Mystery Worshipper: Acton Bell
Church: St Thomas Fifth Avenue
Location: New York City, USA
Date of visit: Wednesday, 31 March 2010, 5:30pm
Photo: © Ingfbruno and used under license French Gothic Revival in style. The church, while fairly large, seems quite intimate once inside, which I really liked. The interior was restrained and dignified, with no banners or flags. The wall behind the altar has a magnificent reredos, one of the best I've ever seen.
St Thomas has the only church-affiliated boarding choir school in the United States. There's a big commitment to the Anglo-Catholic musical tradition. They sponsor several spiritual and social groups, including Women of St Thomas, a soup kitchen, fellowship groups for young adults and middle-age folks, etc.
Located on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street in midtown Manhattan, the church is at the epicenter of the business and upscale shopping district. On the day of my visit, the area saw the arrival of bus load after bus load of tourists. The sidewalk was so packed in front of the church that it took a bit of time to fight the crowd and actually get in.
The Revd Andrew C. Mead, rector, was the officiant. I'm not sure who assisted, as their names were not given in the service leaflet, but the real focal point of the service was the choir.
What was the name of the service?The Office of Tenebrae.
How full was the building?
I was truly astonished at the size of the crowd. Not quite busting at the seams, but very nearly.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Not really. At the door, a rather smartly turned-out but harried usher handed me a leaflet and directed me forward. I had the sense that the staff were a little surprised by the size of the crowd.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a standard pew of the old school, with hassocks. Not particularly comfortable, but not uncomfortable either. Cushions would be a welcome addition.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There were very many people kneeling at prayer around me. But honestly, it was a bit like being in a train station up to the start of the service, as there were lots of people trying to find seats as close to the front as possible.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Antiphon 1 from the first nocturn of mattins: "The zeal of thine house hath even eaten me; and the rebukes of them that rebuked thee are fallen upon me."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Book of Common Prayer and a service bulletin.
What musical instruments were played?
The organ, but only to make the "loud noise" that the rubrics call for at the end of Tenebrae. Most of the music was unaccompanied plainsong.
Did anything distract you?
In their zeal to find seats toward the front, several people insisted upon squeezing into already-overfilled pews after the service had started. And cell phones, cell phones, cell phones! This despite the clear instruction in the service leaflet that all such instruments should be silenced. On the good side, however, as the lights were gradually lowered as the service progressed, I was struck by the beautiful windows above the altar, as they're such an unusual blue.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Very stiff-upper-lip. Dignified and sober are the first words that jump into my head to describe the service. Tenebrae, sometimes called the Liturgy of the Shadows, is marked by the gradual extinguishing of candles and lights as the various antiphons, psalms and lessons are chanted, until only one candle remains, representing Christ. Then that candle is hidden, signifying the death of Christ. After a brief period of silence, a loud noise is made, symbolizing the earthquake at the time of his resurrection, and the Christ candle is brought back in. Everyone leaves in silence.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
There wasn't a sermon.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
If there were a category for rating the choir, I'd give them a 10. The service lasted exactly one hour and five minutes, and I'd say the choir sang plainsong for the majority of that. Chant is no walk in the park, especially when you're hitting the hour mark. It was such hard work, and it was done perfectly! I found the singer of the first lesson to have the most beautiful voice. It was so strange and wonderful to hear all the horrors of Lamentations sung so beautifully. The final motet, sung in near total darkness, was also very moving. It was the Allegri Miserere, a setting that dates from around 1630 and the score for which was originally kept under lock and key in the Vatican. To hear the boy sopranos soar above the rest of the choir was just wow!
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The phones ringing. Mobiles really are the bane of modern existence, aren't they? Also, at the end of the service, as we left the church in silence by the light of the Christ candle, we encountered ushers at all the exits holding collection plates. This seemed a bit incongruous with the service that had just taken place. I know times are tough, but perhaps there's a better way?
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was no hanging about at the end. It really was a matter of following the herd past the collection plates out to Fifth Avenue.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There wasn't any.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
Impossible to rate on the basis of this extraordinary service. The music is magnificent, and I certainly find that deeply compelling. I would, however, find such a crowd every week a bit off-putting, but I'm not sure that is a regular occurrence. The service bulletin mentioned that St Thomas now posts webcasts of selected services, which is such a marvelous idea. I definitely plan to listen in, even if this church doesn't become my spiritual home.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Very much so. The service definitely made me feel closer to God, which is doing, I suppose, exactly what it was designed to do.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The voice of the singer of the first lesson singing, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem: Return unto the Lord thy God!"