Madison Avenue Presbyterian, New York

Madison Avenue Presbyterian, Manhattan, New York City, USA

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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Madison Avenue Presbyterian
Location: Manhattan, New York City, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 2 March 2014, 11:15am

The building

The present building was designed in 1899 by James E. Ware & Son, the architectural firm that devised what is known as the "dumbbell plan" for tenement houses – buildings that are narrower at the center than at the front and back, thus providing air shafts to ventilate interior rooms. Ware's tenements are also known for their facades featuring gargoyles, terra cotta filigree, and dwarf columns. The church employs a traditional design: rectangular in shape and with a high vaulted ceiling. Renovations done in 1961 enlarged the chancel, many of whose original features were restored during renovations undertaken again in 1999. Choir pews are behind the communion table and pulpit. There is an extensive balcony. There is a beautiful tapestry behind the choir pews.

The church

The congregation was formed in 1834 and relocated several times, merging with other Presbyterian congregations, before settling down under its present incarnation. There is quite a broad range to the activities of this community, amply described on the parish website. In their social justice outreach there is a focus on hunger ministries, a homeless shelter for men jointly sponsored with St James Episcopal Church (a couple of blocks away), and ministries for women and children at risk. The parish sponsors a day school for children. The music program is extensive, with several choirs, two community choral groups, and a vibrant concert series. There are three services each Sunday (at 9.00am, 11.15am, and 7.30pm), with holy communion celebrated at each Sunday service. There are prayer services each Monday through Friday morning.

The neighborhood

The church is located on Madison Avenue at East 73rd Street, in Manhattan's Upper East Side, just a block and a half from Central Park. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is nearby. Most of the immediate neighborhood is upscale condominiums and high end shops and restaurants.

The cast

The Revd Fred R. Anderson, D.Min., pastor; the Revd Beverly A. Bartlett, associate pastor for congregation life; the Revd Donald B. Wahlig, associate pastor for outreach and evangelism; and the Revd Andrew D. Ruth, global ministry fellow, shared leadership of the service. All four clergy were vested in black robe (with ruff) and stole. The pastor preached. Mary W. Huff, associate director of music, was in charge of the choirs, and Andrew E. Henderson, A.Mus.D., director of music, presided at the organ.

What was the name of the service?

Service for the Lord's Day: Word and Sacrament

How full was the building?

I would guess the lower part of the church (not including the balcony) seats around 400, perhaps a bit more, and was about 40 per cent full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Materfamilias and I were handed a bulletin and greeted with a "Good morning" as we entered. After we took our seat in the pews, a woman handed us an attendance pad to sign.

Was your pew comfortable?

Quite comfortable. No kneelers.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

We entered after the organ prelude (John Weaver's Passacaglia on a Theme of Dunstable) had begun; the atmosphere was quiet and reverential.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"The Lord be with you," to which we responded, "And also with you." Then: "Welcome on this Feast of the Transfiguration." At this point, Pastor Anderson realized his mic was not working, and so he fiddled with it and said, "Let's try that again. The Lord be with you."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Presbyterian Hymnal (1990) and a tri-fold service leaflet with the order of service, texts for the versicles and responses that occurred at various points in the service, and music for the Kyrie, Gloria in excelsis, Sanctus, memorial acclamation, and other service music.

What musical instruments were played?

A pipe organ by Casavant Frères of St Hyacinthe, Québec, installed in 1961 and modified by various other organ builders over the years. The instrument was completely reconditioned in 2011, once again by Casavant Frères. Also, a grand piano was used to accompany an anthem by the parish's combined children's choirs.

Did anything distract you?

Only one thing: the very small type of some of the service music in the service leaflet. One bit was especially difficult to read.

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

A formal liturgy with some informal moments. One example of the latter would be the opening words of the service, noted earlier. The Revd Andrew D. Ruth introduced the confession of sin with some informal comments. The peace was enthusiastically shared (it was placed after the confession and declaration of pardon, before the liturgy of the Word). There was a full eucharistic prayer, somewhat different in content from what I am used to from Lutheran and Anglican services: dialogue, preface, recounting of salvation history, then the intercessions for the day, followed by a strong epiclesis (described in the bulletin as the "Prayer of Consecration" – Eastern Rite Presbyterianism?) and the doxology. This prayer was led alternately by all four ministers. The institution narrative was read at the fraction.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

17 minutes.

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

9 – The pastor is a very accomplished public speaker who clearly held his congregation's attention in spite of a very scholarly approach: no comparisons to contemporary events, no jokes.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

There was a children's sermon between the sung metrical psalm and epistle. It was actually a dialogue between the pastor and the children, in which he asked them about the word "glory." After listening to several of their attempts at a definition, he told them that glory was "God being present in a very special way." He and the children then prayed an "echo prayer." The adult sermon was a quite scholarly commentary on the gospel for the day, Matthew 17:1-9 (the Transfiguration). He noted that Jesus had six days earlier asked, "Who do people say that I am?" and then "Who do you say that I am?", leading to Peter's confession that "You are the Christ." He brought in references to Moses and Elijah, noting that they were not thought of as dead, but that they were expected to play a major role in the Messiah's reign. When the voice from the cloud says, "This is my Son in whom I am well-pleased; listen to him," God is speaking directly to us as well as to the disciples. As we come down from the mountain of epiphany and begin our Lenten discipline, we must also "listen to him."

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Beautiful choral music and superb preaching are always welcome. But the most heavenly moment occurred at the end of communion. The congregation had finished receiving, and the choir began to process down the side aisles and then up the center aisle to communion, singing a canon of Taizé (the Jubilate Deo, but in English). We were literally surrounded with their wonderful singing.

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

My personal prejudice – but I could really go a decade or so without hearing the Old Hundredth doxology yet again!

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

I do not often attend Presbyterian services, so I had a couple of questions, which I presented to parishioners around me. All four of the clergy were waiting to greet us as we left, and I had a short conversation with Pastor Anderson. He asked what brought us to New York, and I mentioned our eleven-month old grandson, to which he replied, "Then we'll expect to see you here often."

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none.

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

9 – This Lutheran and his Catholic spouse could be quite at home here. Their commitment to social justice seems to be significant, and the music is exceptional. I say "9" only because there are so many options in New York.

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

Absolutely, and pleased that my denomination (ELCA) and the Presbyterian Church (USA) are full-communion partners.

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

The Taizé canon at the end of communion.

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