Christ Cathedral (Episcopal), Hartford, Connecticut
Another Sunday, another church, another church in center city, another church in transition, another church suffering the consequences of the emigration of affluent members. But with a difference. I sensed a vibrancy, something more than warmth and openness, which were also there. Maybe it was the crowded choir, up front for everyone to see, intergenerational and interracial. Maybe it was the family that sat next to me with a two year old whose bright eyes studied me as if I were Santa Claus. Maybe it was the gold and blue and red of the freshly painted nave. And maybe it was the layperson who gave the sermon, and in giving it gave his reasons for believing in the church's future. Whatever, I had the distinct feeling I had stepped into an oasis amid the wintry desert of downtown Hartford.
Connectional churches are better positioned to deal with the caprices of demographics and the varying levels of competence of clergy. The Episcopal Church, from what little I know of its polity, blends congregationalism and connectionalism. The rector, once chosen and installed, is like a pope in his own parish... which helps to explain the longevity of Episcopalian pastorates. And that, longevity, in a constantly changing urban scene can be a big plus, provided the rector does his job thoroughly and enthusiastically. The enduring priest becomes a symbol of the church's commitment to the community. Take it from someone who had but two pastorates, one for seventeen and a half years, the other for twenty-eight. But if something goes wrong, the larger church is there to intervene, help, support, and sometimes carry the financial burden of empty buildings, until the demographic tide turns.
Of course, a danger does lurk in the security of connectionalism. Mediocrity often gets a free pass that would never be allowed in the free enterprise polity of congregationally-based denominations. Like the Good Book should have said (and probably does, only I can't remember the proof text): there are no easy answers in life... and church life.
It also helps to have a substantial endowment. (These old Hartford churches have amassed great treasures Long Island upstarts can only dream of!). By my calculation, nearly $700,000 of the Cathedral's $1.1 million annual budget is spent on salaries and perks. To provide ministry to a congregation for which 200 worshipers on a Sunday morning is success! This statistic pushes the justification, citing the one lost sheep in ninety-nine, further than I can accept.
Building: on the corner of a very busy thoroughfare in downtown Hartford, on the same street and just a few blocks away from First (Center) Church of Christ UCC and South Congregational Church, the cathedral is dwarfed by the imposing office buildings housing lawyers and insurance persons and financial advisors. But stepping inside one is treated to a feast of colors. I usually don't go for ornate church interiors. I mean, I was really turned off by Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours Chapel in Montreal. But this room was colored to delight the eye and the heart. The window over the chancel pictures, I believe, the Transfiguration, Jesus in the middle, lifted up, Moses on his right, Elijah on his left, and the three disciples below cowering in the brilliant rays streaming from Jesus' face. (I am still trying to figure out if there is any rationale for the wide variety of signal windows in the churches I have visited. No duplications yet. Just why a scene is chosen baffles me. Choices are probably the idiosyncratic tastes of the resident clerical leader). The pews must have been there since the church was built a century and a half ago. They were cushioned, but confining, having been designed to accommodate nineteenth century statures, not twenty-first century seventy year olds with bad knees. The audio was excellent, loud and clear.
Children: everywhere, including next to me, Deeanna the bright-eyed. Church School begins when the worship ends, an arrangement I would endorse since it provides children with the opportunity to worship alongside their parents, a lesson in devotion achieved no other way. The presence of teenage Christians in the choir made me wonder, from my own long experience of failure in this regard, just what the Cathedral's secret is. Lines in the budget for music suggest there might be a financial "inspiration" for youthful participation.
Music: the choices this morning were felicitous for Critical Christian. The communion anthem on Whittier's familiar text, "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind," was especially engaging. Melodically lush, the tune by C H H Parry possesses harmonies to die (or, better, live) for. The opening hymn, Cathedral View, of recent composition and unknown to me, was thoroughly singable once the meter was mastered. The supplemental hymn book, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," from which we sang "Amazing Grace," describes itself as "African-American Praise Songs." And there were African-Americans present in number, but I would clarify that ethnic description with the observation that African-Caribbean-American would more aptly describe worshipers of color.
Sermon: the Chairperson of the Parish Committee, a layman, preached. I suspect he is a lawyer. He was comfortable in the pulpit, had carefully prepared his text, opened with an Episcopalian's nod in the direction of the liturgical moment, and launched into a very positive pep talk on the opportunities in the Cathedral to be "fishers for people" (from the morning's Marcan text). Ordained clergy would do well to take pointers from this layman.
Communion: in view of what I had written earlier in the week, I did not take communion. I do want to maintain some literary credibility. The common cup, by sip or by intinction, remains for me an invitation to infection. Nor did I wholeheartedly participate in the Passing of the Peace. In fact, I studiously avoided using my right hand to scratch my nose or rub my eyes for the next two hours, until at last I could wash my hands. Oh me of little faith!
Website: http://www.cccathedral.org It is helpful and well-maintained. My only quibble is with the failure to report that parking would be free in the municipal garage across the street, provided the ticket is stamped by the church. I didn't get the imprimatur and had to pay full freight.
Welcome: most cordial. The usher was solicitous; the other worshippers, friendly; and those whose attention I grabbed after the benediction, most helpful in finding for me the Dean's husband, if not the Dean herself, whose name, Mallonee, intrigued me the more since she hailed from Minnesota, the same place of origin as the only other Mallonee I know.
Rating: three and a half. If Floyd Holly and wife had not enticed my parents to leave the Episcopal fold for Methodism, I might very well consider this congregation my home church... and maybe help them find a way to spend their endowment more efficiently.