Mystery Worshipper: Clandestine Christian
Location: Greenwich Village, New York City, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 29 March 2009, 11:00am
The first home of Church of the Ascension was a small white Greek Revival building on Canal Street, consecrated in 1829 and destroyed by fire 10 years later. Within a month, the vestry selected the present site on Fifth Avenue and 10th Street for a new church, to be designed by the noted architect Richard Upjohn. The new Gothic Revival building was consecrated on November 5, 1841, the first church on Fifth Avenue. The church was remodeled between 1885 and 1889 under the direction of Stanford White, the Gilded Age's most prominent architect. The interior features stained glass clerestory windows as well as immense stained glass windows lining each side of the nave. A full description of all the windows can be found on the Ascension website. The floor consists of black and white tiles with a colorful motif along the edges. Choir stalls occupy the front portion of the sanctuary, with the altar set farther back. Some of the walls are peeling and a restoration campaign is ongoing.
Ascension is especially known for its excellent music, and although there are a number of churches in the area that can claim professional, concert-quality music, Ascension arguably stands out above the rest. Dennis Keene, organist and choirmaster, also serves as artistic director of Voices of Ascension, whose concerts and recordings have received critical acclaim. Ascension was the first church in New York City to keep its doors open at all hours, and during the Great Depression homeless men slept in the pews. Currently it is open weekdays from noon to 1.00pm for prayer and meditation, and at 6.00pm for eucharist; on Sundays the eucharist is celebrated at 9.00 and 11.00am as well as 6.00pm. Since the 19th century, Ascension has been involved in social concerns and ministries to those in need. A food pantry, outreach to those with AIDS, and tutoring program are among their present activities.
Ascension is located in the upper reaches of Greenwich Village, a neighborhood made famous by many musicians, artists and writers. This area is home to jazz clubs, cafes, restaurants and shops. Union Square, the New School and New York University are close by.
The Revd Andrew W. Foster III, rector, was the preacher. The Revd Mark W. Hummell, associate rector, celebrated, assisted by the Revd Deacon Anne Auchincloss. Dennis Keene, D.M.A., organist and choirmaster, presided over the music.
What was the name of the service?The Holy Eucharist.
How full was the building?
Half to two-thirds full. A wide variety of people of different ages and lifestyles attend the church, and it is gay-welcoming.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. An usher greeted me, asked me where I would like to sit, and led me there. He then handed me the service leaflet and closed the pew door.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, lovely dark wood and comfortable. I especially liked the kneelers, which are the separate heavy cushions instead of those fold-out contraptions that can be annoying and noisy.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
When I arrived at 10.45, the organist was playing the prelude, JS Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor. This completely stopped me in my tracks and I sort of stumbled into the pew and plopped down, not very aware of my surroundings. I'm sure the kind and patient usher thought I was mentally challenged. Glorious playing but not really prayerful for me, more like being at a concert, but it was mesmerizing. Unfortunately three men were having a discussion during the prelude; although it was in whispers, it was distracting and I found it hard to believe that anyone could even think of talking. The whispering stopped when the prelude was over, but began again during the bells that began the service.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Bless the Lord, who forgives all our sins."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Book of Common Prayer and Hymnal 1982.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
Well, I guess I've already gone on too much about those horrid whisperers. The church is very beautiful and I couldn't help but gaze at those stained glass windows. But I suppose that is what they are there for. Also, the air felt fresh, not at all stuffy, but it was a little on the chilly side.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Quietly traditional with bells and incense, but also contemporary. Relaxed, prayerful, and I think the best that the Episcopal Church has to offer. Ascension began as low church Protestant Episcopal, but began to move toward Anglo-Catholic traditions during the late 1970s.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – Learned, relaxed, engaging. Father Foster recapped and expanded on the scripture reading, but then it seemed to be over before there was a real sermon – too short and I would have liked more.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
To see Jesus we must go to the cross. The Greeks mentioned in John 12:20 represented the learned, secular humanists of that day, but they wouldn't be able to see Jesus until he was lifted up on the cross.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I truly hope heaven has such music, and that the angels sing as well as this choir.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I guess those whisperers, and feeling a bit cold; also a little disappointed in the sermon, because I felt this was a preacher who definitely could have done a lot more with what he began. It was otherwise a perfect service.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I couldn't have been standing for more than 20 seconds when a very sweet church member invited me to coffee and introduced me to a lot of other friendly people.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Coffee and tea, served by a church member, in real cups, and very appetizing cookies, which looked like they were from a nice bakery.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – I want more from sermons, but otherwise I am quite impressed by this church.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, very blessed and so glad that such a church exists.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
I'm not sure I can forget anything, but certainly not the music.