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First Congregational Church of Greenwich

First Congregational Church of Greenwich (CT)

    Sometimes a single moment in a service of worship can cast the rest of the hour in an unhappy light.  Most of what transpired this morning in the praise of God was as bright and shining as the first Advent candle.  But after singing the second hymn, a dismal experience, I really had trouble thinking of anything else.  It was #112 in The New Century Hymnal, entitled, "Keep Awake, Be Always Ready," sung to the tune Wachet Auf.  I had never sung the words before.  I had better not be asked to sing them again.  The hymnbook editors have taken a solid Advent text, ascribed to Philipp Nicolai, 1599, and translated by Catherine Winkworth, 1858 and, in the name of gender sensitivity, effectively eviscerated the original meaning.  Romans 13:11-12 and Matthew 25:1-13 are the inspiration for the original text.  But apparently Jesus' parable about a wedding feast is deemed offensive to modern sensibilities.  The rewrite was dumb.  And I resent being suckered into singing it.

    Certainly the decision to visit First Congregational this morning began with great expectations.  After all, I found the church's website on the Internet ( and had there obtained a preliminary copy of this Sunday's order of worship. "Here," I thought to myself, "is a church that understands where the world is going and is out there ahead of it."  I knew before we arrived on Sunday that the pastor, like one many of you know quite well, was completing his twenty-eighth year at the church and would be, unlike someone you know quite well, voluntarily retiring August 31, 2003.  And I also discovered a day early that the First Organist and Choir Director is John Stansell, whom a few readers will know as the former organist at Port Washington UMC. 

    It was also supposed to be a day bathed in nostalgia.  The kind and generous man, Bill Hoyt, who drove me to Williams College in mid-March 1949 for an interview with the Dean of Admissions, belonged to that church. Bill, an avid alumnus with a sports bent, was on the look-out for high school athletes in his corner of the world, and a neighbor down my street put him on to me.  The rest is history.  The last (and first) time I worshiped at First Congregational Church, Greenwich (but really Old Greenwich/Sound Beach) was for Bill's funeral service in the late 1950's, attended, as I remember it, by scores of baseball and football players whose lives he had touched and helped.  Read this week's essay, "Sitting on Laundry in Sound Beach," for a further elucidation of my childhood experience among the rich and famous in their summer homes in Connecticut.

Building: twice during the announcements the church was referred to as a "meetinghouse."  That's a very inelegant word for a very elegant building, with Gothic/Romanesque arches up and down the side aisles of a long rectangular sanctuary.  A small meetinghouse it was at Bill Hoyt's funeral, but in 1963 the building was opened up and added onto, tripling the original seating capacity.  It is needed.  The average attendance is 360. A 55 rank pipe organ with glistening silver pipes dominates the front wall, in front of which the choir sits.  A large advent wreath hung from the ceiling was lowered for the lighting of the first candle, and then raised beyond the reach of a Goliath no less than a little David.  The windows shone with stained glass, portraying ancient and contemporary scenes.  I had the feeling one often has in a WASPish environment, that no cost was spared to give the appearance of simplicity and frugality. 

Welcome: the chill in the air was matched by the chilliness of the usher's acknowledgment of our presence, a nod while handing us orders of service and a reprimand when I tried to enter the sanctuary while the choir was gathered in the hallway.  The associate pastor standing behind the choir also greeted us with casual disregard. Let me try to be understanding: it could be that the church is overrun with newcomers and a surplus of strange faces has a tendency to inure even the most receptive heart to the customary enthusiasm accorded a new arrival. We were greeted with similar indifference at St. James Episcopal Church north of Baltimore where our second child and her family worshiped for a few years.  It too was inundated with new people. Nonetheless I determined that I would not be put off and, following the service, insisted that pastors and people take note of us.  They did.

Children: except for a child weeping a few pews behind us, they were not in evidence.  Five high school students participated in the lighting of the first advent candle.  Halfway through the service twenty or thirty adults rose from their seats in the same section of the church, walked down, and, if I heard the announcement correctly, were headed to the "Pastor's Class."  Church School is held during the 10 AM hour of worship.  Teachers can worship at an 8:00 o'clock service.  I did spy a basket full of crayons near the entrance, and I assume they were a provision for distracted young Christians to doodle with.

Sermon: the associate pastor (remember, the one who greeted us with casual disregard?) preached a "meditation" this first-Sunday-of-the-month communion.  Her approach to her theme, "Grace and Peace," was to suggest that they are hard to define.  "No so!" my preacherly heart screamed inside me.  Undaunted by the vibrations from my bench, she continued to quote everybody who was anybody and some who were not.  With a cross everywhere to be seen, including one around her neck, I wondered why she didn't just point to it and say, "There it is, sheer amazing grace, God's free unmerited love for us in Jesus Christ."  Peace got the same semantic treatment, but with better results.  Am I being harsh?  You betcha! With thoughts of the massacre of Wachet Auf rumbling through my mind!  Later I learned that the preacher's great-grandfather was an Armenian immigrant professor, initially a Presbyterian, who became a UCC pastor in upstate New York.  Perhaps his offspring should consult his memoirs for the best way to render grace and peace to a modern congregation.

Music: very professional, as it should be with both a Music Director and an Organist, plus a forty voice choir, including five tenors.  Come to think of it, I know why tenors are so hard to come by in most church choirs: the good ones and those simply adequate are probably being paid to sing in prosperous churches.  The introit, the responses, and the anthems were perfectly matched to the season, and would indicate that considerable thought had been given to integrating the music with the theme of the service.  Well done, John!  The Organist played J S Bach's version of Wachet Auf with enough glitz to make me forget momentarily the earlier transgression on that hymn.

Ritual: both sacraments, baptism and communion, were celebrated this morning.  I am ambivalent about the senior pastor's extemporaneous reworking of the ritual.  He is fluent, and he did touch on themes relevant to the historical moment.  But the point, if not the whole point, of ritual is to enter into a tradition through which all Christians pass, and the words, no less than the deeds they explain, should be the same, allowing for a little creativity, of course.  The senior pastor was all creativity.  He was good, but wrong. 

 Rating: two and a half haloes.  I wouldn't return until The New Century Hymnal was removed from the pew racks and used as kindling in the fireplaces so much in vogue in suburban Connecticut.





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