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1893: St Bartholomew's, New York City
St Bartholomew's, New York City
Photo: Bruin
Mystery Worshipper: Abelardian.
The church: St Bartholomew's, New York City.
Denomination: The Episcopal Church, Diocese of New York.
The building: A landmark Byzantine church on Park Avenue about 10 blocks north of Grand Central Terminal, at the heart of New York City. St Bart's is unique among the mini-cathedrals of Manhattan. Designed by noted American architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, whose firm also designed dozens of stunningly beautiful churches in New York and elsewhere, as well as museums, libraries, state capitols and other public buildings, the church was begun in 1917 and completed in 1930. Its construction and outfitting benefited from the financial support of some of New York's wealthiest families, including the Vanderbilts. A community house in the same style adjoins the church and includes, among other notable features, a choir room made possible by the generosity of actress Lillian Gish and a rehearsal room featuring a piano once carried by General Douglas MacArthur on his Pacific campaigns during World War II. Striking in appearance, the church's mosaic-covered dome stands in contrast to the glass, steel and concrete canyon of office buildings that surround it.
The church: St Bartholomew's appears to be a diverse community, with members from many ethnicities and backgrounds. But what stands out most about St Bart's is its commitment to growth. Following a sort of megachurch model within a progressive Episcopal context, St Bart's boasts an athletic center complete with pool, gym and dance studios, as well as a soup kitchen serving breakfast several days a week.
The neighborhood: St Bart's is surrounded by office towers, some old and some new. The venerable old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel is just across the street. Nearby are the aforementioned Grand Central Terminal; the Graybar Building, that straddles Park Avenue; the Met Life Building (formerly the Pan Am Building and still called that by "true" New Yorkers), which, when it was built in 1963, was the world's largest commercial office building in terms of square footage (not, of course, the tallest); and the Seagram Building, the work of the German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, which set the architectural style for skyscrapers in New York for several decades.
The cast: The Revd Lynn Sanders, associate rector, was celebrant. The Revd F.M. "Buddy" Stallings, vicar, preached the sermon.
The date & time: Sunday, January 3, 2010, 11.00am.

What was the name of the service?
Choral Eucharist.

How full was the building?
A generous estimate would be 50 per cent capacity. Still, it was the second Sunday after Christmas, probably a fairly low attendance day in most churches, and bitterly cold.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes! I arrived 20 minutes early on a very cold, windy January morning and there were already four greeters outside the church, standing on the steps giving out service leaflets, shivering but smiling and giving us a warm welcome. Once inside the narthex I was wished a happy New Year by a member of the clergy who seemed to be roaming around greeting newcomers.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, eventually. The pews are roomy and all have brown velvet cushions, though the cushions of several of the pews were falling apart, their stuffing ground into dust and held together only by duct tape. We had to hunt for one that was in good repair, and once we did all was well. Don't get me wrong, I would sit on the floor if necessary in order to experience engaging and spirit-filled worship, and I realize how expensive it is to keep such a large and elegant building in repair, but these cushions are so incongruous with the beauty of the rest of the place, I can't help but mention them.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It washushed but not silent; some people exchanged whispered greetings and pleasantries with one another while others sat or knelt in prayer. An unobtrusive organ prelude started ten minutes before the service began, and most people seemed to arrive on time.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Prayer Book 1979, the Hymnal 1982, and a service leaflet were the only worship materials available; the prayers and responses were all conveniently in the service leaflet so it was not necessary to juggle books.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ only. The church's original instrument was an opus of the Ernest M. Skinner Company of Boston, Massachusetts, and had been refurbished and enlarged over the years by that company's successor, Æolian-Skinner. The organ was completely rebuilt in 1971 by Æolian-Skinner, their last project before quitting business the next year. A new console was installed in 2006 by Harris Organs, Inc. of Whittier, California.

Did anything distract you?
St Bart's follows the practice of leading the children out after the gospel is read and just before the sermon starts, and leading them back in at the offertory in a sweet little procession. Distracting? Perhaps. But I love the way this serves both to celebrate the children and, at the same time, to respect their need for a different style of worship during the sermon. I did not get the impression they were being led away so they wouldn't "bother" the adults.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Straightforward, broad-church Episcopal liturgy. No incense was used. St Bart's offers an explicitly open communion, consistent with their theme of welcoming the newcomer. Sadly, the congregational singing was lackluster to nonexistent through most of the service – perhaps because this was a choral eucharist. St Bart's enjoys the services of a paid professional choir, and perhaps the congregation likes hearing them earn their keep.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
15 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The vicar preached an engaging, conversational sermon that never lost me. Warm without being sentimental, self-deprecating without being disingenuous, he guided us on the road traveled by the Magi and, by analogy, all spiritual seekers with humor, insight, and an obvious care for the personal trials and doubts faced by all of us on the journey. His elevated southern drawl (he hails from Mississippi) and gentle, grandfatherly wit immediately connected with me and, I believe, most of those who were there.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The wisdom of the Magi: travel light on the path to spiritual enlightenment. Epiphanies may come or not, but the important thing is to remain open to them. Maintain the heart of a seeker and you will know the star when you see it. When you do, follow it to the Christ child.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I only hope Heaven turns out to be as welcoming a place as St Bartholomew's. As soon as I crossed 51st Street, before I even set foot on the steps leading up to the entrance, I knew this was a parish that wanted me to be there. On the coldest day of the winter temperatures in the teens, gusting winds and snow flurries whirling about our heads the people of St Bart's were outside to welcome us in, giving this imposing Park Avenue edifice a smiling, human face. The welcome did not stop at the front steps, either. As noted above, we were greeted and welcomed inside as well not aggressively, but warmly. Heaven should be so hospitable.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The processional hymn was, appropriate to the season, "We Three Kings of Orient Are." The choir and altar party processed in quickly during the first verse and refrain, and once in position, three different soloists took turns singing the middle three verses, with the congregation and the rest of the choir joining in on verses one and four, and all the refrains. The soloists' voices, while lovely, were completely unamplified: their consonants disappeared into the lofty domed space, and the lyrics were thus unintelligible at least to those of us sitting about halfway toward the back of the nave. The organist tried to help, first by backing off a great deal during the solos, then by coming back full force when it was the congregation's turn. Sadly, this wreaked havoc on the tempo, which was lagging already, and the dramatic variation in the volume of the organ, combined with the inaudible and unintelligible solos and less than robust congregational singing... well, to call it hellish might be overstating the case, but it did make this Mystery Worshipper wonder why the choice was ever made.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
St Bart's stages their coffee hour in the transept immediately following the dismissal, making it difficult if not impossible to get lost in the space. Still, there was a helpful group of volunteers identified by special green name badges whose job it was to keep anyone from feeling confused or ignored. And these folks didn't just stand there waiting for me to come to them. They were proactively helpful to all who seemed at loose ends. Again, they were never aggressive no one came up to me with a clipboard pressuring me to sign up for soup kitchen duty but the leadership of St Bart's is clearly committed to welcoming visitors in a way rarely seen in New York City's Episcopal parishes.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Coffee and tea were set up in the narthex/foyer before the service, and coffee, tea and cake were served after the service in the transept. I didn't notice if the coffee was fair trade, but it was strong and hot, and on a day like January 3, that was most welcome.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – St Bart's is a rare commodity in New York City: a large parish where the clergy and staff are absolutely committed to welcoming newcomers and serving their congregation. Women and men serve on this altar. The church is inclusive and progressive. Outreach to the poor and marginalized in the city is also a major priority. What makes the place an 8 for me on the "could this be my regular church" scale, rather than a 9 or 10, is that for all their stated desire to have a participatory liturgy, the congregation at least on this day seemed somewhat disengaged.

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

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The emphasis placed on welcoming. If that energy were truly to infect more of the folks in the pews as much as it does the leadership, St Bart's would be an extraordinary place indeed.
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