Sunday, March 18, 2012. 11 a.m. All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, New York, NY.
When our nephew was accepted to college in Easton Pennsylvania, my partner and I made the decision that if he was up for it, we would take him to New York City for March Break. He had fallen in love with NYC as a young boy and is absolutely determined to find his way to Manhattan when he graduates. We couldn’t think of a better place to take him.
I’d never been to Manhattan. I somehow thought I didn’t need to because wasn’t Toronto Canada’s New York City? Hadn’t I already had my big city experience living in downtown Toronto for 10 years? Well, I was in for a shock. Seven years in suburban St. Louis have apparently slowed me down a bit. I was surprised at how assaulted I felt by the noise, the crowds, and the smells. I’m used to larger spaces, parking lots whenever I need them, and wide aisles in the grocery store. I’m used to being a little surprised when I see someone actually using a sidewalk!
We emerged from Penn Station, laden with suitcases, and couldn’t figure out which way was north or south. It took us about 20 minutes to find the F line and go in the right direction to the apartment we’d rented in the Lower East Side. I have never experienced such packed sidewalks and so much noise (well, maybe in Berlin, but that was 20 years ago).
We did everything that tourists normally do. Times Square. Rockefeller Center. Staaten Island Ferry. Wall Street. Broadway. We also went to the Stonewall Inn, Central Park, The Apple Store, The Dakota (where John Lennon was shot), the Brooklyn Museum to see Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, and of course the Met, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum (which I HIGHLY recommend) AND a whole series of gluten free restaurants. We walked everywhere. I ate so much bread and cheese! I’m glad I brought stretchy pants.
I seemed to adjust to the noise and the crowds on day 3.
I decided if I was in NYC, I couldn’t pass up the chance to go to All Souls UU NYC. This church is legendary in our history. Rev. Forrest Church, one of our most well respected theologians, was their minister for many years and remained their Minister Emeritus until his recent passing. I had to go see the place for myself and experience its worship.
All Souls was founded in NYC in 1819. Its current building is its second home. It has a membership of 1500 and two services. When you go their website, “Worship” is the first tab on the list, followed by “Ministers”, and then “Community”. I don’t know if this order says anything about their missional priorities. From the website and from my experience there, I gathered the sense that this congregation has a culture that supports a stronger level of ministerial authority than you might see in other UU churches. This may have to do with the fact that it is a New England church. Anti-clericalism seems to be more prevalent in our mid-western and western churches than in the east, where Unitarian Universalism is woven into New England culture and history.
Also, in this church in particular, the authority given its ministers is very necessary. It’s simply what you need for a church of 1500 members to be healthy and dynamic. The senior minister of a corporate size church is like a CEO. They often call the shots. Some people ask, isn’t this anti-UU? What about congregational polity? In response, some UUs would say it is more democratic to have a strong minister because the minister is elected by the congregation to lead them and committee chairs aren’t. There is also greater accountability. Greater power, greater accountability.
So on Sunday morning, we took the 6 line subway and got off at 77 and Lexington, in the Upper East Side, and walked up to the church. Well, I should say we stopped at Starbucks first and then walked up to the church. You could see it from a block away because they have large red flags hanging from the front of the building, saying “All Souls NYC.” Pretty smart I thought. Makes them visible from the sidewalk.
There is a very small courtyard off to the side. I saw that I was not the only person to stop at Starbucks. A whole bunch of people, mostly young adults, were hanging out sipping coffee, waiting for the second service to start. There was a bike rack in the courtyard and it was filled. I could hear the pipe organ playing what sounded like the postlude.
I walked into the building and stood in the front vestibule and was immediately told by a greeter that I couldn’t bring my coffee into the sanctuary. Wow, did I feel welcome! The postlude wasn’t finished yet, so I started looking at the various pictures on the walls. I noticed a diagram of a sanctuary. A woman came to me and introduced herself as the church historian. She was very friendly and told me that was the diagram of their previous sanctuary, and that all the rectangles represented pews. Each pew had a family name, which indicated which family rented the pew. I remembered hearing about this in UU history classes. Way back when, in many New England churches, families rented pews and the same pew would belong to your family for generations. Of course, how far up your pew was reflected your status in the community. Seeing this diagram reminded me that although we in the midwest often experience our faith tradition as an outpost in hostile religious right territory, in New England, Unitarianism emerged from within the upper echelons of society. The early Unitarians were people of political and economic might deeply connected to their communities, often the rock of their communities.
The Postlude finally ended and the people in the first service began filing out. I saw two ministers, both women, greeting them. I recognized them from UU Ministers Association national gatherings but figured I’d leave them alone. I know how demanding Sunday mornings are. Three hours on a Sunday morning take more energy than a regular 8 hour day. And besides, it’s more important for their parishioners to have access to them than me. I’m not who they’re here for on a Sunday morning.
I walked into the sanctuary and just about gasped. It was a beautiful cathedral. High high ceilings. Lots of light. Thick marble columns lining the central sanctuary. A wing on each side of the main sanctuary. A stunning chancel with two wooden pulpits on either side with a much larger pulpit on a higher level in the middle. The artwork on the front chancel wall was modern, at least 10 feet high, and looked like a shaft of light bursting through the canvass. I turned and looked towards the back of the sanctuary. The back wall opened up to a second floor choir balcony and a huge pipe organ. The walls around the sanctuary were decorated with memorial marble slabs each with the name of a famous Unitarian and sometimes a quote from that person. The pews were solid wood and painted. I estimated seating at around 500. Maybe more.
This place was drenched in history.
I took my place in a shorter pew near the middle of the main sanctuary. I probably sat down about five minutes before the start of the service.
No one said hello, although it was apparent that many people were greeting each other. I saw no children. Apparently they immediately go to their RE classrooms. I saw a real mix of ages. I wouldn’t say there was an over-representation of any particular age. There was some racial diversity but it was definitely in the minority. The sanctuary seemed about 75% full.
The pipe organ began the prelude precisely at 11 a.m. It was something magnificent and classical. After a brief welcome came the call to worship – a soloist accompanied by piano. I was surprised that the soloist was not miked. I couldn’t hear a word he sang although he obviously had a wonderful voice. After opening words came their unison affirmation, which they call a Bond of Union:
“In the freedom of the truth and in the spirit of love, we unite for the worship of God and the service of all.”
I took note of the word “God.” It was clear from the website and from their order of service that this congregation doesn’t seem to have the hangups about the word “God” that I’ve experienced in other UU congregations. In fact, this seems to be more true of eastern UU congregations. There doesn’t seem to be the same level of prejudice against those who believe in God or use the word God in their spirituality. And yes, I use that word “prejudice” intentionally. It has seemed to me that in many UU congregations I’ve experienced, every spirituality is welcomed, but when it comes to Christianity, or theism, there are often raised eyebrows, forced smiles, and uncomfortable silence. In my time as a minister I’ve had the sad experience of seeing too many theist and/or Christian-leaning UUs come to my office and tell me they have to go somewhere else because they just don’t feel welcome. There just isn’t room for them to openly be who they are.
I wonder if this is as true in the Eastern U.S. I’m slowly starting to learn that there are real differences in the way UUism is experienced and lived across the United States. I’ve been in the U.S. 7 years and I’m only starting to really get some sense of this. As I sat at All Souls NYC and listened to their liturgy, I wondered if I was experiencing a regional variation first hand. I wondered if UUs in the east, for whatever reason, understand intuitively that when we say the word “God” it uniquely reflects our theology. I wonder if there are fewer battered people in eastern UU churches because of the weaker position of the religious right. I wonder if the fact that UUism has a deep history in New England means people come with more trust to begin with. No answers here. Just wonderings.
I don’t really want to into great detail about every aspect of the service but I do want to offer some brief observations.
1) Aside from First Congregational UCC in St. Louis, this was the most traditional service I attended during my sabbatical. Traditional sanctuary. Classical music performed by professionals. Traditional order of service. Ministers fully robed. Pipe organ. Predominantly classical music.
2) The service was executed flawlessly. No awkward gaps. No amateur musicians. There were testimonies by lay people but it was clear they had been well planned, timed, and possibly even rehearsed.
3) The sound system had a lot to be desired. The vocalist was never miked. Because of the stone sanctuary, all the miked sound echoed. It made every word feel far away. I did not experience intimacy. Grandeur, yes. Intimacy, no. I sometimes had to strain to listen to the sermon because of the slight echo. I don’t know if there is anything they could have done about that without carpeting the walls, and who wants to carpet the walls of a cathedral?
4) The sermon. The focus of the service was racial diversity. I learned that the church made a commitment several years ago to develop a culture that would support greater racial diversity. This service was about holding up that commitment, celebrating the accomplishments, and reinforcing that there is more to be done. The Associate Minister preached about Unitarian and Universalist history, holding up how the congregation’s commitment comes forth from that history. This approach seemed to make a lot of sense given the context. All Souls NYC’s facility lives, breathes, and bleeds history, so she was anchoring their commitment to racial diversity within their own story.
I thought she did a good job. The sermon was definitely directed more to my mind than my heart. I didn’t leave the service feeling that I had really experienced something amazing and meaningful. I was not changed inside for the experience. I did feel more knowledgeable.
I appreciated her hard work. Even when I experience a sermon that doesn’t hit my core, I try to stay in a place of generosity because I know how hard this job is and how much work goes into a sermon. We can’t always hit the mark every Sunday. I also know that I may have heard the sermon differently than her parishioners. I have no relationship with the congregation and no personal stake in how things are going. It’s very likely there was stuff in that sermon, stuff that would resonate with its members, that I missed completely.
I did have some thoughts, though, as I listened and watched. I found myself wondering how a church that is so clearly anchored in the history of upper middle class white people could begin to more successfully reflect the diversity of the city in which it exists. I’m sure they’ve wondered this themselves. I found myself wondering if this congregation would ever reconsider its style of music in order to reflect that diversity. Is a pipe organ and classical music antithetical to the goal of racial diversity? I don’t have answers for this. I have wonderings.
I should also admit that I’ve never liked singing with a pipe organ. I know lots of people love the feeling of hymn singing with an instrument of such grandeur. I always feel like the people are lost. I can’t hear the people around me, sometimes can’t hear my own voice. I love just listening to a pipe organ, but not singing with one. I feel distanced from my own voice, from the people around me, and from the song itself. I guess I feel like I don’t matter, that the addition of my voice makes no difference to how the song sounds or feels. The organ controls it all.
Truth be told, I think I might feel that way about vast worship spaces too. This is something I came to realize over my sabbatical. I visited so many different sanctuaries and some had that intimate feel to them and some didn’t. Faith Church St. Louis with its cavernous auditorium, I felt lost. Same thing at the Catholic parish. I did not feel that way at St. John’s warehouse. The theology alienated me but not the space. There were probably 250 or more people there, but there was an intimacy to the space. I’ve been in sanctuaries that hold 400 people and felt a sense of intimacy because the space was made to feel intimate and I’ve been in a sanctuary for 100 people that gave me no sense of connection at all.
I felt lost in the cathedral-like sanctuary at All Souls NYC. Lost in the pipe organ. Lost in the echoey sound system. Lost in the painted pews and high ceilings. Lost in having no one say hi to me except the church historian. So then I started to wonder, well, obviously 1500 people don’t feel lost. They get something very important from the context in which they worship. Are they connected through family history, small group ministry, a social group, a social justice program? Is their sense of sacred touched by the vastness of their worshiping space and the grandeur of the pipe organ, and the church’s 200 year history that is so clearly reflected around them? Even the voice of a minister that slightly echoes? I have to think that at some level, maybe many levels, the answer is yes. 1500 people have found their voice at All Souls NYC. It’s doing something special. Their lives have more meaning, purpose, and direction because of what they can give and receive in their religious home.
I really wish I had felt differently there. I was quite excited to go. I wanted to be blown away by the experience of worshiping in this church that has such a reputation. It didn’t happen for me, but is that really important? Is that the bottom line, that I didn’t get an “Oh my god” moment?
One of the weaknesses of our liberal religious tradition is that we have frequently misunderstood the emphasis on the self. It has far too often become idolized. We worship the self like fundamentalists worship the Bible. Both practices can become abusive and narcissistic and blinding.
Maybe it’s good to feel lost sometimes. Maybe it’s good to sing with a pipe organ and not be able to hear your own voice. Maybe my own voice needs to be drowned out once in a while. Maybe the truth needs to echo and I should struggle to hear it.
Because really, it’s not all about us. Maybe in our hyper-individualized society where we are both nothing and little gods we need to experience what it is like to be small, a tiny head in a sea of worshippers, a little voice in a big choir, an unknown guest being asked to leave that cup of coffee behind before going into a sanctuary that has been 200 years in the developing and where the light spilling off a canvass wasn’t painted by anyone I knew. Maybe we need to learn to be silent in the face of things we don’t yet understand. Sometimes it is more powerful and more respectful to listen than to speak, more powerful and healing to be invisible than to be seen.
We didn’t set the sun on fire after all.
The postlude was a glorious fugue by J.S. Bach. Performed flawlessly. The majestic chords of the pipe organ filled that sanctuary as the minister’s voice simply couldn’t, and when I emerged out of the space-saturated sanctuary and entered the people-flooded sidewalks on Lexington Avenue and melted into the crowds on the 6 line subway and found my way back to our little anthill-like apartment on the Lower East Side, I knew it was a good day.