Church of the Epiphany, New York City


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Church of the Epiphany
Location: New York City
Date of visit: Sunday, 27 September 2015, 10:30am

The building

From the outside, a brick building. Not at all attention-catching – at street level, you don't really realize it's a church unless maybe if you glance up at the tower. I would have missed it if it hadn't been for the Episcopal Church sign. Their website says that the building dates from 1939 and that the style is simplified Norman Gothic. On the inside, the style is very modernist. Plain stone, chairs rather than pews, sparse decoration at the altar – very 20th century. In fact, it made me feel like I was in a post Vatican II Catholic church.

The church

The congregation seem very diverse but also very cohesive – during announcements everyone clapped for a couple who had just had a big wedding anniversary. They have a number of children's programs, including aid to schools in the village of Mlowa Barabarani in Tanzania. They serve a hot three-course dinner to the homeless each Wednesday evening. There are two eucharistic celebrations each Sunday morning, plus one on Sunday evenings. During the summer, weather permitting, some of these are held outdoors. At times, choral evensong replaces the Sunday evening eucharist. Each December they put on the traditional Advent service of lessons and carols.

The neighborhood

The church is located at the corner of York Avenue and East 74th Street, all the way over to the east in upper Manhattan. This is the Yorkville neighborhood, headquarters for George Washington's Continental Army during the American Revolution. In those days the area was mostly farmland. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, Yorkville was popular with German and Irish working-class immigrants. The area is poorly served by public transportation – for years the Third Avenue Elevated Railway, the so-called "El", was its principal connection to the rest of Manhattan. When the El was torn down in 1955, immigrant families began to move away and the neighborhood became more and more popular with the affluent set who didn't need to rely on public transportation. A subway line underneath Second Avenue, for decades little more than a pipe dream, is finally scheduled to open in December 2016.

The cast

The celebrant and preacher was the rector, the Revd Jennifer A. Reddall. She was assisted by the Revd Deacon Horace Whyte and the Revd Deacon Anne Auchincloss.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Eucharist, Rite II.

How full was the building?

When I got there, ten minutes or so before the service started, there were maybe 20 people present, including clergy and choir. However, by the sermon, there were 67 people – I know this because we counted off during the sermon – camp style, as the rector said. There were many young families. Later, at the offertory, plenty of children came in as well. In the space, it seemed like an appropriate number – it certainly was not full, but it seemed like a good amount for this congregation and what the church building and space could handle.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Not really, but everyone around me shook my hand and smiled at the passing of the peace. Some people even got up to walk around for the peace. Are people afraid, do you think, of embarrassing themselves by saying "Hello and welcome" to someone who has actually been coming to that church for a long time?

Was your pew comfortable?

The modern aesthetic of this church meant that rather than pews, they had those church chairs I've seen before that lock together in rows, with kneelers on the back. They were fine, although I don't really like chairs because its easier for you to drop something between them.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Fairly quiet and deserted. Those who were there were quietly chatting with one another.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

After the choral introit ("Standin' in the Need of Prayer") and hymn ("Before Thy Throne, O God, We Kneel"), the first words were the opening acclamation: "Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Prayer Book 1979; Hymnal 1982. In addition, I received a paper leaflet that had some music plus the liturgy and readings, so I did not need to pick up the Prayer Book.

What musical instruments were played?

There was an organ with a choir. Even though the organ is opus 1412 of the venerable Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company, I did not think it sounded particularly grand. Nevertheless, I thought the choir was good and I was impressed by the acoustics of the building.

Did anything distract you?

I was a little distracted by some children running around, but not in a bad way. In addition, two parishioners brought their dogs with them! I cant tell if that was a usual occurrence, or if they got the dates mixed up and thought it was the blessing of the animals (which is next Sunday, so it's a possibility), or if they were walking their dogs and realized they were going to be late for church. Jesus calls! Both dogs were very well behaved, though, and it seemed like a good space for dogs – not carpeted, and open enough that there was room for them. To be honest, I sort of enjoyed having dogs in church!

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

Sort of what you would expect from a normal Episcopal church – closer to low church than high church, sort of modern music other than the hymns, but not happy-clappy modern. Frankly, because of the architecture and some of the music, as well as the congregation, this church felt very Catholic to me. Not Anglo-Catholic, like some Episcopal churches try to be, but Vatican II Catholic. I enjoyed most of the music with the exception of the choral introit, "Standin' In the Need of Prayer," a spiritual-type number arranged by Carl Hayword, who is a prolific composer and arranger of hymn tunes and service music. While I thought the words were important for worshippers to think about ("Not my brother, not my sister, but it's me, o Lord, standin' in the need of prayer"), I thought the tune was a little too goofy and kitsch.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

14 minutes.

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

7 – I thought this was a pretty good sermon. I know many people who think that a good sermon must seem extemporaneous, but the best sermons I have heard have all been written out. That being said, the Revd Jennifer A. Reddall did not have a written sermon, but she presented a cohesive thesis very well. She spoke slowly and loudly enough to be understood, and she was interesting.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

This sermon was about prayer, going off of the second reading (James 5:13-20 – prayer can heal) and incorporating the gospel a little bit (Mark 9:38-50 – "whoever is not against us is for us"). When our prayers seem to go unanswered, does that mean they're not good enough? Prayer might not take away the bad things, but it adds to the pile of good things and is, in the end, more important. Our prayers may not offer healing, but they offer salvation. Even the Pope has asked people to pray for him. Everyone needs prayer, and the church will get stronger if we pray. She ended her sermon by having all of us count off (see above), and then she assigned a prayer from the Prayer Book to each of us in turn, for meditation during the week.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

What most reminded me of heaven was the congregation: a number of different kinds of people (age, class, race and ethnicity) and in particular, the many young families with children. I think this is one of Epiphany's greatest strengths in an age when many Episcopal churches are missing younger people and families.

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

Frankly, what I liked the least about this church was the modernist architecture. Very sparse decoration, except for one or two icons. I do not think that modernism works in church. The modernist movement is about anxiety and meaninglessness, and church is about everything that is not that. Modernism leaves us to wallow by ourselves; the church gives us a community not only of our fellow congregants, but also the communion of saints throughout the space and time. That being said, I think Epiphany is doing the best it can in the space provided.

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

I hung around for a few moments and got a muffin. No one was especially friendly toward me, but I thought the clergy were all very friendly as I was leaving.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was coffee, plus cookies, muffins and other baked goods spread out on a table in the back. It worked well and was easy to find.

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

6 – I thought this was a nice congregation – there were a few people my age, but not very many, which might deter me a little bit if I wanted to find a community. Mostly, what I liked least about it was the architecture of the building.

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

Overall, yes. I thought the sermon was pretty good, and a nice reminder about prayer. The parish was fairly friendly and seemed like a close community with lots of children.

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

I will remember going away with a feeling that I had spent a Sunday at a Catholic church. I usually align myself more with Catholicism than Protestantism, but as an Episcopalian I think the Pope is just another bishop.

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