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917: St John's, Staten Island, New York, USA
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St John's, Staten Island, New York, USA
Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwythe.
The church: St John's, Staten Island, New York, USA.
Denomination: Episcopal Church in the USA.
The building: Located at 1333 Bay Street, in the Rosebank neighborhood of New York City's borough of Staten Island, the church is a grey fieldstone structure situated on a busy residential street. The interior features cream-colored walls and columns, with dark brown ceiling ribbing, pews, high altar, reredos, and sanctuary furniture. Abundant bright, pastel-colored stained glass windows, one of which came from the studios of Tiffany, adorn the east and west ends of the church as well as the side walls. To the right of the sanctuary is an enclosed organ chamber. One organ rank, apparently not yet connected, sits above the left choir stalls and is fully exposed, including its pneumatic hoses.
The church: The church sponsors Canterbury House, a moderate-income senior apartment building on the church grounds, featuring a large social hall for Sunday school classes and parish gatherings.
The neighbourhood: Staten Island, or Richmond, is one of the five boroughs comprising New York City. The third largest borough, it is nevertheless the least populated. The English explorer Henry Hudson sighted the island in 1609 and named it after the Dutch word for the governing body of the Netherlands. In 1683 Staten Island was made a county of New York colony and renamed Richmond, after the Duke of Richmond, King Charles II's illegitimate son. Over the years several towns and villages were established, which today retain their original names as neighborhoods of the borough of Richmond. In 1894, the residents of Richmond County voted overwhelmingly to be annexed to New York City. Although joined to New Jersey by three vehicular bridges and a now abandoned railroad bridge, Staten Island was reachable from the rest of New York only by ferry until 1964, when the Verrazano Bridge was opened connecting the island to Brooklyn. Despite extensive suburban development made possible by the bridge, Staten Island has never lost its rural, rustic character. It is hard to believe that the island is indeed a part of the hustle-bustle world of the City of New York. Staten Island's Rosebank district lies just north of the Verrazano Bridge and is a quiet, shady residential neighborhood famous for its very short alley-like streets lined with neat, attractive single-family houses of the type known in the New York City area as "pre-war".
The cast: Rev. John Romig Johnson, rector, was the celebrant. Rev. Rhoda Treherne-Thomas, assistant priest, served as deacon. The organist was Stephen A. Hetzel. Mr Hetzel was handsomely vested in black cassock and white split-sleeved surplice that extended down to his shins; I forgave him his choice of tan slacks and brown shoes. The remainder of the altar party, although properly vested, were less attentive to their haberdashery.
What was the name of the service?
Holy eucharist.

How full was the building?
There were about 40 people; the church was one-quarter full. Most of the congregation seemed middle-aged and up. As the prayers of the people were read, the list of parish sick seemed endless, which perhaps explains the rather sparse attendance.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A gentleman at the door handed me a bulletin but did not otherwise greet me. No one in the congregation seemed to notice the presence of a newcomer in their midst.

Was your pew comfortable?
Comfortable enough – typical wooden church pew with cushion. The kneelers were unusually heavy and thus did not lend themselves to raising and lowering during the service; I left mine lowered for the duration.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet visiting among friends and acquaintances. The organist, Mr Hetzel, offered no prelude.

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?
1979 Prayer Book, 1981 Hymnal, bulletin, handout with the readings for the day.

What musical instruments were played?
A pipe organ, in reasonable tune and competently played. The hymns were comfortably familiar (Lauda Anima, St Denio, St Agnes, etc.). Mr Hetzel paced the hymns well, but his registrations could have been stronger. The congregational singing ranged from timid to enthusiastic.

Did anything distract you?
Father Johnson held a portable microphone close to his mouth during his sermon, in the style of a rock singer or auctioneer, and passed the same microphone to the lector for the reading of the prayers of the people. The loudspeakers were located in the back of the church, and gave the illusion that the person talking was standing in the back. The sound was also a little distorted.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Typical Episcopalian Rite II eucharist, although it was spoken in its entirety – no chanting, no sung gloria or sanctus. Compared to other congregations I have been part of, I thought this one was somewhat more insular than is usually the case. The peace ceremony was lively, but few regulars bothered to exchange peace with the newcomer. One member of the altar party quite noticeably passed me by.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
10 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – See my comment above on the portable microphone. Father Johnson had prepared his sermon well and his argument was clear, but he seemed a bit befuddled at times as he spoke.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
In political candidates we regard changing one's mind as being "wishy-washy," but God often changes his mind. Moses persuaded God to change his mind about punishing the Hebrews. God also changed his mind when he showed mercy to St Paul, the man who had previously railed against God. This is the way that God loves – God forgives.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The altar party conducted itself with a dignity not often seen in altar parties these days.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The altar was not miked, portable or otherwise; I could barely hear the eucharistic prayer. Communion was disorganized – there were no ushers to shepherd communicants up to the rail, and so we ended up standing in the aisles for an unnecessarily long period of time. After receiving, we had to pass through the organ chamber (yes!) to reach the side aisle to return to our pews – fortunately Mr Hetzel was playing only some quiet twiddly bits. A committee needs to sits down and think the whole communion thing through, the sooner the better.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
At the conclusion of post-service announcements, everyone made a mad dash for the door, apparently so as to be first in line for coffee. I remained in my pew looking a bit confused, but no one seemed to notice. Finally a woman who was, I think, the principal of the Sunday school (as she had made an announcement regarding same) asked me if I intended to join the rest for coffee.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Unexceptional coffee served in styrofoam cups. There was also an assortment of bagels and different kinds of coffee cake – again unexceptional. I walked around a bit but no one spoke to me, so I did not tarry long.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – I don't think so. It was too unfriendly.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I am always glad to be a Christian, but this particular service neither augmented nor diminished that feeling.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Father holding the microphone so close to his mouth, with the resulting distorted sound.
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