It’s hard to believe but until I was 50, I had never travelled outside the British Isles! So for such a parochial lad – now a retired priest – to travel across the Atlantic was amazing.
The flights for Christine and I were arranged by our friends Alan and Jo, who have a second home in Florida and had kindly offered to act as hosts.
We had departed a wet and windy UK to be met by temperatures in the 80’s, where we spent time swimming, sunbathing and dining. It was a wonderful shock to the system.
Not only did we savour the glorious weather, but also the American way of life! To a reserved Brit, the outgoing spirit of America was refreshing – as was our experience of their worship.
A Warm Welcome
First we attended the Suncoast Baptist Church in Homosassa Springs – a modest church converted from a factory beside the boulevard of Route 98.
The minister, Revd John Fizer, was a warm and welcoming man of God.
Within 15 minutes the church had filled to capacity, with everyone greeting each other and making sure we felt included. Other Brits may have found it overwhelming but we loved their enthusiasm.
The musical director welcomed everyone (including us) by name. He then directed worship, with the smiling gospel choir singing between readings.
After the choir had dis-robed and joined the congregation, Revd Fizer took his place. As he read the Gospel, he expounded the connected scripture as his sermon developed.
He supported every point with a reading from scripture and with every reference he quoted, he paused briefly so that the whole congregation could follow. It was truly amazing.
The Final Blessing
Following a vibrant hymn, I was certainly surprised to hear the words: The Revd Brook from England will give the final blessing.
Taken aback, I felt my face steadily turn a beetroot colour. I simply said, Go in peace to serve the Lord: In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
It was perhaps the obvious British response they had been expecting but it was well received.
My contribution to the service was followed by an ecstatic farewell that equalled the greeting and within ten minutes the car park was empty.
But our new friends were far from done for the week. As well as Bible study, prayer and Christian development, the Church was involved in outreach, supplying food, goods and counselling to the neediest members of the community.
A Royal Reception
Much to our bewilderment, we were collected in a limousine by Chuck and Ellen (neighbours of our hosts) to be taken to the second church on our tour: the Faith Lutheran Church at Lecanto. Perhaps they had expected their British guests to be royalty and we were certainly made to feel so.
Like film stars attending a premiere, we exited the limo outside a modern, purpose built church in an imposing setting.
Ellen escorted us into the foyer, and the size and beauty of the circular-esque church left us breathless.
She introduced us to as many members as possible by saying, This is the Revd and Mrs Brook from Manchester, England, as they were unlikely to have heard of our little village near Colne.
We shook so many hands that our own palms were soon aching and numb.
A Lutheran Service
The Revd Stephen Lane, the minister who was to lead worship, was certainly gifted. Having played the handbells to open the service, he now led an impressive orchestral performance with his cello. I was half expecting him to follow this with a few blasts on a tuba.
The service was Eucharist and seemed to satisfy both my Methodist and Anglican roots in the communion. A choice of a chalice or individual glasses was offered. Was the Lutheran Church really a broad church catering to meet all needs?
As Christine and I knelt at the altar rail to receive the chalice, the Revd Lane looked at us and made us feel that at that moment the commemoration of Christ’s blood was spilled just for us.
It was a very moving experience for a priest to receive communion from another minister of Christ.
As the service drew to a close, I was spared the surprise request for the final blessing. Instead, we returned to the foyer for coffee and more introductions and farewells.
I noticed here that all the church members wore name badges quite different to the temporary ones we had received, as they each contained a bar code.
These were scanned before the service, allowing the church to see who had attended and who had not. Those absent could then be contacted to see if help was needed. What a clever and ultimately brilliant leap into the digital age they’d made.
Christine and I will always fondly remember these two Florida churches.
Whilst the American style of worship is different in several ways to that in the UK, they are likewise devoted to serve the Lord and to praise his name.
Truly, it was a privilege to worship alongside such wonderful Christians across the pond.
The Reverend Priestly Brook, an Anglican priest, retired in August 2012 from the Colne and Villages Team Ministry in East Lancashire. His Bishop has granted him a licence with Permission to Officiate. He is married to Christine, with six grown up children. He is a well known preacher and after dinner speaker in the North of England.