St. John's Church (Episcopal), West Hartford, Connecticut
Sunday we resumed the survey of local mainline Protestant Churches. A neighbor asked, "What about the Unitarian-Universalist Churches?" Surely I will also someday be asked by a loyal member of the Church looking to Rome, "How come you haven't included us?" The answer to both questions is the same and simple: my experience and expertise are Protestant, the evangelical but non-evangelistic kind, Reformed, and catholic (with a small "c"). I'll not likely be found in a Pentecostal church either; or a Kingdom Hall.
So Sunday we went Episcopal again... you know, like my grandpa, John Weir, in Northern Island, the one whom I thought to resurrect to put on notice the vestry of the other Episcopal Church in town, St. James', that an upgrading of the audio system should be done yesterday. Well, grandpa is needed at St. John's too. The associate rector was all but inaudible during the opening moments of the service and when reading off the names of those for whom intercessory prayers were offered. Either her lavaliere mike wasn't working or she simply wasn't speaking loudly enough to be projected through the system.
And while I'm quibbling, I report that it took us ten minutes with a drive-by the night before to locate on a sign the times of the morning Sabbath services. The illuminated sign, quite attractive as it was, contained no listing. But the side street access had an unlit parking sign with the times.
How many quibbles equal a major complaint? I haven't decided yet. But I can add to the trouble with the signage and the audio a language issue. No, not gender sensitivity: I just couldn't get past the continued use of Elizabethan English in the prayers. Surely an Anglican divine somewhere in the world has rendered the mellifluous cadences of The Book of Common Prayer in an edition with a surpassing felicity of expression that brings the Church of England's posterity into the modern age.
But the morning's experience, if flawed, was a very positive one. Read below why, especially the description of the Welcome.
Building: a very impressive, if a little imposing, modern cruciform Gothic. The altar has been displaced with a communion table, as is de rigueur in contemporary Christian churches, thanks to Pope John XXIII. Stained glass windows high above the chancel feature the usual saints and patriarchs, though I didn't get close enough to report exactly which ones. The side aisles of the nave have their own low ceilings, a feature common in the churches of the Church of England, often sporting banners celebrating ancient heroes and their victories. No banners here. The front wall of the chancel is occupied by the pipes of a new 60 rank Austin organ, supplemented with an antiphonal division over the nave entrance, sporting twenty or so trompette stop pipes of which I am so fond, extending six to eight feet in length horizontally to the ceiling.
The church suffered a damaging fire in recent history. Hence the new organ, and hence also an absolutely splendid social hall (or whatever is the Episcopalian nomenclature for such rooms) with dark oak or mahogany paneling. I can't critique the coffee because there was none left when we at last arrived in the room, a delay caused by my own tendency to linger and talk after the benediction with anyone willing.
Welcome: just wonderful! The wife of the rector emeritus spotted us as newcomers and cornered us with a lovely smile. When I expressed curiosity about the pipe organ, she introduced us to the retired organist; and then to the present rector, Joe Pace. I explained to him that we were "church butterflies" and that I was on a critical mission. He caught on immediately and suggested that my rating scale might be by crosses... as in, though he didn't put it this way, crucifying the clergy. "No," I chuckled at this suggestion, "only haloes." We chatted for a few minutes. I detected a non-Yankee lilt to his speech, identifying it incorrectly as mid-Atlantic, when it is pure Tennessee. He was open, welcoming, quick-witted, and generous, just like I would like to be and too often am not.
Two days after our visit, we received in the mail a letter, a brochure, and "Cloister Comments," a newsletter from The Rev'd Mr Pace (I looked for references to him as "Father" and couldn't find any... that's worth at least half a halo!). He penned a personal note to me at the bottom of the form letter, expressing the hope we might return again. Small courtesies and considerations are also paving blocks on the King's Highway.
Children: they were everywhere, but especially in the choir. No children's sermon was offered. The church school precedes the 10:30 AM rite of the Holy Eucharist by an hour. A bawling baby made his presence known during the Offertory Anthem. We caught a glimpse of a classmate of the twins dressed in a cassock and surplice, a ten year old who had recently dined with us on chicken tenders and French fries.
Sermon: since the Methodists in Sandy Hook chose to dramatize the Lucan version of the Parable of the Talents we were treated to a second turn in as many weeks on that parable. Credit the Episcopalians with getting the right Word for the right day... just like Presbyterians (who do it, according to their self-description, in good and decent order). The rector-preacher spoke directly, immediately, and faithfully to the text, about how talent, like love, is a thing the more you give it away (risk), the more you have. I could have wished for a few more contemporary illustrations, but his language, delivered in that soft Tennessean English, was precise and felicitous, leading me to think maybe he should be the divine who rewrites The Book of Common Prayer for today's Episcopalians.
Music: as the Stamford Presbyterians on Scottish Sunday tilted the music in favor of the Highlands, so on this Sunday the Anglicans, without intending it I suspect, celebrated the heritage of the "sceptered isle." Three responses by Healey Willan, a Canadian Anglican, two very English hymns (Down Ampney and St. Anne, this latter hymn being the unofficial English national anthem), and a real rousing Postlude by C. Hubert H. Parry made me think I might see Prince Charles coming into view any minute. But with a name like Howard who am I to quarrel with a British accent to the worship? The choir sang Healey Willan's (again!) "Lo, in the Time Appointed," movingly; and the organist rated and got applause with the Parry Postlude.
Communion/Eucharist: I am sure to rupture a spinal disk someday as I bob and weave during services in "high churches" in which the Lord's Supper is inevitably offered. Something more than curiosity motivates me: hygiene. I am looking to see if communicants are offered the choice of intinction or if it is simply assumed one will drink from the common cup. Intinction (i.e., dipping the wafer into the wine) seems to be the rule at St. John's (add a quarter of a halo!). So we went forward with everyone else, even though in retrospect I cannot remember hearing a general invitation to all Christians.
Could we make this church our spiritual home? Well, yes, but I would have to learn how to cross myself... and maybe get a knee replacement so I could kneel for prayers. I already have a blue blazer, a Harris tweed, and a couple of grey flannel suits: with the right rep tie I would be indistinguishable from half the men in the congregation. Ah, but they loved me anyway in my corduroys and flannel shirt.
Rating: four haloes on the warmth of the welcome and the personal interest shown in us. The music was a big plus too. And that soft Tennessean voice.