Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church
Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York, New York
February 2, 2003
Another downtown church, but not in Hartford, in the premier city of the United States, this church, hallelujah, with a full house twice on Sunday mornings, and the house is huge, seating well over one thousand.
Barbara and I have worshiped in Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church a dozen times in the last twenty-five years. We don't go back quite as far as John Sutherland Bonnell, but we do celebrate the Sundays we had with Bryant Kirkland and an interim named, I think, Philippe, during a time of turmoil following the resignation of Maurice Boyd, who is now the pastor of The City Church. We have also heard Tom Tewell, the present pastor, preach thrice. At one time or another members of churches I have pastored have served Fifth Avenue Presbyterian as (1) financial secretary, (2) church school superintendent, and (3) head usher.
That is to say, on a busman's holiday we can think of no better place to worship than here, where the connections, if in my mind only, span the better part of my life.
We were not disappointed on Ground Hog's Day. The sunshine was absent outside, but it radiated inside. One of the ushers, a Scotsman obviously, wore a kilt. Midway through the communion service I counted the blessings: (1) no passing of the peace; (2) just one Scripture Reading; (3) individual glass communion cups; (4) cubed (but dried out) white bread; (5) no gender accommodations in the Doxology or the hymns; (6) a brief and well-composed pastoral prayer; and (7) a close-up look at Kofi Anan, another visitor like us (the last time we were at FAP, the celebrities were Bob and Libby Dole).
Not that perfection has been achieved. The clergy insisted on inviting us to pray using a rhetorical question, "Will you pray with me?" I earned a crick in my neck from looking up at the high central pulpit, from way down in the valley of despond, at that place in the auditorium where the down aisle goes up again. The hymn tempi were a bit lethargic for this singing Methodist. And the service went a half hour beyond the optimal duration of one hour.
Calvinist's will shrug at this complaint. Unlike Methodists they are not going on to perfection. They know full well how God's image has been totally corrupted in his human children.
Building: a vast auditorium for which that is the most appropriate name, auditorium, because the design of the room leaves no doubt as to what worship in this place is all about: the preaching of the Word. The benches are angled toward the large central pulpit, and are pitched downward to the aforesaid "valley of despond," rising abruptly to a level by the communion rail beneath the pulpit. A balcony horseshoes three of the four sides of the room with steeply stacked tiers. If one missed the bias of the architectural design, the preacher this morning pointedly prayed before his sermon about God taking the human words and making them into The Word.
Welcome: the ushers couldn't have been more welcoming, with their smiles and their solicitousness about our preferred seating. I suspect they are regularly coached about attitude.
Music: we were at a disadvantage in our corner of the auditorium because the choir was situated front and center at balcony level and, of necessity, sang over us. But I've got to believe from the precision of the three anthems that most if not all of the choristers were professionals. I would have liked more melodious choices. The communion hymn, "Come, Thou Font of Every Blessing," almost made up for this deficiency. The organ is, of course, magnificent, and the Postlude, Purcell's "Trumpet Tune and Bell Symphony," must have been selected in honor of our attendance. We recessed to it at our wedding in 1955.
Sermon: The Rev Mr Tewell's theme was borrowed from Charles Schulz, AKA Charlie Brown: how wonderful it would be if we could make all of our yesterdays better. The preacher's style is declamatory, a friend accompanying us noted, with just a whiff of disapproval; but the sermon was loud and affirmative in the service of enthusiasm. The non-lectionary text, I Samuel 7:3-13, in which is raised the rock Ebenezer, was developed with an oversimplified hermeneutic. I couldn't help but wonder if the Lord sent rain from the heavens to bog down the overwhelming Philistine adversary, just why, even with the UN Secretary General present, the heavens don't send a thunderbolt on a certain personage in Baghdad. Yes, as the preacher insisted, we must trust in God and not in the might of our military. But, I demure, it's a long reach from the mud of ancient Palestine to the desert of Iraq. We make our yesterdays better by the tomorrows we build from which we have a new and better vantage on where we have been. When the sermon shifted from veiled international references to personal illustrations the theme was more easily sustained. The wretched and redeemed life of John Newton was celebrated, and we sang his song, "Amazing Grace," directly before and after the sermon.
The Secret of Their Success: how do you fill a large auditorium with a couple of thousand souls Sunday after Sunday? Pastor Tom Tewell knows how. The sermon is central. He strives not so much for eloquence, as did his predecessor, but for a verdict, a verdict in favor of the hope of the Christian Gospel. His message is grounded in his experience as a pastor. Many of his illustrations are drawn from the life and times of people in the congregation. He speaks plainly of Jesus and is unabashedly enthusiastic about the gracious consequences of being a faithful disciple. Yet he usually provides the congregation with one good laugh per sermon about his own missteps down the King's Highway. In other words, he's real. He's appealing. And you want to be there and drink from the same overflowing cup of God's mercy that has intoxicated him. There's the secret: Christ-focused, service oriented, congregation-grounded, and hope proclaiming... and being real when doing it all.
Rating: four and a half haloes. Were I the Wall Street financier I might have been if I hadn't gone to seminary, I'd worship here.