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1124: The Riverside Church, New York City, New York
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The Riverside Church, New York City, New York
Mystery Worshipper: Ralegh.
The church: The Riverside Church, New York City, New York.
Denomination: Interdenominational (affiliated with American Baptist Church and United Church of Christ).
The building: This large gothic church, modeled on Chartres Cathedral, was funded largely through donations from wealthy individuals, most notably John D. Rockefeller Jr. The tower houses a carillon of 74 bells that includes what is said to be the largest tuned bell in the world. A spacious narthex leads into a wide nave illuminated by candelabra-like chandeliers and flanked by colorful stained glass windows below and a clerestory level above. The eye is drawn to the sanctuary, where a large gold cross hangs suspended over the altar. A filigreed reredos conceals most of the organ pipes. The organ console sits to the left of the sanctuary.
The church: The church maintains a full weekday and Sunday worship schedule and sponsors numerous ministries and outreaches. In addition, it hosts a large number of musical, dance and theatrical performances each season. From 1946 until 1965 the flamboyant concert artist Virgil Fox served as Riverside's organist.
The neighborhood: The Morningside Heights neighborhood hugs the Hudson River shoreline on Manhattan's upper west side. Its principal north-south thoroughfare, the shady, rambling boulevard known as Riverside Drive, is lined with older but decidedly upscale high-rise apartment buildings, many with splendid views of the river. Nearby can be found Columbia University, Union Theological Seminary and other institutions of learning. Across from the church is Grant's Tomb, the elegant classical mausoleum where the remains of the American Civil War general and president Ulysses S. Grant lie next to those of his wife – and, legend has it, his horse.
The cast: The Rev. Dr James A. Forbes, Jr., senior minister, conducted the baptism, confirmation and holy communion, and the Rev. Dr Mariah Britton, associate minister, preached and led many of the prayers. A large number of young people took an active part in the service. Also assisting were Dr Timothy E. Smith, organist and director of music, and Dionisio A. Lind, carillonneur. The clergy were vested in red and gold capes over blue gowns; the young people wore red and blue t-shirts and blue jeans.
What was the name of the service?
Morning Worship with baptism, confirmation and holy communion.

How full was the building?
The church holds about 1000 and was pretty much full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Ushers at the entrance smiled, said hello, and handed us service leaflets.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes – standard wooden pews with red upholstered cushions – quite comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The choir were rehearsing when we arrived but finished up 15 minutes before the service began. People entered quietly, but as the church filled and people greeted each other, things got a bit noisier. The carillon was played (interestingly, the carillon is inaudible from inside the church and the sound must be piped in via loudspeakers) and the organist offered a prelude.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning. On behalf of all the clergy, welcome to Riverside Church. If there are any visitors, would they please stand and be recognized." (Whereupon visitors stood and were applauded, although my party and I remained seated.)

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version; a hymnal appropriately entitled Hymns, Psalms and Spiritual Songs; service leaflet.

What musical instruments were played?
Pipe organ. This magnificent instrument was built by the Aeolian-Skinner company to Virgil Fox's exact specifications. There was also a choir of about 40, vested in blue gowns with red and gold sashes.

Did anything distract you?
The party occupying the pew behind us tried to carry on a conversation over the organ prelude. Why do people confuse church with a night club? The organ console is enormous and the organist can't be seen over the very tall music rack – it seemed almost as if the organ were playing itself from a perforated roll.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Quite a mixture of styles, but on balance happy-clappy. It was a busy service – baptism, confirmation and holy communion. It also happened to be Youth Sunday. At one point a troupe of youngsters performed an energetic liturgical dance to much applause, hooting and hollering. The music ran the gamut from traditional to modern. One of the passages from Scripture, psalm 23, was read in King James English and then translated into rap ("He maketh me lie down in green pastures" followed by "He lets me chill"). This erstwhile bilingualism was indulged in at several places throughout the service – for example, after the traditional greeting mentioned above, a young man began his presentation with "Yo, y'all."

The Riverside Church, New York City, New York

Exactly how long was the sermon?
32 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Dr Britton spoke clearly and energetically, and punctuated her sermon with references to a youth retreat she had recently conducted as well as a rather good joke about a street drunk stumbling in on a baptism. At the end of her sermon, Dr Britton was joined by two young people who spoke about how the soul's spiritual journey is like being carried along by a river, and how the Riverside Church has guided their spiritual growth.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Water is a symbol of invitation, initiation and renewal. God leads us lovingly into safety, and Jesus leads us to abundance. Our souls yearn to discover God's refreshing waters, to be led out of a spiritual desert, and yet the church must also reach out in order to win hearts and souls. There is so much we can do to reach out. The waters of baptism are to be taken seriously. We must nurture our young people to make the step to Christ, as it is they who will take over from us when we are gone. We all have living water within us.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Riverside's youth ministries have obviously taken root in the young people who participated in the service – it was heavenly to realize that. Ushers brought communion to us in our seats – first the bread, then a choral anthem, then the wine (er, grape juice, I mean) ministered in tiny individual silver chalices, then an organ solo, followed by a congregational hymn – the lovely old African-American spiritual, "I want to be a Christian". It seemed to us that this arrangement emphasized the fact that communion was the high point of the service rather than the fast-food meal some churches reduce it to.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The congregation applauded almost everything – the liturgical dance, the sermon, the anthems, the "Yo, y'all," etc. We were beginning to think we were at the theatre rather than church. The peace ceremony drifted annoyingly close toward being a social intermission (we actually overheard someone say, "The peace of God be with you – did you get my e-mail?").

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Both ministers (Dr Forbes and Dr Britton) shook hands with us on the way out, saying it was nice to see us and thanking us for coming. Coffee was a little hard to find, but a gentleman overheard us talking about it and was kind enough to direct us downstairs to where it was being served.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Coffee was set out in a room where tables featured literature about the church's various ministries – it was almost like being at a book fair. The coffee was average – not great, not undrinkable – and was served in paper cups. Store-bought cookies were also available. As my party and I huddled there looking lost, we were approached by a man who was campaigning for a position on the parish council. We told him we were visitors and couldn't vote, and he replied that he hoped we'd consider joining the church. Other than that, we were left alone. As we were leaving, we overheard a woman say, "I didn't even do any campaigning today."

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7– It was a very inspiring service, but we all felt we'd like to return on another occasion when they don't confuse divine worship with the Academy Awards or the general elections.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. Seeing that the spirit of God had taken root in the young people was especially gratifying.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The colorful and eclectic mixture of styles that made up the service – also, campaigning by prospective parish council members.
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