First Church of Christ
First Church of Christ, Congregational, Farmington, Connecticut
Back again at the meetinghouse, proud as it is of its heritage, putting the date of its founding in its website URL: www.firstchurch1652.org/. Imagine, the congregation has had continued existence, through thick and thin, any number of wars, from thirty years after the Pilgrim landing at Plymouth. The church is surrounded by buildings of another storied institution, Miss Porter's School, named after its founder, the daughter of the church's pastor for nearly two-thirds of the 19th Century.
A storied past may be something to be proud of, but it does not guarantee a future. I heard rumblings this Memorial Day Weekend about the viability of both church and school, as financial distress in the general economy finds expression in emptier wallets among the leadership class in Central Connecticut, the elite who pay their daughters' pricey tuitions and fund their churches' substantial meetinghouses. That, plus of course, the decline in allegiance among mainline Protestants, who, like their cousins in the Old World, have settled into an unspoken agnosticism arising in equal parts from mainline theological drift (toward a sugar-coated Gospel) and the alienating witness of fundamentalists (with which they are at pains not to be identified).
The temperature inside and out was eighty. No air-conditioning! I wisely wore no jacket. Still I searched subconsciously throughout the service for a breeze, a draught, anything that slowed the dampening of my forehead (a considerable stretch of flesh now in my seniority). When at last we found our way to coffee hour, we entered a spacious, luxuriously appointed room as large as the meetinghouse. And it was air-conditioned! The cost of maintaining such splendor, I thought to myself, there among the dwindling congregation, would stretch even the most heavily endowed churches in a well-endowed region. Our contribution this Sunday, generous though it may be by the standard of average giving, would hardly pay for the cost of electricity for the morning's A/C in the parish house, aptly named, Porter House. The eye goes immediately in the meetinghouse to the central elevated pulpit, a good ten feet above contradiction. Stairs must be climbed to get to it. In other churches in the region with similarly massive pulpits, the preachers, for reasons I suspect of wanting to show greater intimacy, have eschewed many of these prominences. Not in Farmington! I said a silent "Bravo" as the interim pastor, Doug Clark, climbed the dozen stairs to read from the Bible and give the sermon. But I confess that after twenty minutes I was suffering from a stiff neck with the upward gaze required from a central pew. The Sunday program might add to its suggestion about hymns, "All who are able, please stand," a second suggestion: "Octogenarians will be more comfortable sitting toward the back of the meetinghouse" (where the perspective requires less tilting of the head). An hour glass rested on the pulpit's ledge; it wasn't activated... nor needed to be.
Here, quickly, is my evaluation of the service.
Sermons: children's message on the commandments by the soon-to-leave associate (insufficient funds in the budget), excellent; pastor's message on love as the center and soul of the law, competent, if not moving (in the heat I was, however, grateful not to be moved!). Three and a half haloes.
Prayers: each intercession for people by name and diagnosis was accompanied with a congregational response, "Hear our prayer." The call to worship, the unison prayer of confession, and the words of assurance were Biblical paraphrases. But there wasn't much of a pastoral prayer; that is, petitions to God for whatever might be foremost (or should be) in the minds of congregants. Three haloes.
Music: Memorial Day and, apparently, the choristers were taking a holiday. No choir. The music director, Ed Clark, whom we have heard playing the organ at the Bushnell's Mortensen Hall, provided the opening voluntary, a tasteful Adagio on "America the Beautiful" by James Konkel. The hymns had a patriotic bias, but, much to my internal applause, concluded with Georgia Harkness's words to Finlandia, a perfect counterpoint of internationalism on a very national holiday. It would be unfair to rate the music on a Sunday when most of the music-makers are absent.
Ambience: a gentleman at the door as we entered and a retired pastor in the meetinghouse at worship's end spoke with us in a warm and open manner. I found Pastor Doug Clark up front before the service began and plied him with so many questions - mostly about his bio - that there was little time before the call to worship for him to ask me anything about myself... which he didn't. A friendly church, not overwhelming in its welcome, Connecticut reserve on display. Four haloes, thanks to Cindy and the birthday octogenarian.
This morning, the first of a proposed new series of reviews, raises the perplexing question with which I've wrestled throughout the last fifty-eight years of ecclesiastical leadership: will the Christian Protestant church in the Northeast survive the demographic slide into oblivion? Congregations saddled with large edifices needing repairs are cash-starved as members age or leave and their number not replaced sufficiently or by people of sufficient means to pay, for instance, for a new roof. Buildings can be exceedingly useful instruments for a church's ministry to the world. Think of BSA, GSA, AA, NA, and you name your favorite local acronym. Where could they go as cheaply? But buildings can also be the proverbial albatross. Satisfying solutions are hard to come by. Distressing conclusions rise with every new leak in the sanctuary roof. Some think a tent ministry is the answer. Others favor church growth emphasis. Maybe the pendulum will swing again in the direction of church membership.
Of one thing I'm sure: the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ does not depend on the continuation of any particular church... maybe even the entire church. God wills that Gospel to find a voice in the world; and God will, with or without us, succeed in that mission. But wouldn't it be nicer with God?
Final rating for The Church of Christ, Congregational, in Farmington: three and a half haloes.