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
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
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
"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
"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