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260: St Thomas, New York City, USA
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St Thomas, New York
Mystery Worshipper: Orestes.
The church: St Thomas, New York City, USA.
Denomination: Episcopal Church in the USA (ECUSA).
The building: St Thomas is an impressive stone church in the high French Gothic style. It was completed in 1913.
The neighbourhood: The church is located on 5th Avenue, the Sacred Way of universal consumer materialism.
The cast: I am not sure, as there were no service-specific materials. The rector is Rev. Andrew C. Mead. Judging from the splendor of the minister's raiment, I believe the rector led the service.
What was the name of the service?
Choral Evensong for All Souls Day.

How full was the building?
About one-third filled – impressive, given the vastness of the church and the fact that it was 5.30pm on a Thursday.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. The pews are shaped well and supplied with velvet cushions. The kneelers are leather hassocks of ample width and firm construction.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
When I arrived the choir was still rehearsing. As it is a men and boys' choir, the behavior of the younger choristers was a source of some gentle mirth. It was rather like the close of Act I of Tosca. After the choir withdrew, the atmosphere was downright solemn – an air underscored by a lovely, somber prelude appropriate to the day.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"O Lord, open thou our lips..."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
On tables just inside the narthex were placed laminated service sheets for evensong. From this I gather that the service is observed regularly. The first reading was from the 1611 King James Version. The Gospel was, I think, from the New Revised Standard. Hymns were from the current hymnal.

What musical instruments were played?

Did anything distract you?
Just before the service, an acolyte struggled mightily to light one of two enormous candles on the high altar. There was obviously some problem with the wick, and there was nothing for it but to persevere, since the top of the candle was a good 15 feet above the floor. His admirable and quiet dedication paid off, and eventually the candle sputtered to life. However, I found it impossible to think of the souls of the departed, God or anything else as long as he labored. Later, I was able to appreciate the metaphor.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service was solemn in the best sense and conducted with effortless formality by a clergy and choir who knew what to do and how and when to do it. Since the role of the congregation was almost entirely passive, there was no chance to gauge their "approach" to worship. As one would expect at such a service, there were some excellent voices in the congregation. A few very fine sopranos in my vicinity provided a pleasant complement to the male voices of the choir during the hymns.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon. The minister gave a dignified and warm welcome to all, especially the members of the Board of Directors of ECUSA, who were, apparently, meeting in New York. Of course, nearly every head in the congregation promptly began surveying for likely board members.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The Magnificat was certainly sublime enough in its own right, but I would have to say that the transformation through music and prayer of what is an impressive (but cold) environment into a sacred space that glowed with the warmth of communion, sent me back out into the world feeling as though I had been somewhere other and far better.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Well, the other place was suggested only metaphorically by the occasional deep, subterranean rumbling of the subway that passes far beneath the church. The sound of the passing trains did give me pause to wonder whether all are redeemed by grace, or whether the souls of some languish eternally in Hell. That impious speculation is hellish enough.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was not much chance of that. The evensong was followed by holy eucharist, which I was unable to attend. In between the two services, the clergy greeted those who departed after the first. I exchanged greetings with a most pleasant clergyman and went on my way.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none after evensong.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9. It is hard to make this judgment without having seen the congregation in action, so to speak. However, based on the quiet dignity of the service and the positively glorious music, I would certainly give it a try.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Certainly. It was refreshing, in a way, to "participate" so fully in a service without really doing anything except remaining receptive to the experience of the sacred. Perhaps a lesson lies therein for a restless soul.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The moment at which the last note of the Magnificat perished into silence.
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