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154: St Mary the Virgin, New York
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St Mary the Virgin, New York
Mystery Worshipper: Newman's Own.
The church: St Mary the Virgin, New York, USA.
Denomination: Episcopal Church in the USA.
The building: The exterior is rather Gothic, but the architecture is hard to notice. The interior is "Italianate" Gothic, with fittings ranging from the exquisite to the tacky. There is no "stato medio" as far as the interior furnishings are concerned. The artwork ranges from marvelous to the sort that makes one muse that, when Italianate taste falters, it really falls on its face. This church is nicknamed the Cathedral of Anglo-Catholicism, and testifying to this are the presence of large Stations of the Cross, a tabernacle on the altar, and a Roman-style confessional. Statues of the saints, a beautiful gold crucifix, a marvelous reredos, and a carved rendition of the Passion of Christ are treats for the eye. In the "less than lovely" category are a monument that looks as if it came straight from a Sicilian cemetery and a dreadful porcelain hanging of the Virgin and Child surrounded by flowers.
The neighbourhood: Located directly next to the legendary Times Square (which, contrary to myth, is a dreary sink more than a glamourous theatre area), St Mary's is in a depressed neighborhood. One knows, seeing the homeless sleeping in boxes and the like, that the parish's clergy have much service to the poor on their schedules.
The cast: The main celebrant and preacher was Rev. Stephen Gerth, rector. I do not know the names of the deacon and sub-deacon.
What was the name of the service?
Solemn High Mass.

How full was the building?
About half full. The congregation was mainly of the working class (as I am), and there was a pleasant mixture of age groups and races.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was rather early, and those greeting the people were not yet at their posts when I arrived. I have never seen any congregation exchange the Peace with more enthusiasm or sincerity, and the rector and other clergy greeted and spoke with everyone, especially newcomers, during the coffee hour. Their warmth and welcoming nature was both unmistakable and delightful.

Was your pew comfortable?
The pew was padded and reasonably comfortable, though just a bit narrow. The kneeling pads were surprisingly more comfortable than they looked.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The general atmosphere was quiet and devout, with an impressive number of people (to borrow the words from the BCP) humbly kneeling and deep in prayer. Greetings were exchanged by worshippers, but discreetly, with obvious respect for those in deep prayer.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
The entrance song, chanted while the congregation was sprinkled with holy water, began: "Be my strong rock, O Lord, a castle to keep me safe."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Leaflet containing the order of service, Hymnal 1982, 1979 US Book of Common Prayer.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ and voices – though normally I would not refer to voices as "instruments", to do so here is most appropriate. The choir performed superb plainsong, both in English and Latin, at various parts of the service. The priest who served as deacon was equally proficient, and chanted the Gospel and petitions in a beautiful tenor voice that brought one back to medieval Solemnes.

Did anything distract you?
There was a puzzling series of very large, ornate, gold vigil lights hanging before the altar that was somehow very distracting. Presumably they were there in honour of the real presence, but there being so many made one wonder if the designer did not think one would get the idea the first time. Aside from that, the only distraction was a chatty toddler seated three pews behind mine.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Rather eclectic Anglo-Catholic, in the sense that various Catholic styles were mixed. Several parts of the Mass were presented in Latin plainsong, but the Rite B (modern language) version of the recited English responses was used, and there were modern touches such as lay readers and exchanging of the sign of peace. Scripture lessons were presented in the Roman Catholic format: Old Testament reading, chanted Psalm, Epistle, then Gospel.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
16 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4. Though he spoke with obvious warmth, in a rather "chatty" style, Father Gerth tended to ramble from one topic to another, with no clear connection between the points. There was insufficient attention to any one area to make any part a whole. He also indulged in the currently popular and boring fad of beginning his sermon with references to problems with his computer. (This is as much a cliche as the dreadful "been there, done that".) I'm probably mistaken, but I had the feeling the rector was making up his sermon as he went along.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Our "reptilian responses" should make us look to the light with joy. Why are we reluctant to do simple things for Jesus? Some reference to the mystical Body.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The liturgy was quite heavenly – especially for those, like myself, who are most definitely of the smells and bells Anglican style. More than once, listening to the plainsong, I wondered if they were angels that I was hearing and, when I heard the deacon chant the Gospel, I was sure.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Knowing intuitively that for some of the congregation, particularly the elderly and those in poor health, the light refreshments at the coffee hour were probably the main meal of the day. (The wealth of most of the US population is as much a silly myth as is the glamour of Times Square.)

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was no chance to be lost. Directly after the service, doors at the side of the church were opened to reveal a hall where there was a very nice coffee hour. It was a very friendly crowd. The rector, whose greetings were clearly very sincere and enthusiastic, asked each newcomer how he could help them and how welcome an addition they would be to the parish.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was coffee (which I did not sample, because I needed to catch a bus), and various breads and rolls. The tables where the food was presented had the nice touch of candlelight... and I'm sure no one cared that it was midday.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5. Though I have no complaints about the liturgy, and it seemed an active and welcoming parish, there are other churches in the area which I favor.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. The blending of liturgical styles somehow was a pleasant reminder that God reaches us where we are, and the warmth of the atmosphere gave me a sense of Christian love. (My snobbish side just makes me wish the liturgy had as much style as it could.) Even the sermon, which would win no awards, made it clear that the rector deeply cares about the needs of the people and has an enormous commitment to the Gospel.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
I doubt that the father of the Prodigal Son could have been quite as welcoming as the rector here was to newcomers.
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