St Ann and the Holy Trinity, Brooklyn Heights, New York, USA

St Ann & the Holy Trinity, Brooklyn Heights, New York City, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: Clandestine Christian
Church: St Ann & the Holy Trinity
Location: Brooklyn Heights, New York City, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 16 November 2008, 11:00am

The building

Originally called Church of the Holy Trinity, the building dates from 1848 and was designed by the early 19th century architect Minard Lafever, many of whose buildings (including this one) have been declared national historic landmarks. The church is one of the finest masterpieces of the Gothic Revival style in America. The building exterior is unfortunately partly obscured by scaffolding; restoration is ongoing. The spire is missing, apparently for many decades. This gives the tower a cut-off look on top and is rather unsettling. The soaring, elaborate interior features stained glass by William Jay Bolton, the first artist in America to fabricate figural stained-glass windows. The interior stone work noticeably needs repairs, and I think it makes it more accessible and endearing than some of the meticulous churches I have visited. The building has a quiet, spiritual atmosphere. The highly ornamented altarpiece features a stone relief of the Last Supper at its center.

The church

A clash between the bishop and rival factions within the parish led to the closure and dissolution, in 1959, of Holy Trinity Church. In 1969, the nearby St Ann's Church moved out of its crumbling building into the former Holy Trinity Church, and the parish changed its name to St Ann and the Holy Trinity. The present congregation is small but admirably scrappy, having survived numerous problems. Since the 1980s the church has involved itself heavily in the performing arts, serving as home to the Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra among other groups. It also houses ECPAT, an organization working toward ending the sexual exploitation of children, and the administrative offices of the Brooklyn Doll and Toy Museum.

The neighborhood

The church is located at 157 Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights, one subway stop from Manhattan. This is an historic landmark district, filled with banks, stores, cafes and restaurants. It has become an expensive and extremely popular area. The lovely residential streets are still full of interesting historic buildings. It is also close to the main Brooklyn post office and court buildings, the downtown Brooklyn area, and the promenade, a very popular esplanade with benches along the East River. Residents over the years have included the abolitionist clergyman Henry Ward Beecher (whose sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin), poet Walt Whitman, playwright Arthur Miller, authors Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, actresses Marilyn Monroe and Mary Tyler Moore, songwriter Bob Dylan, and dozens of other famous people.

The cast

The Revd Angela V. Askew, priest-in-charge; Gregory Eaton, organist and music director.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Eucharist

How full was the building?

Only about 35-40 people, unfortunately. The building can seat 900.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes. Upon entering, I was greeted and given a service leaflet with music inserts.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes. It was covered in brown velvet cushioning. The kneeler was also comfortable, except that there was no open space behind for my feet when kneeling, and I had to lean forward in the half kneeling/half sitting position. It must have been designed for a hobbit.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

There was some talking and a noisy child who had a mockingbird-like repertoire. I could hardly wait for the organ prelude.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Prayer Book 1979, Hymnal 1982, Lift Every Voice and Sing, and Music for the Eucharist.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ and choir. The organ is opus 524 of the EM Skinner Company, dating from 1925 and modified with a new console in 1969.

Did anything distract you?

Yes, the noise from the child mentioned above and from another child during communion who was playing with some toy telephone or camera that made an annoying buzzing sound.

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

The worship was traditional and contemporary, with a couple of hymns from the Lift Every Voice and Sing book and, wonderfully, Aus Tiefer Not, Martin Luther's glorious setting of psalm 130, which was provided in handout form. The sung mass by David Hurd was especially lovely and tuneful. The choir was small but very good; they sang a pieces from the 16th century (Marenzio) and 19th/20th centuries (Parry). The worship was unhurried, with time for prayer and reflection. It was not a long liturgy, but the peace was a bit too long for me; everyone seemed to shake everyone else's hand. I think this was only because it was a very small congregation.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

19 minutes.

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

8 – Mother Askew came a bit down the aisle to preach close to the congregation, giving her sermon a personal and relaxed touch. She had a slight British-sounding accent and excellent diction; her sermon was down to earth, grounded in scripture with a bit of dry humor.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Based on the gospel reading of the day, Matthew 25:14-30, about the master entrusting his slaves with talents. God gives us gifts so that we can live them and give them to others. There were also many references to the first lesson, Judges 4:1-7, about the Israelites who were acting like that slave who buried his talent.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

After communion, the organ played and there was time for prayer. It was a spiritual and moving time, being in that space and quiet. Often churches rush to the post-communion prayer or a hymn, but this was restful and refreshing.

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

It often seems to be that in this world every piece of heaven contains some of that other place. In this case it was that nasty toy mentioned above that the child was playing with during communion. And it was a little frustrating that I couldn't kneel full out.

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

I didn't have the chance. Mother Askew had announced coffee. I thought I would stand in the back for a moment or two before going to coffee just to see what would happen. After 30 seconds a member of the congregation invited me to coffee and led me there. Everyone I spoke to was extremely welcoming. The pastor had announced that she had a meeting right after the service; I never got to meet her.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Regular coffee, two types of tea, apple juice, three different kinds of cakes and pies, various cookies, two types of cheese and crackers, and a bowl of little chocolate bars and other candy (possibly left over from Halloween).

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

8 – It is the kind of church I would like to live near so that I could pray and meditate every day in that sort of atmosphere. The service was lovely, but I have mixed feelings about being in a small, struggling congregation. I think it might be difficult, but spiritually rewarding. I'm not sure.

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

Yes, glad and thankful.

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

The feeling of peace during communion in that beautiful building despite kiddie noise, and the warm welcome of the congregation.

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