A Gothic Revival church, completed in 1904, replacing an earlier church downtown that has since been demolished. It is the work of the late 19th/early 20th century architectural firm Schickel & Ditmars, noted primarily for their Roman Catholic commissions, including St Joseph's Seminary, the seminary for the Archdiocese of New York; St Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village; and the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Newark, New Jersey. The interior is decidedly Gothic, with rows of clerestory windows and arches above the aisles. The reredos also features arches. Both the high altar and communion table are marble. The Gothic theme is marred only by the floor tiles, which seem to be of linoleum. The legacy of a hastily done renovation, one wonders?
The congregation was founded in 1868 as one of the first English-speaking Lutheran congregations in the city. They are well known for their music program, including Bach Vespers, which features performances of the sacred music of Johann Sebastian Bach in a liturgical setting. Among their ministries and outreaches, special mention goes to Human Understanding and Growth, a program that offers communal meals and opportunities for socialization to former psychiatric patients who live in group homes or SRO (single room occupancy) facilities.
Holy Trinity sits on the corner of Central Park West and West 65th Street amid high-rise luxury condos. Central Park and Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts are its immediate neighbors. The Society for Ethical Culture is just down the street.
The Revd Dr William A. Heisley, pastor, presided. He was assisted by Richard Sterne, lector; and Timothy Cage, acolyte. Donald R. Meineke, associate director of music, was at the organ. Heather Mann, minister of hospitality, greeted people as they entered.
What was the name of the service?Office of Tenebrae.
How full was the building?
My fellow Mystery Worshipper Acton Bell and I counted room for 400. There were about 50 present, mostly young adults.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Mrs Mann, the minister of hospitality, said "Good evening" as she handed us the programs.
Was your pew comfortable?
Wooden pews with cushions. A little narrow, but basically OK. My back had been bothering me, so actually I appreciated the support. The kneelers, however, were of the hassock type, which I always find uncomfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Dark! The church was dimly lit. There were candles in the aisles as well as on the altar, including a Christ candle. People entered in silence and sat quietly until the service began. The mood was marred only by a gentleman's cell phone going off.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
We sang "Go to Dark Gethsemane."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Evangelical Lutheran Worship and a service sheet. The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version was in the pews.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ, a very fine tracker instrument by the American organ builder Paul Fritts. There was also a choir (or, more accurately, a quartet) of four mixed voices. I'll have more to say about both the organist and the choir in a moment.
Did anything distract you?
The organist introduced each hymn in traditional Lutheran fashion by playing an improvisation on same, rather than a run-through as is done in most other churches. I appreciate that this is "the Lutheran way" but I am not used to it and so found it distracting. He also made us sing the third verse of each hymn unaccompanied. This got old quickly.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Very somber. It consisted of a mixture of biblical readings, choral motets and congregational hymns. After each reading, the acolyte extinguished two candles on the altar and two in the aisles. After the last reading, the altar Bible was slammed shut (the strepitus) to symbolize Christ's violent death, and the Christ candle was removed. We recited the Apostles' Creed in total darkness, and a crashing sound was made at the words "crucified, died and was buried." We chanted the Lord's Prayer (alas, modern language, which was no fun to chant, especially in the dark), after which the Christ candle was brought back in.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Both the pastor and the lector read with conviction and feeling - very well done! The slamming shut of the Bible after the last reading and the loud crash during the Apostles' Creed sent goosebumps up the spine!
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Sad to say, we both thought the music left much to be desired. The organist seemed more interested in showing off his technique than supporting the congregational singing - he indulged freely not only in the aforementioned improvisations and forced a cappella third verses, but he also varied his registrations and volume to the point of distraction. It was hard for us to sing along to his accompaniment - and good hymns had been chosen: "Ah, Holy Jesus", "O Sacred Head" and "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" among others. Likewise, the choral motets and anthems were well chosen, but the choir simply did not blend (especially the soprano, who stood out above the other voices) and the organist had a tendency to drown them out. The Lotti "Crucifixus" and the African-American spiritual "Were You There" were especially painful.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We were invited to go forward to venerate the Cross in any way we wished. Some did; others left without doing so. Everyone left in silence, though.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None was on offer. We adjourned to a nearby coffee shop and compared notes over a cappuccino (Acton Bell) and hot chocolate (Miss Amanda).
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – Holy Trinity Church has a reputation for high Lutheran liturgy. We both thought we'd like to check out a Sunday mass (yes, they do call it a mass).
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 strepitus on a positive note, but the disappointing music on a negative one.