South Church (UCC and Baptist), New Britain, Connecticut
As the service proceeded a Biblical verse returned to my mind again and again, the one onlookers of Jesus expressed, Mark 7:37: “He does everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.” Voicelessness has not been my problem, but sometimes, jaded by forty Sundays of a spiritual smorgasbord, I haven't heard very well. But this church made me sit up and listen because it does everything in worship well. From beginning to end, the Sabbath experience at South Church was filled with intelligence and authenticity.
In the usual format below, I shall count South Church's excellences.
But at the outset I want to report my conversation with the co-pastor on duty this Sunday morning, Katherine Fagerburg. The surname belongs also to a college and seminary acquaintance whom I have not seen or thought of for the last fifty years. So I asked The Rev Ms Fagerburg if she had a family member named Dewey. Yes, she replied, we are cousins, and have the same great-grandparents. Then her face brightened, as if on some lesser Damascus Road, as she realized I was Critical Christian. She had learned about the website from a choir member who is in a yoga class with my wife. The chorister wondered how to get me to review South Church. Pastor Fagerburg thought that I probably conducted my reviews like a restaurant critic and would get there someday, at my choosing.
My reputation had preceded me. And here was a church that would welcome a critical review. How refreshing! Especially following the hornets' nests stirred up recently in my own denomination among those who apparently think worship is beyond criticism. But, then, South Church had nothing to worry about from me, and is justifiably proud of what it does and the way it does it on Sunday mornings.
Building: an ancient modified Gothic ark, comfortably brown, with acoustics the music director covets, the building was built in the 19th century and renovated several times since. A divided chancel barely accommodated a choir of thirty. I wonder where the other thirty singers, absent this Low Sunday I was told, would have had room to stand let alone sit. The audio system was as it should be, adequate and unobtrusive. Parking in the church lot or on the street was readily available. Probably no A/C: the summer services are an hour earlier than fall, winter, and spring's 10:30. The lawn and shrubs were carefully manicured. Three bouquets of fresh flowers adorned the chancel. Lots and lots of stained glass, celebrating, of course, Jesus, but also the twelve disciples, the Protestant Reformers, the Connecticut Pilgrims, and some latter day saints. The main window, high above the altar featured the Lesser Prophets. No one I asked could explain to me why... why Habakkuk and Joel and Hezekiah, et al, up front no less. The nave seats four hundred. A large rear balcony might seat another hundred souls.
Welcome: we were promptly greeted as we entered the narthex. I thought we had once again mistaken the hour the service began and barely said hello to the greeter as I pushed my way through the door to the nave. There a smiling second usher handed us our orders of service. Following the service we sat, as did the entire congregation, and listened to Vierne's soul-raising organ composition, "Chimes of Westminster." At its conclusion a gentleman, Justus Beach (JB), found us and engaged us in conversation. About many things, but mostly with my spouse about teaching. At the Coffee Hour other church members recognized us as visitors and sought us out.
On this issue, welcome, I am convinced more and more, with each passing week at someone else's church, that "the measure you give is the measure you get," that warmth, friendliness, openness, and cordiality are at least 50% a reflection of what the visitor brings to the party... er, worship fellowship. Of course, there have been some congregations so chilly even the Lord couldn't charm his way through their frost.
Children: they were present in good number. The Christian Education Coordinator sat with twenty of them on the chancel steps and spoke with them about the reading from the Book of Acts, wherein the communal living of the first Christians is described. The children were then asked a series of questions to which they were coached into giving the refrain, "God wants us to share everything." Everything, that is, except our toothbrushes. An excellent idea, participatory, with visual aids, to the Biblical point, and with an appealing brevity.
Music: this church takes the integration of music and worship very seriously... the way every church should! The liturgical theme, Eastertide, was honored in hymns, anthem, and solo, with a nod in the direction of Earth Day with the second hymn. A paragraph in the order of service insert provides background information about the musical selections. And I note, most gratefully, the inclusion in the order of worship of the texts of the anthems, aria, and congregational responses. Would that every church might follow this example. Even the sighted cannot see what's not printed and often cannot hear what's sung. Two different hymnbooks filled the pew racks, along with NSRV Bibles. The Chalice Hymnal, from which the three hymns of the morning were taken, was compiled by the Disciples of Christ. The other hymnal was printed by a publisher named Westminster, which I assume means it has a Presbyterian origin. The tunes were familiar though the texts weren't. I congratulate the committee or persons responsible for selecting modern hymnals for modern sensibilities, without going overboard on politically correct issues. A superb thirty year old pipe organ, refurbished within the last month, and played this morning by the music director, Richard Coffey, gloriously filled the room with the sound of the king of instruments. Only the cherubim and seraphim gathered around the throne of heaven might be able to make better music in the worship of the Risen Lord.
Sermon: Low Sunday is Swap Sunday in these parts, so the guest preacher hailed from a nearby UCC congregation. Although a late vocation preacher she already has learned that the best route to people's hearts is by being personal. A little humor also helps. So Theresa Hughes, identifying with Doubting Thomas (Gospel reading for the day), recounted her own search for Jesus among the wounded of Hartford Hospital; that she went there reluctantly under the necessity of a seminary course, and, through a sad experience she had hoped to avoid, discovered the living Christ. I am not a fan of sermons that basically tell a long story, but, as such preaching goes, The Rev Ms Hughes did admirably.
Website: nobody's perfect, and if there is any complaint to be registered in this review it concerns the failure of the church to maintain its website with current information. Sermons, for instance, were supposed to be available from 2000, 2001, and 2002. But each time I tried to access them a warning page appeared, "This page is not responding." The calendar page indicates it is under construction. Some information about the church's history is posted and it was useful in understanding how the church came to be both UCC and Baptist. I did copy driving directions and wrote down the hour of worship. Still the site is sadly lacking. See for yourself:http://www.southchurch.org/
Rating: four and a half haloes
I include herewith pictures of the pages of the order of worship. The O of S is exemplary. Note that the names of clergy don't include honorifics. And, those of you who might be more concerned about gender-sensitive language than me, see how felicitously South Church rewrites the Doxology, without resorting to bad theology. I would, however, eliminate the section titles indicating the shifts in movements of worship.
Like I earlier wrote about our day in New Britain: terrific!