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487: The Church of the Resurrection, New York City
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The Church of the Resurrection, New York City
Mystery Worshipper: Abed-nego.
The church: The Church of the Resurrection, New York City.
Denomination: Episcopal Church in the USA.
The building: The Church of the Resurrection is an anomaly – a simply designed, humble Victorian church, almost lost among the luxurious and highly decorative terraced mansions of New York City's East Side. From the outside the building is somewhat overpowered by these self-consciously refined homes; it has the lowest roof of any building on this block of 74th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues. Once inside, one is welcomed by a sense of quiet intimacy. The proportions are pleasing, the eye being drawn up from the low windows by the steeply angled roof to the rather dramatic hammer beams. The stone altar is quite high, with good sightlines to observe the events of a carefully celebrated high mass. The presence of a chancel choir does little to obscure the detail of the ritual.
The church: The congregation seemed to consist of either the youthful or the somewhat mature – students and sages happily united in the act of worship. There was no visible evidence of socialite snobbery despite the location of the church in the heart of some of the most pricey real estate in North America.
The neighbourhood: The really interesting and unusual thing about this neighborhood is the church itself. At the end of the service I purchased "The Story of the Parish" from a very large selection of books on sale during coffee hour. I discovered – and somehow I wasn't surprised by the fact – that the Church of the Resurrection had almost been swallowed up and consigned to extinction on a number of occasions. I particularly enjoyed reading about the 1930s when the vestries of Resurrection and the nearby Epiphany Church approached Bishop Manning to discuss a proposed merger of the two churches. "When the two senior wardens finished speaking there was silence. Then the small bishop rose, crossed the room, pulled aside a crimson curtain revealing a map of the diocese. Pointing to the east of Resurrection, he said to the Epiphany men,'This is where you should build your church...' Then putting down his pointer, he said, 'Not so long as I am diocesan will there be one less parish in the Diocese of New York.' The bishop's wisdom in denying the merger produced a result that we can only view with awe. There are now two flourishing parishes four blocks apart on 74th Street" (Minna Cassard).
The cast: Rev. Fr. Canon James R. Harkins, celebrant. Rev. Fr. Canon Barry E.B. Swain (rector), deacon and preacher. David Gwesyn Smith, choirmaster. David Enlow, organist.
What was the name of the service?
High Mass.

How full was the building?
Somewhat less than half full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A charming gentleman seated at a large table gave me a friendly smile and handed me an order of service – plus a tangerine sheet containing the music for a "new" creed.

Was your pew comfortable?
Quite comfortable, though with all the genuflections my kneeler began to show a tendency to slip away under the pew in front of me.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Silent and completely reverential.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Thou shalt purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean" (in Latin).

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A specially produced mass book, and The Hymnal 1940.

What musical instruments were played?

Did anything distract you?
In the best sense, I was distracted by a set of six silver candlesticks on the high altar which were making their first appearance. They were beautiful, and we were informed by an insert in the order of service that they were "an important XIX century French set in the style of Violet-le-Duc." Also in the best sense, I was distracted by the glorious mass setting (in D major by Antonin Dvorak) which was very grand indeed. In the same insert the grandeur was accounted for: "During Lent this year, we will be having a number of very large masses which are too long to be offered normally, but without the glorias in Lent, it is possible to have them." I am grateful.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This was Anglo-Catholic worship at its very best. I was not really surprised by this since I had attended high mass at Father Swain's previous parish in Philadelphia. His understanding of liturgy and ritual it seems to me is second-to-none.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
12 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 – Without notes, and with a directness and cogency which elude most public speakers in any walk of life, Father Swain gave one of the best sermons I have ever heard.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He spoke of our Lord's temptations by Satan – the Gospel for this First Sunday in Lent. It was probably not a good idea, he said, to think of the Devil complete with pitchfork and tail; but rather the tempter who is as attractive as the sins to which we so easily succumb. At first he made light of turning stones into bread, of throwing oneself down from the temple and ruling the kingdoms of the world. (Only the Hitlers and Napoleons of this world are interested in that sort of thing.) But then he turned his own argument on its head. He reminded us that stones into bread symbolizes the attractivenes of "things we want"; that throwing oneself from a high building symbolizes "things we worry about"; and that earthly kingship symbolizes "things that cause pride". And pride – the need to be the center of our universe – Father Swain reminded us, was the source of all the deadly sins. Lent is not a "self-improvement course" but the opportunity to become a better disciple.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sense that every aspect of this service of worship had been thoroughly prepared: the vestments, the ritual, David Enlow's marvelous organ-playing, the convincing choral singing, and the choice of hymns. I felt I was in direct succession to the traditions of the early church, and that nothing and no one was about to "dumb down" anything for the sake of appealing to a baser instinct. It all seemed so realistic and healthy.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
One of the hymns gave a graphic description of "the other place". We sang that old Lenten barnstormer, "Christian dost thou see them on the holy ground?" specially reproduced – music and all – in our order of service. I particularly enjoyed the line, "How the troops of Midian prowl and prowl around"!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I followed the crowd down into the undercroft, where a well-stocked coffee hour awaited. I bought the aforementioned "Story of the Parish" as well as "Selected Sermons" by Cardinal Newman.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I don't drink coffee, but I had a perfectly respectable cup of tea from a pot, plus a delicate egg salad sandwich.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – I am seriously thinking about becoming a member of the Church of the Resurrection.

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 sermon. Oh, and the delighful, prayer-filled haze of incense. All the senses were satisfied by the worship – including my sense of smell. Very satisfying...
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