The Second Congregational Church
The Second Congregational Church, Greenwich CT - September 11, 2011
It may be the second church but by my reckoning it ought to be first. Those of you who are conversant with these reviews will understand whereof I prioritize.
My helpmate and I last worshiped at this church on a most inauspicious Sunday, the one immediately after Christmas eight years ago when the then new pastor was on a Caribbean holiday and three laypeople had been co-opted to say something, anything religious under the program heading of "Sermon." My recollection of that underwhelming worship was that the "sermon" sounded more like a travelogue. That is, we went this Sunday with little expectation of an hour worth writing to you about.
I was wrong.
We arrived early, to take two photos with my new telephone presented here, one pic of the church outside, the other of the church inside. An usher, adorned in bermudas and summer shirt and carrying a bushel of stones greeted us, and invited us to take a rock. I asked him if the text for the morning was the stoning of Stephen. He didn't think my comment amusing. We found our pew and waited for the service to begin, which it eventually did, six minutes past the appointed 10:30 AM hour. Well, I shouldn't quibble: the men's chorus needed to rehearse and the stones needed to be distributed.
And that, the men's chorus, not the bushel of stones, is a worthy symptom of the church's vitality. Fourteen men, including the associate pastor and (I am guessing, from my observation, ocular and aural) three paid section leaders, provided the introit, the anthem, and the offertory. They did it appealingly and with competence. The offertory gave a nod to the day of remembrance 9/11 is, with "America" (yes, our version of "God Save the Queen"). My mind turned to a much earlier Twin Tower event in the history of our country, the Revolutionary War, when General Israel Putnam barely escaped the Redcoats chasing him down the hill on top of which Second Congregational now stands (a prominence, the preacher reported, that is the highest of any on the Boston Post Road).
We sat mid-nave in the superbly maintained (but, I think, no A/C) faux Gothic building. Plenty of empty seats in front of us. When it came time, however, to walk with our stones (as a token of the living rocks we promised to be at the start of another year, on this Homecoming Sunday) and our money to the communion rail, a crowd appeared. They either arrived late or preferred seats in the rear. There was some racial diversity. But most of it was from the Eastern Rim, only one black family... which, of course, may be a reflection of the demographics of Greenwich where the median sale price of a house last year was down (!) to $1,900,000.
Another sign of the church's vibrancy, there were children, plenty of them, in the company of young moms and dads.
The pastoral prayer was offered by the associate pastor, Chris Tate, five years out of Yale Divinity School. Someone on the faculty there is doing something right in coaching public prayer. Chris started nearly every sentence with a strong verb. I asked him later how come, how it was that he has avoided the error of 90% of his colleagues in Connecticut, for whom the pastoral prayer is an excuse for another sermon. He offered no explanation, maybe because he was wonderfully distracted by a pre-teen draping herself on his shoulder, an example, of course, of affection for the clergy in this church.
The preacher for the morning, Holly Adams, is described on the church's website as a "transitional minister," meaning she is part-time, while the congregation goes looking for a new senior pastor. Meanwhile, I assume the chief administrative day-to-day responsibilities fall on the young shoulders of the associate pastor Chris. Holly's sermon wrestled with the issues raised by 9/11, the violence done, the sorrow showered on nation and world, and the retribution sought, just what in God's name to make of it. She hoped that Joseph's wisdom about his brother's treachery - that what the siblings meant for evil, God meant for good - would somehow obtain for 9/11, a hope I found as unconvincing as it was admirable. With the stones she was more persuasive. Holding up a half dozen from the basket on the pulpit she described them - small, big, broken, encumbered, with holes, eroded - until everyone was represented, and all were received gladly by the grace of God. Just like at Second Congregational Church.
The service was followed by a pot-luck luncheon, along with a visit to a cross and labyrinth on the lawn behind the church where the stones of commitment could find second expression. We opted out of both events choosing to dine at our favorite restaurant in Stamford's West Side, a few miles to the east of the church. The parish hall and the barbecue and ice cream stand outside throbbed and sometimes giggled with life. Before leaving, however, I sought out a knowledgeable lay person and the associate pastor to ply them with impertinent questions. Georgia Harding and Chris Tate were very forthcoming. She said it and I now quote it that the former pastor, now retired as of May this past year, The Rev. Robert Naylor, left Second Congregational Church a much stronger witness to the Gospel than he found it nine years earlier. That's the kind of tribute every pastor would do well to covet for him/herself. Having been there at his beginning and now at his ending I can, even from the superficiality of an hour's immersion in the church's life, endorse Georgia's evaluation.
Rating: four haloes.