Immanuel Congregational Church
Immanuel Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Hartford CT
"Sometimes a light surprises the [Critical] Christian when he sings."
I went to Immanuel Congregational UCC expecting the typical offerings of a liberal, New Age, with-it, Protestant congregation. Opening the order of service, my cynicism seemed warranted. The notices offered commitment services for same-sex civil unions. Hinting at a robust adherence to gender sensitive language, the Lord's Prayer was named "Prayer of our Savior." The last line of the Doxology was rewritten as "Creator, Christ, and Holy Ghost," which is bad theology in the service of a misguided reform. And that execrable song book, The New Century Hymnal, stared back at me from the pew rack.
I began to squirm during the announcements.
Then the songs began. And my misgivings melted with the music. The service was dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi. The framework of the worship was "A Caribbean [not Caibbean] Mass" composed by Glenn McClure, who was present and participating, especially with the Children's Message. The Hartt School Steelband accompanied, and what a wonderfully different, haunting sound it provided the Latin and Spanish text of the traditional Catholic Mass. The opening Kyrie Eleison is counterpoised with St. Francis' prayer (I note that it is OK to say "Lord" provided it's said in Greek!) opening with the same petition. The samba rhythms seemed just right for the upbeat pledge of commitment to Christ.
The responsive elements of the Mass were interspersed with readings providing relevant details of the life of the rich man become beggar for the Lord. The Gloria took full advantage of the range of the church choir's countertenor, and the mezzo-soprano's lush voice. Was this the throne of heaven and were these the seraphim? The Santo (Sanctus?) was so lively and rousing that we, the frozen chosen Protestants of a New England winter, burst out in applause. The Agnus Dei and the Benedictus gently brought us back to earth to send us forth, in the words of the preacher and St. Paul, as "fools for Christ" in the service of peace.
The preacher and the director of music collaborated to provide that hour or so of worship with a most felicitous mix of word and song that brought us to the throne of grace. I felt like Jacob at Bethel, wondering to myself, "Surely the Lord was in this place and I didn't expect it."
Building: a one hundred year old Byzantine cruciform ark with exquisitely etched opaque windows badly in need of repair. Behind the pulpit and lectern, high above the choir, is a large mosaic made of 50,000 pieces of Tiffany glass. It depicts the Sower (someone ought to compile a listing and description of the richly varied stained glass, murals, and mosaics which adorn the churches of Greater Hartford) and inspires the church's order of service covers, letterheads, annual reports covers, and online site (http://www.iccucc.org) background. The sound system was, as it should be, good enough not to be noticed. I doubt there is A/C. I wondered about the heating bills in that vast high-ceilinged cavern with porous windows.
Welcome: it couldn't have been warmer. Parking was difficult, and we had to walk a few blocks to the church, but as we neared the side door, a greeter grabbed our hands and helped us inside. We were a minute or two late, but no one so much as hinted at a frown as we found a bench a third of the way down the side aisle. After the service a perfectly lovely lady took us in tow, answered my many questions about the church, introduced us to the pastor and the music director and a half dozen members, including the fellow responsible for the online site, and found us a cup of coffee in the social room. Three times we were asked if we were looking for a church home. Right on, Immanuel Christians, way to go! Your fishing will be rewarded, if not personally by CCRWH.
Children: a goodly number, including a choir of middle school age, singing Natalie Sleeth's "Gaudeamus Hodie." The young Christians flocked to Glenn McClure, composer and guitarist, who led the children and the rest of us in singing his "One Sweet Baby," another musical delight in a morning full of them. Twice in one morning the new associate pastor was heralded for doing great things with and for the church's youth program.
Music: I thought on first hearing that the choir, most of them, had been hired for this special Sunday of the Caribbean Mass. But I learned subsequently from the music director that the choir is entirely homegrown. There are eight paid professionals, and their presence has attracted many other accomplished amateur vocalists. It shows. A counterternor, can you believe? Music is central to the witness and worship of this church. And I feel obliged to note, as much as it ameliorates my earlier judgment on The New Century Hymnal, that we sang two melodious hymns of recent composition whose text needed no gender purification.
Sermon: the heading for the part of worship which includes the sermon is "We Listen for the Wisdom of God," hinting at a low doctrine of the office of preaching, abetted by the listing of "Message" (again!) for the sermon. I mean, why not, "We Listen for the Word of God." Too traditional, perhaps, for a church that styles itself as forward-looking. Nonetheless, the pastor-preacher did an admirable job of augmenting the service theme. His title was "Sing a New Song." He began with a curious but believable illustration of a woman in Munich whose attempt to yodel at the top of her lungs caused neighbors to summon the police to her door. Singing a new song isn't always easy, a thought for a congregation more accustomed to waltzes than to sambas. Teaching the world to sing Jesus' song of peace isn't easy either, but it is the mission laid upon us in his name. My wife and I agree that of all the preachers we have heard in our peripatetic retirement, no one has done it better than Edward Horstmann.
Rating: four and a half haloes largely on the basis of the joyous and spirit-exulting music. A church member said that this Sunday was no measure of what usually takes place at worship. "More's the pity," I thought to myself. I shall be keeping tabs on Immanuel's website to see when next the Hart School Steelband, or others from the Hartford University music school, are lending their talent to the worship.