St. James Episcopal Church, West Hartford, Connecticut
September 22, 2002
At the tender age of ten I was the DJ for the processional at my aunt's wedding in our home in Stamford CT. The groom, who suffered from the effects of an earlier polio infection, could not negotiate a church aisle. The guests gathered in our living room. The bride descended the stairs from the second floor. Officiating was Mr. Cunningham, the rector of St. John's Episcopal Church. "Mister," not "Father," in 1940 when distinctions were still drawn in that denomination between low and high church.
My parents were united in marriage at St. Andrews, Stamford CT, definitely high church Episcopal. In my young years my Mom and her sister would prepare dinners for a couple of hundred people in St. John's parish hall. I could be found pre-dinner there shucking peas. I assume that this connection was forged because my mother's family had been members of the Church of Ireland (where grandpa Weir was a warden) and after immigrating she continued the loyalty. Until a Methodist neighbor invited her to the couples club.
My Dad was baptized as a Roman Catholic, but after grandma and grandpa split the family formed a connection with St. John's that endured for the rest of the century.
So I was prepared to be an Episcopalian for a morning. But I confess I felt at St. James like a stranger in a foreign land . Oh, the natives were friendly and welcoming. It's just that the pagination in the bulletin and on the side panels was like the road signage in metropolitan New York: you had to know how to get where you are going before you could understand them. I tried, rather unsuccessfully, to juggle three items throughout the service, the hymnal, The Book of Common Prayer, and the order of worship. Some of the natives seemed equally bewildered. I never did find my way to the right page for the singing of the first hymn. And I'm not particularly dumb. A recent test on AOL indicates I have average intelligence.
But the greatest difficulty I had was hearing. The audio system was brackish to the point of garbling the interim rector's sermon. Were grandpa to be resurrected as a warden at St. James I would lean on him to do something soon about the audio in that room, maybe add two more pairings of speakers. In every Christian church, including those like St. James which exalt the place of the sacraments, Romans 10:17 (you can look it up) still obtains. No need to add to the mystery of the faith with an antiquated sound system.
Someday I might return... if the natives will let me, should they ever read this review.
Building: solid and substantial, Gothic-Romanesque arches, brick, bright interior, with a wonderful stained glass window high over the altar filled with pastels of blue, coral, and mauve. Another stained glass window, a rose window, with more traditional colors, filled the wall in the balcony to the back of the nave, over the choir loft and the exposed organ pipes. The side windows, also of more traditional stained glass, depicted to the west events from the life of Jesus; and, to the east, contemporary associations with the outside world. A large white dossal with a beautifully embroidered edge adorned the front wall. The air-conditioning was on and was needed. The nave could accommodate three or four hundred people. There were about 150 present.
Music: prompted by a question from me about the make of the organ, a member of the church volunteered that it was in need of reconditioning; but we couldn't tell anything was amiss. The closing voluntary, Toccata by Gigout, was a real rouser, greeted with applause from those of us who stayed and listened beyond the benediction. The choir led the liturgical responses and sang Vaughan Williams "O Taste and See." I was impressed with the presence in the thirty voice choir of five young teenaged girls, suggesting a bridging of the generation gap that prevails in most church choirs.
Sermon: the interim rector preached without apparent reference to notes and he preached compellingly with sufficient histrionics to discourage anyone thinking to nap. The audio system did get in the way. But his message, on the lection for the morning, Jesus' parable of the workers in the vineyard, each of whom got the same pay, no matter how long or how little they worked, addressed the predilection of the faithful to think that God's favor rests more on those who have been around longer than those who lately arrived at the throne of grace. He particularly scored the tendency among the elder brothers of the kingdom to grumble. The message from the Lord through the rector was loud if not always clear, that God loves us all, no one more than another, perhaps even stray Methodists on a September morning in an Episcopalian temple.
Children: Church School is conducted fifteen minutes immediately prior to the hour of worship through the first half of the service, at which time the children are ushered into the nave, take their places with their families, and receive holy communion. But there was no provision for including young Christians during "The Word of God" preceding "The Holy Communion."
Communion: the sacrament was offered to "All Baptized Christians." And though I count myself in that number, I could not bring myself to go forward to receive the bread and the cup because it was a common cup. Intinction was a choice, but the wine still would have touched a hundred lips before ours; and, though I believe in miracles, I also believe in hygiene. That and my inability to kneel, due to two medial, medial menisectomies, would probably disqualify me as an Episcopalian. Lay stewards assisted the rector in the serving of the elements.
Welcome: in the movie "The Apostle," the Pentecostal preacher, played convincingly by Robert Duvall, names those of us in Mainline Protestant Churches, as "The Frozen Chosen." That appellation doesn't suit me and I wouldn't apply it to St. James: how about "The Sedateful Faithful"? Following the service a group of women, knowing we were newcomers, introduced themselves to us and engaged us in conversation. I have found that if I am friendly and inquisitive, those around me, church people especially, respond in kind.
Rating: two and a half haloes. If the audio system is corrected and the pagination is simplified, I might move it up a half a halo or more.