St Bartholomew’s, New York City, NY
What was your first impression as you entered?
“St Bart’s” is an historic Episcopal Church that erected a magnificent Romanesque building on Park Avenue at 51st, before midtown became a corporate canyon. At one time, when this location was a residential neighborhood for the wealthy, this astonishing building must have dominated the neighborhood. Today it defies the surroundings – with a blatant architectural claim about the eternal reality of God in the midst of modernism's capital of mammon.
Walking up the steps from the sidewalk to the arched entry door, I found myself hoping to be moved by the imagery inside. But then the first surprise: the entry foyer.
I have come to expect entry foyers to be dark, quiet hallways, perhaps equipped with a rack for pamphlets and some signage. But St Bart’s reviews its bold and intentional strategy to engage and transform the world in which it finds itself. This strategy is obvious in two ways: First, one can neither enter nor depart through the main entrance without encountering mind-changing books. They turned the entry foyer into a bookstore. Not a gift shop (although there are gifts available), but an outlet for challenging, inspiring, and strategic books. Second, those that are most prominent are those designed to transform the person and the community, those that deal with spiritual formation, leadership, and ministry.
How long was the service?
The “Come as you are” service on Sunday evening lasted a little more than an hour.
How was the service structured?
Holy Eucharist, Rite II.
What did you like best?
Rather than allowing us to spread out in the pews in this enormous space, as people naturally tend to do, St Barts is determined to build community. As we trickled in before the service, they packed us closely together in the choir pews and folding chairs, surrounding the altar, until not one more person could sit up there. Only then were people seated in the pews, again packing them in beginning in the front row. The result was that we were viscerally together in worship – rather than so many individuals rattling around alone in a mostly empty cavern. Sitting in the apse, under the magnificent icon of the Transfiguration, surrounded by people, I couldn't help feeling that I was in the very center of something exciting.
The liturgy was well led, and it seemed that everyone was fully engaged in everything: the prayers, the responses, the singing, the silences, the Scriptures, the sermon, and the Holy Communion. The informal folk music and praise songs and unvested clergy (jeans and golf shirt), inhabited the space rather than seeming out of place among the formal lines and rich visual symbols. Bill Tully’s sermon was well crafted, stimulating, funny, helpful, and inspiring.
What did you dislike?
St Barts may possess the most uncomfortable pews anywhere!
What were its greatest strengths that you’d like to import?
They epitomize the conscious, intentional, missional, practicing congregation. They demonstrate a warm, gracious, inviting spirit, coupled with clear vision, strong resolve, and an awareness of the cultural context in which they find themselves. They are models of how congregations can faithfully reinvent themselves, with integrity, in the midst of great challenges and a constantly, rapidly changing world.
If you were looking for a church, would this be it?
What did you learn from this visit?
A deeply spiritual, conscious and intentional, missional, practicing congregation can be developed over time, within the most unlikely and difficult environment. If reinvention can happen at St Barts, given its unlikely location, corporate environment, and rather embarrassing history, it can happen anywhere.
Is there anything else you want to say?
My first awareness of St Bart’s came by hearing of their annual “Reinventing the Church” Conference. My initial impression when I first heard about the conference was, admittedly, negative. My ungracious, judgmental assumption was, “here’s another rich, arrogant institution touting its programs as the model for success.” I was wrong.
Instead, the church gives an impression that is completely the opposite of my expectations: it exhibits humility, graciousness, warmth, and a desire to be of help. The conference was similar in tone. Rather than saying, “Be like us,” it was more like, “Wow… if we can figure out how to reinvent ourselves in our unique situation, then surely you can figure out how to reinvent yourselves in your unique situation. We are here hoping somehow to encourage you, to tell you some funny and terrible stories about our own goofiness, and to inspire you with enough hope to go home and try again.” There were no magical formulas, no slick packages. Instead, there offered wisdom and true missional fellowship. I came away from the 2 day conference hoping to take my entire vestry to next year’s conference, as the centerpiece of our annual vestry retreat.
This is my opinion; I could be wrong.
The Lord be with you.