Following her trip to St Bart’s in New York, Revd Dr Ayla Lepine the Associate Rector of St James’s reflects on her experiences with the congregation and the developing relationship between the two churches.
St Bart’s Church is in the heart of New York in Midtown Manhattan. It’s vast, and looks very unusual amongst all its skyscraper neighbours. It is a place of peace, hope, and prayer, and entering its doors one of the first things visitors see is a sign saying ‘All are welcome. No exceptions.’ In January I spent a week at St Bart’s and it was a privilege and joy to be alongside the clergy, staff, and congregation. There are many similarities with St James’s especially in the liturgy, their focus on music, their commitment to radical welcome and community and outreach, and their engagement with social justice. More than once I heard the church referred to as a place with a particular connection to LGBTQIA+ folks in New York and beyond.
On Sunday 14 January we celebrated and honoured The Revd Dr Martin Luther King Jr, and Monday 15 January was a national holiday. To preach on an occasion like this, and to share the story of Quobna Ottobah Cugoano’s baptism 250 years ago at St James’s Piccadilly, was a profound experience and a deep responsibility too. In addition to Cugoano’s abolitionist and theological writing, I also focused on Cole Arthur Riley’s new book, Black Liturgies. You can watch the sermon here. On MLK Day, the composer Mark Miller (who also visited St James’s last autumn) led an inspiring service deepening our connections with King’s vision in the context of song and praise. Throughout the week I had opportunities to meet may New York clergy, get to know the Episcopal Church in new ways, and talk with folks in the congregation at St Bart’s about what matters most to them in their lives and in their church.
While at St Bart’s I also gave a talk about the church’s architect, Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, and highlighted the mosaics and stained glass by Hildreth Meiere, an American artist who deserves far greater recognition. The Transfiguration mosaic within Goodhue’s Neo-Byzantine apse is a real highlight of the building’s spectacular interior. The congregation joined me for a tour of art and theology at the nearby Museum of Modern Art, and I also had an opportunity to share more about St James’s and the Wren Project. Many in the congregation were also inspired by St James’s new paintings by Che Lovelace, which celebrate baptism, liberation, and Cugoano’s story. You can watch my talk about Lovelace’s paintings and racial justice here.
It was a pleasure to be so warmly welcomed by the St Bart’s team, with a packed itinerary coordinated by their Vicar, The Revd Peter Thompson, who visited us at St James’s in September 2023. Together with all at St Bart’s, he was a fantastic host throughout my time in New York. Many in the congregation have connected with St James’s online and in person, just as St James’s members have visited St Bart’s too. It was evident that there is huge potential in this partnership between our two churches across the Atlantic. Long may this new and growing relationship between communities flourish, as we seek justice, peace, and hope together in the beauty of holiness and in the broken-hearted, open-hearted reality of the Eucharist in these sacred places and in our world.