New York Avenue Presbyterian, Washington DC

New York Avenue Presbyterian, Washington, DC, USA

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Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwythe, accompanied by Spiffy da Wondersheep
Church: New York Avenue Presbyterian
Location: Washington, DC, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 5 November 2006, 11:00am

The building

A handsome red brick building in the federalist style, the church dominates the triangular patch formed by the intersection of New York Avenue, H Street and 13th Street. The interior is neo-classical, with red, white and gold appointments. A large wooden communion table sits in front of the stage. Stained glass windows depict important moments in Biblical history.

The church

Established in 1793, this church has played an integral part in the nation's history. Among other presidents, Abraham Lincoln worshiped here regularly with his family; an old photograph from Lincoln's time shows the building looking much like it does today. The church was an active supporter of the civil rights movement; Dr Martin Luther King, Jr was often a guest preacher. Their website lists its numerous ministries, including an outreach to the mentally ill, mentoring of high school students, meals for the elderly, and clothing for the homeless.

The neighborhood

The city of Washington was designed on a basic grid plan of streets criss-crossed by broad avenues that form squares or circles at major intersections; the church sits at one of these. The downtown area is modern and clean, having been completely rebuilt in recent years, and the major government buildings are surrounded by lush parkland. However, the city is also a contrast of posh residential areas lying shamefully close to some of the most downtrodden slums to be found anywhere – areas that tourists are seldom shown.

The cast

The Rev. Dr Roger J. Gench, pastor, led the service. The Rev. Tara Spuhler McCabe, associate pastor for congregational life, preached the children's sermon and led some of the prayers. The Rev. Mark Jennings, director of social ministries, preached the adult sermon. Dr Gench wore a cassock and Roman collar; the others wore Geneva gowns. All wore green stoles.

What was the name of the service?

Celebration of Worship

How full was the building?

I counted about 100 people; it looked about two-thirds full. Most were middle-aged couples or unaccompanied older women.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A lady and gentleman were handing out leaflets at the door. They both said good morning, asked us where we were from, and told us how glad they were that we had come.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes. The pews were wooden, with upholstered cushions. There were no kneelers.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet except for a trio of ladies in the pew behind us who chatted rather noisily. The organist played some quiet twiddly bits and then segued into a solid rendering of the hymn "O day of peace."

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Let us praise the Lord."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version; The Presbyterian Hymnal; service leaflet.

What musical instruments were played?

Pipe organ and, for one of the early anthems, saxophone.

Did anything distract you?

It was a bit of a bother to have to juggle the hymnal, service leaflet, and a separate leaflet containing the communion service, while at the same time trying to take notes.

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

Stiff-upper-lip and quite dignified. The service followed the standard Western liturgical pattern: confession, scriptural readings, sermon, offertory, communion and thanksgiving. I was especially intrigued by the communion ceremony. We recited most of the eucharistic prayer in unison, and the words of institution were pronounced at the end rather than in the middle. Communion was brought to us in our pews. The bread was cut into crouton-like cubes; the wine was actually grape juice ministered in tiny glasses (except that the pastor drank from a silver chalice). The clergy received communion last, after all the congregation had received.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

8 minutes for the children's sermon; 15 minutes for the adult sermon.

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

8 – for Pastor McCabe, but 6 for Minister Jennings. Pastor McCabe called the children up to sit at her feet and spoke to them like a teacher would. Minister Jennings is a young man, probably not very long out of divinity school, and I though he spoke as if he were giving the valedictory address at a high school commencement – looking up from his notes often enough, but speaking "at" us instead of "to" us.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Pastor McCabe connected Halloween and All Saints' Sunday, and said that there are saints who are still living as well as saints who have gone to heaven. She asked the children to describe someone who they thought was a saint, and then asked the congregation to guess who they were describing. Minister Jennings spoke on how difficult it is to love. Love is the most needed entity in the universe. All human effort is nothing without love, but it cannot exist in isolation. St Paul tells us what love is not, but also what love is. If we were arrested for committing random acts of kindness, would there be enough evidence to convict us? Love is a never-ending process, and we can always love more.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

At communion, Pastor McCabe said, "This is not a Presbyterian table, but rather God's table set for all." If only all churches were as welcoming. And the music was lovely. During communion the organist played a medley consisting of "The Church's one foundation" and "Let us break bread together on our knees," both of which showcased the organ's solo stops as well as muted diapasons. (Spiffy da Wondersheep thought the latter selection odd inasmuch as there were no kneelers.) And for the recessional, we sang the most rousing version of "For all the saints" that I have ever heard!

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

The children had selected the saxophonist as their saint. However, he had left the church after finishing his anthem early in the service, and so was not there to receive their accolade.

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

Several people in our pew and nearby pews came up to us and told us how glad they were that we had come. As we were walking out the door, a lady literally ran after us and said she hadn't had a chance to speak with us and how glad she was to see us there. (This seemed to be the congregation's standard welcoming mantra, and I thought it sounded good. We heard it during the peace ceremony also.)

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none.

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

7 – It was a lovely service and a very welcoming and active congregation. I am staunchly Episcopalian but I felt very comfortable here.

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

Yes, especially when Pastor McCabe said that God's table was set for all.

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

A Presbyterian pastor wearing a cassock and Roman collar.

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