Web Sites, Documents and Articles >> Hartford Courant News Articles >

Historic South Church Endures

Sunday Devoted To 335th Birthday
February 19, 2005
By FRANCES GRANDY TAYLOR, Courant Staff Writer

At South Congregational Church in Hartford, one of the first Congregational churches in the nation, Sunday will be a day of recalling a history that stretches back to Colonial times.

"It's really the cradle of Congregationalism - it started here - and democracy was derived from the Congregationalist movement," said Marc Reich, a South Church member who is spearheading the church's day-long 335th anniversary celebration.

Throughout its history, South Church has maintained its independence, charting a middle course between conservative and liberal trends in modern Congregationalism. As a downtown church, with a membership of about 275 families, it also confronts the challenge of shifting population and demographics; most members come in from suburbs.

But leaving its historic home has been ruled out. "We're staying," Reich said. "There is so much [here], so many historic connections that would be lost."

South Congregational was formed in 1670 when 16 families left the Rev. Thomas Hooker's Center Church on Main Street after his death. The first wooden building was erected in 1673, at what is now Main and Sheldon streets. The second meetinghouse, dedicated in 1754, was in the middle of the intersection of Main and Buckingham streets. The present church, with its tall white steeple and red brick facade on Main Street, was built in 1827.

One of its longest serving ministers was Warren Seymour Archibald, who served from 1917 to 1954; on the main floor, a chapel with leaded glass windows and carved wood doors is named after him. One of South Church's most influential pastors was the Rev. Henry David Gray, who served from 1955 to 1970.

"Dr. Gray was larger than life," Reich said. "You can't walk the halls of South Church without feeling the presence of Dr. Gray."

Fifty years ago, Gray wrote "What it Means to be a Member of a Congregational Christian Church," a small pamphlet that describes Congregational theology.

"We do not accept any formal statement of faith as binding upon all members of our churches," he wrote. "This is not because we think creeds do not matter, but because we think the sincerity of conviction requires full opportunity for intellectual freedom and personal experience."

This form of Congregationalism, with its focus on independence of both the church and the individual "attracts men and women of genuine conviction," Gray wrote, and "many who have felt they could not join a church which told them what to do and what not to do, welcome the opportunity to join a Congregational Christian Church."

As a result, South Church has watched from the sidelines as other Congregational churches, including some within the United Church of Christ, have battled over homosexuality and gay marriage in recent years, with some congregations deciding to leave the UCC altogether.

Which is not to say that South Church has completely sidestepped the issue, Reich said. "We chose to avoid the words `open and affirming,' because they are so highly charged. We instead chose the term `practicing Christian acceptance and welcome.' There are enough challenges to mainline churches today - we don't have to go out and find new issues to fight over."

The pamphlet Gray wrote is still in use today, said the Rev. Tom Richard, executive secretary of the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches, of which South Church is a part. Richard is expected to speak during the worship service Sunday.

"About once a week we get a call from churches asking, `what is [the NACCC's] stand on abortion or what is your stand or gay marriage?' And we say, `Whoa, wrong question."'

"We don't take on political or social issues that divide us. We have a unity of spirit, not of conscience," Richard said. "We believe churches are in the business of sharing the gospel and leading their people.

"If we have a church that decides to take a stand against capital punishment, that's great. We will not do that on national level. That's the difference between the association and a denomination."

The NACCC is small, about 450 congregations in 40 states. The association does not hold national conferences, and decisions are made by churches at the local level in state and regional conferences.

"Our autonomy is our strength and greatest challenge," said Richard, whose father was a Congregational minister in Maine, and who grew up attending functions at South Church. "Our association is now in its 50th year, and we realize some major adjustments need to be made to meet challenges of the 21st century. We can do many more things together than alone."

The celebration at South Church will begin with a 10:30 a.m. worship service, followed by a potluck luncheon. Mayor Eddie Perez has issued a proclamation, calling Sunday "South Church Day" in Hartford. Richard is scheduled to speak in the chapel after the luncheon, and Christa Rakich will perform an organ recital at 4 p.m., followed by a reception. Silver chalices and other artifacts from the church's history will be on display during the celebration.

After a period of some turmoil, South Church currently is led by interim ministers, the Rev. Ralph Lord Roy and the Rev. Melanie Enfield, and is conducting a national search for a new pastor. Church leaders are also hopeful that the Adriaen's Landing project could bring new people to the city.

"We're looking for a strong leader who can take us in the direction we need to go," Reich said.

South Church is an example of a mainline church with a glorious history that is facing the same questions faced by many mainline Protestant denominations whose membership has declined in recent years, Richard said. "South Church is truly at a crossroads - they need to make decisions about how they are going to revitalize and reinvent."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
Powered by Hartford Public Library  

Includes option to search related Hartford sites.

Advanced Search
Search Tips

Can't Find It? Have a Question?