First Presbyterian, Greenwich Village, New York City, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: Clandestine Christian
Church: First Presbyterian
Location: Greenwich Village, New York City, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 9 November 2008, 11:00am

The building

The building dates from the mid 1840s when the congregation (which first met in a private home in 1706) moved from Wall Street to its current location. An architectural landmark, the massive brownstone building and tower with battlements, pinnacles and other Gothic Revival features was designed by Joseph C. Wells, one of the founders of the American Institute of Architects, and occupies the block on Fifth Avenue from 11th to 12th Streets. It was modeled on the Church of St Saviour at Bath, England, and the crenellated central entrance tower on the Magdalen tower at Oxford. The grounds are nicely landscaped (although with one particular tree they could do without – read on!) and enclosed by an ornamented black iron fence. The interior with high vaulted ceiling is impeccable and awe-inspiring, with dark walnut pews, beautiful carvings and gorgeous stained glass windows. There are no columns, no obstructions, producing the sense of immense space. In 1893, a south transept was added, and a chancel was added in 1919. The chancel's stained blue glass rose window was the gift of Robert W. de Forest, the founder of the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A major restoration project took place in the 1990s.

The church

The history of the congregation is almost as fascinating as its architecture. Among the first preachers was Jonathan Edwards, whose fiery sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is required reading in many early American literature courses. In 1918 the congregation merged with two others nearby, and called Dr Harry Emerson Fosdick, a professor at Union Theological Seminary and an outspoken opponent of racism and injustice, to be their associate pastor. By 1924, as a result of the merger and in large measure due to Fosdick's dynamic preaching, the membership swelled to 1800, the highest it had ever been. But one of Fosdick's sermons, in which he presented the Bible as a record of the unfolding of God's will, not as the literal word of God, so offended the fundamentalist members of the congregation that Fosdick was forced to resign in 1925. Still, the emphasis on tolerance and social justice continues today. The church was an early supporter of the ordination of women, and played a major role in the election of the Revd Edler G. Hawkins as the first African-American moderator of the national Presbyterian Church. Today, First Church's congregation numbers around 1100, in a time when many smaller churches have empty pews and few members. It is gay-friendly. They promote volunteerism and run a homeless shelter in conjunction with nearby churches. There is a midday prayer service on Wednesdays, and Bible studies and various other classes and fellowship groups at different times during the week.

The neighborhood

Greenwich Village has been 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. Fifth Avenue and 12th Street, where the church is located, is at the northern edge of the Village and has a different feel than that of the interesting little streets that make up the Village proper. It seems more like the sedate, well-to-do Gramercy Park and Murray Hill districts just to its north, or even the ritzy, sophisticated Upper East Side.

The cast

The Revd Dr Jon M. Walton, senior pastor, led the service, along with the Revd Sarah Segal McCaslin, associate pastor, who preached. Also assisting was the Revd Mark D. Hostetter, associate pastor. Barbara E. Davis, minister of Christian education, gave the children's prayer; William F. Entriken, A.Mus.D., organist and choirmaster, was in charge of the music.

What was the name of the service?

Service for the Lord's Day.

How full was the building?

The downstairs was almost full, but the upstairs was maybe one-quarter full. The congregation were predominantly white but included people from many ethnic groups, and the ages ranged from very young children to perhaps 90 years old. I noticed all styles of dress, from very casual to Sunday best.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

An usher shook my hand outside the entrance door. Another usher inside welcomed me and asked where I would like to sit, then led me to the seat and handed me the service leaflet.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes. The pews are covered with blue velvet cushions. No kneelers, but there was no kneeling in the service. However, the floor underneath the pews was thickly carpeted, and kneeling would not have been uncomfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

I thought there was a bit too much talking. Since the service leaflet asked the congregation to "enter quietly and offer prayers of intercession" it was disappointing, but with so many people it could be expected, I suppose.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning!"

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version, and the Presbyterian Hymnal.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ and choir. The present pipe organ was installed in 1964 by the Austin firm of Hartford, Connecticut, and incorporates pipework from two earlier instruments. The music at First Church is outstanding, and the choir of around 30 voices is made up of both professionals and volunteers.

Did anything distract you?

I was distracted by the building itself since there was so much to look at. It would probably take several visits to become accustomed to the grandeur. Someone behind me sang the hymns loudly and with great enthusiasm, but terribly out of tune. I was also rather distracted by the way the three pastors sat facing the congregation on the great bench upon the altar. In their black Presbyterian robes they resembled judges, and the interior of the building a huge courtroom. Finally, I know Pastor McCaslin is a little older than she looks and sounds, but, as unreasonable and prejudiced as it might be, I felt as though someone just out of college was preaching, and while it was a very good sermon, her youthful manner was somewhat distracting to me.

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

The service was traditional and well-paced. It was peaceful, worshipful and pleasant. At 10.55 there was an invitation to worship by Pastor McCaslin, followed by an organ prelude, sung introit, and exchange of peace (which is where I think it belongs!). There was very little liturgy – none, really, except prayers. Some prayer were recited in unison, some only by the service leaders. There were hymns, the scripture lessons, children's talk, sermon, and a silent meditation. There was no communion service. In the children's talk, Christian education minister Barbara Davis led prayers for sick, homeless and suffering animals as well as for people.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

22 minutes.

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

8 – Pastor McCaslin looks and sounds very young. Her style was upbeat, casual and enthusiastic. Her sermon was well-written and delivered; it related well to the scripture lessons and included personal anecdotes.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

We recently had an election that was considered very important to people, but choosing our God and claiming our faith is the most important decision of our lives.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The huge choir, lovely music and glorious building. During the final hymn, the choir came down the aisle and just stopped there and sang, filling the aisle, filling the sanctuary with a glorious sound and drowning out the out-of-tune singer behind me.

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

The out-of-tune singer bothered me for the first hymn, but the bad thing was not in the service, although it was part of the visit. Just as I was entering the building, I noticed a terrible odor that made me feel sick to my stomach. I thought I had stepped in dog poop or that the front yard of the church was used as a dog run. An usher told me that it was the large tree at the entrance; ginkgo berries are known for their foul smell when they fall – fortunately, that only happens for a short period in autumn.

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

Coffee hour was announced in an upstairs room. One of the pastors shook people's hands as they were leaving the church, and another was stationed at the upstairs room to shake their hands as they entered for coffee. I was easily swept along with the coffee crowd right past both of the pastors, so I didn't get to shake either of their hands. It was the most crowded coffee hour I had ever seen, although very social. I did indeed feel lost. I stood there with my coffee looking around, and after less than a minute a long-time member came up and asked if it was my first time there. We had a nice conversation.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Coffee, regular and decaf, only one kind of regular tea, and apple juice. There were some cookies. Servers poured the coffee and tea. Ceramic cups were used. I had to avail myself of the facilities, and the rest rooms were in plain sight of the coffee room and were clean and in good working order.

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

7 – I would like to visit again; it's a very nice service, and I could see attending regularly, but I prefer something a little smaller, with communion every week.

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

Yes, the sermon made me feel grateful and blessed to be a Christian; the prayers, awesome building and music all contributed to that feeling.

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

I will always remember that in the children's prayers animals were prayed for as well as people. It was a rare, special moment. Although it wasn't the "adult" prayer, a prayer is still a prayer, and it also set a good example for the kids. I'll also remember Pastor McCaslin.

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