Historic Congregational churches struggle for survival and revival
Though Connecticut has changed dramatically over the centuries, one part of the landscape of virtually every city and town endures: the Congregational Church on the green or main street.
The graceful and handsome “meetinghouses,” many with soaring white steeples, may be the state’s most enduring image, both for their beauty and their significance. They were central to the founding and development of the state, espousing values — civic duty, education, local autonomy — that laid the groundwork for today’s society.
But though these quietly majestic edifices and the communities they represent seem timeless, alas they are not, and keeping them going in the 21st century is becoming a challenge. Aging buildings and graying congregations, competition from Sunday youth sports and other diversions, as well as a general distrust of institutions are draining resources and worshippers.
These issues are not limited to Congregational churches; many denominations face them. A Pew Research Center study in 2014 found weekly adult church attendance in Connecticut at 28 percent, down from 31 percent in 2007. But no other religious body held the status of the once “established” church.
Though still the state’s largest Protestant denomination, the United Church of Christ, of which most Congregational churches today are a part, has seen a decline from 110,000 members just two decades ago to about 63,000 today. The number of churches in the state has fallen from 267 to (a still-impressive) 237 over the same period, but a fourth of those cannot support a full-time pastor.
While the long-established and well-endowed Congregational churches continue to prosper, some less well-off churches are struggling. The response being urged on the churches is one that is antithetical to their long tradition of independence and local autonomy: to work collaboratively with other churches and community institutions.
In some ways, the church’s challenges reflect the public debate between those who promote the advantages of regional cooperation to keep costs down and those who are reluctant to yield local autonomy.
It is hard to overstate the Congregational influence on Connecticut. The churches trace their lineage to the Puritans who settled the colony in the 17th century. The church communities in Hartford, Windsor and Wethersfield were founded in the 1630s. Representatives of the three met at the Hartford meetinghouse in 1639 to draft the Fundamental Orders, the rudimentary constitution that is said to have influenced the U.S. Constitution and inspired the “Constitution State” nickname.
The Fundamental Orders “clearly expressed the democratic principle of government based on popular will,” historian Albert Van Dusen wrote in “Connecticut,” his 1961 history of the state. This sense of participation, along with the common-law principles and sense of individualism brought from England, began to shape the character of the colony.
The problems of travel in the early days led to the creation of new churches. Farmers in, say, North Branford would rather have a local church than make an hours-long wagon ride. Over time many of these church communities became towns. They assumed the self-governing spirit of the Congregation churches — run by the congregation — giving the state what Trinity College historian Andrew Walsh calls “the cult of the town.”
The Congregationalists founded dozens of colleges, notably Harvard and Yale, to provide an educated ministry. Congregational leaders were, and are, at the forefront of social justice, from the abolition of slavery in the 19th century and subsequent civil rights movement to LGBT and immigrant rights today.
For nearly two centuries, until a new state constitution was adopted in 1818, the Congregational church was the state’s official or “established” church, meaning it was supported by the civil authority and, for part of that time at least, attendance was mandatory. So strong was the Congregational tradition that Connecticut was the last state to separate church and state.
The earliest meetinghouses were simple log structures, but in the 18th and especially 19th centuries these were replaced by structures that today are considered architectural gems. Hartford’s lovely Center Church, the fourth iteration of the original meeting house, was completed in 1807 and for decades was the city’s tallest building.
After “disestablishment” in 1818 came many of the Federal or Greek Revival churches we see across the state today, with Grecian columns, arched Palladian windows, multi-stage belfries and tall steeples, many listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The magnificent First Congregational Church of Litchfield, built in 1829 in the Greek Revival style, is said to be the most photographed church building in New England.
The church endured theological disputes and changes over the years. The UCC was created in 1957 by the merger of the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the General Council of the Congregational Christian Churches, though most that had the name “Congregational” kept it. The UCC/Congregational churches remained at the center of Connecticut life well into the 20th century.
Though no longer the established church, the Congregational churches maintain a civic mindset, said Trinity’s Walsh, who is associate director of the school’s Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He said the Congregational/UCC congregations still include many local leaders, and that the churches sponsor civic activities such as scout troops, AA meetings and soup kitchens.
Still, the era when the prominent families bought pews by subscription and spent much of Sunday in them, when a pastor could fill the church simply by opening the doors, is now behind us.
The position of privilege afforded to the church on the green is no more: “It’s over,” said Rev. Kent J. Siladi, the conference minister of the Connecticut Conference of the UCC, the state association of UCC/Congregational churches.
Though many UCC/Congregational churches continue to do great work, the signs of contraction are unmistakeable.
In Waterbury, the Bunker Hill Congregational Church has announced that it will close, Siladi said. In New Haven, the Church of the Redeemer and the United Church on the Green are merging into a new church. In New London, the Second Congregational Church gave its grand stone building to another church in 2013 and moved to neighboring Waterford to share space with a Presbyterian church.
A number of congregations have similar shared-space arrangements. Some churches, such as Waterbury’s South Congregational Church, are sharing a pastor with another church, in this case a church in Bethany. Also, dozens of congregations are relying on part-time or bi-vocational ministers, those who have another full-time job and are sometimes known as “tentmaker ministers” after the evangelist Paul’s day job while he preached in Corinth.
The “tentmaker” ranks include a college mathematics professor, a high school guidance counselor, even an attorney. The newest is one of the state’s top trial lawyers, James K. Robertson Jr., who is being ordained next month and will preach in Watertown, where he lives, while maintaining his practice with the Waterbury firm of Carmody, Torrance Sandak Hennessey.
His church and several others are creatively augmenting their incomes by renting steeple space for cell phone towers.
Time of Change
The Congregational churches have seen difficult times before and been able to reawaken themselves and grow stronger. Siladi and others think such a change is underway now, a year shy of the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. To midwife the change, he is urging churches to work together, to innovate, and to focus intently on community engagement.
There’s a theological nuance here. The UCC churches have a long and strong tradition of autonomy, but also a tradition of “covenant and being bound to one another,” Siladi said. In urging voluntary coordinated activity he is addressing the latter tradition without disparaging the former.
Though churches are independent and don’t have to take his advice, some are. The two Congregational churches in Middletown are collaborating on youth ministry, Bible study and other activities. Some 45 churches are working together to help settle Syrian refugees in the state.
Hartford’s Asylum Hill Congregational Church is a national model of community improvement; its members built a Boys & Girls Club, started a tutoring program, support a soup kitchen and have helped build neighborhood housing.
On the innovation front, the UCC and other mainline Protestant churches are trying more modern music, block parties, informal “sandal Sundays;” a few are even experimenting with weekday services.
Robertson said he thinks the church will thrive — though possibly in a different form, that could involve smaller weekday meetings, possibly even social media — and never waiver in its commitment to social justice.
But if the evolution of the UCC/Congregational churches involves less use of their landmark buildings, what happens to them?
Maintaining old churches is somewhere between a serious problem and, in some cases, a crisis. Some are more than 200 years old — the Abington Congregational Church in Pomfret, the oldest active house of worship in the state, was built in 1751, centuries before building codes and the Americans With Disabilities Act.
For the past two years, the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation has dedicated its entire Maintenance and Repair grant program, funded by the Community Investment Act, to historic houses of worship of all denominations “because the needs are just overwhelming,” said Jane Montanaro, who administers the program.
The funds, a total of nearly $600,000, have gone to stabilize steeples and bell towers, repair roofs, upgrade electrical systems, and the like. Montanaro said some congregations are victims of their own altruism, putting their resources into their activities rather than their buildings.
Many churches will muddle through. The UCC does not have a hierarchy, as the Catholic and some Protestant churches do, so no one can order them to close a church. And, said Walsh, some churches with small congregations can hang on for a very long time.
Nonetheless, Siladi said his churches have “more buildings than we need,” and that he expects some smaller churches to close, merge or strike up new partnerships with neighboring congregations in coming years. So what happens to the buildings?
If churches cannot be transferred to other congregations, they are difficult to reinvent, said Brad Schide, a circuit rider for the Connecticut Trust. Smaller churches have become homes, nightclubs, art galleries, offices. Larger churches are more challenging. Three handsome 19th century buildings – the state’s oldest synagogue building in Hartford, a former Methodist church in New Britain and a former Baptist church in New Haven – have become the Charter Oak Cultural Center, Trinity-On-Main theater and the Yale Repertory Theater, respectively. But, there is only so much demand for performance space (though a church in Bristol, UK, is being used as a circus school — the high ceilings allow room for trapezes).
The challenge of reusing religious properties might be evidenced by the fact that LoopNet.com lists 11 religious properties for sale in Connecticut and another 100 or so, of all vintages, that were recently sold or taken off the market.
The Trust hopes to do a survey of historic religious properties to understand the scope of the problems.
So, as with most other denominations, there are challenges on all fronts for the UCC/Congregational churches, but also opportunity. If the churches can revive themselves through coordinated community service, such as the efforts by 45 churches to settle Syrian refugees, who knows, they may inspire more coordination by cities and towns.
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