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1550: St Mary the Virgin, New York City
St Mary the Virgin, New York City
Mystery Worshipper: XIV Century.
The church: St Mary the Virgin, New York City.
Denomination: The Episcopal Church, Diocese of New York.
The building: Almost buried among office buildings and hotels in the middle of Times Square, the Gothic facade is quite lovely once you isolate it. The exterior seems somewhat of the French Gothic style to my untrained eyes, and the interior is more Italianate. The church is worth a visit, even if only to feast upon the glorious interior, including the east facing marble altar, the blue painted ceiling with gold stars, and the exquisite stations of the cross, to name but a few items.
The church: The sense one gets of the community is that they live out the best of Anglo-Catholicism, that is taking the sacrament which they receive at mass into the world. My experience of them is that they are a friendly bunch.
The neighborhood: The Times Square location provides an amazing opportunity for St Mary's. While I was standing outside before the solemn mass began, I could observe the earlier high mass still in progress at the high altar. I lost track of the number of people who stopped as a result of hearing the music, or catching a glimpse of the glittering interior. At least half of them went inside the church as a result. One lady was heard to remark, "We don't have anything like this in Iowa."
The cast: The Revd Stephen Garth, rector, was the celebrant and preacher, assisted by the Revd Matthew Mead and the Revd James Ross Smith, curates.
The date & time: Sunday, October 7, 2007, 11.00am.

What was the name of the service?
Solemn Mass.

How full was the building?
About half full. This was Columbus Day weekend, and the temperature was 20 degrees above normal. There was also a parade taking place in the city that day.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A friendly greeting from the usher who handed me the solemn mass booklet and said, "Welcome to St Mary's."

Was your pew comfortable?
The pew was comfortable, but the individual style kneelers were a bit hard to maneuver from. Once I was down, I was down!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet and reverential, with a European sort of feel. There were all sorts of people present: those of us gathering for the mass, others quietly walking about pausing at various shrines to light candles or stopping in one of the chapels, ladies with their heads covered touching the feet of one of the statues of the Blessed Mother, a backpacker kneeling in prayer before continuing his journey. I also noticed a few homeless people resting in the back pews, which was quite touching. It's nice to see the church being something more than a museum during the week and a one-hour show on Sunday. The organist offered a prelude, during which a sexton polished the brass altar rail (see below).

What were the exact opening words of the service?
The choir – which I believe had been dropped into place from heaven – chanted: "In voluntate tua, Domine, universa sunt posita, et non eat qui possit resistere voluntati tuae." (All things, O Lord, are in your power, and no one can resist your will.) The celebrant then intoned: "Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The 1979 Prayer Book and 1982 Hymnal were in the pews, but everything we needed was contained in the service booklet.

What musical instruments were played?
An exceptional pipe organ, played masterfully by associate organist Robert McDermitt.

Did anything distract you?
It was somewhat amusing and charming, but also distracting, to watch the young sexton polish the altar rail during the organist's prelude. As the music progressed, he sped up his polishing action faster and faster so as to end with the music. To his credit, the last wipe occurred with the last note, and he did do a fine job.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
High Anglo-Catholic worship in the best sense. Smells, bells, beautiful vestments, genuflections aplenty, a well-rehearsed acolyte team, and all of it done without a trace of self-consciousness. The asperges preceded the mass, but the angelus was not prayed (surprising, I thought, in a church dedicated to Our Lady). No birettas, no bows except at the name of Jesus. Don't get me wrong – it was a magnificent ceremony, but I just couldn't discern why certain things were included and others omitted.

St Mary the Virgin, New York City

Exactly how long was the sermon?
13 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Father Gerth is immediately likable. I would describe him as an evangelical Catholic. He seems so filled with love for Our Lord and for the Bible. He sometimes veered off topic, though, if only for a moment.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Jesus, in the gospel, did not respond to the disciples' request to increase their faith. Perhaps this was because Jesus needed to die and be raised again in order to bestow this gift on the disciples. My understanding from this sermon is that it was only after the resurrection that Jesus fully grasped his divinity and his humanity.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Where to begin. The music, both sung and played, and the liturgy itself would certainly vie for first place. I would have to select a point during the offertory hymn. As the altar was being censed, we sang: "This is none other than the gate of heaven..." It was as if I was hearing those words for the first time. This is indeed the gate of heaven! The censing was done to perfect choreography, with the servers all turning in absolute unison to face the thurifer as he passed between the torch-bearing acolytes. Toward the end of the hymn, the organist improvised a brief passage that could have raised the dead, it was so stirring. I get goose bumps just thinking about it now.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Charm and amusement notwithstanding, was it really necessary to polish the altar rail just seconds before the entrance procession?

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
One of the sides of the church literally opens into the parish hall, and we all headed over. Within a couple of minutes, a few people had come over to greet me and welcome me. Lovely.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Cakes and cookies, decent coffee in paper cups, and some open face sandwiches.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – I wish I lived closer. It's so wonderful to find a church that can carry off that level of liturgy with a sense of ease and deep meaning.

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

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The beautiful sight of so many diverse people gathering and reverently walking about while the organist played the prelude.
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