Emmanuel Episcopal, Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, New York, USA

Emmanuel Episcopal, Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, New York City, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Emmanuel Episcopal
Location: Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, New York City, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 14 May 2006, 10:30am

The building

From the outside, an unremarkable building covered in grey shingles, with a red roof and large belfry to the right. The interior features oak pews and red carpeting, with a mahogany altar backed by an intricate mahogany reredos. Organ pipes sit to the right of the sanctuary, although the organ itself is an electronic instrument. The walls of the nave are lined with stations of the cross carved out of what appears to be ivory.

The church

The congregation were all black save for two or three white people, including myself. This surprised me, given the ethnic composition of the neighborhood. They appear to be a friendly, close-knit group. The rector, for example, seemed to know everyone by name.

The neighborhood

The Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn is close to Coney Island and is comprised of working-class homes surrounding commercial areas. Always popular with European immigrants, the neighborhood's ethnic makeup today is predominantly Russian.

The cast

The Very Revd Alexander Gunthorpes, rector, presided. Mr Jacob Richards was organist. Father Gunthorpes was vested in a white chasuble with delicately patterned orphreys. The remainder of the altar party consisted of a crucifer, two acolytes and two servers, all in albs.

What was the name of the service?

Choral Eucharist.

How full was the building?

It's a small church but was completely full, although most people drifted in sometime between the call to worship and the sermon. I counted about 65 people.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

If you consider stares as a greeting, then yes. One woman said hello and a gentleman from the choir said good morning and asked if I had a service leaflet. Otherwise, I was only stared at. I felt very much like a white person who had wandered into black folks' territory. Many people did shake my hand at the peace ceremony, though.

Was your pew comfortable?


How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

As I entered, Father Gunthorpes was leading a discussion group of about 12 in a consideration of the readings for the day. After that broke up, everyone visited with each other but paid no attention to me except as noted above. The organist offered a prelude (about which more in the hellish bits below).

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"The Lord be with you." It being Mothers' Day, Father Gunthorpes offered a prayer for mothers. He prayed from the rear of the church before the procession began.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The 1979 Prayer Book, 1982 Hymnal, Lift Every Voice and Sing, and the service leaflet.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ. There was also a choir of eight vested in light brown robes with blue-bordered red overlays. I'm always glad to see Lift Every Voice and Sing in the pews, as it contains some wonderful hymns. For example, our opening hymn was that lusty old chestnut, "Marching to Zion," and at communion we sang "In times like these," which I last heard about 50 years ago in a Pentecostal church.

Did anything distract you?

The usual handful of crying babies and the obligatory cell phone. Someone should start a poll to see how far the service can progress before someone's cell phone goes off. Today we lasted until the Creed.

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

A by-the-book Rite II liturgy, but permeated with an intense feeling of joy. Everyone seemed very glad to be there. The singing was especially hearty. The service music, most notably the sursum corda, preface and Lord's Prayer, were sung to unfamiliar settings not found in the hymnal and for which no handouts were provided, and yet everyone seemed to know them. At the offertory, the procession of gifts was headed by the crucifer and acolytes. At the consecration, the church bell was rung along with the sanctuary bells.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

20 minutes.

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

9 – A native of Antigua, Father Gunthorpes spoke with a lilting Caribbean accent that was music to the ears. A good part of his sermon was a dialog between the congregation and himself. He carried it off very well, and if he was speaking from notes that were not visible.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The first Mothers' Day was celebrated in 1907. Since then, the role of mother, although always well defined, has broadened. The word "housewife" has all but disappeared from the language. Mothers have entered the workforce, some by choice but others by necessity, and some mothers are too young for the responsibility. But all mothers share the instinct for motherhood, and all enjoy the legacy of their children's love that nothing can take away. Hats off to mothers! Thank you! We should let our mothers take a rest today. Even Jesus rested now and then by going off to a quiet place by himself when he became weary.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The overwhelming spirit of joy that was so evident throughout the service.

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

The organist, although in command of an excellent electronic instrument (a Rodgers, I suspect, although I didn't look), never varied his registration from the harsh, brassy sound he adopted for the hymns. And his prelude, Schubert's Impromptu Op. 142 No. 2, was the most painful arrangement of that piece that I've ever heard!

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

After the final blessing, Father read an interminable string of announcements and then invited those celebrating their birthday to come up for a blessing. Then those traveling had to come up. Then those celebrating an anniversary. Then he asked those who had been away to identify themselves, and chatted with each for a few moments about their adventures. Finally he asked visitors to identify themselves and to say who had invited them. (I kept silent but was tempted to say that the Lord had invited me.)

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

All of the above stretched the service to well over two hours. I was tired and had to go to the bathroom, and so I left before the dismissal. I don't think there was any coffee, though. I had lunch at a nearby diner and then headed for home.

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

5 – It was a wonderfully inspiring service, but I couldn't sit through a marathon like that every week.

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


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

That one need not depart from the splendor of the traditional Western liturgy to experience joy in church.

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