Church Hop: First Congregational Church, UCC

star quilt 

(This series of posts is by an anonymous couple who’ve decided to launch an experiment: a summer of church hopping. Every post will include the perspectives of each in a “she said/he said” format.)

She Said:

On my list of LGBTQ-friendly churches, the First Congregational Church features prominently. When I visit the website of the church, there is a three-minute video with different members discussing why they support marriage equality. How refreshing—a church that fully embraces diversity with no schisms to hide under its churchly robes! I don’t know anything else about it, but we go anyway. rainbow flag

As we arrive at the building, it dawns on my husband that we’ve been to this building before—it was for a concert, a performance of Handel’s Messiah. I vaguely remember walking around in the lobby and seeing a rainbow-colored flag declaring this congregation “open and affirming.” I remember feel pangs of envy as I saw the flag, as well as photos of women who occupied high positions of authority within the church’s system of governance. Double pang.

The chapel is spacious and airy. There is a lot of natural light filtering through the clear glass windows. On one wall, there is a bright quilt that reminds me of some of the images of space from Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos. At the front of the chapel is a large silver cross with two colorful fabric paintings hanging from either side. An usher shows us a corner at the back of the chapel designed for families with children. It’s a little bit like stepping into the house of the Three Bears; there are big, medium, and small rocking chairs. Which one to choose? There are also books, pillows, and packets with crayons and paper. Since there is no “church school” for children during the summer (we asked), this cozy nook is perfect!Neil

I feel like if the Episcopal Church and the Unitarian Universalist Church had a baby, it would be the First Congregational Church. On the one hand, the service follows the basic outline of an Episcopal service with a Call to Worship, a recitation of “The Lord’s Prayer” (which you can address to “Our Mother,” if you choose), a reading from scripture, a sermon, a long prayer, and a “call and response” format for much of the service. (I’ve mucked up the order, but you get the idea.) But like a UU service, there is no communion, the members and the pastor are involved in leading the congregation, and the music is joyful.

I don’t think they practice baptism, either. While we’re there, a new member joins the congregation. The pastor asks her a few questions, such as, “Do you believe there is a God and that you are his child? Do you believe God loves you?” After the neophyte answers in the affirmative, the congregation joins voices to welcome her. Then the girl’s mother and teacher lay their hands on the girl’s head to say a special prayer for her. How cool would it be if I could do that for my daughters? I most definitely feel what I’ve come to identify as the influence of the Spirit as I worship with these folks, just as I did with the Episcopalians.We’ve only tried two non-LDS services, but I sense a pattern emerging.


He Said:

The layout of a church’s chapel can tell you a lot about its priorities. In Catholic and Episcopal chapels, where communion is central to worship, the altar is placed front and center, with the pulpit off to the left and the piano off to the right. In many Protestant churches, where the word of God has priority, the pulpit is the focal point. In spite of the LDS church’s insistence on the importance of the sacrament, its chapels feature a pulpit in the middle with the altar and piano on each side.

The Congregational church that we visited today was structured in a way that I had never seen before: the pulpit was off to the right, there was no altar, and the focal point was . . . the stage for the choir. This puzzled me because, although music was very prominent in the service, it was no more so than in the Episcopal church that we visited last week. Why the centrality of music in this chapel’s layout?music birds

After listening to the sermon, I developed a theory. It so happened that today was the anniversary of this congregation’s founding, so the education director, who was filling in for the interim pastor, gave a history of the congregation. As someone accustomed to Mormon history, I kept expecting to hear names, as in “Joseph Smith founded the Church,” or “Brigham Young led the Saints.” We tend to be a very leader-centric church. But by the time the sermon reached its end, I had not heard a single name. Instead, I heard phrases like “the community,” as in “the community grew too large for its building,” or “we,” as in “we voted to become an affirming congregation.” In other words, this church’s main emphasis seems to be community and fellowship.

What does this have to do with music? When people sing together, they say the same words, sing the same notes, and follow the same rhythm. A recent study even found that, when people sing together, their heartbeats synchronize. They become of one heart.

notesIf music represents community, I am not surprised that this church makes music its centerpiece. Almost every element of the liturgy involved some level of congregational participation. For example, when a young girl was confirmed, everyone stood up to perform the “laying on of hands” by touching the person next to them.  Most of the prayers involved some level of call and response or reciting in unison.

But this unity was not of the “us vs. them” variety that I have come to loathe. The announcements at the end of the program included an invitation to march in the local Pride parade immediately after the service, and then to attend an interfaith open house later in the afternoon, and then finally to help in a service project to make hygiene kits for the homeless. To them, community seems to mean everyone. Very refreshing.