St Bart’s, New York: Building Community Together

As she prepares for her trip to St Bart’s in New York, St James’s partner church, Ayla reflects on the meaning of community and Epiphany

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Epiphany is a sacred threshold in the Christian year. This Feast shows us that Christ’s love for the world, eternal and luminous even in Jesus’ earliest moments, radiates throughout creation and is open to all. As the Magi offer their gifts and kneel at the crib, they offer us an opportunity to deepen our faith, expand our vision, and commit to traveling with Jesus in new ways, wherever the road may take us. In many Christian traditions this Sunday is also associated with the Baptism of Christ. This is true in the Episcopal Church in the United States, and as we celebrate the Magi’s presence, many will simultaneously be celebrating the revealing of God’s love through Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan. Key moments in the life of Jesus – infant and adult – interlace.

In London, our hearts and minds will be with Christ in the stable. In America, worship on Sunday will focus on the Spirit’s life-giving flow in the sacrament of the baptismal waters. At every baptism, we speak boldly about the light of Christ and the person being baptised is given a candle, as a sign of the holy and perpetual light within them and within the heart of God. At Epiphany, the Magi following starlight burning brightly in the sky, make their way towards Bethlehem. When they finally arrive, they find truth, wisdom, and God’s own peace present in a tiny baby. The light that inspires us, fires our imaginations, and encourages us to seek justice and liberation even in the most chaotic and painful parts of our lives and the world around us, is present in these holy days after Christmas. During this season, I’ll be making a journey too, connecting with our siblings in Christ across the Atlantic in New York. Two congregations, St Bart’s and St James’s, will strengthen our connection as part of the Body of Christ together.

In September 2023, Revd Peter Thompson, a member of the clergy team at St Bart’s, visited London and spent time with the congregation, clergy and staff at St James’s. He preached, reflected on St Bart’s ministry in Manhattan, and got to know the parish and local community through participation in services, social outreach projects, and plenty of opportunities for informal socialising too (and discovering a uniquely British delicacy: Fortnum & Mason’s piccalilli!).

It will be a joy to spend time at St Bart’s in New York as their guest, and like Peter, I’ll be preaching, giving talks, getting to know the congregation and parish team, and sharing the diverse and vibrant story of St James’s in a church with whom we’ve been developing an exciting new partnership.

One of the first events in the partnership was online, when Lucy, Mariama and I participated in a Sunday Forum discussion following the death of Queen Elizabeth II. You can watch this here.

St Bart’s is one of New York’s most beautiful and largest churches, with a fascinating history. As part of my time there, I’ll be giving a lecture about the church’s architect, Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue. In the early 20th century, he produced a striking and monumental Neo-Byzantine design inspired by San Marco in Venice and Westminster Cathedral in London. St Bart’s glitters with mosaics and stained glass designed by Hildreth Meiere, whose distinctive works of art can be found all over New York. St Bart’s is renowned for its combination of choral music, liturgy, social justice and community outreach, and there are many parallels between the ethos and ministries of St Bart’s and St James’s. While I’m with them, I’ll be participating in services and events, and preaching at their Eucharists on Sunday 14 January. If you’d like to watch the services online, you can find them here.

a detail of the mosaics at St Bart’s on the theme of water and light in creation

A detail of the mosaics at St Bart’s on the theme of water and light in creation

In the United States, 15 January – Martin Luther King Jr Day – is a national holiday to give thanks for his life and tireless work in the struggle for racial justice. On Sunday 14 January, St Bart’s like many churches in America will celebrate Martin Luther King Jr Sunday. My sermon and discussions with the congregation that day will focus on connections between Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, baptised at St James’s 250 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr’s liberation theology, and the urgent need for anti-racism in our churches and in our world today. Highlighting St James’s recently commissioned paintings by Che Lovelace is an opportunity to connect our churches together through the common struggle for an end to racism in all its forms, bringing the past and the present to life in ways that help us to build a better future. Each of us has the light of Christ’s Epiphany star within us. Each of us has been given the light of Christ, who is the light of wisdom, and the light of love in the world.