Mystery Worshipper: Acton Bell
Church: Cathedral Church of St John the Divine
Location: Morningside Heights, New York City, USA
Date of visit: Saturday, 12 November 2011, 4:00pm
Construction began on the cathedral in 1892 with a Byzantine/Romanesque design by the firm of Heins and LaFarge, who also designed the city's first subway stations. In 1911, the firm of Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson, noted champions of Gothic Revival, were hired and the design was changed to French Gothic. The first stone of the nave was laid and the west front was undertaken in 1925, and the first services in the nave were held the day before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Subsequent construction on the cathedral was halted due to lack of funds and manpower. Construction has been pretty much halted ever since, and the cathedral remains unfinished. Almost exactly two and a half football fields in length, the nave ceiling reaches an astounding 124 feet, and is the longest Gothic nave in the world, at 230 feet. Seven chapels radiating from the ambulatory behind the choir are each in a distinctive nationalistic style, some of them borrowing from outside the Gothic vocabulary. Known as the Chapels of the Tongues, their designs are meant to represent each of the seven most prominent immigrant ethnic groups in New York.
The cathedral is very active in the community and offers many social services, including a soup kitchen, emergency intervention programs, a clothing bank for underprivileged women entering the workforce, and a multitude of arts programs and concerts, all of which are detailed on their website. They also house the Textile Conservation Laboratory, which is a world-class institution for the conservation of delicate tapestries and fabrics of antiquity.
The cathedral sits on Amsterdam Avenue just north of Cathedral Parkway (also known as 110th Street). Bishop Horatio Potter, who had planned the cathedral but did not live to see the cornerstone laid, had envisioned it as one component of three (Columbia University and St Luke's Hospital being the other two) that would form a monument to mind, body and spirit, fit for a modern city. And while there may be something of the vanity of human wishes about the whole project, it did spur development in what was, until then, pastures and farmland. Today, Columbia University pretty much engulfs the area. There was a plan to develop part of the cathedral close for a building to be leased to the University, but the collapse of the real estate market put an end to that.
The Revd Canon Thomas P. Miller, STM, canon for liturgy and the arts, was the officiant and preacher. Kent Tritle, director of music ministries at the Church of St Ignatius Loyola for the past 22 years and organist for the New York Philharmonic, presided at the organ and directed the choir in his capacity as newly appointed organist and director of music for the cathedral.
What was the name of the service?Choral Evensong (Rite 1)
How full was the building?
Fourteen in a building that can comfortably hold five thousand.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Not really. The usher was busy talking to someone, so I had to interrupt to get a service bulletin, He didn't seem particularly happy to be interrupted even a bit churlish, I thought.
Was your pew comfortable?
I sat in the great choir, which was pretty cool. It is heavily carved with Green Men, stylized seashells, and important composers, an incongruous combination that made me chuckle. I was seated near the figure of who I think was JS Bach standing on the half-shell.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was very quiet, even still, as there were few if any tourists. (Usually there is at least one bus load in the building at any time.) It was also very dim, as the light was fading yet the electrical lights had not yet been switched on. There was some lovely half-light coming through the very blue stained glass windows.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Isaiah 57:15 (King James Version): "Thus saith the high and lofty one that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is holy: I dwell in the high and holy place..."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A very, very complete 16-page service bulletin.
What musical instruments were played?
The magnificent great organ, Opus 150-A of the venerable Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company. Badly damaged in the fire that ravaged the north transept in 2001, this wonderful instrument has been painstakingly restored by Quimby Pipe Organs of Warrensburg, Missouri. There was also a choir of eight singers.
Did anything distract you?
The music was definitely a distraction! It was a mix of English Baroque, Healy Willan, and Ralph Vaughn Williams an unexpected marriage of old and new. The music program at St Ignatius Loyola under Kent Tritle's direction had come to occupy a major place in the musical life of the city, and Mr Tritle's influence can really be heard. It was just fantastic!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
I know that there are those that think worship at Episcopal cathedrals as pretty wacky and out-there, but I must say that this was as pitch-perfect a traditional service as I've ever been to. And pretty far up the candle to boot. Choral evensong, Rite 1, with Canon Miller in full choir Dress and one acolyte in cassock to carry the cross at the procession and recessional.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Canon Miller seemed one of those rare preachers who can effectively use humor in a sermon both to delight and instruct. Conversational, without being folksy, he was very engaging.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Unpacking the gospel reading, Matthew 25:14-30 (the parable of the talents), he began by citing a news article where someone had used the parable as support for the current condition of the financial services industry. He went on to point out the error of this reading, in a very funny way, and to point to how perhaps the Occupy movement might better reflect the parable's intent.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Did I mention that the music was really, really fantastic? I find a good choral evensong to be intensely contemplative. The choir is doing all the heavy lifting, so to speak. If we're listening, we can perhaps hear new things in words we (or at least some of us) say all the time. And one could spend months studying the many poignant stories behind certain aspects of the cathedral. For example, I sat directly across from what is called the World War II Arch. The stonecarver working on it was called up during the war, and the festoon of trefoils and flowers remain half done (and will forever remain so).
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
A beautiful liturgy in a beautiful space, accompanied by world-class musicians, all for the benefit of ... a congregation of 14. (Sigh)
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There wasn't a coffee hour, but an organ recital by a visiting organist was scheduled to follow.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I wasn't going to stay for the recital, but the person next to me saw me getting up to leave and urged me to stay. I said I would for a bit, and ended up staying for the whole thing. I was very glad I did.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – With music this good, what is not to like?
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. Here was a traditional service that was so unfussy and unpretentious, at once clearly plugged into the past and forward looking.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The World War II arch, and that perhaps there is a lesson there in things left undone.