First Congregational Church of Guilford
First Congregational Church of Guilford, Connecticut (UCC)
Usually the epiphanic moments in my visits to other peoples' churches occur in the sermon or the music. Sometimes, however, the "special" event that grabs the soul with a sense of transcendence, will be a phrase in a prayer, an unsolicited comment from a child, a stately procession of tartans to the altar, and (even!) a new twist on a familiar ritual. This last possibility, a reworking of the confirmation celebration, transformed an ordinary, if carefully thought through, order of worship into a captivating experience for this jaded Sunday worshiper.
We traveled down to the Connecticut shore to the UCC of Guilford at the urging of a friend from Methodist connections. The pastor of First Church and he share an enthusiasm for outdoor ministries and, if I heard correctly, once owned allegiance to the same local church in Jackson Heights. When I introduced myself to the pastor with reference to our mutual friend, the pastor eyed me, somewhat warily, and commented much as one might to a gadfly parishioner who needs to be handled at arm's length, "Oh, you're the church visitor." A brief exchange followed at the door, during which I learned that his opinion of bishops is even lower than mine. Which would explain how he, once a child of the Wesleyan heritage, became a Congregationalist.
Fifteen young men and women were confirmed in their faith as Christians this morning. I noted how tall they seemed for fourteen year olds and was told that in this church confirmands are tenth or eleventh graders. I would, if I had my druthers when a local pastor, have moved confirmand age to a similar level; but tradition, long tradition, always vetoed my recommendation. By the time a child reaches high school they are more reasonable. That is, they are more likely to listen to reasons, even when they don't agree and don't follow them. The fifteen novice Christians this day offered their reasons for being Christian in written statements read by the pastors. Each wrote his or her own explanation, some a few sentences, most a couple of paragraphs. I was impressed with the variety of thought. Three celebrated the church for its offerings of service to the wider world, a service they intend to augment with their personal witness. Two expressed their gratitude for the sense of community they found in the church, especially in the Pilgrim Fellowship. One young woman, still uncertain about many basic beliefs, held open the possibility she would continue to seek to understand. And another young woman, coming at the Gospel from a fundamentalist perspective, seemed ready to evangelize the world. In other words, the class represented the spectrum of beliefs and commitments one would find in most congregations.
They didn't wear robes. Little fuss was made of the laying on of hands. The pastors did offer personalized prayers for each confirmand. Sponsors stood behind each of the new recruits and helped with the lighting of his or her candle, following which the pastor commissioned the young Christian, "You are the light of the world." All in all it was a touching ceremony. Were I still the pastor of a congregation I would incorporate some if not all of the features of this way of doing confirmation.
Building: another Congregational meeting house, with a large central pulpit, white walls and ceiling, no stained glass, and pews with small gate entry. I couldn't help but wonder what the Pilgrim forbears would think of the "papist" accretions: candles on the communion table, colored paraments on the table and pulpit, red stoles on the pastors, and references everywhere to the season of the Christian year. Ah, well, the Protestant era is over anyway. Although the building was constructed in 1830, it was obvious renovations, many of them, had been made through the years, some of them fairly recently. I even detected the likelihood of central air-conditioning. A pleasant, if not extraordinary, worship space.
Welcome: about as warm as Connecticut Yankees can manage. The woman sitting in front of me during the service turned to me after the benediction and thanked me for singing the hymns resonantly. I think she really meant it; but I must mute my bellowing. I asked ushers if they knew of a couple I had been led to believe were members of the congregation. Members of the church I had served in Valley Stream, they had moved from Long Island to the Connecticut shore to their summer place for sailing, now become a year round residence. Not known: I guess I was in the right town but wrong pew.
Children: everywhere, but especially up front and honored this Sunday morning. By the testimony of these teenagers, and judging from the indications on the website and in the bulletin, First Church might fairly be called a youth-centered congregation. The pastor, Kendrick Norris, began his ecclesiastical career as a director of outdoor ministries, which might help to explain the focus on young Christians.
Music: the hymnbook, Hymns and Psalms, is a Presbyterian publication. These New England UCC churches offer in their pew racks a wide variety of songbooks. We have found more editions from other denominations than from the UCC, which, I venture to say, blundered badly with its rabidly "politically correct" New Century Hymnal. One of the hymns of the morning, "Wash, O God, Our Sons and Daughters," to the tune Beach Spring, was copied from The United Methodist Hymnal. The Youth Choir, including several of the confirmands, sang a very touching poem from the Holocaust, "I Believe in the Sun," set to music by Margaret R. Tucker. The Choir sang Randall Thompson's "Alleluia," one of my favorites; but insufficient attention was paid to the ppp and f dynamics of the composition, which, along with the speed up and slow down of the tempo, are the source of the power of that piece.
Sermon: Pastor Kendrick Norris presented a strong, well-structured, and impassioned message on the single verse of the Gospel according to John 17:21a from the lection for the morning. He rued the polarization in our society in the present moment. He took particular exception to the readiness in too many corners of our world to excuse violence in the name of God. He cited the abomination done to Nicholas Berg. He referred to suicide bombings in Israel. I could have wished the preacher had borrowed the strategy of the prophet Amos, who scored the atrocities of "them" by way of judging the terrors of "us." Ask me and I'll suggest a few illustrations of the inhumanities done by us in the name of attacking evil. Dr. Norris prescribed the Congregational Way as a better way to manage human affairs, by which I took him to mean going at our divisions with a generous spirit, a readiness to compromise, and a willingness to abide by a majority decision. But I wondered as I listened to the message just what on earth and in Guilford its relevance was for fifteen young Christians... other than when you put a way childish things you're ready for a grown-up message. With these few quibbles, I would still applaud the seriousness, care, and intelligence with which this preacher approached the office of the Word.
Other Commendable Matters: the website(http://www.firstchurchguilford.org) is current, readable, and extensive, formatted for easy reading. Those baffled by computer keyboard abbreviations may, however, have some difficulty negotiating the site. I note from my perusal that the professional staff posts its service themes a year in advance. Some sermons are provided, but none more recently than the closing months of 2003. If you want to catch the flavor and the spirit of First Church, begin with the website.
On entering the church I picked up what I thought were two different bulletins; but one of them, in stapled single page form, proved to be the large print version, with the hymns in readable size. An excellent provision.
Rating: four haloes. It would have been three and a half were it not for the epiphanic moment of the confirmation service.