(Virtual) Marble Collegiate Church, New York City

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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: (Virtual) Marble Collegiate Church
Location: New York City
Date of visit: Sunday, 22 March 2020, 11:00am

The building

A Romanesque church constructed of marble (hence the name), completed in 1851. Alas, however, due to the coronavirus pandemic, Miss Amanda is not at liberty to travel, nor are church services being held live just about anywhere. She watched the service via podcast in the comfort of her modest but tidy parlor. The service itself was held in the music director’s apartment.

The church

Marble Collegiate was formed in 1628 as the Collegiate Reformed Protestant Dutch Church and is the oldest Protestant organization in North America. From the 1930s for a period of over 50 years, its pastor was Dr Norman Vincent Peale, one of the better known religious figures in the United States. His radio program, The Art of Living, was one of the first ever religious broadcasts and aired weekly for 54 years. Dr Peale is surely beaming with approval from his seat at the Heavenly Banquet as he watches Marble Collegiate’s podcasts of Bible study preceding the Sunday service, Sunday and Wednesday worship, and afternoon prayer broadcast each weekday. Marble Collegiate’s small groups are either meeting online or have been paused until further notice.

The neighborhood

Marble Collegiate is located in New York’s Murray Hill district. Originally the site of the posh mansions of the city’s wealthiest citizens, today’s Murray Hill is an architectural wonderland of stately old residential hotels and ornate manufacturing lofts, relics of the early 20th century, converted to shops and condos. Miss Amanda’s apartment sits in a decidedly more plebeian neighborhood, on the border between the Peoria and Sun City suburbs of Phoenix.

The cast

The service was introduced by the director of music. The executive pastor made opening and concluding remarks. The senior minister preached. Two of the associate ministers led prayers and made announcements.

What was the name of the service?

Sunday Worship.

How full was the building?

There was a discrete counter displayed in the upper left corner of the screen. When I joined the podcast, the counter stood at 185. By the time of the director of music’s greeting, it had increased to 363. It increased steadily after that, and at its high point reached 760. Miss Amanda, of course, watched the podcast in monastic isolation.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

The music director’s and executive pastor’s greetings were as close to personal as it got.

Was your pew comfortable?

My desk chair was quite adequate.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

When I joined the podcast, a photo of what I think was Hadrian’s Wall was displayed on screen, and soft choral music with orchestral accompaniment was playing. I didn’t recognize any of the selections, although one was someone’s setting of Ecclesiastes 3 (‘There is a time for everything ...’).

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Welcome to this special occasion of on-line streaming at Marble Collegiate Church.’ This by the director of music.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

None. Words to the hymns, and the Lord’s Prayer (debts/debtors), were projected on screen.

What musical instruments were played?

Grand piano, organ, French horn during one of the choir anthems. The church choir led the hymns and sang a few anthems – all of the music had been recorded at services from several years back.

Did anything distract you?

It may border on the sacrilegious to say it, but there are some fine looking young gentlemen in Marble Collegiate’s choir.

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

It was a very comforting and very well done hymn sandwich. The executive pastor opened the service with Psalm 139 (‘You have searched me, Lord, and you know me …’). The director of music had said that the music would be ‘comfort music’ – and it was: Bach’s ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’ played as a piano solo, ‘Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing’ (to a shape-note tune from the Tennessee Harmony hymnal that I had not heard before – most interesting), ‘Great Is Thy Faithfulness’, ‘It Is Well With My Soul’, etc. Words were projected on screen as shots of the choir and of congregational singing from times past were shown. We were encouraged not only to sing along from home, but also to respond to the prayers.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

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

10 — The senior minister spoke clearly and had prepared his sermon well.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

His text was Matthew 11:28-30 (‘Come to me …’). In recent days we have lost everything that we have known, and our future is uncertain. But is peace possible? Peace comes not from outside, but from inside. Jesus had said, ‘Come to me.’ What direction are we heading in? If we move toward Jesus we will begin to experience peace – we will begin to feel it from the start! We hear so much news that is frightening, but the Church can offer resources, including spiritual reading, that will help us take the steps we need to take. The current state of affairs threatens to tear us apart – don’t let that happen! God is calling us into community, and we will make it through.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The service was obviously pre-recorded and pre-edited, but it was done smoothly and professionally. The music, prayers and preaching were all first-rate.

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

The only critique I have is that the video feed was a bit choppy at times – probably the result of fluctuating bandwidth as people joined and left the podcast. But the audio feed proceeded without interruption, and there was probably nothing that could have been done to alleviate the situation.

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

As the service ended, one of the associate ministers presented a photo montage of a recent youth missionary trip to Saint Thomas, US Virgin Islands, and extended to all of us a ‘virtual cyberhug.’ The executive pastor then reminded us of the Donate button that we could click on-screen, and concluded with St Paul’s standard blessing: ‘Grace to you, and peace.’

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I had breakfasted before the broadcast and it was too early for lunch (it may have been 11.00 in New York, but it was 8.00 in Phoenix), so I applied myself to writing my report.

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

10 — I want to explore other virtual services, but I found this one uplifting and very well done. I would gladly view Marble Collegiate’s broadcast in the coming weeks. If I still lived in New York, I would attend church at Marble Collegiate often – and would consider joining the choir.

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

Yes.

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

The associate minister’s virtual cyberhug.

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