Trinity Wall Street, New York City, New York

Trinity Wall Street, Lower Manhattan, New York City, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: Clandestine Christian
Church: Trinity Wall Street
Location: Lower Manhattan, New York City, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 12 October 2008, 11:15am

The building

As one travels west on Wall Street toward Broadway, one cannot help but notice the dark, tall-spired edifice sitting in the shadows at the intersection. The present church, the third to grace the spot, is a cathedral-like brownstone structure in the Gothic Revival style. In the churchyard can be found the graves of several heroes of the newly independent United States, including most notably Alexander Hamilton. The exterior of the church, the churchyard, and the interior are all immaculate and in excellent condition. Inside, the nave is long, narrow and tall, with colorful stained glass adorning the sanctuary in contrast to the rather plain windows lining the nave. The church is a very popular tourist attraction, but residents of lower Manhattan as well as commuters to the financial district know Trinity as a quiet place to rest, pray, worship, or enjoy a noonday concert. The building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

The church

Trinity is a large commercial landowner in downtown New York City; this provides funds for social service ministries and various educational programs such as a grants program, 12-step and AA groups, homeless drop-in center, low income housing, a pre-school, nursery, and many conferences and other educational activities. There can also be no doubt that the income provided by Trinity's real estate holdings is why the building is extremely well-equipped and maintained. The church itself includes a museum and welcome center.

The neighborhood

The intersection of Broadway and Wall Street is one of the best known areas in Manhattan. It is at the heart of the financial district and only a short walk from Ground Zero, perhaps the largest tourist attraction. Post 9/11, the section of Wall Street from Broadway down to the New York Stock Exchange has been converted into a pedestrian mall.

The cast

The Revd Mark Francisco Bozzuti-Jones, priest for pastoral care and nurture, was the celebrant and preacher. The Revd Dr James Herbert Cooper, rector, gave the welcome and read the announcements. Andrew Megill, an associate professor at Westminster Choir College, Rider University, was the guest choirmaster. Robert Ridgell, assistant organist, and Isabelle Demers, a doctoral candidate at the Juilliard School of Music, presided at the organ.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Eucharist

How full was the building?

Three-quarters to seven-eighths full. The congregation seemed to be between the ages of 30 and 70; there were also families with children. They were of various ethnic groups and some were dressed casually, a few even in jeans, but many were dressed in their Sunday best. Most were very polite and friendly. Many smiled at me and said hello.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

An usher welcomed me and handed me a bulletin before I even got in the door, and then right inside another usher greeted me.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes. On the wooden pews there were cushions about one to two inches thick, covered in red velvet.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Bustling, with a low hum of voices – not at all too loud.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning!" – the rector's welcome came first.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Book of Common Prayer, The Hymnal 1982, and Lift Every Voice and Sing II.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ, about which I'll have more to say in a moment.

Did anything distract you?

Trinity Wall Street broadcasts its Sunday service live via the internet. A recent innovation (mention of which is absent in previous Mystery Worship reports) is the addition of wide screen monitors carrying the broadcast, attached to every other pillar on each side of the sanctuary. I found these extremely distracting. In fact, I could not follow the first hymn – even though I knew it – because I couldn't help but watch close-ups of the organist playing. There were also glaring spotlights, one of which was shining in my eyes every time I looked up at the altar or preacher. I felt as if I were on a movie set. Among other distractions, a gentleman in front of me, who looked like a professional wrestler, extended his arms, then brought them together and made an explosive noise with his mouth. He did this several times during the hymn, and I finally realized that he was clapping imaginary cymbals.

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

I would say it was formal and traditional – no hallelujahs or hand-clapping – but streamlined, fast-moving and well-paced. The excellent music dominated the service, which was a most pleasant innovation. I had heard that under the former head organist, parishioners weren't exactly able to leave church humming the tunes. However, the music that day (William Byrd's Mass for Five Voices and choir settings by Edward Bairstow and Richard Dering) was exquisite and quite accessible. The organ thundered now and then, but for the most part the music was quietly traditional, except the final hymn from the Lift Every Voice book was a bit more popular-evangelical. I also liked the fact that the sharing of the peace was not overdone, but just a quick handshake with the immediate neighbors, and that there was no lengthy recitation of names in the prayer request (another welcome departure from past practice).

Exactly how long was the sermon?

20 minutes.

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

7 – I felt that the preacher rambled a bit and touched on ideas that could have been stated more clearly. He did not expand upon some of his points as much as I might have liked. The congregation must have liked the sermon very much, though, as they applauded at the end. I don't know whether this is the custom at Trinity, but it seemed unusual to me.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

His text was the Gospel reading for the day, Matthew 22:1-14 (the parable of the wedding guest without a wedding garment). These are very troubled times. The world is in a terrible state due to poverty, greed and violence. (He mentioned specific political issues to illustrate what he meant, but didn't develop them.) Only faith can get us through it all. But we need to be prepared by being clothed in love.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The music was absolutely gorgeous. The organ was majestic-sounding and the choir was excellent. During the communion, when the choir sang A Child's Prayer by James MacMillan, it was indeed like being in heaven. The church's pipe organ was damaged beyond repair in the aftermath of 9/11 and has been replaced with a custom-designed digital electronic organ. It has apparently taken some time to voice the instrument just right, but the result (I am told) is that even the most discerning professional ear is hard put to tell the difference between this instrument and the finest pipe organ.

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

The glaring light in my eyes and the distracting monitor really ruined this experience for me. I was extremely uncomfortable because of the light and very distracted by the monitors. Although Trinity is large as Episcopal churches go, it is certainly not a megachurch, and I don't know why it's necessary to see close-ups of the choir's faces. The congregation also appeared on the monitors at random moments throughout the service and all through communion.

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

Most everyone got up during the postlude, so I discreetly took a couple of pictures and then got in line and shook hands with the celebrant/preacher, who was very warm and caring. But then I stood looking lost and no one came up to me. This might be in part due to the many tourists who barged in the door to take pictures as soon as the mass ended. After five minutes, I asked an usher if there was a coffee hour for those who had attended the service, and I was given directions to get there. I understand that this has always been the case at Trinity – they're keen to welcome visitors at the beginning of the service, but after-service refreshments are very much intended for the regular crowd.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The coffee hour was in another building, connected to the main church by a little bridge that went over the street. It seems, from passing comments I heard, there was a reception being given, possibly in the usual coffee room – because this was a bit far. Neither the coffee nor the reception were mentioned in the announcements. There were regular and decaf coffee and a basket with various teas. There was also some fruit – apples, grapes, orange and melon slices – as well as scones, carrot and nut cakes, little cheese crackers ("goldfish"), rolls and butter. Previous Mystery Worship reports have mentioned the lavish spread that Trinity puts out, and today's fare did not disappoint. But everything was served on paper plates and cups. I don't know if the coffee was fairly traded and wasn't sure who to ask. People seemed to be in little groups with their friends sitting at tables. I stood for a while, then sat, but no one approached me. None of the priests or choir were there, so they might have all been at that reception.

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

4 – Trinity has changed over the years, both for the better and for the worse, but I hope they quickly realize what a big mistake those monitors are. I would like this church much more if it didn't have the glaring lights and monitors. It's very nice that they have a simulcast for those who want to worship through the internet, but it felt alternately like surveillance or being at a concert. I wouldn't like to become a member of a church in which I feel I am being filmed whenever I receive communion or even walk through the door. I may go back sometime, sit far from the monitors and lights, and keep my eyes closed most of the time.

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

In some ways, yes, with the music and the communion. I didn't plan on going to Trinity but would have been late for the church I had wanted to attend. But all in all I was glad I went.

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

I think I'll remember the big guy with the imaginary cymbals, the glaring light, the monitors, and that lovely communion.

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