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927: Church of the Messiah, Rhinebeck, New York, USA
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Church of the Messiah, Rhinebeck, New York, USA
Mystery Worshipper: The Geezer.
The church: Church of the Messiah, Rhinebeck, New York, USA.
Denomination: Episcopal Church in the USA.
The building: This small church, a beautiful example of the English Gothic style, was constructed of granite gathered from local quarries. A large porch leads into the nave, which is squarish and lined with yellow brick walls and dark oak paneling. A narrow choir directs the eye to the high altar, behind which is a large stained glass window bearing the unmistakable deep pastel coloring and clean, understated leading of the Tiffany studios. I believe the subject matter of the window is either the Transfiguration or the Ascension – it was hard to tell at night. A nave altar – a plain oak table – had been set up in the center aisle.
The church: The Church of the Messiah was organized and incorporated in 1852. It appears to be blessed with a large and active congregation, and sponsors many charitable works in the community.
The neighbourhood: Located in New York State's Dutchess County, on the east bank of the Hudson River about 90 miles north of New York City, the tiny village of Rhinebeck was founded in 1737 and named after the strong resemblance of the Hudson valley to Germany's Rhine River valley. It features immaculately preserved Victorian-era storybook homes, shops, churches and public buildings. The oldest hotel in America, the Beekman Arms, sits in the center of town (George Washington actually did sleep there!).
The cast: Rev. Gerald J. Gallagher, rector, was the celebrant; Rev. Robert B. Brooks served as deacon. Mr Raymond Corey was organist and choirmaster. The names of the crucifer, acolytes and lectors were not given. The celebrant was vested in a white chasuble with blue orphreys; the deacon in a deacon's stole but no dalmatic. The crucifer and acolytes wore red robes girded by white cinctures. The choir had donned blue cassocks and white surplices. The organist wore an academic gown and hood.
What was the name of the service?
Christmas Eve Eucharist with Carols.

How full was the building?
The building holds about 200 people and was completely full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. The mahogany pews, still bearing numbered plaques from the days when pew rents were collected, were lined with plush red cushions. The kneelers, however, were the individual footstool type which I find quite uncomfortable. Fortunately we stood during the eucharistic prayer.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
People tended to enter noisily, but quieted down once they were settled in. The mass was preceded by a carol singalong.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
The rector said, "As we celebrate this very special Christmas, we pray especially for our soldiers in Iraq."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
1979 Prayer Book, 1982 Hymnal, service leaflet.

What musical instruments were played?
A pipe organ, somewhat out of tune. A choir of about 12 led the singing and offered an anthem. The choir could not see the organ console, and their ensemble and tempos suffered greatly for the resulting want of direction.

Did anything distract you?
The aisles were lined with candelabrae on very tall poles. A short, plump woman whose job it was to light the candles had to stand on the pews to reach them with her taper. Such a pose did not flatter her anatomy. It seemed that each candelabra held at least one candle that resisted her most valiant efforts to light it.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service was a Rite 2 low mass with prayers thrown in here and there from an earlier edition of the Prayer Book. Congregational participation was intense. Although most of the mass was celebrated at the nave altar, communion was distributed from the high altar.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
10 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 – Father Gallagher stood halfway in, halfway out of the pulpit, and his style was unassuming, gentle and personal.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
God's plan for us from the beginning was that we would not be lost. Throughout history we have resisted God's every effort to save us – the covenant, the ten commandments, even the two greatest commandments. At length God had to become one of us in order to "get through" to us. Jesus finally gave us only one commandment – the most difficult of all – to love one another as God has loved us, to see the world as he sees it, sinful and fragile though we may be. We pray that God may truly make us the light of the world.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sermon was one of the most inspiring I have ever heard, and I told Father so afterwards. His message, coupled with his preaching style, made for a most heavenly experience.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The organist, Mr Corey, is a very old man who has enjoyed a distinguished career that is clearly now in its twilight. Despite his advanced age, I could not forgive him his vibrato-heavy theatre-like registrations and abundance of wrong notes, especially in the pedals. I began to wonder if he could hear what he was playing. He had to be helped to and from the organ bench by a choir member – I was reminded of how nuns were employed to propel Cardinal Richelieu about in the Ken Russell cult classic film, The Devils.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing. The regulars in the congregation chatted amongst themselves, but appeared not to notice their Christmas Eve visitors.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none, but the service ended well after midnight and so I would not have expected anything.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – I'd have to come back another time before I could decide. Father Gallagher's preaching would be a strong draw, but I don't think I could tolerate the undisciplined choir or the sad spectacle of Mr Corey's playing week after week.

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

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Father Gallagher's wonderful sermon.
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