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141: St Thomas, New York
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St Thomas, New York
Mystery Worshipper: ReginaldWard.
The church: St Thomas Church, New York, New York, USA.
Denomination: Episcopal Church in the USA.
The building: One step short of French Gothic, the effect spoiled only by American patriotic flourishes here and there.
The neighbourhood: Saint Thomas is located in the neighborhood which was once the haunt of the Vanderbilts, and has an odd flavor of both old and contemporary New York. The former is clear in the posh stores of the area, and the close proximity to the Rockefeller Center (formerly the home of speakeasies, now the ultimate tourist gathering). Contemporary New York's bustle is all too apparent in the proliferation of food stands nearby. With three large churches (the other two being the Presbyterian and Roman Catholic) in the immediate area, New Yorkers can obtain their daily bagels and frankfurters in front of church. The French Gothic splendor is somehow spoilt by the most necessary signs instructing visitors that "food is not to be eaten on the steps".
The cast: Preacher was Rev. Robert Stafford, assisting priest. Three priests were at the altar, but the names of the other two were not listed in the leaflet. The main celebrant was a reverent, rather statuesque, very young priest who seemed ready to pose for a wood carving. The sub-deacon was a somewhat stern-looking product of the post-World War II baby boom.
What was the name of the service?
Sung Eucharist.

How full was the building?
Perhaps one fifth full (though in a building of this size, that is a fairly large attendance). Worshippers had the choice of sitting either in the choir stalls or the nave. The choir was quite full, the nave fairly sparse.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I received a restrained greeting from a gentleman who handed me a leaflet, and quite an enthusiastic smile and "good morning" from two ladies seated near me.

Was your pew comfortable?
Very comfortable, with the unusual luxury of padded seats.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Mainly quiet and reverent, though it seemed rather odd and out of place that an elderly gentleman in a front pew was reading a newspaper.

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?
Leaflet with the ECUSA Rite 1 and Hymnal 1982. The pews were amply stocked with copies of the King James Version of the Bible and the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.

What musical instruments were played?

Did anything distract you?
The lighting was rather bright and kept me squinting. There were no other major distractions, though it was very tempting to turn one's eyes to the superb art and architecture rather than to the altar.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Very dignified and elegant, with an atmosphere of prayerfulness and intimacy that it would be difficult to capture on paper. I was especially impressed by the reverence of the clergy and worshippers. My impression was of a superbly planned Anglo-Catholic approach. Excellent behavior from the little choir boys and use of incense with a reverence and precision that the Vatican would envy.

St Thomas, New York

Exactly how long was the sermon?
10 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8. Both the content and structure of the sermon would rate a 10, but the delivery was very monotone, which undoubtedly caused several excellent jokes to be missed by most of the congregation. The homilist's style was vivid, mentioning aspects of the Gospel which would escape most. The conclusion was very effective, containing a summary of the points he'd covered, then three illustrations of how we could incorporate these lessons into our own lives.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Varied dimensions of the story of Jesus' healing the man possessed by a demon, and how this relates to prayer and the overall Christian life.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Overall, the entire service was quite heavenly: the music, liturgy, demeanor, atmosphere and preaching were all outstanding.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
One of my pew partners was a worse-than-average fidget (albeit with a facial expression reminiscent of Teresa of Avila); another man was chewing on hard candy (but very attentive to the service); and one young woman was singing through her nose, with some gusto.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Two different middle-aged ladies gave me a restrained greeting, and I had the uneasy feeling that a few of those in attendance were looking me over.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Tea, coffee and slices of cake were available, and were presented in china cups, complete with linen tablecloth. I know, from past experience, that the after-service refreshments following the later eucharist include champagne, wine, and Bloody Marys (odd though that last seems for an Anglican church.)

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9. The leaflet, as well as the service, gave me the impression that this was a parish with much to offer, where one could become very involved.

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

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
That the best of the Oxford Movement could survive, even in the capital of capitalism.

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