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383: St Thomas, New York City
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St Thomas, New York City
Mystery Worshipper: Newman's Own.
The church: St Thomas, 5th Avenue, New York City.
Denomination: Episcopal Church in the USA.
The building: St Thomas has been described in detail in previous reports, so I shall confine these comments to the context of this occasion. The beautiful, French Gothic building was elegantly restrained in decoration – no banners or other excess – just the impeccable violet of the cloths and flowers on the high altar, and the British and US flags displayed next to the pulpit. There was a marvelous air of quiet dignity.
The church: Again, in relation to this context: Many British nationals who are resident in New York City attend St Thomas, which made it a most appropriate location for the service.
The neighbourhood: Midtown Manhattan is several miles from the World Trade Centre, and was not directly affected by last week's catastrophe. However, barriers in front of various buildings, the increased number of police officers on what seemed every corner, and the smoke still rising from the ruins of the Twin Towers visible in the distance, reminded one of the tragedy. Today, particularly with the Prime Minister in attendance at the service, the area surrounding the church naturally was crowded with police, secret service, and various "police line – do not cross" paraphernalia.
The cast: The officiant was Rev. Andrew C. Mead, rector of St Thomas. Curates from St Thomas assisted, and clergy from various sister churches presented the three lessons. Following the third lesson, The Right Honourable Tony Blair presented a brief reflection and a short reading from Thornton Wilder.
What was the name of the service?
An Interfaith Service of Prayer for those British Nationals who suffered in the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City on 11 September 2001.

The service itself was strictly Christian, with readings from the books of Isaiah and Romans and the Gospel of Matthew. Clergy of various faiths, I believe including Jewish and Muslim, sat in the choir stalls. The liturgy was obviously specially planned for the occasion for, though largely Anglican in style, it was not a "standard" service from the Book of Common Prayer. Hurried though the preparations must have been, it was an excellent model for a service in which Christians of various denominations may participate. Wisely, particularly considering how such efforts have backfired at other houses of worship recently, the non-Christian clergy were welcomed but did not present any part of the service.

The readings were especially appropriate, not only for a memorial, but for the outset of a probable time of war, in that they were inspiring and encouraging. Texts were Isaiah 61:1-4, 11; Pslam 23; Romans 8:31-39; Matthew 5:1-16.

How full was the building?
A church mouse would have found it difficult to squeeze in.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I had arrived two hours early, so I was spared the "greeting" which I understand the others received from the secret service. However, most poignantly, a lovely elderly lady who was an early arrival as well sat beside me and told me of how this occasion reminded her of the Second World War, during which her fiancé and brother, both RAF aircrew, were killed.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes – with the added luxury of well-cushioned seats and ample kneeling pads.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
During the time I waited, it went from a lesson in security, with secret service officers about with dogs and lights, to a sudden massive crowd influx which put me in mind of a classic view of the General Judgment.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
From where I was sitting, the prayers which preceded the procession were inaudible. The first words spoken after the procession and hymn were "I am the Resurrection and the Life."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Special leaflet.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ – and superbly, with an excellent prelude of works of Britten, Davies, Bach, Elgar, Howells, and George Thalben-Ball's elegy. The St Thomas Choir of Men and Boys is one of the best I have heard in the English-speaking world.

Did anything distract you?
My wry side pokes through on even the most solemn and sad occasions. I could not help but think that, at this particular church, it seemed quite novel to have Muslims and Jews in the chancel – and even a woman priest!

Tony Blair

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Impeccable. Everything was very dignified and elegant, and the choice of readings and hymns perfect for the occasion. This was especially noteworthy because there clearly would have been little time for planning.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon per se. Prime Minister Blair spoke very briefly about bonds of solidarity, then read a passage from Thornton Wilder. Before the prayers, the rector of St Thomas delivered a short reflection, recalling how the last action of those killed on the crashed aircraft was, in many cases, to telephone family members to say, "I love you."

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – It seems unfair to use a classification, since Fr. Mead's words were quite brief. He spoke with a warm, homely, appealing sincerity that was quite moving.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Almighty God has the first and the last word! The expressions of love shown by those going to their deaths was part of the "mystery of goodness."

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The combination of readings and hymns, and air of quiet dignity throughout, left me calmer than I have been in a week. Her Majesty the Queen had sent a message, which was read between the singing of the British and US national anthems, of which the last line was the most moving: "Grief is the price you pay for love." Amazing how a single line can make grief seem part of a greater treasure.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Obviously, the memory of the many killed in this tragedy, with the added recognition that they well may be the "first war dead," was enough hell for another century. A number of those in attendance were the families of those who had died.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Not applicable in this context.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – Much as I would far rather be in London, and the pond seems wider than it ever has at the moment, attending this church would nearly make me glad to be in New York.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, indeed. The timeless message of the scriptures, presented with such elegance, reminded me that divine providence will sustain the Church, despite the sort of tumult that has been a part of the earthly existence all along.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
"Grief is the price you pay for love."

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