First Congregational Church
First Congregational Church, Ridgefield, Connecticut
Earlier in the year we had been invited by a college classmate and his wife to attend worship at their church in Ridgefield. They knew of my holy wanderings on Sundays in Connecticut and beyond; and they thought First Congregational Church would be a fit subject for a favorable review (only my classmate names my Sabbath enterprise an "Inquisition"). And they were close to the truth of it... about their church, that is, not inquisition! The Sunday was not as auspicious as I might have assumed after browsing the church's splendid website. Still there were plenty of indicators (many of them whining and gurgling throughout the congregation) that the future ahead is as strong as the church's history is long.
Ridgefield is a many-steepled suburb with a storied past. A Revolutionary War battle was fought there. Huge Victorian houses line the main street hinting at a very prosperous 19th and early 20th century, built on just what commerce from where I can only speculate. The town website can probably clarify. But it is a moneyed place, today no less than yesterday. The prosperity stands in stark contrast to the dilapidation we observed in downtown Bridgeport the preceding Sunday. First Congregational Church and its members clearly participate in this upscale reinvention of a venerable Yankee village.
Building: Romanesque arches inside, field stone tower on the outside; a relatively small sanctuary (which helps explain why there are three hours of worship on Sunday mornings); pulpit, lectern, and table up front; five stained glass windows in a semi-circular chancel, each picturing Jesus in one of his popular modes, with the children, the good shepherd, the healer, the teacher, and the Risen Lord; a pipe organ; and a good audio system. All in all, a very pleasant and modest suburban church.
Welcome: we arrived fifteen minutes early, although we thought we were a trifle late. The website listed the time of worship fifteen minutes later than the time posted on the sign on the lawn. The entrance to the sanctuary was on the driveway side of the building, what looked like a secondary entrance that at first baffled this visitor. I stood in the back of the church unattended while my traveling companion availed herself of the church's facilities. My classmate and his wife had yet to appear. Ushers and choir members rushed about oblivious to this visitor's presence... or just too busy to greet me. Another early arrival, maybe another visitor, looked to me for help. I shrugged my ignorance. Finally our friends appeared, bulletins were issued, and we made our way to our seats, six or seven rows from the front.
The Coffee Hour found us chatting with animation with a couple of members. One was our friend's tennis buddy; the other was a Hartford Seminary student, a woman in midlife, originally from Indiana, preparing for hospital chaplaincy. The cake was delicious, but I never did get to taste the coffee. The social hall was abuzz with good feeling and friendliness.
Children: the website celebrated a Sunday School of 600. Young Christians were in ample evidence at worship. A children's choir sang after the opening moments of the service. Following their anthem, they and their friends were dismissed to go to Sunday School. Perhaps this Sunday was an anomaly, but, if it isn't, if children are not really integrated into participation in worship, then I've got to believe from what I read on the website that this church, keen in so many ways to serve its constituency, will come round to involving the young of faith with children's sermons and liturgist responsibilities, along with choir anthems.
Communion: apparently this church, this Congregational church(!), offers holy communion every Sunday. While I would expect this practice in an Episcopal Church and an occasional United Methodist Church, I was surprised to discover it in a church in the preeminent English heritage Protestant denomination. Two centuries earlier any Congregationalist divine who did likewise would be accused of sacramentalism and popery. Not that I am opposed to the linking of Word and Sacrament whenever Christians gather for worship. The parity of those two, Word and Sacrament, as means of grace is a Reformation theme. Most of us in pastoral leadership who might otherwise agree with the principle find it difficult to maintain due to the time constraints imposed by modern attention spans. Communion and a sermon of moderate length are all but impossible to include in a worship service of an hour's duration... and please don't ask for a Children's sermon too!
For only the third time in a life of a thousand communion services, the cup I drank was filled with wine. It tasted to me like sherry. Our friends, who once prepared the eucharistic meal for this church, suggested the wine was probably Manischewitz. It was very sweet and, to my taste, undiluted with water. Yes, the wine was optional. Only the outer ring of cups contained wine; the others held grape juice. Children and Members of AA could participate.
Music: a dozen bright young faces sang a simple tune, "Prayer," arranged by Helen Kemp, the prayer being "Now I lay me down to sleep..." The adult choir sang Elgar's "Ave Verum Corpus," an appropriate oft-sung anthem for a communion service. The text in English was printed in the order of worship. Three hymns were sung, two of them stately (and a trifle staid) English tunes; the third was "O Jesus, I Have Promised," sung to a melody, Harding, with which I was unfamiliar. Brief, maybe too brief, a piano prelude and an organ postlude bookended the service.
Sermon: the assistant minister preached. He is a homegrown product, coming to the ordained ministry as a second career. A recent graduate of divinity school he was, despite his fluency, guilty of the novice preacher's tendency to try to say it all in one sermon. His theme was Jesus' summons to give up our life by way of finding it. No message hits closer to the heart of the Gospel than this, that giving is living. I could have wished for greater brevity and more contemporary illustrations. By my companion's count there were three moments she was sure the sermon was ending... and it didn't. Brevity is not only the soul of wit; it is also the soul of soul.
I had reason to anticipate a happier development at sermon time. I had read two of the senior pastor's sermons on the church's website and found him to be an exceedingly able spokesperson for the Christian faith, including his take on Gulf War II. We'll just have to ask our friends to invite us for brunch on another Sunday when the boss is preaching.
Computer: as indicated above, this church maintains a website the equal to any church website I've come across on the Internet. It is timely, extensive, and provides information for just about any question an inquirer might have about what goes on at the First Congregational Church of Ridgefield. I would nit-pick two items: (1) the earlier reported discrepancy between the website listing and the sign on the church lawn, as to the hour of worship; and (2) the absence of a preview of the worship service for the coming Sunday. You can access the website at:http://firstcongregational.com. A downloadable copy of the bi-monthly newsletter requires Adobe Acrobat Reader. Clearly the leadership of this church (by which I mean, principally, the pastor) understands the importance of the Internet in the contemporary communication of the Gospel. Time, energy, and, I would have to guess, considerable financial resources are spent to make the website a premier instrument of discipleship. But in an upscale community where every member of the family owns a computer, the effort is indispensable to the future of the church... and the Kingdom.
Rating: three haloes, higher than the morning's experience might suggest, but the website was terrific.