St Luke in the Fields, New York City

St Luke in the Fields, New York City, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: Frideswide
Church: St Luke in the Fields
Location: New York City, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 23 July 2006, 10:30am

The building

A simple neoclassical brick building consecrated in 1822 and rebuilt in the 1980s after a fire, but retaining the elegant and simple older style. The tall arched windows are glazed with yellowish, wavy bulls-eye glass; the interior is cream and brown. Contrasting with the studied classic simplicity of the rest of the church is a many-colored mosaic cross in the floor of the church entrance.

The church

The parish was established in 1820, one of the founding wardens being Clement Clarke Moore, who penned "A Visit from St Nicholas," better known as 'The Night Before Christmas." A chapel of nearby Trinity Church from 1891 until 1976, St Luke's became known as a bastion of the Anglo-Catholic tradition. Today they conduct an outreach particularly to people with HIV/AIDS and to lesbian, gay and bisexual teenagers. They maintain an intense music program encompassing both a professional adult choir and a challenging children's choir. There is also an associated school, St Luke's School. St Luke's owns the entire block on which it sits – this includes the church, parish house, school, several brownstones, and a lovingly tended garden.

The neighborhood

Greenwich Village or, more exactly, the West Village. This was once a gritty area of warehouses cut off from the Hudson River by the elevated West Side Highway. But the highway collapsed in 1973 (ironically under the weight of a cement truck traveling to a repair site) following years of inadequate maintenance, and the entire structure was demolished and the ground underneath turned into parkland. Today most of the old warehouses have been renovated into toney apartment lofts, many with shops on the ground floor, and one can walk through the park all the way down to the southern tip of Manhattan. The area is a mix of poor and not-so-poor, gay and straight couples. The narrow streets criss-cross each other at odd angles, forming surprising little squares and triangles that have been turned into miniature parks.

The cast

Celebrant: the Revd Mary Foulke, senior associate. Deacon and preacher: the Revd Caroline Stacey, rector. Organist: David Schuler, director of music. Cantor: Cindy Brome. There was also a subdeacon, thurifer, crucifer, two torchbearers and four chalicers to round out the sanctuary party; and three more people from the congregation to read the lesson, epistle, and prayers of intercession.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Eucharist.

How full was the building?

Just about exactly half full, with people in every pew.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A "hello" from each of the two ushers at the door, who were handing out the service leaflet (of which more anon).

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes. The wooden pew had no cushion or curves, but was perfectly proportioned. The kneeler was a different story: the shelf on the pew in front prevented one from being able to kneel upright with one's knees wholly on the kneeler, thus forcing the choice between barely supported knees or the infamous Episcopal Squat.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Surprisingly chatty, filled with the friendly buzz of people happy to see each other.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Hymnal 1982 and the service/announcements leaflet: 16 pages on letter-sized paper. The leaflet included almost all the text of the service that would ordinarily be in the Book of Common Prayer, including all the congregational responses and almost all of the service music. Half of the leaflet was the service and the other half was a welcoming note, calendar, prayer list, announcements, and ways to participate at St Luke's. The 1979 Prayer Book and Songs of Wonder, Love, and Praise were in the pew racks, but not used.

What musical instruments were played?


Did anything distract you?

The noise of a myriad of small fans placed in the open windows and on the floor.

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

Formal but not rigid.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

16 minutes.

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

9 – Mother Stacey read her sermon in a completely natural speaking tone, a delight to listen to.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

In the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus tells the disciples, "You give them something to eat." Whose responsibility is it to feed the people? What are the disciples responsible for when the task is impossible? The Holy Spirit opens our eyes to God. Turn to Jesus to make what little we can offer, enough.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

When we chanted the Lord's Prayer I felt wrapped in a cocoon of sound. The congregation were confident singers, and in particular during the Lord's Prayer the unaccompanied singing of the congregation reverberated throughout the church and through me.

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

The otherwise delightfully complete service leaflet was missing the sung part for some of the congregational responses. In contrast to the pleasure of knowing what to sing everywhere else, it was unnerving to come upon these spots worrying whether I'd be able to join in or not. In a similar vein, the Anglican chant was notated in a manner different from what I'm used to, but with no indication of how to interpret the notation. It took me half the psalm, nervously trying to follow along with everyone else without sounding too lost, to figure out the notation. (Ironically, it turns out to be easier than the one I'm familiar with.)

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

I wandered around looking at the church, then stood in line waiting to greet the rector. The rector chatted briefly but pleasantly (who are you, where are you from, what are you doing in New York). I then back-tracked to the parish hall to coffee hour. At the door to the parish hall, a man asked me, "What do you think Jesus would have to say to the comfortably well off?" We talked for a while, and he thought I was a theology student (well chuffed, me!), and then I had a long, interesting conversation with someone inside the parish hall about gardens in New York City. Finally, before leaving, I conversed briefly with someone about the financial challenges facing St Luke in the Fields. As I left, I noticed a woman sitting at a table on which several stacks of brochures had been arranged. I lingered at the table for several minutes collecting brochures, but was completely ignored by the woman until I asked her a question.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Dry store-bought cookies, which I skipped, and moist store-bought cake, which I ate. I don't normally drink coffee or tea, so although I can attest they were present, I can't say how they were. I looked long and hard for a jug of lemonade or water but found none.

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

9 – Active, engaged, friendly (I take the brochure lady to be an anomaly), good music, good preaching, what more could one ask? No stained glass windows, alas, hence no 10.

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

Yes. I felt very much at home, yet reminded not to be merely comfortable when going forth into the world "to love and serve the Lord."

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

The service/announcement leaflet.

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