South Congregational Church
South Congregational Church, Hartford, Connecticut
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Or as my homiletics professor insisted, "The Bible's situation is our situation." South Congregational Church began as a break-away congregation from First (Center) Congregational Church nearly 350 years ago. Christians, like everyone else, have a hard time living agreeably with each other. 1600 years earlier a similar contentiousness erupted in the young church at Corinth, Greece. You can look it up.
On this sunny bright Sunday morning, warm enough for me to eschew an overcoat, we found ourselves listening to announcements about the senior pastor's resignation, to take effect one week hence. This pastoral farewell is the third we have encountered in our retirement travels since June. With all of these vacancies a likely question rises. But, "No," I explained to my sister-in-law, "this old dray horse has no desire whatsoever to submit himself to the harness again. I prefer to snipe at the institutional church from the outside!"
This downtown church, with a magnificent edifice with ample space for a congregation of 1500 souls and a parish house better equipped than most school buildings, now has a constituency of 240. That's right, 240. In the 1950's when churches everywhere were expanding, South Church did likewise. Then, apparently, urban emigration took its toll. Like Center Church and, I'm told, North Church, a thriving congregation filled with Hartford entrepreneurs and cultural angels, South Church dwindled to a remnant. The endowment, still formidable, has also been hard hit, paying the bills for a large staff in a time of Wall Street doldrums. It's a formula for dissension.
But, say this for all concerned, the worship service reflected none of the turmoil. What I have reported is what I have gleaned from a conversation with the senior pastor and from reports and minutes available from tables in the vestibule.
Building: like I've already said, a magnificent Grecian revival "meeting house," but looking to me more like a room for legislative assembly. See for yourself and read at the following website: http://www.SouthChurchHartford.org. Reference is made there to the mahogany pulpit, and, in truth, it is the magnificence in magnificent. Like the prow of the ship of faith it stands front and center at the far end of the assembly room. You just know by looking at it what worship is principally about: the preaching of the Word. This building precedes by fifty or sixty years the one up the street belonging to First Church; but the similarities of interior design suggest to me that Center Church, the older congregation, in rebuilding took its cue from South Church.
Welcome: we were readily spotted as visitors and were duly swarmed over. Several people asked us, hopefully, if we were looking for a new church home. I caught a whiff of desperation in these overtures. An alert visitor will sense the difference in attitude between the invitation to come aboard a sinking ship and one to join the happy voyagers on a grand adventure. One of my Brooklyn congregants in another century said of me, concerning joining the church, that the pastor just couldn't imagine why anyone would want to go anywhere else. An eagerness tinged with arrogance maybe, but it's an attitude that builds a congregation.
Music: the music directors were on a holiday. A guest organist and choir director led the choir in its anthems and the congregation in its hymns. The Pilgrim Hymnal was supplemented with a handbook of contemporary hymns, one of which we sang, "Spirit," unknown to me and, from what I heard, everyone else in the congregation; but it did have a nice lilt to it. The choir was composed of twelve singers, two of them men. Maybe this Sunday it was "the cat's away, the mice will play" time. The organ and choir were situated in the rear of the church in a balcony. I know the rationale for putting the musicians there, but it sure does make it hard on those of us who like to see who's singing.
Children: the lectionary reminded us that the Sunday after Epiphany is the celebration of Jesus' Baptism. The pastor carefully and wisely explained to a dozen or so children the why, what, and how of baptism. I thought he was reading from one of my confirmation lessons, so in tune was he with my thinking on the sacrament (or was I in tune with him?). One child, unheard by the rest of us, interjected comments as a child is wont, and wonderfully distracted the pastor from his pre-arranged message. The children were dismissed following their gathering around the baptismal font, and went to "Sacred Arts Class."
Sermon: the baptism of Jesus (Mark 1) by the Spirit was read in the light of Paul's contrast of flesh and spirit (Galatians 5). This strategy provided the preacher with the opportunity to ask in conclusion some probing questions about the individual Christian and the Christian community's (i.e., South Church) performance according to the Pauline measure. I did not catch in the moment the obvious reference to the church's turmoil. The senior pastor explained it to me over coffee following the benediction. He was in the pulpit, I must observe, much less direct than I might have been in the same circumstance. Obviously, he is to be credited with holding my attention and clearly expounding the Scriptures.
Rating: three haloes.