Mystery Worshipper: Franko.
The church: Christ Church, New York City.
Denomination: United Methodist Church.
The building: The cornerstone was laid on November 15, 1931, for this stunning Byzantine-Romanesque church, the work of Ralph Adams Cram, the prolific architect of ecclesiastical and collegiate structures. It replaces an earlier church at a different location. The well-proportioned exterior leads one to believe that the building might be a synagogue. The interior glitters with tiles, mosaics and marble. There are icons aplenty, some from the personal collection of Czar Nicholas II. One scarcely knows where to look. But the eye is inevitably drawn to the apse, featuring a mosaic of Christ enthroned, attended by the four evangelists.
The church: Christ Church was the home of the nationally syndicated radio program National Radio Pulpit, hosted by the church’s pastor, Dr Ralph Washington Sockman, which aired every Sunday morning from 1928 to 1962. The plain-speaking Dr Sockman received thousands of fan letters every week from his faithful listeners. The church’s present senior minister, the Revd Stephen Bauman, carries on the tradition with a daily inspirational message broadcast early each morning by a local radio station. Christ Church is also known for its many outreaches to the community and its social and spiritual activities for all age groups. The church manages Christ Church Day School, a non-sectarian nursery school, one of the first such institutions in New York. There are two worship services each Sunday, plus a youth service, as well as children’s and adult religious education.
The neighborhood: Christ Church sits on Park Avenue at East 60th Street in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods of Manhattan, where chic, prestigious apartment buildings and hotels share space with upscale shops, fancy restaurants and modern office towers.
The cast: The Revd Jenny Phillips, minister for younger adults, and the Revd Cathy Gilliard, minister for Christian nurture, led the service. Preaching was the Revd William Payne.
The date & time: Ascension Sunday, May 16, 2010, 11.00am.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
Mostly full. Not very many young people, though. The range of ages seemed to be from the late 30s through middle age and up.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
An usher with a smile held the door open for me and handed me a bulletin.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. Wooden pews with cushions.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
What were the exact opening words of the service?
“Good morning. Please rise.”
What books did the congregation use during the service?
United Methodist Hymnal; The Faith We Sing, Pew Edition; The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version. There was also an attendance registration booklet.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ, piano and choir, enhanced by the church’s great acoustics.
Did anything distract you?
I found the decor, splendid as it was, to be a distraction. I also noted the contrast between the style of worship and what I was used to back home.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Serious, dry, as if the congregation was not connected. I sensed a lack of fellowship and active participation in the service by the congregation. Dr Sockman, back in his day, was known to have raised many a Methodist eyebrow with his flair for liturgy. The service was not heavy on ceremony, but I found it ritualistic nevertheless. No candles, but the altar party entered and exited behind a processional cross. The clergy and choir were robed. Prayers were recited with bowed heads. No communion at today’s service.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 — I wasn’t sure the sermon had actually begun, as Mr Payne segued directly into it from the announcements. I also thought it was a bit heavy on references to mysticism.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He took as his text the words to a hymn he had written in collaboration with Steve Pilkington, the church’s director of music: “Christ triumphant high above, throned in glory and in love.” The ancients spoke of the three tiers: heaven, the material world and the underworld. But we know that heaven is not “up there” — it is not a geographic entity. The mysteries of our faith cannot be explained, try as we might. The stories passed down to us, if read literally, strain our belief, but the truths they convey lie beyond our understanding. Faith is a willingness to believe what we cannot comprehend. Christ lived, he died, and he was experienced by many beyond the grave. And then he was gone! But he didn’t abandon us – he empowered us! His ascension marked a transition from the disciples’ following Jesus around to obeying Jesus’ commission to go and teach all nations. It transformed a ragtag, cowardly band into persons of remarkable strength and conviction, whose faith has changed the world.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The great acoustics of the sanctuary and how good the choir sounded.
And which part was like being in… er… the other place?
But I thought the music was dark and depressing, sort of the kind that you would expect in a horror film.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I stood for about 10 minutes and then walked around some, but no one engaged me in any form of conversation.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Coffee had been announced, but directions were not given. I didn’t know my way around the building, and no one bothered to tell me where to go for coffee.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 — Perhaps if there were no other churches in New York, I might consider going there. But it really isn’t my cup of tea.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Not at all. It was too depressing.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days’ time?
The sermon being so different from what I have heard before, as if stuck between magic and faith.