First Congregational Church
First Congregational Church, Williamstown, Massachusetts
We returned to this church for the third time during the tenure of the present pastor. We are friends with a tenor and soprano in the choir and on reunion weekends at Williams College we usually manage to pull ourselves away from an alumni brunch and worship like Pilgrims. Years and years ago I was asked if I might be interested in being the pastor of this church, but, as tempted as I was to return to the scenes of undergraduate triumphs, I quickly demurred. So I approach the evaluation of a familiar church with some misgivings, if for what might have been, then also because I really didn't want to give a low halo rating to a church in which I have a number of friends.
Alas, the Sunday morning experience, specifically the sermon, provoked a very critical response from this Critical Christian. Read below for the details.
Williamstown is a college town. The congregation has its share of members of faculty and administration. There are probably more graduate degrees per square pew on any Sunday morning than any other congregation this side of Cambridge. Worshipers are tuned into the present issues, political and otherwise, which grip our society. Judging from the concerns raised during the announcements and the "moment for reflection," the prevailing mood is slightly to the left of center. Pretty much what I would have expected.
Recent history has seen division in the church over (what else!) pastors. With each pastor's departure members loyal to the departing shepherd, convinced that he was done dirt, have made their departure too, if not to another church, then to the Sunday morning papers. If there is any unforgivable sin for pastors it is this: dividing a congregation over oneself. Far better to shake the dust off your feet and, without recrimination, go on to another place... for God's sake.
Building: a beautiful New England meeting house, with a Georgian facade on the outside, and enclosed pews on the inside, plain windows, a central pulpit, and a rear balcony from which the choirs sing and the organist plays. It is situated in the middle of the college campus, surrounded by expansive lawns and large buildings, right at the head of the town's primary business street. If location, location counts for a lot, then this church has the advantage way over the other houses of worship in the town. Parking, especially on reunion or parent weekends, is, however, a big problem, despite a lot behind the church shared with the college. No evidence of air conditioning and, on this autumn weekend, no need for cooling other than that provided by God. The audio system was so good I didn't notice it.
Welcome: since we were in the company of the tenor and the soprano, we were greeted as if we were long-awaited apostles from a distant shore. The pastor, however, had no recollection of our previous visits; but, then, I do have, I note from run-ins with store clerks, a tendency to fade into the woodwork. But the gentleman who once monitored my undergraduate financial aid package was there, along with a former college president, his provost, a basketball coach, and a professor of Romance Languages, each of whom knew me well enough to call me by my first name. Yes, we felt at home.
Children: the service began with a lively chorus by the children, wonderful in its enthusiasm if a trifle wanting in its harmony. The pastor called the children forward for a close-up study of the baptism of baby Malcolm, something of a show and teach lesson; after which the children adjourned to Church School classes. Clearly an important place is made for young Christians, who were as responsive to the pastor as she was comfortable with them.
Music: two of the three hymns for congregational singing were unfamiliar to me, but I enjoy a new hymn now and then, and I found these two from a new hymnal ("My Life Flows on in Endless Song," Endless Song, and "In God in Whom All Life Begins," Noel... this last one, I would guess, in its original Christmas context a selection on the Three Irish Tenors CD) delightful, the more so now that I, by reason of by new vocation as a church butterfly, do not get to sing in a choir on Sunday mornings. The organist played a prelude and a postlude that segued into and out of the first and last hymns, a thematic connection I did appreciate. The congregation, on instruction from the bulletin, remained seated after the benediction to listen to the postlude, which was well-worth listening to.
Sermon: the preacher was well-prepared, quite articulate, and sufficiently histrionic to hold attention. The New Testament lection selected for the morning is, in the Common Lectionary, assigned to the immediately previous Sunday. It was Jesus' Parable of the Vineyard Owner and the Wicked Tenants. The pastor wrestled with the text, considered and abandoned traditional exegesis, and concluded by offering a better ending for the parable than the violent one Jesus told. In her revised version the vineyard owner forgives the wicked tenants and by his mercy makes them members of his family. As I listened to this rewriting of red letter words, I recalled a comment attributed to the theologian Karl Barth, about St Francis (said with rich irony), how the saint from Assissi was a better Christian than Christ. I can, for instance, if put to the challenge, improve upon Jesus' choice of a second greatest commandment. Mine would read, "Love your neighbor better than yourself."
Not that I am unsympathetic with the preacher's dilemma, treating a passage of the Bible which doesn't match my idealistic conception of the way the Gospel should be written. But over the years I have, through the tempering fire of pastoral experience, discovered that my disappointments with Jesus are more my problem than his, that his idealism never clouds his grasp of human realities, like the intransigence of our evil. I am a universalist by temperament, and I want everyone to go to heaven, but I know the Gospel well enough to report that Jesus sees an eternal separation of the sheep and the goats. Love may cover a multitude of sins, but the one who is Love Incarnate doesn't wink at our sin.
The preacher's responsibility is to deal with the text at hand, to elucidate its truth, and not to substitute her own better truth.
Rating: three haloes, largely on the strength of remembered past services... which suggests I should perhaps re-visit and re-review other churches that have faltered on this rating scale, if only to be fair. Ah, well, I shall return to this church, if they will let me.