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1161: Church of the Transfiguration ("Little Church Around the Corner"), New York
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Church of the Transfiguration, New York
Mystery Worshipper: The Geezer.
The church: Church of the Transfiguration ("Little Church Around the Corner"), New York.
Denomination: Anglo-Catholic (Episcopal Church in the USA).
The building: The Transfiguration parish was founded in 1849 and the church itself was consecrated in 1853. The brick building is basically two churches conjoined at their backs. One enters the church garden via a lych-gate and the church proper via the leftmost of two towers. To the left of the entrance is a chapel off which open several side chapels; to the right is the main church. Each features splendid stained glass and several strikingly beautiful works of art. The nave of the main church is wide and dark and is covered by a wooden barrel-like ceiling. A pipe organ is located to the right about halfway down the nave; choir seating surrounds the pipe chamber. The sanctuary is backed by a wall of gold leaf, with marble high altar and reredos. To the right of the sanctuary is a columbarium.
The church: Transfiguration's first rector, the Rev. Dr George Hendric Houghton, served in that capacity for 49 years. Dr Houghton helped bring to America the Oxford Movement, which reintroduced the Anglican Church to its Roman roots. Dr Houghton was also one of the founders of the Order of the Holy Cross, the oldest continuing monastic order in the Episcopal Church. During the American Civil War, the church served as a station on the underground railroad, a clandestine support network for runaway slaves. The nickname "Little Church Around the Corner" was coined in 1870, when the rector of a nearby church refused an actor's request for a funeral service for his friend, saying that there was a "little church around the corner where they do that sort of thing." The name has stuck ever since. A window in the south aisle bearing the inscription "God bless the Little Church Around the Corner" depicts Jesus with outstretched arms welcoming the actor as he approaches the lych-gate bearing the shroud-draped body of his friend. Over time a close relationship developed between Transfiguration and the people of the Broadway stage. In 1923 the Episcopal Actors' Guild held its first meeting at Transfiguration. Such theatrical greats as Basil Rathbone, Tallulah Bankhead, Peggy Wood, Joan Fontaine, Rex Harrison and Charlton Heston have served as officers or council members of the guild.
The neighborhood: The church is situated at One East 29th Street in Manhattan's Murray Hill district, see the report on Marble Collegiate Church for more details. In fact, Transfiguration is located "around the corner" from Marble Collegiate.
The cast: The Rev. Warren E. Haynes, priest-in-charge, was the celebrant. Father Haynes was assisted by the Rev. Warren C. Platt, deacon, Mr Yaroslav Dyakiv, verger, and Dr Claudia Dumschat, organist and choir director. The celebrant and deacon were vested in a plain purple chasuble and dalmatic without orphreys; the crucifer and acolytes wore albs and cinctures.
What was the name of the service?
Solemn Eucharist with the Great Litany in procession (Third Sunday in Lent).

How full was the building?
There were about 50 people present; it appeared about one-third full. The congregation was predominantly young to middle-aged.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A gentleman was readying leaflets to be passed out; he told me I could take photographs before mass and explained the arrangement of the chapel vs the main church. He asked me if I was there representing a publication (I think I bluffed my way successfully out of that one). He also lamented that he was formerly the church's webmaster but that now he doesn't even know the password!

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. The wooden pews were lined with red leather cushions. The kneelers, however, were the hassock type that I always find so uncomfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
People entered quietly; there was very little visiting. The organist offered a prelude.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"O God the Father, creator of heaven and earth, have mercy upon us" (from the Great Litany).

What books did the congregation use during the service?
1979 Prayer Book, 1982 Hymnal, service leaflet.

What musical instruments were played?
The pipe organ. The choir consisted of six men and about 10 boys, all vested in cassock and surplice, except for a few probationers among the boys who wore only cassocks. The boys also wore frilly white collars.

Did anything distract you?
In a positive way, the church's beautiful architecture and appointments held my attention. But I couldn't help wondering where Tallulah Bankhead had sat.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Rite I solemn eucharist in the Anglo-Catholic tradition – about eight up the candle on a scale of 1 to 10.

Church of the Transfiguration, New York

Exactly how long was the sermon?
8 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Father Haynes's style was quiet and undramatic, and yet he held our attention and made his points effortlessly. He had a dry sense of humor, especially when describing what the Samaritan woman must have been thinking during her encounter with Jesus at Jacob's well.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Father preached on the day's Gospel reading, John 4:5-26; 39-42, the dialog between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. This passage summarizes all that John believed about Jesus. People may think they have plenty, but their spiritual cupboards may be bare nonetheless. Every act of worship of the Christian church embodies the theme, "Come and see the man who will give you living water."

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The choir sang a Howells anthem at the offertory that I am sure had Howells looking down from heaven in approbation. They also chanted the psalm to tone 8, with a countertenor singing organum a fourth above the other voices.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I was unable to attend church on the first Sunday of Lent, and I thought for sure I had missed the Great Litany for another season – but there it was to surprise me. It is Transfiguration's custom to sing the litany each Sunday in Lent. The choir director insisted on conducting the choir's responses, and she took them at half tempo. The result was that the litany, which drones on endlessly under the best of circumstances, seemed to drone on for twice as long.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I followed the others out to coffee, where a lady who is a parish regular was quick to engage me in conversation. The gentleman I had spoken with earlier at the door (the former webmaster) soon joined us. I also chatted with some of the choir members about the use of organum during the psalm.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Good, strong, hot coffee served in styrofoam cups. There were also several kinds of tea available, as well as bottled water and orange juice. Cookies, cakes and even devilled eggs were laid out on a table. The presentation, however, could have used some finesse, I thought.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – If I lived in Manhattan I would give it serious consideration. It's a very beautiful church with a dignified liturgy and a dedicated congregation. I would probably absent myself during the Sundays in Lent, however – or at least arrive late.

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

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
How beautiful the church is.
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