Mystery Worshipper: Acton Bell
Church: St Paul's Chapel
Location: Wall Street, New York City, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 11 September 2011, 7:30am
Built in 1766, St Paul's is a chapel of ease to nearby Trinity Church. It is the oldest public building in continuous use in New York City and the only colonial church remaining in Manhattan. Modeled after London's St Martin-in-the-Fields, albeit on a much a smaller scale, it is very much a Georgian building, with Palladian windows and balanced proportions. There is a statue of St Paul, carved in the American primitive style, over the portico. The interior is simple yet elegant and features painted woodwork, fluted columns, and Waterford crystal chandeliers. The surrounding churchyard holds many memorials and headstones, some dating from the Revolution. In the churchyard is also the Bell of Hope, presented by London's St Mary-le-Bow in 2002 as a memorial to 9/11 and which was to play a role in today's events.
Although the Twin Towers were located directly across the street, St Paul's miraculously escaped destruction on September 11, 2001 with nary a broken window. In the aftermath of the tragic events of that day, the chapel served as a place of rest and refuge for recovery workers, offering meals, beds, counseling, and prayer. Currently it is a very active worship space, with Sunday services as well as daily prayers for peace. It also hosts concerts and other events.
In 1766 St Paul's sat in what was then the rural countryside, far removed from the bustle of New York. Now, only six blocks from Wall Street, it is surrounded by a cavern of skyscrapers and the slowly emerging Freedom Tower, which is set to replace the Twin Towers in 2014.
The Most Revd Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, preached the sermon. The Rt Revd Mark Sisk, Bishop of New York, presided. They were assisted by several of the Trinity Wall Street staff: the Revd James Cooper, rector; the Revd Canon Anne Mallonee, vicar; the Revd Deacon Robert Zito, parish deacon; and the Revd Daniel Simons, priest for Liturgy, Hospitality & Pilgrimage.
What was the name of the service?The Holy Eucharist: A Mass for Peace
How full was the building?
Slightly more than 200. I had expected more, but given all the craziness police check points, Secret Service sweeps, protesters shouting, streets blocked with police barricades I can see why some would have stayed home.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. Unless you count getting frisked by the New York City police on the way over. I had body checks twice on the two block walk from the subway station.
Was your pew comfortable?
The pews at St Paul's were heavily damaged during the relief ministry after 9/11. They were removed and now there is an open floor plan with chairs. The chairs were fine.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
A bit tense. The Revd Simons gave a short speech outlining security concerns: for example, we couldn't leave the building during the time President Obama was scheduled to arrive at the WTC site. He also briefly described the order of service and mentioned that the Bell of Hope would be rung at 8.46, the time at which the first plane struck the North Tower.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Welcome to St Paul's. Please introduce yourself to the person sitting next to you."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. Only a service bulletin.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ, piano, and the Chapel Singers.
Did anything distract you?
The "Truthers" groups who question the official account of the destruction of the towers were directly outside the church shouting in protest, and we could hear them at times.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Borderline happy clappy, to my surprise. The choirmaster gave us a singing lesson before the service, where we practiced a really difficult round form of the Kyrie. There wasn't any incense or kneeling, and there wasn't even a procession. Instead of communion wafers they had bits of whole wheat pita. The bishops and priests were wearing red albs, with the presiding bishop in a particularly bright rainbow one.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Bishop Jefferts Schori preached an excellent sermon but didn't seem particularly animated. I don't know if that is her style or if it was a reflection of the day.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
She began by asking how we begin to change hearts that seem closed to the idea of peace, both here at home and abroad. That change, she argued, comes only with awareness, the recognition that our hearts are aligned with God's intention for peace. Jesus' exhortation to turn the other cheek is a challenge to his listeners to change hearts. She then moved to ask how we love for our enemies and pray for those who do us harm. Changed hearts, she said, seek something larger than vengeance. The road to peace is found when one loves their enemies enough to see a different possibility, something other than retribution.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
There was something really right about the tone of the service. It was extremely intimate, low key, even sort of "homespun," which, given the madness right outside the front door, seemed nearly perfect.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
There's one in every crowd, isn't there? A family of three arrived late. Instead of splitting up, the husband insisted on inconveniencing a dozen people by making them move so that he could position a chair in the aisle, thus blocking access for communion. Also, at the peace, someone went in for the hug. I have to say that's never happened before and I wasn't sure what to do.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The last part of the service was supposed to be the ringing of the Bell of Hope in the churchyard, but the Secret Service and police weren't going to allow the congregation in the churchyard only the bishops. We hung around the doors while the powers that be had a chat and sorted it out. We were eventually let outside, but had to stay as far as possible away from the WTC site.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It was a pretty sober affair, although the spread was impressive. No one engaged me while I drank a cup of coffee, so I took off, girding my loins for the inevitable police checks.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – The space is beautiful, especially the Pierre L'Enfant altar piece (the same L'Enfant who designed Washington, DC). But I prefer something a little higher up the scale.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, very much so.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
I'm still trying to figure out if the communion pita was some kind of inside joke, i.e. Middle Eastern fare, or that's just what they ordinarily use.