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760: St Michael's, Manhattan, New York City, USA
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St Michael's, Manhattan, New York City, USA
Mystery Worshipper: Abed-Nego.
The church: St Michael's, Manhattan, New York City, USA.
Denomination: Episcopalian Church in the USA.
The building: St Michael's was founded in 1807 as a summer church, set in the rural delights of what is now the northern end of the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The first members of the parish were New York City residents who lived "in town" five miles to the south, and spent their weekends in their country homes near the church. The present building, the third on this site, was dedicated in 1891. I learned from the church's web site that it was designed by architect Robert W. Gibson and is made of Indiana limestone in the Northern Italian Renaissance or Romanesque-Byzantine style. Apparently this was a daring departure in church architecture at the time. The windows are nothing short of spectacular. They and the chancel décor are the work of the great Louis Comfort Tiffany. The lancet windows above the altar depict St Michael's victory in heaven. They took my breath away! The church is painted throughout in brilliant colors, with lots of gold etching.
The church: Those who presided at the service were representative of the Upper West Side community, that is, ethnically rather diverse. The epistle was read by a lady with an accent from the Indian sub-continent. The Old Testament lesson was read by an African American lady. The celebrant was the associate rector, Fr Stephen Bolle, a former canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Cincinnati. And the sermon was preached by the rector, Father George Brandt, a member of the Union of Black Episcopalians – who was once a trial lawyer and a litigator.
The neighbourhood: St Michael's is located on 99th Street between the major north-south thoroughfares, Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue. The district north of 96th Street up to Columbia University was considered until fairly recently somewhat "down-at-heel", a poor cousin of the highly priced real estate that lies between the Lincoln Center and 96th Street. This is changing with the southward expansion of the Columbia campus, the arrival of upwardly mobile professional types and the activity of bulldozers and cranes. The shops and restaurants on Broadway are also showing an upward trend. Some huge public housing developments to the east of St Michael's on Amsterdam Avenue are an obvious counterbalance to the gentrification taking place to the west of the church. On a Sunday morning the streets around the church are alive and buzzing with activity – people walking their dogs, schlepping hefty Sunday editions of the New York Times, and lining up for a hearty breakfast at the nearby Metro Diner. The Turkish restaurant opposite the diner promises a very reasonably priced brunch as a post-church treat.
The cast: Celebrant : Rev. Fr. Stephen M. Bolle. Preacher : Rev. Fr. Canon George W. Brandt, Jr. Choirmaster : Nicholas White.
What was the name of the service?
Choral Holy Communion.

How full was the building?
There were 50 or so, and a choir of 14, in a building that seats around 400.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A polite "Good morning" from the man who handed me the beautifully produced order of service.

Was your pew comfortable?
The pew was fine, but there were no kneelers. The church is in the midst of a re-painting job, but why this should force the congregation to kneel on a dusty, stone floor is unclear. Many chose to stand throughout.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Noisy and restless. There was a lot of chatter and even some wandering and greeting going on. The atmosphere was not at all conducive to prayer and worship.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning and welcome to St Michael's Church" – that's if you count the notices as the opening words. The actual service proper began with "Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit." The start of the service, however, was extremely delayed. It was slated to begin at 11.15am. At 11.20, the rector walked up to the lectern and uttered a seemingly interminable series of announcements. At 11.29, we began the processional hymn and sometime after 11.30, the opening words of the liturgy were spoken!

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Book of Common Prayer 1979, The Hymnal 1982, plus "Lift Every Voice and Sing II" (in the pew, but not used).

What musical instruments were played?
A grand piano. The St Michael's website had whetted my musical appetite with a description of a fabulous organ built by "Rudolf von Beckerath of Hamburg". Due to the re-painting job, the instrument was covered by a huge plastic shroud. I was disappointed, particularly since I would have loved to hear Nicholas White's superb musicianship in full flight.

Did anything distract you?
It didn't take too long to accustom myself to the fact that the Tiffany windows and the scaffolding were both vying for my visual attention. The windows were the easy winners!

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was middle-of-the-road Anglican. The liturgy was celebrated facing the congregation. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer was fairly closely adhered to, although there seemed to be no fraction. What was very odd indeed was the alternation of Rite I with Rite II. The collect of the day, the confession, the canon of the mass, the Lord's prayer and the post-communion prayer were Rite I (traditional language with "thee" and "thou"), whereas the Old Testament lesson, the Psalm, the epistle, the Gospel and the creed were all Rite II (modern). The prayers of the people was a hotbed linguistic confusion: the priest used thees and thous while the congregation followed what they found on the page designated in the Prayer Book. The order of service told them turn to page 387, where they were required to address God as "You'! (The gloria, the sanctus and benedictus, and the Agnus Dei were sung in Latin.)

Exactly how long was the sermon?
18 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – I was not surprised when I "googled" him, to discover Fr Brandt had been a trial lawyer before he was called to holy orders.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was based on the Gospel for the day (Mark chapter 10) – Christ's teaching about divorce. The preacher became passionate when he spoke of Episcopalian attitudes to divorce. "One of the best things the Episcopalian Church did was to allow a divorcée to marry." Before 1970, only the "innocent party" was allowed to re-marry. "Talk about hardness of heart!" he sighed. Finally, Fr Brandt reminded us that Jesus came to save and to love, not to destroy. Jesus didn't say a word about sexuality, but he said a lot about divorce. The preacher took this to mean that for Our Lord, the matter of relationships was the critical issue. The quality of a relationship is what really matters. Problems arise when a partner is "used" rather than "cared for". The Pharisees asked "Is it lawful that a man divorce his wife?" God does not call us to a life of law. He calls us to a life of love.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The 14-voice choir, under the direction of Nicholas White, did an absolutely stellar job. The mass setting was Palestrina's "Missa Aeterna Christi Munera", and the combination of a perfect acoustic with beautifully tuned, heartfelt singing from a group blessed with gorgeous voices fills one with the kind of spiritual joy that can't easily be put into words.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The first 15 minutes were hell! The late start, and the stunningly boring announcements to the accompaniment of deafening ambulance sirens hurtling down Amsterdam Avenue, was a deeply depressing experience.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Not a lot. I think I'd heard the rector say something in his notices about a coffee-hour, but the order of service / bulletin was devoid of information as to its whereabouts. So I hung around staring up at the shrouded organ and eyeballing the scaffolding until a priest – the sub-deacon, maybe – shook my hand and told me how nice it was to see me. Then I loitered in the narthex looking lost, until I inevitably found myself heading out on to the sidewalk. There the celebrant, Fr Bolle, and a young lady seminarian shook my hand. He expressed a hope that I might consider becoming a regular congregant. And that was it! I didn't meet a single non-ordained person from the church.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I don't know if it was available.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – There are a lot of Episcopal churches in New York City. None have better stained glass. The music at St Michael's is great. But this didn't feel a very prayer-filled or particularly spiritual place. And the regulars will have to work a little harder to mount an effective outreach program. Where were the greeters? And where was the rector at the end of the service? Glad-handing is part of the job, methinks.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
The music did.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
How self-absorbed the people of St Michael's seemed to be.
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