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Church Morphing

Church Morphing

    This Sunday, the one nearest Bobby Burns's birthday, we'll be worshiping at the Fish Church.  Again!  And that is what they call it, Fish Church, as in their website,  Check it out.  If you get to that website no later than January 29th, you will see immediately why I and eight friends are making the pilgrimage to southwestern Connecticut early on the Sabbath.  Ah, the skirl of bagpipes, the colors of the tartans, the sweetness of shortbread! First Presbyterian Church, Stamford CT looks like a beached Leviathan.  See for yourself, the outside and the inside of the whale on Bedford Street in my hometown.

    Whatever inspired those churchmen of the generation before mine to build a church in the form of a whale escapes me and the church's online history.  Doing something different?  Very different!?  Sure, they knew, as you do, the red letter references to Jonah in the Gospel.  And they learned in their communicant (now called "confirmation") classes how the rough outline of a fish, as in thousands of bumper stickers and auto decals, remembers the earliest Christians' secret sign of faith.  But to cast it all in cement and slate and stained glass, that was an undertaking calculated to stretch any budget and a congregation's credulity.  But thar she blows.

    While up the coast on a small peninsula into Long Island Sound rises the United Church of Rowayton.  Surely a brochure must have told me, that night a couple of years ago I was there, the symbolism of the curled upsweeping roof.  Emblematic of the Holy Spirit?  Far more curious to my jaundiced eye was the pulpit. It cannot be, can it?, that its designer was imitating a certain wild flower often seen in the wetlands of Connecticut, that plant whose root we required King Neptune Court initiands at Boy Scout camp to chew.  Right, Jack in the Pulpit.  

    Far more traditional, and esthetically appealing, is the church as ark (aka ship/boat), as in Noah and the Flood.  I've worshiped in a few in my lifetime.  Beginning with the Mamaroneck United Methodist Church described to me as wood Gothic.  I spent six ill-fated months there in the summer and fall before moving on to Brooklyn in February 1956.  The vaulted ceiling mimics a Gothic cathedral; but, to the eye of a seafaring Norwegian, it also resembles the belly of a clipper ship, turned upside down. 

    Imagine: the ship of faith sailing the vast ocean, an oceanic wilderness sometimes indifferent and other times hostile; but the ark a vessel buoyant to the end of the voyage and the mooring on the mountain top.  That vision is more appealing to me than being trapped in the belly of a whale, if not as much fun describing it.

    Late in my tenure as pastor of Grace Church, Valley Stream, my Norwegian-connected past caught up with me.  The Sons of Norway Lodge prevailed upon me to preach at their annual memorial service on a Sunday nearest the 17th of May (Norway's Independence - from Sweden - Day).  So it came to pass that I found myself in the pulpit that afternoon at St. Mark's Episcopal Church on Montauk Highway, Islip NY.  There amid a redolent profusion of white lilacs I took as my text a passage from The Revelation of John, Chapter 7, about the great cloud of witnesses hovering over us, as in the Viking hymn, "Den Store Hvide Flok." It was a staple of funeral services in my Brooklyn days.

    The setting couldn't have been more appropriate for the memorial service.  The following quote from the church's website explains why:

The unique architectural style of our Church building was inspired by several Norwegian churches including Fantoft in Bergen/Norway. In all the world less than three dozen of these stave church buildings (stavkirken) are believed to be still in existence and Saint Mark’s Church is probably one of a very few – if not the only – Norwegian stave church in the United States. Fashioned in a Scandinavian Timberwood style. Our Church building is characterized by shingled wall surfaces and numerous pitched gables that are surmounted by inspirational carvings. It has been said that in invention, freedom, and picturesqueness no building designed by Richard Morris Hunt was superior to Saint Mark’s Church.

The church building was paid for by the Vanderbilt Family, who owned a nearby seaside estate which in the mid 20th Century became Dowling College.  The generosity to the Episcopalians was motivated in part, so the story goes, to provide a suitable setting for a Vanderbilt daughter's wedding. The Garborg Lodge #3-265 of the Sons of Norway and I were glad the Commodore felt that way.  I can still smell the lilacs... and carried home with me a bouquet.

    Among the stranger developments in the history of the Christian church on the way to eternity is the conversion of cathedrals into meeting houses.  Protestant ideology trumps Renaissance esthetics.  Barbara and I, on an artist's junket to Delft, Netherlands, worshipped on a Sunday morning at the New Church, where, among other marvelous touches, they locked the front doors at the exact hour the service began.  Punctuality in Holland is not only virtuous, it seems to be the only way to salvation.  More "marvelous" still was the positioning of the pulpit on one of the long sides of the building's rectangle, with the congregation seated opposite.  The organ remained where it had been situated originally, then up front and now far away in a lonely corner.  I felt immersed in the mind-set of the sixteenth century reformers, many of them if not all, eschewing any ornamentation, focused on The Word to the exclusion of everything else.



    Which brings me, if not inevitably then chronologically, to the Crystal Cathedral, the lately ill-fated Crystal Cathedral, where Dr. Robert Schuller once held forth accompanied by my seminary dorm-mate, organist Frederick Swann. I have never even driven past this Protestant shrine; but I have joked with other envious clergy that, yes, I know where it is, near Disney Land.  Notwithstanding the snideness of my remark, a case can be made that Dr. Schuller's edifice represents a contemporary obsession and has inspired plenty of imitation in the past fifty years.  A direct line can be drawn from it to the many mega churches currently in vogue in Christendom.  Call it the church as Show. Pop music, schmalz, and some genuinely (if ticketed) superior pop ecclesiastical concerts.

    My how we Christians have morphed through the last two centuries from "where two or three are gathered together" to where two or three thousand are gathered together. The Galilean rabbi did have a sense of humor.  Some passages of the Gospels can be read no other way.  Definitely Jesus was an ironist.  That there are some Lordly smiles and raised eyebrows of incredulity, as he surveys what his mission on earth hath wrought, goes without saying... if now I'm saying it.  But, tell me, why is it "Jack" in the pulpit, not Bob?  


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