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1911: Fifth Avenue Presbyterian, New York City
Fifth Avenue Presbyterian, New York City
Mystery Worshipper: The Kid from Brooklyn.
The church: Fifth Avenue Presbyterian, New York City.
Denomination: Presbyterian Church (USA), Synod of the Northeast, Presbytery of New York City. They are also a member of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians and Presbyterian Welcome.
The building: A bold, brownstone Gothic Revival church dating from the 1870s, the fifth in a long line of earlier structures at different locations. The west façade boasts three, count 'em, three towers of varying heights and styles. The building features several engineering innovations radical for their time, such as heating registers beneath the pews to keep the congregation's nether regions warm in the winter, and a sanctuary that has no right angles. The stained glass windows are brilliantly colored. There is also a chapel (where today's service was held) along the more traditional lines of a small Gothic parish church. The chapel is in some ways even more beautiful than the main sanctuary, especially its stained glass.
The church: The congregation was formed in 1808. Among its first members was Archibald Gracie, whose home, Gracie Mansion, is now the official residence of the mayor of New York. They offer many programs for all age groups; one of these is an employment advisory program for members seeking employment or career enhancement. They also sponsor several outreaches to the community, including an overnight shelter for the homeless and support of the Bowery Mission, the oldest gospel mission in the United States.
The neighborhood: The church sits at Fifth Avenue and West 55th Street, one of Manhattan's busiest and poshest commercial areas, and somehow manages to fit in amongst all the shops and offices. The Trump Tower is one block away. Also nearby are St Patrick's Cathedral, seat of the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York, and St Thomas' Episcopal Church.
The cast: The Revd Dr Scott Black Johnston, senior pastor, assisted by Anne Westall, deacon.
The date & time: First Sunday in Lent, February 21, 2010, 9.30am.

What was the name of the service?
Worship Service.

How full was the building?
The service was held in the Kirkland Chapel, not the much larger sanctuary. By the time the first hymn was finished, the pews were almost completely full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A woman wished me a good morning and an usher showed me to my pew.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
A few people spoke, but on the whole it was quiet.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good Morning. We who dwell in the shelter of the Most High abide under the shadow of the Almighty."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A very nice program and the Presbyterian Hymnal.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ.

Did anything distract you?
Not anything, really. Everybody seemed very focused upon the service.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Informal but reverential. I am not very familiar with Presbyterian services, but I'd say this was pretty much middle of the road.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
About 20 minutes. I got so into what was being said that I forgot to check my watch at the conclusion!

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Dr Johnston was fantastic – both scholarly and down-to-earth. I laughed several times.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
"How do I know what God wants me to do?" Dr Johnston had some good ideas for dealing with this tough question, including one exercise developed by St Ignatius Loyola, in which you pray about what you are most thankful for and least thankful for. I'm gonna try that!

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Singing "Precious Lord, Take My Hand." It's a gospel classic we can all relate to.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
A homeless, probably mentally ill, woman hung about on the sidewalk outside. I kept thinking about her, and the thought saddened me. To the church's credit, they not only have a shelter, but but have fought hard with City officials over the rights of people sleeping on their steps.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing. But I've found that to be common in New York City churches.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was no coffee hour.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – If I were a Presbyterian this would be my church.

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

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
A Presbyterian minister quoting St Ignatius Loyola. Ecumenism lives!
 
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