First Church of Christ
First Church of Christ (Center Church), Hartford CT
At the invitation of the organist and music director, Jason Charneski, we returned to the first church in Hartford, this time on a more auspicious Sunday than earlier (the opening Sunday of a new year, with snow on the ground), a celebration of All Saints Day. Jason promised us the music would be good. He was being modest. More about the seven musical offerings further down the page.
Here at the top of the page I want to state my prejudice about truly engaging and uplifting worship. Above all else, it must be authentic, devoid of sentimentality, if not sentiment, with large helpings of imagination in the service of faithful tradition, topped off with professionalism, by which I mean bringing to bear all of the resources of mind and heart, augmented by education and experience. It's a tall order; and, unfortunately in my experience as a peripatetic worshiper, many clergy settle for a whole lot less.
Good music, chosen with the service theme in mind, mindful of the season of the year, can rescue an otherwise pedestrian hour (or hour and a half) of worship from... well, pedestrianism, ho-hum, been there, heard that, so what's new, when will it be over, etc. That my opinion is shared I submit the following statement by one respondent to a survey recently conducted at Center Church on what should be emphasized in the church's future: "I often feel we could get by without paid section leaders [hired singers to lead the SATB divisions of the adult choir], but perhaps 'getting by' is not enough. I recognize that there are a significant number of our members for whom top quality music is perhaps the most important part of the worship services." Let every music and choir director I have ever known and whose talents I have admired up close and personal - Simmons, Hector, Poch, Hass, Heaney, Rebenstorf, et al - say "Amen."
This All Souls Day (November 2nd), for the celebration of All Saints (November 1st), Jason Charneski celebrated the catholicity (that is, breadth) of the church's musical heritage. He began with contemporary American Ned Rorem's "Pie Jesu," a meditative organ composition unfamiliar to me (I know of Ned Rorem principally through crossword puzzle clues - I must look him up on the Internet!). The introit, "O God of All Your People Past" to the tune of Nun freut euch, attributed to Martin Luther, with text by Thomas H Gill, sounded the perfect All Saints theme. The choir anthem, "Souls of the Righeous," by T. Tertius Noble on a text from the Wisdom of Solomon, was one I have sung in years past, but never as beautifully as the quartet a cappella. The Offertory Anthem, "Bright Canaan," an early American folk hymn arranged by Alice Parker and Robert Shaw, swept me up to the threshold of that place about which it sang. New settings of old hymns, especially American folk melodies, stir my soul as do few other musical settings (except maybe bagpipe accompaniments!). A resonant bass soloist, Charles B Mays Jr, sang, with the distribution of the bread of communion, "The Call," from Ralph Vaughan WilliamsFive Mystical Songs, text by George Herbert, a melody and text I have also sung in a choral version (and loved it... which is probably what I would say about anything by Vaughan Williams). Jason played an organ solo, "Largo," from Concerto for Violin in D Minor by Antonio Vivaldi and arranged by J S Bach (how's that for an all-star duo?) as the communion cups were distributed. The organ postlude, "Allen Menschen mussen sterben," by J S Bach was rousing in its sonority, if somber in its message.
Earlier and often I have complained about that #$@%!@# hymnal with which many UCC congregations, including Center Church, fill their pew racks. I mean The New Century Hymnal. We did sing one hymn from its pages, "God, We thank You for Our People," to a lively early American tune, Holy Manna, with new words by a contemporary poet. I acquiesced and sang. The other two hymns were printed on an insert and were taken from The Covenant Hymnal, which I think I can confidently identify as the hymnbook of the denomination which gave Mr Charneski his nurture as a Christian: "Rejoice in God's Saints" and "For All the Saints," the former with words by Fred Pratt Green to the tune Hanover; the latter, with words by William How, to the tune, Sine Nomine, by Ralph Vaughan Williams, always, always a rousing song.
The communion cup, I am happy to report, was filled this time with purple grape juice.
Other events transpired in worship: a personal testimony to the church fellowship's compassion, by a young woman for whom everything had gone wrong; a litany of thanksgiving for church members who died during the past year; a sermon by the associate pastor wrestling with the text about the raising of Lazarus; and the naming by members of the congregation of those for whom intercessions were raised. The service exceeded the optimum of an hour, but the excellence of the music silenced any complaining to which I might have been prone.
The previously mentioned survey hints at the congregation's seriousness in dealing with the (to me) difficult-to-justify drawing down of endowment to finance an annual budget close to a million dollars for a congregation of less than two hundred souls. Two other churches on the same street, within a quarter of a mile of each other, are in the same predicament, high overhead and too few customers. My wife asked me what I would do if I were the pastor of any one of them. I declined to offer a strategy; but I would suggest that the one place not to cut expenses is with the music program... for reasons other than esthetic, reasons I shall be happy to elucidate should anyone be interested.
Rating: three and a half haloes, four and a half if it were the music alone on which the rating is based.