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First Congregational Church

First Congregational Church, Stamford, Connecticut

    The temperature outside at 10:30 am was 10 degrees Fahrenheit.  The attendance inside was just twenty times the needed number to insure Jesus' presence.  A blizzard threatened to ripen at any moment.  But, neither sleet nor slow nor all that, the worship service at First Congregational Church went forward at the appointed hour.

    Saturday night, looking through available websites for local Protestant churches, I stumbled on this one for a church with which I share a small  Check out my nostalgic report on this visit in Personal Matters, "Another Trip Down Memory Lane," to Bob the Bobcat, 1942.  The more I thought about it, the better the idea of a return to old haunts seemed.

You can read on this church's website the pride it takes in being the very first church in my hometown.  In fact, the congregation, formed in 1635 in Wethersfield CT, is credited with the founding of Stamford in 1641.  In Pilgrim New England, apparently, a Congregational church was the prerequisite for political governance of any geographical jurisdiction.  But being around three hundred and sixty-five years is not necessarily an unmitigated blessing.  Churches, just like any business in a free enterprise system, flourish and fail, according to the vagaries of leadership and location.  In my growing years First Congregational Church and St. John's Episcopal Church claimed most of the Protestant prestige in a largely Roman Catholic town.  Now there are three times as many churches in the town and I would not hazard as guess as to the present Protestant pecking order. 

    Like several other churches, mostly United Church of Christ, I have reviewed, First Church Stamford, once located at the head of the "toniest" street in town, is now distinctly downtown.  The nearby mansions of the past have given way to high rise office buildings. The moneyed families, now mostly corporate executives not landed gentry, live miles away, in new and spacious homes north of the Merritt Parkway.  A symptom of the church's downturn in fortunes is the larger endowment of the local United Methodist Church, relative upstarts once labeled by the Pilgrims as "cows of Bashan," a pejorative phrase suggesting John Wesley's followers were Philistines.  The cushion of the equity of the past, so essential to downtown Hartford UCC churches, has eluded First Church, Stamford.    

    Which is a long way around to observing that First Church is going through tough times.

    My take on the church and its worship is strongly influenced by the exceedingly gracious welcome we were accorded by a couple of members of fairly recent arrival (ten years) who took us in tow, showed us the scenes of my earlier triumphs as a Cub, and answered any and all of the many questions I had about the building, finance, program, and membership.  If all Christians were as accommodating and forthcoming as Al and Mary Janet Hebert, the Christian church would soon convert the world. 

    But I did have a strong misgiving about one aspect of the worship.  I was aggrieved by the surreptitious appearance of the hymnbook of disfavor in this winter of this malcontent.  Two hymns were copied into the nine page order of worship.  One of them, "God the Omnipotent," was also printed in the hardcover Pilgrim Hymnal in the bench racks.  It did not take very long to figure out why the substitution.  At the end of the first verse I found myself singing from memory words not printed in front of me.  Instead of "give to us peace in our time, O Lord," the text in the order of worship read, "give peace in our time, we pray."  Once again "Lord" is the offender, either because it is a masculine reference to God or because it is a royally derived metaphor.  Maybe both.  Further comparison revealed wholesale changes in the original English text attributed in the footnote in bulletin and hymnal to Henry Chorley and John Ellerton.  What infuriates me is the reverse plagiarism, crediting a poet with words he did not compose and probably would disown.  That to me is gender sensitivity masquerading as authenticity.  The bulletin did contain an explanation, but it aided and abetted the misleading by suggesting that the hymns were "revised," when, in fact, they were rewritten, in one place changing the theological meaning as well as specific unacceptable language. The same subterfuge was committed on "God of Our Fathers," rewritten as "God of the Ages," for obvious reasons, and making the text less martial than the Russian Hymn; yet still attributing the words to Daniel C. Roberts in 1876, long before the Suffragettes had turned their crusade to the English language. 

     I really have trouble with this duplicity in God's name.  But, then, crusaders have never been especially known for the subtlety or civility of their reforms. 

Building: the stone cruciform structure with its rook tower looks more like a church in rural England than a Pilgrim meeting house.  The interior is quite plain, except for exquisite stained glass windows, made of glass chips smaller than one normally sees. Prophets, saints, and Jesus shine down on the congregation, although this wintry day there wasn't much shining due to the overcast. The front window, above the choir and the pulpit/lectern dais, pictures (I am guessing, for want of an authoritative explanation) Jesus at (1) his baptism; (2) his transfiguration; or (3) his return on a cloud of glory.  Anyway, he is high and lifted up.  The audio system was adequate, though the guest preacher did get it to howl like a banshee when she left her lavaliere microphone on while addressing the pulpit mike.  I forgot to ask about air-conditioning, but I suspect there is none.

Welcome: couldn't have been more heartfelt and inviting.  A tip of the halo again to the Herberts!

Children: only two to listen to the "Word with the Children," this Sunday standing as it did at the beginning of a week long school holiday.  The "Word" was an imaginative explanation of being one of the "in" crowd, complete with an appearance of Bitsy, a flower child still dressing and behaving as if in the Age of Aquarius.  The message was that being "in" is a passing fancy; and, if it is exclusive and derisive of others, it violates the rules of the kingdom.

Music: the director music, who represents himself as having world-wide recognition, played the organ more like E Power Biggs than Jean Langlais.  He is an accomplished keyboard artist.  His prelude and postlude on the electronic organ were real "rousers."  I personally prefer more subtle shading in music presentations, but I have no doubt Randall Atcheson is a crowd pleaser.  The choir of thirteen (eight women and five men) sang a contemporary setting of Isaiah 25, "Springs in the Desert" by Jennings.  The choral music, like the keyboard (organ and grand piano), were strong on dramatic flourishes and forte endings. 

Sermon: the guest preacher's exposition was wonderful, but her hermeneutic weak.  She very carefully explained the meanings of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in historic context.  In forty-nine years of preaching I confess to never having addressed this text from the Revelation of John.  The message of the four equestrians is bleak indeed: weapons of destruction, famine, war, and death.  Three-quarters of the sermon was devoted to this exposition.  The remaining quarter, which the preacher described as "good news" consisted mostly of insisting, in the name of the concluding chapters of The Revelation of John, that God is, nevertheless, in control.  Small comfort, I thought, to those of us in full fret with the impending war in Iraq.  I kept thinking to myself, "God helps those who help themselves."  God is in control, yes, but the control has always been exercised in my experience by human agents.  I would like to have known more about the human agencies we might look for and assist.  Of course, it's just that kind of specificity which gets the pulpit into trouble.

The senior pastor (twenty-three years and counting) was on a pre-Lenten holiday in San Diego visiting family.  The guest preacher is a teacher of interim pastors.  Knowledgeable church members attributed the slim attendance to the "cat being away."  The temperature outside and the empty seats inside did seem to diminish the worship's vitality.  But, considering my upset with the hymns and my qualification about the sermon's lack of practical recommendation, the morning was decidedly positive, thanks in no small measure to the warmth of the lay people who took us under their wing.

Rating: three haloes.  We'll have to return when the cat's not away.


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