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Presbyterian, New York City
Amanda B. Reckondwythe.
Presbyterian, New York City.
(USA). They are a member of More
Light Presbyterians and, as such, welcome all into full
membership without regard to sexual orientation or gender identity.
The congregationís 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 Ė 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.
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 Rutgersí sanctuary
one Sunday each month.
The neighbourhood: The church is located at 236 West 73rd Street in Manhattanís 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 Continentalís 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.
The date & time:
Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, June 13, 2010, 11.00am.
What was the name of the service?
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 Ė 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
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. A simple wooden pew with cushions.
How would you describe the pre-service
There was some talking in the narthex, but the congregation
settled in fairly quietly. The organist played a prelude, Mozartís
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
"Dear friends, dear sisters and brothers in Christ, welcome
to this congregation of Godís 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
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 "Letís 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! Iíll 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
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?
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
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
Ė 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 Godís word out into the world.
Which part of the service was like being in
I wasnít sure at first about the informality of the service,
especially the pastorís "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
whatís 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 couldnít 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 Ė oops, I mean one last hymn Ė 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 pastorís greeting line. I shook the pastorís 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
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 didnít 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 this church your regular (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
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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