Mystery Worshipper: Acton Bell
Church: All Angels
Location: Upper West Side, New York City, USA
Date of visit: Friday, 22 April 2011, 7:00pm
All Angels currently meets in what was at one time its parish house, the main 1,500 seat church building having been torn down in 1979. Designed by Henry Janeway Hardenburgh, who also designed the legendary Dakota Apartments and the Plaza Hotel, the parish house was built for the astronomical sum of $90,000 in 1906 (approximately $3,000,000 in 2011 dollars). Hardenburgh is famous for his playful mixing and matching of styles, and that sort of play is readily apparent here, albeit on a tiny scale, with Gothic tracery on the windows blended with Flemish dormers and a giant two-story window that gives the small building a grandeur that one wouldn't necessarily expect. The original interior has been mostly gutted and replaced by a small modern, blonde wood sanctuary that seats about 150. The loss of their original church building is much lamented, and there is reason to mourn. By all accounts the interior was breathtaking and featured the largest Tiffany window ever designed by that studio. There were also a choir and pulpit ringed with limestone angels that wrapped around the choir and paraded to the top of the pulpit, which was topped with a life-sized wooden angel who leaned toward the congregation blowing a trumpet with wings at full extension.
They sponsor a very vigorous homeless outreach ministry, providing showers, food and clothing to those most in need. They also sponsor home churches and Bible study, 12-step programs, and a variety of youth and young adult programs. All Angels maintains a definite fundamentalist bent. In response to the consecration of Gene Robinson, the openly gay bishop of New Hampshire, they joined the Anglican Communion Network, a group of conservative Episcopal churches, in 2006. Although formally still a part of the Diocese of New York, they have withheld their diocesan tithe over their disapproval of homosexuality in the clergy.
It's hard to believe today that Manhattan's Upper West Side was ever a slum, but as late as 1960 The New York Times called it a "gathering place for narcotics addicts, homosexuals and sexual perverts." Ironically, gentrification began around the time All Angels was torn down, as "yuppies" were drawn to the large apartments and proximity to Central Park. Real estate prices in the area have now reached the stratosphere, but the neighborhood somehow feels almost suburban, lacking true New York City "grit".
The Revd Milind Sojwal, rector, was the celebrant. Jason Gaboury delivered the homily. His connection to the church wasn't specified in the service bulletin.
What was the name of the service?The Solemnity of Good Friday, with Communion from the Reserved Sacrament and Veneration of the Cross
How full was the building?
It was pretty near filled to the gills with quite a young, smartly turned-out crowd of roughly 125 souls. I definitely felt I drove the average age up.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I guessed it was the greeter's first time, and she seemed a little preoccupied and tentative, but the rector spotted a visitor and bounded over to say hello and ask how I had heard of the church.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a chair with a rush seat and a kneeler. It wasn't uncomfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The choir of three singers and the cellist were practicing, having some trouble with the harmony on one of the hymns (trouble that continued as things got underway). A few minutes before the service began, their very fine organist played what I think was a Buxtehude prelude, but it wasn't listed anywhere.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Blessed be our God forever and ever. Amen."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A service bulletin, although The Book of Common Prayer (1979) was available on the backs of our chairs.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ, piano and cello. The organ is a particularly fine example, with a wonderful sound and perfect for such a small space.
Did anything distract you?
The rector wore a cassock and stole but was shoeless. When he first came to say hello before the service, I just thought he was in the process of dressing. But when he remained unshod for the service, I realized it was part of his shtick. I kept thinking about how cold his feet must have been (New York is still decidedly chilly in late April). I was starting to get sympathy chilblains! There were also two huge frescoes in shades of black, gray, white and deep purple, which seemed to be illustrations out of a graphic novel about Jack the Ripper. The one I could best see had men and women in Victorian dress lying about as if dead, with chairs and tables upturned around a central disembodied head and a loaf of bread. I was reminded of a line from Love's Labour's Lost: "Black is the badge of hell, the hue of dungeons, the scowl of night." Good for Good Friday, I guess, but really they were more than a little disturbing, and totally at odds with the severe, spare aesthetic of the modernist interior.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was evangelical, but I wouldn't necessarily call it either happy or clappy. It was the Good Friday service from the Prayer Book, with veneration of the cross and communion from the reserved sacrament. There seemed to be some discomfort with liturgy in general among the congregation, which I didn't quite get. We were explicitly given the option of standing or kneeling at the solemn collects, with a majority of the congregation choosing to remain standing. The rector had to explain that venerating the cross didn't necessarily mean worshiping the cross, but recognizing all the same that some might find it discomforting and were under no obligation to do it. Some chose to do it, others not. The one divergence from the standard rite was the addition of what I'm calling "prayer stations," although I'm not really sure what they would correctly be called. Jason Gaboury, the preacher, invited us to "recommit ourselves to Christ" in a "celebration of his suffering and our cleansing reception into his body" at stations set up alongside communion. Jason and someone named Christine stood next to the rector, who was distributing the host, and laid hands on and prayed a "recommitment prayer" over those who had just received communion.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
I was surprised to see it clock in at 30 minutes. It seemed much, much longer.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
1 – Jason Gaboury tended to shout and actually pounded the lectern in several instances to make his point even more emphatically. I tend to zone out when anyone starts shouting, so I'm probably not going to do his argument justice, despite the fact that I was taking notes. I can say with certainty that the sermon was extemporaneous and, as such, the argument was very febrile and diffuse.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He began with a reference to his young daughters telling their friends in grade school the story of the crucifixion, saying he wondered how their teacher, Mrs Goldberg, might react. (This got a laugh.) But it wasn't so much in the spirit of ecumenism that he was excited about, but rather that they had taken evangelizing so to heart. Then he jumped into the business end of things by claiming that we all share guilt in the crucifixion, just in the same way we are all complicit in eroticizing strangers and sex trafficking (in part because we buy things like iPads). Jesus, however, was beaten (by us), yet he wasn't defeated by the weight of the world. And if we are transfigured by the Word, we too can behold man as good. But first we must be cleansed and meet the sacraments renewed.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The keyboardist played an improvisation on the piano during communion that was simply to die for. Also, during the veneration of the cross, he played Bach's Nun komm der Heiden Heiland on the organ, which was also particularly well done.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The sermon definitely had me thinking of things sulfurous, and that wasn't exactly in the spirit of the day, was it? But then again, it isn't every Good Friday where I am hectored for my complicity in sex trafficking.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There wasn't any coffee hour. People filed out in silence after venerating the cross, so no chance of looking lost.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
A coffee hour on Good Friday would have been a hoot, but regrettably there wasn't one.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
0 – Somehow I think I prefer my tent revivals slightly less chic.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Not particularly. With so many people "shouting" all around, why on earth would I want actively to seek out even more?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
I'll still be scratching my head over the Jack the Ripper cartoons!