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|1893: St Bartholomew's,
New York City
New York City.
The Episcopal Church, Diocese
of New York.
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.
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.
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 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?
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
It was hushed 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
"Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit."
What books did the congregation use during the
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
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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