Trinity Cathedral, Trenton, New Jersey, USA

Trinity Cathedral, Trenton, New Jersey, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Trinity Cathedral
Location: Trenton, New Jersey, USA
Date of visit: Saturday, 17 February 2007, 3:00pm

The building

A large, contemporary, Romanesque-like stone building in a rather sparsely landscaped park setting. The interior features pink walls with arches of light stone. Oak choir stalls and organ console are located in the rather deep chancel. Behind the altar is a dark blue tapestry, in front of which is superimposed a large red crucifix with gold trim. The vaulted ceiling is of dark wood, from which are suspended chandeliers.

The church

Trinity takes pride in its role as the diocesan cathedral as well as a parish church. They sponsor Trinity Cathedral Academy, an independent school serving children of promise from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. They also promote several outreach activities, including a ministry to the elderly, a food pantry, and several arts groups. The facilities of the cathedral are also made available to community, cultural and educational organizations.

The neighborhood

Trenton, the state capital of New Jersey, sits on the east bank of the Delaware River, about 50 miles north of Philadelphia. Trenton was the site of George Washington's first military victory in the American Revolutionary War. During the early 20th century the city was a major manufacturing center – attested to by a bridge over the Delaware River bearing an emblem in large red neon letters that reads, "Trenton makes, the world takes." However, most of those factories are long gone, and local wags like to reinterpret the sign as reading, "Trenton uses, the world refuses." Famous native Trentonians include comedians Jon Stewart and Ernie Kovacs, former New York City mayor David Dinkins, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and retired Army general Norman Schwarzkopf. The cathedral is on West State Street in a neighborhood of fine, old, large Victorian houses.

The cast

The Rt Rev. George E. Councell, Bishop of New Jersey, was the celebrant, assisted by a large cast of acolytes, readers, oblation bearers and eucharistic ministers. The Rev. Canon Basil L. Tynes, Canon Missioner for the diocese of Nassau, the Bahamas, was the preacher. Also present were the Rt Rev. Mellick Belshaw, retired Bishop of New Jersey, the Rt. Rev. Orris G. Walker, Jr., Bishop of Long Island, and the Rt Rev. Calvert Leopold Friday, Bishop of the Windward Islands. But the star of the show was the Very Rev. Rene Rory John, dean-elect of the cathedral.

What was the name of the service?

Institution and Seating of the Very Rev. Rene Rory John as the Sixth Dean of Trinity Cathedral.

How full was the building?

The cathedral has pews for about 400 and was completely full. Extra chairs had been set up in the side aisles.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I entered via the east door. Clergy and lay ministers were milling about in general pandemonium. A lady holding a stack of leaflets was stationed in the south aisle, but she ignored me until I asked her if this was the place for the dean's installation. "Family or friend?" she then asked me. I replied, "Neither; I'm just an observer," whereupon she handed me a leaflet in silence. Others in my party who entered via the west door told me they received a better welcome than that.

Was your pew comfortable?


How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Noisy, with lots of visiting among family and friends. The organist played a very nice meditative air that was unfortunately totally lost in the hubbub. Then the St Thomas Episcopal Church Steel Band, visiting from Brooklyn, played several numbers that were more successful at catching people's attention. Finally, the Absalom Jones Inspiration Choir of Trinity Cathedral sang a mixture of traditional, spiritual and gospel selections.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Bishop George, we have come together today to install Rene..." The entrance procession seemed endless – there must have been over 100 people in all, including visiting clergy from other denominations as well as the altar party and four – count 'em – four bishops. I was pleased to see that Bishop Councell carried a proper silver crosier, not one of those oversized wooden canes that so many bishops seem to favor.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Everything was contained in the service leaflet.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ for the congregational hymns; grand piano for the choral selections; steel drums and percussion for some of the pre-service music. The organ, an electro-pneumatic instrument built by the Petty-Madden firm of Hopewell, New Jersey, was played well and sounded sufficiently glorious, although I thought that the effect of a trompette-en-chamade stop mounted on the west wall was that of a collection of tuned bicycle horns. At least they were in tune.

Did anything distract you?

Some of the ladies in the congregation wore strikingly elaborate dresses with hats to match. One lady in particular was dressed in a pink flowered outfit with a head wrapping that resembled pink cotton candy. The gentleman sitting next to me kept knocking into me as he fidgeted with a variety of things – fortunately he disappeared after the sermon.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Despite all those visiting clergy, choir, altar servers and bishops, it was a happy-clappy Rite II low mass. Most of the prayers were recited, not chanted. There was no first censing, and the second censing seemed perfunctory. There was a gospel procession, but the book was not censed. Bishop Councell did not elevate the elements at the consecration, and there were no bells. The hymns were traditional, but were sung with much hand-clapping and arm-waving (by the choir, no less, seeming to egg the congregation on). Most of the musical numbers were applauded. The peace ceremony seemed like an intermission at the theater – Bishop Councell finally brought it to and end by saying, "Dean John, please come home!" to try to get the dean out of the aisles and back into the chancel. Immediately after the peace, a representative of the governor of New Jersey made some remarks and a congratulatory letter from the Mayor of Trenton was read.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

22 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

6 – Canon Tynes spoke very rapidly and loudly (and was overamplified to boot) and appeared to be reading his sermon from notes. He began by thanking Bishop Councell for permitting him to preach in his diocese, and joked that Dean John was putting their friendship to the test by dragging him away from the Bahamas in the middle of winter. His style was that of an evangelical preacher – the only thing he didn't do was thump the Bible – and many of his remarks were punctuated by "Say it, brother!" "Amen!" and "Praise Jesus!" from the congregation, as well as by applause.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

As Jesus prepared his disciples for ministry, he made it clear that they must remain connected to him. All of us are sent forth to spread the word of God. Our lives should be filled with the love of God – we should pour out our lives to Christ just as Christ poured out his blood for us. Joyful obedience to God involves going beyond the call of duty to put the interests of others before our own. The very person we think we don't need today may be the person who will hold the cup and spoon up to our mouths when we can no longer feed ourselves. The work of missions is not in some faraway land, but rather at the very door of the church. So many people will drive in to Sunday service and then drive back to their homes without so much as noticing the plight of the neighborhood in which the church stands. God wants our worship and our walk to be truthful – so go live it! Let your love of God propel you into what God wants.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Everyone seemed to be having a very good time.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

But it was all too much for poor old traditionalist Miss Amanda, she's afraid. There was far too much clapping, hand waving and applause. Communion was very disorganized, with people bumping into each other as they approached and left the rail. But most of all, I thought the organizers of this event missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring out all the splendor and pageantry of our Western liturgical traditions.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

Dean John thanked everyone for making this day so special for him and (with Bishop Councell's indulgence) gave the final blessing. The organist played a splendid Widor toccata (not the customary one from the Fifth Symphony) but, again, it was totally lost in the hubbub of people visiting with each other as they headed toward the reception in the cathedral undercroft.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

By the time we got to the reception, things had pretty much been picked over. But there were assorted sandwiches (or at least the remains of them), cheeses, fresh fruit, and chips and dips. Tables had been set up where someone was mixing wine with fruit juice. The coffee was tasty and hot. Clergy and congregation alike were milling about in a generally festive atmosphere.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

4 – This was a special occasion, and probably not typical of the Cathedral's regular worship. But it seemed more of a show than a liturgy, and as such it would not be for me.

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

So many visiting clergy from so many distant places (I doubt if I'll ever again see the Bishop of the Windward Islands!) helped to drive home the universality of the Christian family, so I guess that yes, I did feel glad to be a Christian.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

All the applause, hand clapping and arm waving – and the lady in the cotton candy headdress.

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