Mystery Worshipper: Björn Egan
Church: Church of the Intercession
Location: Sugar Hill, New York City, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 2 July 2006, 10:00am
This large cathedral-like church, along with its vicarage, parish house and cloister (one of the only cloisters in all of North America), is just about the best example of the beautiful Gothic Revival style to be found anywhere. The work of Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue (who also designed the Cadet Chapel at West Point, St Vincent Ferrer and St Thomas Fifth Avenue), it dates from 1912-14 and sits on a hill in upper Manhattan's Washington Heights overlooking the Hudson River, on what was once a rural cemetery. Goodhue considered Intercession his best work, and it has a well-deserved spot on the National Register of Historic Places. Goodhue is buried in the north transept, in a monument created by the sculptor Lee Lawrie, his frequent collaborator.
Intercession is known as the Mother Church of Washington Heights. Their website lists the many ministries and advocacies sponsored by the parish. In addition, the building is used as a community center for the neighborhood. And well over a dozen different television shows, movies and commercials have been filmed there.
West 155th Street marks the boundary between Harlem and Washington Heights in the area known as Sugar Hill. Once a popular residential enclave for wealthy African-Americans (jazz great Duke Ellington, Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, boxer Joe Louis, and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell lived there, among others), even today Sugar Hill is a calm, quiet neighborhood, free of drugs and crime so common to areas close by.
The Rev. Ivan Romito Griffith, assistant minister, was the celebrant. The Rev. Fred Hoyer Johnson, vicar, preached. The organist was William Earle Randolph, Jr.
What was the name of the service?Solemn High Mass
How full was the building?
Well, I counted approximately 500 to 600 chairs, and there were exactly 41 people in attendance, including ushers, altar party, organist and congregation. I felt rather like a nickel tumbling around in a cement mixer.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Every person whom I met before the service smiled and gave me a cheery "Good morning!" I felt at ease and at home immediately.
Was your pew comfortable?
There are no pews, only oak chairs with a very thin vinyl pad. It was okay at first, but if your posterior region is as bony as mine, it won't be long before the squirming begins. I must have been fidgeting quite a bit, because there was a charming young girl aged about seven or eight a couple of rows over who turned around and gave me a fierce stare and shushed me, bringing me back to reality and making me forget about my predicament.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Everyone of course knew each other quite well (I was the only rather obvious stranger in the house). They quietly greeted those around them and then sat silently waiting for the service to begin. All in all, a respectful performance. I noticed, oddly enough, that about 85 percent of the people sat in the front right (epistle side) of the nave. I was sitting in the middle left. More about that later.
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?
The usual: 1979 Book of Common Prayer, 1982 Hymnal, and Lift Every Voice and Sing. The readings were New Revised Standard Version.
What musical instruments were played?
Pipe organ, expertly (majestically) played by Mr Randolph. The organ is the fine Aeolian-Skinner instrument that was originally housed in St Paul's Chapel in downtown Manhattan.
Did anything distract you?
At first the traffic noise from the open door on the Broadway side of the nave was a little distracting, but that was very soon put to shame by the distraction of the sound system in the church, which is to say the lack of a sound system. If it actually works at all, it's not very sound. I couldn't hear a single word the celebrant said – not the epistle, not the gospel, and almost not the sermon except that I strained extra hard. Now I understand why those who know sit in the front right side of the nave (directly in front of the pulpit).
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Very much smells and bells – this is high Anglo-Catholic. Everyone was quiet and reverential. In fact, I couldn't really hear if anyone was following along in the responses or songs or if they were just moving their lips. Very reserved and discreet.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
The sermon lasted exactly 16 minutes and 55 seconds, not a second of it wasted.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – Is there any way someone can be satanically angelic? Or angelically satanic? The preacher (Fr Johnson) was neither satanic nor angelic, but I hesitate to mark him in the middle because it doesn't accurately represent his style. Fr Johnson read his sermon, which usually makes me squirm and look for an exit. However, despite the wooden chair, my bony butt, and the read sermon, I found myself hanging on every word. He read in an easy, conversational manner, and with a wicked sense of humor – he even managed to get a reference to Monty Python's Dead Parrot sketch into the sermon. He quite obviously knew exactly what he was talking about and managed to tie into his sermon topic not only all three readings, but the psalm as well.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Serve the Lord with gladness. Be generous to your fellows, giving not grudgingly but with joy.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
When I went up to communion, the little girl who had previously shushed me tugged at my shirt. When I looked down, she proceeded to show me how to kneel and how to make the sign of the cross, and how to properly hold my hands to receive communion. When I had done everything to her satisfaction, she gave me the most beatific smile I have seen in many years. I don't mean to sound gooey or anything, but I saw all the host of heaven and a choir of angels in that smile.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I'm sorry to say that between the unsound sound system and the chair I was sitting in, it was very much what I would expect eternity in the other place to be like.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
My mistake in sitting in the middle left side became apparent directly after the service ended. Since most everyone was sitting in the front right section, when coffee hour came they all got up immediately and went through to the hall. I was left standing quite alone in the center aisle with no one around me. I wandered over to the door leading to the coffee room and was met by Fr Johnson, who struck up a conversation with me and invited me into the room.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I can't really say with any kind of authority what kind of food was available at coffee hour because by the time I got there, there wasn't anything left. I don't think this is a bad thing, it's just the way this particular church does it. Any child from a large family knows that if you want a pork chop, you've got to get in there and take one. I was late for coffee hour, so it was my misfortune, not theirs.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – I'd love to live in that part of Manhattan and attend services at such an impressive church in a diverse community. The building needs a lot of work, and it's the kind of volunteer work that I love to do. However, having said that, there were only 41 in attendance at a church that can hold almost 600. Granted, it was an awfully hot July day, and a lot of folks may have been on vacation. But attendance like that can only spell financial doom for a plant the size of this one.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I'm happy to report that yes, indeed, this service made me glad to be a Christian. Our basic teachings were evident here in abundance. The people were gracious and thoughtful. They were aware of a stranger in their midst and did what they could to make me feel comfortable. Help the least of my brothers, and you are helping me.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
I'll be seeing that little girl's smile for a long time.