Mergers on the King's Highway
After two plus years of peripatetic worship across Central Connecticut and a few spires south, I report my findings on the patterns of Christendom in our small corner of the world:
1. Buildings and their appointments: they are not a reliable guide as to the theology to be found inside. A Universalist-Unitarian Church honors Jesus in the central panel of a five pane stained glass window in which the four other people portrayed are identified as St. Peter, St. John, St. Paul, and St. James, this in a denomination which in these later days seems intent on excising from its worship any hint of what Christians name the Gospel. The United Church of Christ, descendants in these parts of the Pilgrims, have their share of white-clapboarded and steepled meetinghouses with plain glass windows; but in the churches of Hooker and Edwards a worshiper will also see ornate chandeliers and golden windows, evoking images of the European Cathedrals the 17th Century immigrants to these shores regarded as emblems of papist heresy.
The Congregational church which our daughter and her twins regularly attend is a pseudo-Gothic structure with a reredos surrounding an ark that opens to show on festival occasions a painted canvas altarpiece. It's a feature which would seem to be more at home in the Hartford Diocesan Cathedral, St. Joseph's, across the street, where, in fact, the front wall, behind the communion table, celebrates the victorious Christ of the cross whose image is played in a constantly shifting rainbow of colors, a pleasing sight, and faintly suggestive of the Trump Tower waterfall on Fifth Avenue.
Meanwhile a local Roman Catholic parish church offers seating in a semi-circle facing a spare, a (to this Protestant heart) wonderfully spare, table and lectern, worthy (were it not for the small symbolic crucifix hanging between congregation and the table) of the Puritanical impulse eschewing all adornment, once dominant in New England.
Would our grandfathers be confused? You betcha! But there is something going on, some zephyr of the Holy Spirit gently nudging us into similar patterns. Of course, it might also be a conspiracy of architects, one of whom years ago observed that "God is in the details"; but, my, how those details have been shorn of their denominational labels.
2. Music: the same glorious confusion, this time of musical preference, obtains across denominational lines. This past Christmas we listened one Sunday afternoon to the choir of a Congregational/Baptist Church sing a contemporary version of the Mass in Latin; while that evening at a concert in a Roman Catholic Church a baritone, with no apparent African-American heritage, sang with choir back up a Gospel rendition of "Jesus, O What a Wonderful Child," complete with congregational clapping and rocking.
Though an alto or two in the choir in the church I once pastored might disagree, everyone likes singing John Rutter. The contemporary English composer has endeared himself to choir directors with his fondness for lyrical melodies and a beat his hymnist forbears would deem most disconcerting. I spend a few minutes every Saturday night surfing the Internet checking in on local church websites to see what musical treats are to be offered the next day. Last Sunday I found Rutter ("For the Beauty of the Earth") and Faure ("Pie` Jesu") on the same order of worship and made my way at 10 AM to the church across the street from Mark Twain's House.
Catholicity (with a small "c") is the rule. So is good music, wherever it comes from.
The same observation applies to hymnals. Readers of my reviews will recall that I have chafed at the use of a radically PC hymnal, the New Century Hymnal, in many Congregational churches we have attended. But, I note with satisfaction, that some of those churches pair the NCH in the rack with another less-ideological hymnal, most often the Chalice Hymnal, a publication of the Disciples of Christ. Two UCC churches we have attended preferred The United Methodist Hymnal. I can't blame them: that hymnal modestly accommodates the concerns of the entire pantheon of language revisionists (often with suggestions in footnotes) without distorting the poet's meaning or meter. And it contains almost all of the hymns anyone might want to sing... except "O Brother Man" and "Once to Every Man and Nation."
3. Lectionary: just about everyone observes its suggested readings, sometimes, to my dismay, all of them. I began my career as a leader of worship in 1953 when following a lectionary was something Lutherans and Episcopalians did, but any preacher of a mainline Protestant denomination worth his communion wine went at the homiletic exercise topically. Fashions change in the church no less than out of it. I'll say this for the new, sometimes slavish, insistence on using the lectionary: it (1) keeps the focus in preaching on the Book; and, therefore, (2) makes it far harder for those in the pulpit to ride their favorite hobby horse themes week in and out. But the hermeneutical problem with lectionary-driven sermons is the one Madison Avenue Presbyterian/Harvard University preacher George Buttrick identified years ago, that a Bible-based message tends to be like "a painted ship upon a painted ocean." His contemporary, my mentor, Paul Scherer, Holy Trinity Lutheran on Central Park West and homiletics professor at Union Theological Seminary, proposed the hermeneutical remedy, from Peter's sermon in Acts 2:16 (more or less), that "this is that," the Bible situation is our situation. From my experience as an occupant of a pew in recent years, too few devotees of lectionary-based preaching have learned and applied Dr. Scherer's rule.
But across the board, from Rome to Canterbury to Nashville to Hartford and beyond, the Sunday morning sermons begin on the same page.
4. Children: their presence and participation in worship have not only been welcomed but encouraged in 95% of the churches we have attended since June 2002. And I thought, when I instituted a "Young Christians' Sermon" into the order of worship a decade ago that I was doing something unusual! The rest of Christendom was way ahead of me. The general pattern across denominational lines calls for the children to attend the opening half of the worship service, sit with the pastor on the steps of the chancel for a brown bag sermon, and then march off to Church School for the next three-quarters of an hour. Sitting next to Mom and Dad in prayer, singing hymns with them, and kneeling at the communion rail with them are far more profound religious experiences than memorizing the books of the Bible. To ameliorate childish impatience with the interminable speaking of the people up front, many churches add to their bulletins coloring pages and scribble pads with Bible themes.
There is near unanimity in the intention of churches nowadays to take Jesus seriously when he tells his disciples, "Let the children come to me; do not hinder them."
5. Websites, a concern of mine, for obvious reasons, many do not share: there is general agreement that hoisting a flag on the Internet is a necessity for a modern church; but the follow-through on that good impulse is often slipshod. The problem seems to be twofold: (1) an uncertainty as to the purpose of the website; and (2) the difficulty in finding personnel (and, maybe, paying) for its maintenance. As to (1) most churches treat the website as an advertisement, posting basic information which changes infrequently; while, at the other extreme, others use it as the basic form of communication with its membership; and still others have clearly tried to use it extensively for communication, but have abandoned it, leaving a lot of stale material in place. As to (2), after finding a talented webmaster, the church could then enlist a computer-savvy retiree who can change material on a twice-a-week basis. But no one has yet coming knocking on my monitor!
I would rank in descending order the denominations I have surveyed in terms of their effective employment of the Internet as follows: United Church of Christ, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, and (way, way down the list) Roman Catholic.
6. Sermons. The other evening an Episcopal clergyperson, acquainted with my Sunday wanderings, asked me if I had heard any good sermons lately. I shook my head "No." But I should have been more generous and discriminating. I have heard many good sermons in the past thirty months; I just haven't heard that many that have really grabbed me. This observation also cuts across the whole denominational rainbow. It's my fault as much as theirs. I may be expecting too much. I'm not listening for eloquence, though a confident and imaginative command of the English language is a big plus. Nor am I much moved by sweet sentiments and emotional appeals, even though I need to know the preacher's heart is where his mouth is. I do listen for Biblical references, especially veiled references to red letter words: that is, phrases and thoughts so naturally woven into the substance of the sermon, I know the author is immersed in the mind of Christ. Is it too much to ask that the preacher be direct and brief, more like a captain giving orders on the intercom and less like a politician debating his opponent in front of a large audience? Maybe. I am still looking for a clear "this is that" (see above). Perhaps it doesn't exist. If so, more's the pity for the church in the third millennium.
On a scale of ten, I would rate my sermonic experience since retirement about 6.5, which is acceptable for God's sake, but certainly not a hint of the fluttering of angel wings. This observation too cuts across denominational lines. Even those traditions which have exalted the Word as a means of God's grace equal to the Sacrament do not seem to produce preachers with compelling sermons.
Summing up: something is going on, some reconciling strategy of God, some grand program with no apparent institutional sponsor, a wonderful merger on the King's Highway. What COCU (Commission on Church Union) could not legislate, Christian communities have experienced without conscious effort. I can guess at the professional impetus for this coalescence; but I suspect an even greater cause is the mobility of the American populace. Denominational loyalties have lessened. It's no longer, "Once a Methodist, always a Methodist." John Wesley, in the words of King Jehu, put forth the invitation, that if your heart is as my heart, then give me your hand. Christians, at least those in the Northeastern USA, are doing just that.