- St. James' Church in the City of New York, 1810-2010
Francis Sypher's recently published history of St. James' Episcopal Church, commissioned in celebration of the church's bicentennial celebration, gives a clear and well-written introduction to this urban church's founding and 200-year history. Sypher weaves the history of St. James' together with the story of New York City and the history of the Episcopal Church in America, and creates a readable and interesting introduction to these topics.
Throughout its history, the leadership and congregation of St. James' has worked to live out its Christian mission through evangelization and direct social service work. Sypher describes how, from its first years, St. James' worked to help the poor. In 1811, Samuel F. Jarvis, the first rector of the church, helped start a "free day school 'for poor people'" (p. 57), and, over the years, the church continued to adapt "its concept of social mission" as the situation in the city changed (p. 185). For instance, as homelessness became a larger issue in New York City in the 1970s, St. James' started a nonprofit corporation that partnered with other local churches and synagogues to address the homeless crisis, eventually buying a building to serve as a residence for homeless people (p. 224). In the late 1970s and 1980s, the rector, Hays Rockwell, and the congregation began to support Bishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa in his struggle against apartheid and Bishop Gordon McMullan in Northern Ireland as the latter pursued efforts to heal the violence between [End Page 855] Protestants and Roman Catholics (pp. 228-29).The parish continues to support international causes of justice and peace in the present day.
Yet, in describing the parish's individual history, Sypher also merges the history of St. James' with the history of New York City—specifically with the Upper East Side. He links the changing neighborhood and city with corresponding change in the church's congregation, following the transformation of the church's neighborhood from a place where families came for the summer in 1810 to the bustling neighborhood of today, observing how the city's economics have affected the size of the church's congregation. He points out how decisions such as the one to replace the elevated trains on Second and Third Avenues with an underground subway increased property values and thereby changed the size and make-up of the church's congregation (p. 183).
Through the lens of St. James', Sypher also focuses on the changing history of the Episcopal Church. For instance, with the calling of the charismatic John Coburn to be rector in 1965, St. James' began to engage with contemporary questions facing the larger church: questions about the role of the laity in church services; the revision of the Prayer Book; and women's ordination, including the ordination of Carol Anderson in 1977, the first woman to be ordained in the Diocese of New York (p. 217).
Sypher concludes with a description of the last twenty years at St. James', including a portrait of Brenda Husson's current tenure as rector of the church. Husson, at the time of her installation in 1997, became the first woman rector of a "cardinal church" on the East Coast (p. 244).
The book provides not only a comprehensive and balanced portrait of the rapidly changing ethos of one parish but also reveals how the Episcopal Church has coped with the realities of urban and social change.