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First Church of Christ

First Church of Christ, Hartford, Connecticut

    Before the service began the couple in front of us, having guessed we were visitors, turned and greeted us.  They are the kind of church ambassadors any pastor would covet: cheerful, effusive, and warmly welcoming.  Gladys and George, with eyes beaming, explained that First Church is where the State of Connecticut began, that the first pastor, Thomas Hooker, was key to the formation of the state's colonial government, just a little more than a decade after Plymouth Rock.. 

When at the conclusion of the service, we returned to the snow banks of a Hartford winter, I was thinking less about the mix of ecclesiastical and political history of First Church, and more about why they used white grape juice for communion. When the trays were first exposed on the communion table, my eye caught a gleam of gold.  I wondered momentarily if this morning we would be treated to Chardonnay.  But, no, to the taste it was just non-alcoholic white grape juice.  We speculated as to the reason, but concluded it probably was the mistake of a careless shopper.  "Grape juice is grape juice," I can almost hear the shopper defend the purchase.  True, and burgundy and chardonnay are both wines, but I doubt if the latter would be chosen over the former to fill the cup of holy communion.

    The broken loaf of bread showed a marbleized interior. The piece given me stirred my taste buds to thoughts of pastrami: right, it was a rye bread morsel.

    In this winter of my discontent over being cashiered as a Methodist preacher, we have experienced as many communion services as we would in a year of continued pastoral work.  Mainline Protestant churches are punctual in their first Sunday offering of the sacrament.  The Episcopal churches we have visited celebrate the Eucharist at least twice every Sunday.  So we have tasted and seen that the Lord is good with as many variations as there are animals in the denominational zoo.  Bread can be wafers, cubed from a slice of white, or broken from a large loaf, preferably darker wheat, if never pumpernickel.  The cup has been filled with Welch's grape juice and sacramental wine... and now white grape juice.  The variation stirred up a recollection of an apocryphal story from the East Harlem Protestant Parish long ago.  The pastor sought to match the staples of the average adolescent's  diet and decided the sacramental elements should be Coke and Milky Ways.  Innovative, yes, but nutritional and traditional, no way!

    One other observation trailed me to the car by the snow bank: the make-up of the congregation.  First Church, the Center Church in Hartford, touts itself as an "Open and Affirming Congregation: 'We include into full participation in the life of this church persons of any age, race, economic status, gender, sexual orientation, marital status and physical, emotional and mental capacity.'"  With an eye trained from years of people counting from the pulpit, I conclude First Church lives up to its billing, on everyone of the counts listed in the previous sentence.  George and Gladys are first generation immigrants from Puerto Rico who have made a living and a life in Hartford.  Behind us another couple of similar vintage warmly welcomed us and invited us to the parish luncheon.  She was as fair complected as he was dark.  A child near the entrance to the sanctuary  murmured and gurgled throughout the hour of worship, but the room was otherwise empty of children.  It was Epiphany, the snow had accumulated, and the arduous Christmas season may have demanded a recess from holiness; still I missed young people.

    I just wonder if a church celebrates itself as Open and Affirming it may also be unintentionally exclusive. 

    Like Emma Lazarus' poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty: it tells only half the American story when it beckons to the Old World, "Give me your tired, your poor..."  Those who responded, however, were not just the abject victims of a rigid society, but heroic, eager, can-do survivors, with enough get-up-and-go to get up and go from everything familiar to them to a land of opportunity.  Should the church deliberately appeal to those outside the mainstream?  Well, yes, Jesus did, didn't he? But not to the exclusion of the average guy and gal.  Sometimes the church is so keen on celebrating diversity, that it leaves the un-diverse with the feeling of not being wanted.

Building: the members refer to the church as a meeting house; but to my non-architectural eye it looked more like a Grecian temple.  Built in 1807 it resembles in shape and materials the governmental and cultural buildings around it.  The interior is a rectangle with the length facing a massive raised pulpit that looks more like the bow of a steamship.  Columns (Doric, Corinthian, Ionian, I cannot tell you) line the main body of the church.  The space is lit by decorative brass chandeliers with either six or three lamps.  The large stained glass window behind the pulpit depicts the Second Coming of Christ on a cloud of great glory, underneath which is a depiction of the First Coming at Bethlehem.  I could find no representation of the Crucifixion in any of the other windows.  Thomas Hooker's pilgrim form filled one of the windows in the rear.  I saw what I thought were speakers for an audio system; but there was no evidence of its use by the preacher or others addressing the congregation.  The organ console is located in the rear balcony. Memorial plaques fill the walls on either side of the sanctuary over and around the stained glass windows.  This recognition of an illustrious heritage is as understandable as it is unfortunate, since the plaques, unlike, say, a field of tombstones in a military cemetery, vary greatly in size, texture, and print style.

Welcome: the couple in front and the couple in back and others along the way very warmly inquired about us, where we from, etc., and invited us to the luncheon.  Were this aspect the sole measure of the church's vitality, it would rate five haloes.

Music: the Prelude featured a clarinet soloist on a modern composition using the traditional melody Greensleeves, making for an excellent beginning.  The Postlude ended the service on a high and jubilant note with Pachelbel's rendering of Morgenstern. Two hymns were sung from that most terrible of hymnals, The New Century Hymnal.  Fortunately, one of the hymns was of recent composition and had not been textually eviscerated; the other hymn, "Blest Be the Tie That Binds," suffered only minor damage. 

Children: as I indicated above, there was little evidence of children this morning; and not very many of those present seemed to be of child-bearing age or interest. 

Sermon: the candidate elect for the position of associate pastor preached.  She is the current Minister of Education.  Her smile was relentless.  But then it was Epiphany and the subject of the communion Sunday sermon was "Little Boxes," which had something to do with not wrapping up our lives in small matters.  I know I should be more gracious and cut the woman some slack, but the three main things I took from the service were the yellow cup, the gathering of outsiders, and the preacher's smile. See the Essay on "Smiling Through the Apocalypse."

Rating: two and a half haloes.  

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