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471: Asylum Hill Congregational, Hartford, Connecticut
Other reports | Comment on this report
Asylum Hill Congregational, Hartford, Connecticut
Mystery Worshipper: Rossweisse.
The church: Asylum Hill Congregational, Hartford, Connecticut.
Denomination: United Church of Christ.
Comment: We have received a comment about this report.
The building: Grandiose neo-Gothic; it has a soaring steeple, details borrowed from medieval English cathedrals and highly Victorian stained glass windows.
The church: Earnest urban liberal. Everyone is expected to wear a name tag: those who joined within the last year wear pink; older members wear white tags; visitors wear blue. We avoided the color coding by arriving late.
The neighbourhood: This neighborhood was hot stuff a century ago; local celebrities Harriet Beecher Stowe and Samuel "Mark Twain" Clemens were regulars here. (Clemens, a noted atheist, rented a pew.) The "Asylum Hill" name comes not from any mental peculiarities of the locals, but from a local hospital founded more than a century ago.
The cast: Rev. Gary L. Miller, senior minister; Rev. Peter B. Grandy, senior associate minister; Rev. Sarah J. Verasco, associate minister.
What was the name of the service?
Morning Worship.

How full was the building?
Full, but not uncomfortably so.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes – a smile, a bulletin and a friendly wave to an empty seat as we came in.

Was your pew comfortable?
We arrived a few minutes late, and so found ourselves in folding chairs under the choirloft. At least they were padded.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
We missed it, alas.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
All the prayers and songs were printed in the bulletin. Before the reading (I Corinthians 1:18-31), the Rev. Verasco warned us against any attempt to follow along in the pew Bibles, since those were not the same as the version she was reading. In fact, the introduction to the version took almost as long as the reading. The "Contemporary English Version" proved (like many other elements of the service) politically correct, dumbed down and certain to be outrageously dated within another five or ten years.

What musical instruments were played?
The music was provided by a pretty good jazz band (trumpet, piano, clarinet, trombone, bass, drums), a female gospel soloist, a male vocal soloist (singing "What a Wonderful World") and a gospel-style choir composed mostly of middle-aged white people who swayed and clapped on the chancel steps. The selections included drastically upbeat (and massively modified so as to avoid any mention of a masculine Deity) versions of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," "The Old Rugged Cross," "In the Garden," and so on. A real live pipe organ accompanied the Doxology, which never sounded so good.

Did anything distract you?
Do you want it alphabetically, or at random? Everything was a distraction, from the music to the preaching. But the worst of it was the applause that followed each musical number. I thought I'd wandered into a concert instead of a church service.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
These people are surely the happiest-clappiest congregation in all of supposedly staid New England. Their hands must be calloused from their clapping, past all feeling.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
15 minutes

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Good speaker, in a folksy, jokesy way.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The trumpeter in the jazz band, who turned out to be the Rev. Miller, put his notes on a music stand and quoted extensively from "that noted theologian, George Carlin." Pastor Miller made us laugh while making some good points. However, his point about the "stuff" to which we grow attached turned out to be a defense of the applause for musical numbers. It is, apparently, quite controversial, which gives one some hope for the future. Pastor Miller gave his defense of applause his best shot, but failed to make a dent in my armor, anyway. The fact is that applause turns music from an offering into a performance, and that's inappropriate in worship.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The Doxology. They have a really nice pipe organ. While a politically-correct version was suggested in the bulletin, I took this opportunity to sing the real words.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I definitely thought I'd taken a wrong turn when Pastor Miller mocked the Church's ancient creeds and then led his flock in a homogenized, dumbed-down, politically correct, white-bread version of a creed: "We believe in God, who has created and is creating, who has come in the truly human form, Jesus, to reconcile and make new, who works in us and others through the Spirit. We trust God. God calls us to be Christ's church: to celebrate Christ's presence, to love and serve others, to seek justice and resist evil, to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope. In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God."

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We fled, as the friend who had brought me to the service muttered apologies through gritted teeth. The congregation did seem determinedly friendly, though.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Honestly, I would have stayed if my friend hadn't had a firm grip on the car keys and an even firmer will to leave.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – Not my tradition, not my style, definitely not satisfying to my soul.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Not particularly, but then I read Morning Prayer to myself and felt better.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
I'll remember the jazz band breaking the land speed record for "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Who knew anyone could play or sing it so fast?
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