Rutgers Presbyterian, New York City

Rutgers Presbyterian, New York City


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Rutgers Presbyterian
Location: New York City
Date of visit: Sunday, 13 June 2010, 11:00am

The building

The congregations first church was built in 1798 on land donated by Colonel Henry Rutgers, a wealthy landowner who fought in the Revolutionary War and whose philanthropy benefited dozens of churches, schools and charities. The present building dates from 1925 and is a red brick structure, churchy looking but not particularly noteworthy, sandwiched in between a high-rise apartment building and a bank. The inside is short, only ten rows of pews, but tall, with white walls and a blue vaulted ceiling. In front of the chancel was a communion table and a smaller round table that looked like a baptismal font (but was used for something else read on). The pulpit stands to the left, and a lectern to the right. In the chancel was a wooden table with a silver crucifix and two candles. Choir seating is flanked by an organ console to the left and a grand piano to the right. The organ case is built into the right-hand chancel wall. The back wall is blue with white cloud-like swirls.

The church

At one time Rutgers claimed to be the largest congregation in the Presbyterian denomination; the numbers appear to have risen and fallen over the years in step with the quality of the preaching. They sponsor a number of programs, including fitness groups, a computer club, classes in healing through therapeutic touch, Sunday school and vacation Bible classes, etc. The Welsh Congregational Church of New York meets in Rutgers sanctuary one Sunday each month.

The neighborhood

The church is located at 236 West 73rd Street in Manhattans trendy Upper West Side. The area is a mix of older apartment buildings and eclectic restaurants and shops. Nearby is the Ansonia Hotel, a massive Beaux-Arts structure once home to such legends as Babe Ruth, Enrico Caruso, Igor Stravinsky and Arturo Toscanini. From 1968 to 1974 the Ansonia housed the Continental Baths, the gay bathhouse that included a floor show among its, erm, allures. The Continentals floor show is where singer, comedienne and actress Bette Midler launched her career accompanied by Barry Manilow on piano. Also nearby is the Beacon Theater, an enormous old movie palace that now hosts rock concerts, gospel choirs, political debates, and a wide variety of dramatic productions. In what had become a traditional annual pilgrimage for their fans, the Allman Brothers rock band played the Beacon every year from 1970 to 2009.

The cast

The Revd Andrew Stehlik, pastor, assisted by the Revd Charles A. Amstein, parish associate. Elder Nora Lidell gave the readings, and George Davey presided at the organ and led the choir.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Communion

How full was the building?

I estimated that the church could accommodate about 200 people; I counted about 40. I hoped that such a small number was not a portent of the quality of preaching I could expect. It may or may not have been again, read on! There were a few older teenagers and a goodly percentage of young, middle-aged and elderly adults, but no babes in arms and no young schoolchildren. Everyone sat pretty well spread out, with some pews accommodating only a single occupant.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A lady smiled and said "Good morning" as she handed me the service leaflet. As soon as I sat down, a gentleman handed me a different leaflet, saying that the order of service had been revised.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes. A simple wooden pew with cushions.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

There was some talking in the narthex, but the congregation settled in fairly quietly. The organist played a prelude, Mozarts Ave Verum Corpus as arranged for organ by E. Power Biggs. The clergy took their places in the chancel. Pastor Stehlik wore a white shirt with rather loud tie, khaki slacks, and a rainbow stole. He sat with his legs crossed and kept fanning himself vigorously with an old-fashioned church fan. Associate Pastor Amstein wore a blue suit, white shirt and blue tie.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Dear friends, dear sisters and brothers in Christ, welcome to this congregation of Gods people." This by the pastor, who went on to say that both versions of the service leaflet we had been given were wrong.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Presbyterian Hymnal, Sing to the Faith, and The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version. One of the readings was taken from the Good as New version of the Bible, which translates 1 Corinthians 5:8 ("Therefore let us keep the Festival") as "Lets have a great party."

What musical instruments were played?

Organ, an opus of Southfield Organ Builders, Inc. of Springfield, Massachusetts, including three digital ranks along with the pipes. It also retains several ranks from the previous Möller organ. The organist, Mr Davey, played with competence and style that showed off the instrument at its best. There was also a choir of eight men and women who were dressed rather informally. Two of the men wore shorts; one of these accessorized with white and black Keds sneakers with no laces! Ill have more to say in a moment about the choir.

Did anything distract you?

I gave up trying to follow the service along in the two leaflets, both wrong, and so concentrated instead on what distractions I could find. One of the choir members swigged water from a plastic bottle. Another yawned visibly during the sermon. The pastor wore a cell phone and a pager on his belt; during one of the hymns, he whipped out his phone and consulted the screen, but elected not to answer the call or return the text message (whichever it was).

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

It loosely followed the standard Presbyterian order of service, but very informally and with contemporary inclusive language ("Our gracious God, who art in heaven..."). The hymns were all traditional. At the offertory, the choir sang a soul number, complete with soloist, that featured much arm waving and shouting out, and was met with applause from the congregation. During his sermon (see below), the pastor produced a very large loaf of freshly baked bread; at communion, he broke this loaf into a dozen or so large pieces as he pronounced the words of institution, and the ushers brought the pieces down into the congregation, where we all broke off a smaller piece for ourselves.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

20 minutes.

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

7 – The pastor moved about the congregation as he spoke. His style was question-and-answer, but it was clear that he expected certain specific answers to the questions he was asking of the congregation. And for a church that professes to be blind to gender differences, I was surprised to hear the pastor compare God to a housewife baking bread in her kitchen. Are there no male bakers in New York?

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Pastor Stehlik began by taking several objects out of a large wicker basket and placing them on the table that I thought was a baptismal font: a box of salt, a jar of oil, a bag of flour and a packet of yeast. He said that Jesus compared heaven to all of these objects, but that there was no single answer to the question, "What is the kingdom of God like?" All of the ingredients are used in making bread. They are mixed together, embedded in each other, kneaded. Some ingredients have a mixed reputation (yeast, for example, is used in making beer as well as bread); these ingredients can have their reputation restored. The kingdom of heaven can be compared to God making bread (in the kitchen, as a housewife, dressed in skirt and apron no less). God reclaims the tarnished, turns the old into new (our faith, for example), turns the mundane into the sacred and feeds the entire universe with his bread. The pastor then pulled a very large loaf of bread out of a paper bag (the same bread that he would use at communion) and placed it on the table. He concluded by asking the ushers to distribute packets of yeast to all of us, and he said that the yeast should remind us to take Gods word out into the world.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

I wasnt sure at first about the informality of the service, especially the pastors "bag of tricks" that he used during his sermon. But as things progressed, I found myself liking what was taking place. I felt very comfortable with this fresh approach to liturgy. I especially liked the way communion was done. We could break off as much of the nice, fresh, crusty loaf as we wanted, and it really seemed like a meal rather than medication time on the hospital ward.

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

I thought that the choir sounded like eight prima donnas (or whats the masculine equivalent, primi cavalieri?) singing solos rather than a choir of eight blended voices. The descants on the last verse of each hymn were especially dramatic. And couldnt the men at least have worn long trousers and shoelaces?

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

After the final blessing, the choir processed out and sang one last operatic aria oops, I mean one last hymn from the back of the church. The organist then concluded with a rousing Bach prelude, during which none of the congregation moved a muscle. When that was done, all applauded and worked their way onto the pastors greeting line. I shook the pastors hand and told him this was the most unusual Presbyterian service I had ever been to. He said that they try to mix the old with the new, and I replied that I thought it worked.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Refreshments were served in the church hall next door, in a carpeted room furnished with sofas and plush lounge chairs. The coffee was strong and tasty, and served in proper china cups with saucers. Both whole milk and milk-flavored water (also called lowfat milk) were available. In addition, lemonade was served in paper cups. There were also chocolate chip cookies, but I didnt sample those as I am still dieting. No one spoke to me, even after I decided to create a diversion by settling into one of the lounge chairs and finishing up my written notes with a flourish.

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

6 – Everyone seemed very much into the service, and I found it refreshing and satisfying, but from a personal point of view I really do prefer a more structured liturgy with proper vestments.

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


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

The chorister in shorts and laceless Keds. I wanted to take him by the arm and walk him to the nearest shoe store, with an intermediate stop at Old Navy for some proper trousers.

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