the auditorium to receive it from the minister. Again, I felt like an oddball for being the only person who remained in the pew during communion. In a group of 50, it was not hard to spot the new guy.

The service concluded when the minister asked everyone to go outside for a group picture. Everyone was dismissed and began talking in the front of the church. I stood on the front lawn for about five minutes wondering if anyone would at least greet the new guy, but no student did. The minister spoke up, "We have a visitor!" He just might be the nicest guy in the world. He asked me, "So which parish are you from?" I told him how I was visiting in order to experience an Episcopal church service and he told me about the church website and invited me to the group dinner for all students after the service.

Aside from conducting a very peculiar service and being forced to work with college students who are too scared to say "hello", the minister made me feel welcome.

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