Church of the Transfiguration ('Little Church Around the Corner'), New York City


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Church of the Transfiguration ('Little Church Around the Corner')
Location: New York City
Date of visit: Sunday, 27 March 2022, 11:00am

The building

The Transfiguration parish was founded in 1849 and the church itself was consecrated in 1853. The brick building is basically two churches conjoined at their backs. One enters the church garden via a lych-gate and the church proper via the leftmost of two towers. To the left of the entrance is a chapel off which open several side chapels; to the right is the main church. Each features splendid stained glass and several strikingly beautiful works of art. The nave of the main church is wide and dark and is covered by a wooden barrel-like ceiling. A tracker organ is located to the right about halfway down the nave; choir seating surrounds the pipe chamber. The sanctuary is backed by a wall of gold leaf, with marble high altar and reredos. To the right of the sanctuary is a columbarium.

The church

Transfiguration's first rector, the Revd Dr George Hendric Houghton, served in that capacity for 49 years. Dr Houghton helped bring to America the Oxford Movement, which reintroduced the Anglican Church to its Roman roots. Dr Houghton was also one of the founders of the Order of the Holy Cross, the oldest continuing monastic order in the Episcopal Church. During the American Civil War, the church served as a station on the underground railroad, a clandestine support network for runaway slaves. The nickname 'Little Church Around the Corner' was coined in 1870, when the rector of a nearby church refused an actor's request for a funeral service for his friend (apparently holding actors in low esteem right down there with tax collectors), saying that there was a 'little church around the corner where they do that sort of thing.' The name has stuck ever since. A window in the south aisle bearing the inscription 'God bless the Little Church Around the Corner' depicts Jesus with outstretched arms welcoming the actor as he approaches the lych-gate bearing the shroud-wrapped body of his friend. Over time a close relationship developed between Transfiguration and the people of the Broadway stage. In 1923 the Episcopal Actors' Guild held its first meeting at Transfiguration. Such theatrical greats as Basil Rathbone, Tallulah Bankhead, Peggy Wood, Joan Fontaine, Rex Harrison and Charlton Heston have served as officers or council members of the guild.

The neighborhood

The church is at One East 29th Street in the Murray Hill neighborhood of Manhattan (although I believe they call it NoMad now, standing for North of Madison Square, which is at East 23rd Street and Broadway). The neighborhood stretches along Manhattan's East Side from Grand Central Station down to East 23rd Street. Originally the site of the posh mansions of New York's wealthiest citizens, Murray Hill is an architectural wonderland of stately old residential hotels and ornate manufacturing lofts, now converted to luxury apartments. The Martha Washington Hotel, long a haven for actresses, businesswomen and other respectable ladies whose stars had faded with their waning years, is just down the street. (Miss Amanda's great-aunt, of fond memory, rest her soul, once lived there.)

The cast

Celebrant, deacon and subdeacon, all vested in rose, none of whom were identified, assisted by a full altar party and a robed and scarved lay reader. The rector (who, vested in surplice and rose stole, attended in choir) preached.

What was the name of the service?

Solemn Mass.

How full was the building?

It didn't look particularly full, judging from what we could see as the camera panned. Perhaps no one dared to sit where Tallulah Bankhead had once sat. The YouTube on-line counter showed 57 views.

Did anyone welcome you personally?


Was your pew comfortable?

My desk chair was its usual comfortable self.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The organist and two violinists played the Largo movement from JS Bach's Concerto for Two Violins, BWV 1043, as people quietly trickled in. The organist then struck up the entrance hymn, 'Come thou font of every blessing' to the tune of Nettleton, as the verger verged the procession in: thurifer, crucifer (the cross veiled in purple), choir, subdeacon, deacon and celebrant.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

'Bless the Lord, who forgiveth all our sins' (chanted).

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A bulletin that contained everything we needed was available for download. I assume it was the same one that was available for the congregation to use.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ and the aforementioned two violins.

Did anything distract you?

The organ was hideously overmiked during the gradual hymn (the incredibly beautiful 'By gracious powers', words by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to the tune of Finlandia), producing a hideously ugly sound. After the first verse, the audio engineer finally realized what was happening and adjusted the volume accordingly. As the deacon waited patiently for the hymn to end so that he could chant the gospel, something struck him as funny and he couldn't suppress a guffaw.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

The Church of the Transfiguration has been a bastion of the best of Anglo-Catholic worship right from the start, and this solemn mass didn't disappoint. The mass setting was Messe Modale by the 20th century French organist and composer Jehan-Aristide Paul Alain. The mass itself appeared to be Rite 1 from the Book of Common Prayer and was celebrated ad orientem. Bells rang out; incense billowed. The altar party chanted in tune (the deacon's fine tenor voice especially ringing out, although he did not inflect the 'question tone' correctly in the gospel).

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

3 — The rector has a preaching style that could be described as 'excited and animated.' I'm afraid his message got lost a bit in all the gesturing and gyrating, and I really had trouble following him. And horror of horrors – his sermon was applauded!

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The rector preached on the gospel lesson of the Prodigal Son, saying that the parable gives us a confusing picture of what is proper and what is not. But we must not judge. The central tenet of the Christian faith is the grace of God.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The music: fine old hymns, a beautiful anthem (the spiritual 'Deep River'), the chanting.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Sorry – it was the sermon and the fact that it was applauded! And as good as the music was, I thought the choir sounded a bit screechy, especially during their anthem. It could have been the miking, but I'm more inclined to believe it was the director's inability to tame her prima donnas.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

I don't know what happened at the church – the altar party recessed out as the organist twiddled around in the Alain Litanies and the camera panned on some of the exquisite stained glass. As for me, I busied myself getting lunch ready.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I was anticipating a large dinner, so I fixed myself a humble lunch of some broccoli and cheese soup – that's all.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

5 — As moving as good Anglo-Catholic liturgy is, and as wonderful as the music was, I felt oddly unsatisfied. Perhaps it was because I attended via YouTube rather than in person. But I don't live in New York any longer. When I did, I attended services here now and then, and I remember feeling more spiritually moved back then.

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

I generally am.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The rector's antics during the sermon and the fact that it was applauded, although I'd prefer to forget them.

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