St John the Divine, New York (Exterior)

Cathedral Church of St John the Divine, Morningside Heights, New York City, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Cathedral Church of St John the Divine
Location: Morningside Heights, New York City, USA
Date of visit: Saturday, 10 March 2012, 10:30am

The building

Much has been written about this cathedral, which is the world's largest Gothic church. Begun in 1892, it remains unfinished. Everything about the cathedral is colossal, from the nave more than two football fields in length, to the 165 feet tall dome at the crossing (which could comfortably hold the Statue of Liberty). Wide steps lead up to five arched portals over the central doors. Called the Portal of Paradise, it depicts St John witnessing the Transfiguration. Above that is the great rose window, the largest stained-glass window in the United States. The three-ton bronze doors with scenes from the Old and New Testaments are opened twice a year at Easter and St Francis Day. The altar area includes two giant 18th-century menorahs and 16th-century Shinto vases. Barberini tapestries dating from the 17th century decorate the walls of the crossing.

The church

The cathedral is very active in the community and offers many social services, including a soup kitchen, emergency intervention programs, a clothing bank for underprivileged women entering the workforce, and a multitude of arts programs and concerts, all of which are detailed on their website. They also house the Textile Conservation Laboratory, which is a world-class institution for the conservation of delicate tapestries and fabrics of antiquity.

The neighborhood

The cathedral is in the Morningside Heights neighborhood, which is now made up largely of Columbia University and Barnard College as well as several other educational institutions. Morningside Heights is one of the highest points on Manhattan Island, and it played a strategic role in the Revolutionary War. In September 1776 the battle of Harlem Heights, which marked the first victory for the Continental army directly under George Washington's command, was fought only a few blocks away from where the cathedral now stands.

The cast

It really was a cast of thousands! The Most Revd Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, was the chief consecrator and presider. Co-consecrating bishops included the Rt Revd Mark Sisk, Bishop of New York; the Rt Revd George Edward Councell, Bishop of New Jersey; the Rt Revd Richard Frank Grein, retired Bishop of New York; the Rt Revd Lawrence Provenzano, Bishop of Long Island; the Rt Revd Wendell Nathaniel Gibbs, Bishop of Michigan; the Rt Revd Catherine S. Roskam, retired Bishop Suffragan of New York; and the Revd Robert Alan Rimbo, Bishop of the Metropolitan New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. But the star of the show was the Rt Revd Andrew Dietsche, who was elected bishop coadjutor of the Diocese of New York in November 2011 and whose consecration was taking place today. As bishop coadjutor, Bishop Dietsche has the automatic right of succession to Bishop Sisk, who must retire before his 72nd birthday in August 2014. The bishops were assisted by about a dozen and a half deacons as well as several presenters and readers.

What was the name of the service?

The Consecration of Andrew Dietsche as Bishop Coadjutor of the Diocese of New York

How full was the building?

Impossible to count, but I estimate slightly more than 3000 present (the cathedral can hold more than 5000). Two-thirds of the cathedral was reserved seating, with the final third reserved for the general public. I was lucky to find a seat in steerage in the very back of the cathedral, in the last row, but not before I was rudely ejected from a seat I had innocently taken in the reserved section (see below).

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Not the warmest welcome, as a very surly security person practically throttled me for sitting in the reserved section – a section, I might add, that was not clearly marked as off limits. I seriously contemplated leaving after our encounter.

Was your pew comfortable?

It was a small plastic chair, probably more comfortable for use during shorter services. There was definitely a lot of adjusting going on in my section as we approached the three hour mark.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

All the hustle and bustle one would expect with a crowd this big. I did notice that I wasn't the only one accosted by security. Pretty thuggish, actually. I hope the forces hearkened well to the opening words of the service.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Bless the Lord, who forgives all our sins."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

There was a very complete service booklet provided.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ, piano, guitar, cello, trumpets, drums, steel drums, bar chimes, and a choir of several hundred, drawn from all over the diocese. Musically the service was all over the place: Strauss and spirituals for the preludial music; "Oh Happy Day" and "Enter into Jerusalem" on steel drums for the processional; several old chestnut hymns – "Gracious Spirit, it gives your servants joy," "Precious Lord take my hand," "Come down O love divine"; a 1970s Taize community hymn on piano with glissandi on the bar chimes at the consecration; and a folkish, singing-nun-style mass setting with guitar accompaniment. I was bummed that with a choir this large we didn't get something big and grand such as "Guide me, O thou great Jehovah."

Did anything distract you?

With so many people in one place, it was easy to get lost in all the shuffle. It also seemed that everyone had a different pronunciation for the word "coadjutor," and I started to tic off the many different ways it was being said. The biggest distraction, however, was the elderly couple sitting next to me. The wife offered a loud running commentary of the service in response to her deaf husband's grunts, which I at first found annoying, but then started to enjoy immensely, since it was really, really off-the-wall fun. In answer to her husband's confusion over the many languages used in the litany of ordination, she said, "Just be quiet. It's not English, so it can't be very important." Calling the jazzy Taize Hymn "a little bit of Peaches & Herb" (a reference to the disco duo from the 70s known as the "Sweethearts of Soul") made me laugh out loud. This garnered some dirty looks from those around us, but I really wasn't expecting a sweet little old lady to reference classic disco. When they placed the mitre on the the newly-minted bishop, she said, "Oh look, it's St. Nick! The Christmas pageant is never going to be the same." (I couldn't argue with her, because Bishop Dietsche really did look like Santa Claus.) At a certain point I had to remind myself to stop jotting down what she was saying and take notes on the service. That was especially hard during the sermon, as based on her comments I was pretty sure we were hearing two different homilies.

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

It was all pretty reserved for the cathedral – no giant bendy poles, wind socks, puppets, liturgical dancers or other such ornaments that one usually finds there at the big events. But the steel drums at the processional gave everything a kind of carnival feel. The litany for ordinations was delivered in the many different languages that make up worship in the diocese: Malayalam, American Sign Language, Creole, Japanese, Akan, Spanish and French. The first reading was in French, the second in English. The gospel was read in both English and Spanish. After his consecration, the new bishop coadjutor gave a short speech and introduced his family. The peace was an extended meet n' greet. Communion was a bit of a scrum, as it didn't seem that ministers were all that familiar with where they should stand. It seemed to take forever, needlessly extending what was already a long service. The recessional was thankfully short, since it was reduced to just the bishops and not all of the clergy present.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

12 minutes.

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

8 – I find The presiding bishop more effective a preacher in smaller, intimate spaces, as her understatement can read as a lack of effect in bigger ones, but what I heard was certainly smart and well-reasoned.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Riffing on the gospel reading of the day, John 21:9-17, where Jesus exhorts Simon Peter to "feed my lambs," Bishop Jefferts Schori used that line to talk about the role of leadership in the church. It is necessary to be a leader for all, not just a few, and that would include those unbaptized. The health of our garden is in some danger, with food, water, education and employment challenges. Some would feel that the pasture is for the chosen ones' exclusive use, yet a good leader has a duty to lead all to new pastures. Health and vitality require the new; and justice requires change.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Such a grand ceremony in a grand setting.

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

A security officer was in the recessional, following the new bishop out. On the whole, I thought that the security was so darn intrusive, and completely unnecessary. We all get what it means to live with heightened security, especially in New York City, but I did wonder if the new bishop coadjutor was so unpopular a choice that there was some belief that after a nearly three hour service someone in the congregation was going to jump up and whack him.

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

A couple of hundred people had left immediately after the consecration, so there wasn't quite the mad rush for the exits. Even so, some ushers giving directions to the reception that was to follow would have been helpful. There were a lot of people standing around looking a bit lost.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was a big reception on the cathedral close in a large tent set up with refreshments, and another area for the overflow set up in the little-used synod house. The tent was a bit of a zoo, so I ambled over to the synod house, which was only slightly less populated. (I have to say I was a bit surprised by the state of disrepair of the synod house.) I hung around for a bit chatting with some folks I knew, then headed out, since it had been a very long day. On the way out I passed one of the peacocks that live on the close. I was glad to see that he seemed oblivious to the crowd on his front lawn.

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

Really impossible to tell what the permanent congregation is like from this service. I will say that the space is so over-the-top grand that it is perfect for big events such as this.

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

Yes, as the idea that these big ceremonies mean something different to each of those attending was thrown into high relief.

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

How much fun I was having listening to the event play-by-play given by the lady next to me. What a scream.

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