Editor’s Note: Reflection on First (Park) Congregational UCC
It has been four long months since my first and latest post on my and my fiancée’s ongoing hunt for a home church in Grand Rapids. The onslaught of academic papers and exams, a long interval being in Canada, and a period of transitioning back into Grand Rapids life have all conspired to keep me from church (s)hopping in the area. Now, I have finally gotten around to attending First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, the second congregation that caught my attention while doing research this past spring.
Before getting in too deep on my experience at what, for simplicity’s sake, I will be referring to as Park Church, I would like to give a brief update on my impressions of Fountain Street Church. After attending three additional times, I have not changed my overall positive appraisal of the church, especially the quality of its teaching and the conduct of its services. Its size has remained a barrier to deeper involvement, but that is an entirely surmountable problem. I also remain enchanted by its worship space, and its triumphalist grandeur creates a productive tension with the nondenominational sermons.
What distinguishes Park Church from FSC is its stronger attachments. First, it is by far the more conventionally Christian congregation, employing traditional liturgies, prayers, doxology, and hymnody. While FSC draws from a larger pool of religious and secular literature for its instruction and worship, this congregation sits more comfortably within a specifically Christian space. The building, which was constructed in 1869 and fitted with gorgeous Tiffany windows in the 1920s, is aesthetically consistent and beautiful. Those who commissioned its construction did not have Puritan iconoclasm as a core principle, despite the Congregationalist heritage of the church. I appreciate their commitment to beautifying the space without making anything gauche or grandiose. Luckily the church’s congregation, though apparently few in number, is blessed with musically gifted parishioners. Its organ remains in skilled hands–few circumstances are more depressing than a well-tended instrument suffering from disuse–and there were special interludes from two male vocal soloists with accompaniment. Park Church’s space is suited for worship and well-outfitted.
At the inception of the service, the serving minister, associate pastor Rev. Kyle Carnes, gave a summation of the church’s identity, establishing it as an “open and affirming” congregational church within the United Church of Christ. “Open and affirming” refers to a designation within the UCC for congregations which, according to the denominational description, “make public covenant of welcome into their full life and ministry to persons of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions.” I agree with the intent of this covenant, which is part of the reason Park Church attracted my fiancée and me in the first place. Ways in which the church seemed to comply with this requirement included gender-inclusive/gender neutral language for God in the doxology and gloria patri. I was heartened that traditional words were also included, though I opted for the gender neutral terms as I strive to do in ordinary speech.
While the traditional masculine Trinitarian formula for God lists “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” the gender neutral description is “Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit,” whic is no less Scriptural or resonant with orthodox conceptions of God’s nature. I am a Unitarian myself, believing in a relational and social, but uni-personal, God, but it would do no good to be offended, and there is latitude within the formulation for more personal interpretation despite the communal nature of its pronouncement. After the gloria patri, we were treated to young Rev. Carnes’ sermon, a straightforward and effective teaching from the book of Luke. Specifically, he commented on a story in Luke 10 about Jesus visiting the house of Mary and Martha, two sisters with whom he apparently shared a close friendship. The story goes that Martha spent the time when he was visiting busily preparing food and fretting about her many tasks. Mary, meanwhile, conversed with and listened to their guest. Jesus chastises Martha for her anxieties, commending Mary for…well, the text is none too specific. The pastor took the passage and used it to comment on the distressing relationship many (North) Americans have with their work. Rev. Carnes was concise, comprehensible, and spirited, if perhaps overly inoffensive.
If there is anything disconcerting about Park Church it is the level of comfort I felt there. I cannot make premature judgments, but I would prefer to be challenged and confronted in a more critical way during a sermon. There is a driving need in me to be edified and reshaped, perhaps an unreasonable yearning for constant transformation. I try too hard most of the time. Tempering my expectations might have served me better in this instance. That said, all credit to the associate minister for his hard work. He will be away to rest for a few week starting next Sunday, and no doubt he has earned such a respite.
While there are still one or two churches in the area I would like to attend once before making a final decision, I believe this is a wonderful prospect. After the service, my fiancée and I were graciously welcomed by the parishioners, most of whom were elderly. There were two or three young families and some younger single people, which is also encouraging. Truth be told, I am not perturbed by the prospect of worshipping with congregants who are double or triple or quadruple my age. It would be renewing to have some more cross-generational relationships, though I also had quite a few of those in the Quaker meeting. In sum, this visit was productive and instilled me with a new hope and energy for my faith.
I would like to close this post with a poetic postlude. Alexius will appreciate this when he returns from India.
“The wisdom of their wise shall perish,
and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden.”¹
We step, cracks open underfoot
Trembling in shadow on the Way of Storms
We see, collective eye bent skyward,
The depth of space
And the strangeness of noontime walks
The entropy of knowledge
1. Isaiah 29:14