South Church (UCC and American Baptist), New Britain, Connecticut
Maundy Thursday Service, April 13, 2006
Among the duties of a pastor as the spiritual leader of a congregation are the planning and presentation of special event worship services. These include, obviously, weddings and funerals, but also civic celebrations and seasonal observances. Under this latter category I, in my years as a pastor, gave special emphasis to Lent, especially Holy Week. You will understand, therefore, just why I searched the internet the week before Easter looking for an appealing Maundy Thursday observance. Good Friday was already spoken for: our third year with a three hour vigil of the cross on the seven last words, an ecumenical affair involving as many Hartford churches as there are words.
Ah, but Maundy Thursday, where would we go in our peripatetic search for a fitting preparation for the glory of Easter? This year we went, thanks to a well-maintained website and an exchange of Emails, to the scene of many previous visits, most of them musical, to South Church, New Britain CT, where I knew there would be a bounty of excellent music. The music director is Richard Coffey, who also directs Concora, a chorus of professional singers that presents four or five concerts of (mostly) sacred music annually.
We were not disappointed. The five of us - including the twin fourteen year olds in our house - were swept along in a spiritual tide of liturgy, candlelighting and unlighting, footwashing, holy communion, a little drama at the altar, and, best of all, music, glorious, touching, exhilarating, and deeply moving music. One of the aforementioned fourteen year olds remarked to his mother how good the choir was. And he had been all agita before the service, worried he wouldn't be able to rendezvous with neighborhood friends at 9 PM (he didn't: the friends themselves were late in getting home from their Maundy Thursday observance at St. Timothy's).
That we were able to traverse the whole agenda - footwashing, Holy Communion, Tenebrae, and the stripping of the altar - in less than an hour and a half without feeling rushed is a tribute to the liturgical artistry of the worship leaders and the significance of the observance.
I should level with you and tell you that with this review I am responding to a request from Rick Coffey to whom I had written an Email a day or two following the service, posing a couple of questions and expressing my gratitude for an evening of spiritual and aesthetic highs. Subsequently he asked me if I would post a review of the service, suggesting that the review might encourage others in Central Connecticut to avail themselves of this Holy Week event at South Church.
I am less sanguine than he is about Critical Christian's influence on Connecticut Yankee worship patterns, but I am willing to give it a try. Maybe we can hire a bus or a boat to transport Long Islanders, where most of my electronic congregation resides, to New Britain on April 5, 2007.
I had not originally planned to do a review of this service... for a couple reasons. First, I didn't bring my camera with me. And secondly, I didn't think the evaluating criteria for the other reviews on this website would fit. And they don't, so I'll ignore them and concentrate on those parts of the service which most appealed to me.
As I've already said, the music. There were six choir anthem/hymns; nine congregational hymns, some of them just a verse or two; and an opening prelude for the organ. My curiosity was piqued by the name in the order of worship of the author of the text of one of the choir's hymns, David Romig, whom I knew some fifty years ago when he was a student at seminary and the pastor of the Riverdale Presbyterian Church on the heights just across the Harlem River from Manhattan in The Bronx. I also know the story of another anthem text's author, Peter Abelard, of Abelard and Eloise fame. And "Go to Dark Gethsemane," a hymn entitled (did you know that every hymn in the hymnal has a name?) Redhead, as in Richard Redhead, an English organist whose family had a descendant in my congregation in Valley Stream.
Small world, and who can measure the private thoughts evoked in worship by the sights and sounds through which worship draws us into the presence of eternity? I went there Maundy Thursday in the company of saints past and present, holding them in my heart, remembering other days, other pages, other songs shared for God's sake. Perhaps a couple of fourteen year old souls will in their maturity connect with this earlier time and place on their Maundy Thursdays.
The final Choral Hymn, "Abide with Me" (but not the one you're thinking of), sung after the stripping of the altar, was the perfect send-off for an April evening with the cross looming. Rick Coffey heard it years ago, was smitten by it, and searched until he found it, in a Mormon hymnbook, words by Howrie Hoffard and music by Harrison Millard. Yes, the other anthems, the soloists, the ritual drama, and the prayers were wonderful; but this hymn, with its prayer to Jesus to "stay this night with me... within my heart a welcome guest, within my home abide," sounded the conviction I cherish for myself and the whole world, the red letter words in the last verse of the Gospel according to Matthew, "And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age." Especially in the shadow of the cross.
See you next April 5th at South Church, New Britain CT.