|Comment on this report, or find other reports.
|Our Mystery Worshippers are volunteers who warm church pews for us around the world. If you'd like to become a Mystery Worshipper, start here.
|Find out how to reproduce this report in your church magazine or website.
||1164: Cathedral of St John the Divine, New York City
Mystery Worshipper: Misericord.
The church: Cathedral of St John the Divine, New York City.
Denomination: Episcopal Church in the USA.
Comment: We have received a comment on this report.
The building: The seat of the diocese of New York, St John the
Divine is the largest gothic church in the world and the second largest
church in any style – only St Peter's Basilica in Rome is larger.
The cornerstore was laid in 1892 but the grand plan envisioned by the
noted ecclesiastical architect Ralph Adams Cram and the firm of Heins
& LaFarge (designers of the legendary City Hall subway station and
the Bronx Zoo) has proceeded fitfully, and now, 113 years later, the still
unfinished building has fallen on hard times. Most of the grounds are
fenced off with nasty looking chain link. The scaffolding still in place
for the southwest tower looks like it is rusting on the stonework, and
the northwest tower remains unbegun. The north transept was ravaged by
fire in 2001, and the cathedral has struggled to recover from that tragic
event. The once impressive vista of 601 feet from the west doors to the
east chapel window has been cut back by a large black veil that hangs
from the crossing arch and hides the (one assumes) damaged and disheveled
choir from view. I was reminded of the black drapery that enshrouds one
of the destroyed but still-standing buildings at the World Trade Center
The church: This is a place where history has been made. During
the second World War, several pieces of silver and jewelry from London's
Chapel Royal were transferred to St John's for safekeeping; rumor quickly
spread that the Crown Jewels themselves were among said treasures. In
1951 an ecumenical service was held commemorating the 1500th anniversary
of the Council of Chalcedon. In 1968 Duke Ellington premiered his Second
Sacred Concert at the cathedral; Ellington's funeral in 1974 was
attended by 12,500 mourners. During the 1960s the cathedral championed
the fledgling civil rights movement, causing several wealthy patrons to
withdraw their financial support. In 1973 Tennessee Williams was honored
at an evensong service incorporating readings from several of his works.
In 1978 the first women priests were ordained at the cathedral; one of
these, Mary Simpson, was later appointed canon and thus became the first
female canon in the history of Christianity. The Dalai Lama has visited
the cathedral numerous times. Today, despite financial difficulties that
have resulted in the building's remaining unfinished, the cathedral continues
its long tradition of association with the most pressing and often controversial
social issues of the day.
The neighborhood: Cathedral Parkway (110th Street) marks the boundary
between Central Park and Harlem. The area surrounding the cathedral includes
Columbia University and is most pleasant – not as fancy as Park
Avenue certainly, but anyone seeking a quieter residential urban experience
with a collegiate presence would find this area perfect. As Manhattan's
upper west side merges with Harlem, diversity of races and economic strata
becomes more apparent.
The cast: The Rev. Patti Welch, chaplain of the cathedral school
and minister for education, was the celebrant. The Rev. Canon Thomas P.
Miller was the preacher.
The date & time: August 21, 2005, 9.00am. I chose the early service
knowing that at the later service there would be no organ (damaged by
the fire and still under repair) or choir (summer recess).
What was the name of the service?
Eucharist, fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost.
How full was the building?
A rather unfair question given the cathedral's present state. A bay in the
nave had been set up with about 100 chairs for this early morning service
and about 40 people showed up on a muggy summer Sunday.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. After ascertaining that I was there for the service and not as a tourist,
a guide greeted me and gave me a service sheet. She indicated that the nearer
group of chairs facing an altar midway along the south aisle was where the
service would be held.
Was your pew comfortable?
The nave is a veritable sea of chairs, all of which are serviceable (pun
How would you describe the pre-service
Quiet and prayerful. As seems common at small early services, most people
in attendance knew each other. It felt like the early service at a neighborhood
parish of 150 or so members.
What were the exact opening words of the
"Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit."
What books did the congregation use during the
Everything was printed in the very nice service sheet. No books were in sight.
What musical instruments were played?
Piano. The pianist's name was not given, although I assume that the cathedral
has kept its regular music staff on despite the fire.
Did anything distract you?
As will be apparent from the photographs, there are many visual distractions
on many different layers. The sheer volume of space comprising the nave
is awesome. The stained glass is breathtakingly magnificent. Several outstanding
tapestries that escaped fire and smoke are hung about, along with a series
of quite nice modern paintings. The list goes on and on. I should say that
these are pleasant distractions. There were no human distractions – for
example, I didn't see any really small children at this service. Everyone
present was perfectly attuned to this occasion of worship.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or
This was an example of an intimate liturgy with suitably scaled music and
ceremony. Mother Welch in particular projected a very welcoming and Christ-centered
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 Canon Miller had prepared his sermon well, and I found it fresh
In a nutshell, what was the sermon
Canon Miller tied the reading from Matthew where Jesus asks Peter, "Who
do you say that I am?" to our efforts to conform, good and bad. He
used the example of a Bertolucci film that I was not familiar with. We were
encouraged to conform to the image of Christ in a positive way, as the image
of believers. "The common good" is both a Christian as well as
Which part of the service was like being in
Sharing in the sacraments and good teaching are what worship is really about.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
It is hard to escape the feeling that St John the Divine as a cathedral
building is a hopeless cause. It had been about 18 years since my
last visit, and in spite of the progress on the south tower (all made at
least a decade ago) the cathedral still looks obviously unfinished and is
even beginning to show signs of neglect. It stands as a sad, poor relation
to other edifices of similar scale, such as the Washington National Cathedral.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Mother Welch greeted everyone, and people either mingled in the groups they
came with or moved along. Others were coming to the later service held in
another "campsite" further up the nave, and the tourist activity
was beginning to pick up.
How would you describe the after-service
I didn't see any. It would have been a nice gesture of fellowship. I also
looked for any remnant of the gift shop, which is where the north transept
fire had started, but found none. I wondered why a temporary gift shop had
not been set up – the old gift shop was an important source of revenue.
Recordings of the cathedral's fine choir and organ, t-shirts, posters, books,
whatever, could help engage the visitor and dispel the impression that nothing
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 Wow. I guess maybe if I lived here, but it would be a challenge,
with the many other fine houses of Anglican worship in New York.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
Oh yes. Things that have an appearance of hopelessness are great opportunities
for faith. I'm not just saying that, but needing to have faith, rather than
just coasting on a church that is a well-oiled machine, can be a really
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
I will remember the depressing condition of the building on the one hand,
and the warmth and welcome shown by the clergy on the other hand. A 25
year-old guide book I have to the cathedral points out that for the price
of one of our military's super bombers this cathedral could be completed.
I'm guessing that was never more true or to the point.
|We rely on voluntary donations to stay online. If you're a regular visitor to Ship of Fools, please consider supporting us.
| From Yunnan in China to Louisville in Kentucky, we report on Easter services, 2010. Read here.
|The Mystery Pilgrim
| One of our most seasoned reporters makes the Camino pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Read here.
| Read reports from 70 London churches, visited by a small army of Mystery Worshippers on one single Sunday. Read here.