St Bartholomew, New York City (Exterior)

St Bartholomew's, New York City, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Bartholomew's
Location: New York City, USA
Date of visit: Wednesday, 13 February 2013, 6:00pm

The building

In any other city, a church of St Bart's size – a full city block long and more than half a block wide – would be the cathedral. And while enormous, comfortably holding several thousand, it is just a very grand example of a parish church. The building, begun in 1917 with a Byzantine-Romanesque design by the noted neo-Gothic architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, wasn't completed until 1930, as the vestry insisted on having the funds at hand to pay for construction of the building, rather than to take on any debt. The interior is severe in a Byzantine way, sort of a Moorish take on the board game Snakes and Ladders. Goodhue, who died before the church was completed, was concerned that St Bart's was "in some ways a good deal of a barn, and with the exception of the chapel, doesn't redound at all to my credit." But New Yorkers obviously didn't feel this was the case, as the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the church an historic landmark in 1967, among the very first to be singled out soon after the creation of the commission in 1965. The choir room was a gift of veteran actress Lillian Gish, and it includes a piano that General Douglas MacArthur took with him on his Pacific campaign during World War II – a gift from his widow.

The church

The early 1980s saw the beginning of a decade-long dispute between the City of New York and the vestry over plans for the construction of a 60-story glass and steel office tower in the church's "air space." This culminated in the congregation suing the vestry to try to stop the madness. It isn't any wonder that after such acrimony, membership dwindled to 150 and it looked as if the church might close. Clearer minds eventually prevailed, however, and today the congregation is at a robust 3,000, an all-time high. Very sensitive to the needs of commuters, they offer very humane service times before and after work (of which this Ash Wednesday service is an example) as well as lunch time communion. They also offer "Sunday on Wednesdays," an after-work service that includes some music and draws a crowd. With a focus on social justice and inclusion, St Bart's has a strong charitable component with a soup kitchen, a shelter, a food pantry and a medical van. The community center runs a dance studio, a swimming pool, a pre-school, and a summer camp. They also have a popular restaurant in the church garden.

The neighborhood

Manhattan's Midtown East is the largest, wealthiest, and busiest business district in the United States. St Bart's is situated on Park Avenue, in what is arguably the area's most important commercial stretch. Grand Central Terminal is just down the way, and the venerable old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, that Art Deco jewel box, is next door.

The cast

The Revd Buddy Stallings, priest-in-charge, was the officiant, assisted by the Revd Matthew J. Moretz and the Revd Lynn Saunders, associate rectors. The Revd Edward M. Sunderland, priest in residence and director of Crossroads Community Services, Inc., preached. There were also several acolytes and a robed verger.

What was the name of the service?

Choral Eucharist.

How full was the building?

Slightly more than 250.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

An usher said hello and handed me a service bulletin. I was also asked to move forward by another usher, since she feared I wouldn't be able to hear the choir from where I was sitting in the back.

Was your pew comfortable?

The original pews were removed and replaced with modular chairs, which I found to be a major source of confusion. Read on.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

It was pretty lively for Ash Wednesday, with lots of people chatting and catching up.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"The Lord is full of compassion and mercy" (Psalm 103:8), from the choral introit in plainsong chant.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Hymnal 1982 and a very complete service bulletin.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ and a choir of 20 men and women. St Bart's has one of the largest organs in the city, a mammoth Aeolian-Skinner with an unusually rich timbre, expanded and revised over the years. A major rebuilding in 1970-71 was the last project undertaken by the company before it ceased doing business.

Did anything distract you?

The woman sitting directly behind me was muttering to herself sotto voce – not loud enough for me to discern was she was saying, but loud enough for me to realize that she was pretty darn angry at something. I turned around to see if I was somehow the source of her ire, and she glared at me. I have no idea if she was disturbed or if I inadvertently did something to disturb her. But, as one does when there is a crazy on the subway, I moved over a couple seats.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Pretty middle-of-the-road Rite II, with mixing and matching elements of both high and low. No incense, Sanctus bell or reverencing; yet crosses were veiled, and much of the mass was sung in plainsong chant. Additionally, the priests were fairly decked out in vestments that matched the altar cloths: an ornate chasuble for the officiant and a cope with tasseled hood (a bit of whimsy that made me smile) for the preacher.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

12 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

8 – The Revd Mr Sunderland incorporated a bit of humor, which is a nice touch, even on Ash Wednesday. And while I inwardly groaned at his mention of Facebook, his message wasn't exactly obvious, and ultimately had nothing to do with social media. It was interesting hearing how he was going to bring it around to the question of Ash Wednesday.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

He began by recounting a sordid story he'd read on Facebook of the breakdown of a marriage. Citing the Prayer Book, he reminded us that there are two categories of sin: those things we ought not to do, but do; and those things we ought to do, but do not. Our focus, he argued, for thousands of years has been on our actions, and we ignore how neglectful we really are. Perhaps it is time for us to look at things we leave undone, and perhaps this could be the focus of our devotions this Lent. Rather than focus on ourselves, focus on how we can help others.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Everyone sang, even the muttering lady behind me – who, when she wasn't muttering, had a lovely voice, which was really nice. It always makes me happy to see a congregation really participating. And I really like the hymns in Lent, as they're at once kind of bouncy and a bit grim.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

I hadn't thought to inspect the chairs on my arrival, and I didn't realize that their modular design included a spot to store the hassock-kneeler where the arms of the chairs would be, rather like the tray tables in the arms of airplane seats. I scrambled around looking to find where others had miraculously made their hassocks appear. I hate being unprepared.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

Nobody spoke to me and there wasn't coffee, so I made my way out.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

No coffee hour.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

6 – I imagine this will become a regular stop-in during the work week, as there does seem to be a strong and active commuter contingent.

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

Yes. I found very useful the suggestion to look at what we overlook.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The "Snakes and Ladders" dome, which was both pretty and odd.

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