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259: St Thomas, New York City, USA
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St Thomas, New York
Mystery Worshipper: The Rev. Seth Wordsworth Little, D.D.
The church: St Thomas, New York City, USA.
Denomination: Episcopal Church in the USA.
The building: Landmark Gothic church of cathedral proportions designed by Ralph Adams Cram in the early part of the 20th century, on 5th Avenue and 53rd Street, just north of the Rockefeller Center.
The neighbourhood: As the population moved north on 5th Avenue in the early part of the 20th century, the parish made a conscious decision to remain at 5th and 53rd, and it remains a vital Christian presence in the midst of a very upscale commercial area.
The cast: Rev. Andrew Mead, Rector, was the preacher and celebrant. Dr. Gerre Hancock directed the celebrated choir of men and boys, and orchestra.
What was the name of the service?
Choral Requiem (setting by Gabriel Fauré).

How full was the building?
Comfortably full, with about 1,000 people.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
An usher, impeccably dressed, greeted us at the door, handed us an order of service, and gave the general feeling of welcome without overdoing it.

Was your pew comfortable?

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Reverent, for the most part. A section under the pulpit seemed to be the gathering section for regular parishioners, and there was more chatter there than elsewhere, but not distractingly so.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
The choir sang the opening introit and kyrie. The first spoken words were the invitation to the collect of the day: "Let us pray."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Hymnal 1982 of the Episcopal Church and the printed order of service.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ, plus a chamber orchestra of violas, cellos, basses, French horns, harp and solo violin to accompany the Requiem.

Did anything distract you?
Not really. Because the orchestra was in the chancel, communion stations were set up across the front of the nave, and this unusual circumstance entailed some overt direction on the part of the ushers, so it was more distracting than usual, but done with obvious care and planning.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Very formal and by the book. But within that context it was very warm and welcoming. I would guess that at least half of the congregation were visiting.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
8 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – very instructional. Not particularly eloquent or churchy, but a sort of helpful teaching style, which is, after all, what the sermon should be at mass – instruction.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The Church's teaching on death: that although death will inevitably come to all of us, we are not to fear it, but to prepare for it.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Everything. The music obviously played a central role, but the entire liturgy was one of grace, ease and power at the same time. Nothing stood out, yet everything was done with care and preparation.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Apart from the slight awkwardness due to the unusual logistics surrounding the large congregation receiving communion at an unaccustomed place, nothing. The people at St Thomas really have the worship experience worked out smoothly.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was a printed invitation to come to coffee hour in the living room of the parish house, so I went there immediately following the service.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
In a word, elegant. There was a lovely offering of coffee, tea and champagne. Really first class, in beautiful surroundings, and many friendly people stopped to introduce themselves. It is easy to understand why this church is full on Sunday mornings.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10. I know there are other wonderful churches in New York, but I can't understand why anyone would go anywhere else on a regular basis.

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

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Following the closing section of the Requiem (In paradisum) there was a long, deliberate silence before the choir walked out. The magic of total, absolute silence among a large congregation in a spectacular setting, following a moving service... this memory will remain for a while.
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