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771: Central Congregational, Newburyport, Massachusetts, USA
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Central Congregational, Newburyport, Massachusetts, USA
Mystery Worshipper: Prayer Book Salesman.
The church: Central Congregational, Newburyport, Massachusetts, USA.
Denomination: United Church of Christ (UCC).
The building: The building is a large, red-brick structure with white wooden steeple. The church was erected in 1826, but rebuilt in 1861 after being damaged by fire. Tall, narrow windows filled with colored art glass dominate the interior walls, which seemed to be painted a subtle rose color. Above the altar, Gothic-style window tracery frames a ubiquitous Victorian stained glass scene of Christ with a lantern and two other biblical characters. The lighting in the sanctuary is poor, coming from recessed spotlights and flourescent (ugh!) uplights.
The church: According to the bulletin, Central Congregational was formed in 1909 by the union of three smaller churches in the downtown Newburyport area.
The neighbourhood: Newburyport is the birthplace of the United States Coast Guard, and is a gorgeous seaport town, attracting hundreds of thousands of tourists each year. Tall ships and quaint shops may be found in the downtown area, while farms, parks, and hiking trails dominate the outskirts of town.
The cast: The Rev. Kent Allen, pastor; The Rev. Laura Biddle, associate pastor; Carol Daigle, interim organist.
What was the name of the service?
Service of Worship – the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, 10.30am.

How full was the building?
About three-quarters full by the time everyone arrived.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
From the moment I walked in the door, folks shook my hand and welcomed me to the church. "Sit anywhere you'd like," was the friendly prompt from a greeter. As the prelude began, a woman with whom I work appeared with her two children and said, "Do you come here? We're always so late I thought maybe I just never saw you!" I explained to her that I was just visiting, and that she ought to do better on her punctuality (just kidding).

Was your pew comfortable?
The pews were stained an unattractive blonde oak reminiscent of an early 1950s kitchen, but comfortable enough for my taste.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Fairly upbeat, with many folks hugging and laughing. It was interesting to see some of the local police force with their families worshipping here, out of uniform (truth be told, some of these gentlemen in blue have issued a traffic ticket to yours truly, as I do quite a bit of driving in this area). Many folks came in right at the beginning of the service, and hurried quickly to their seats.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning and welcome. It's a pleasure to have you here worshipping with us this morning."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The New Revised Standard Version Bible; The New Century Hymnal, which is the new "official" hymnal of the UCC (more about this later); The Pilgrim Hymnal, which is the older Congregational Church hymnal before the UCC was formed in the late 1960s.

What musical instruments were played?
Pipe organ. Alas, the organist seemed to only use a few different stops, so all of the music sounded somewhat the same.

Did anything distract you?
The stained glass windows were simple, symmetrical patterns of colored glass, but there was an overwhelming use of an almost canary yellow, which colored the inside of the church an eye-crossing hue. My bulletin appeared to be three-dimensional, and I kept having to refocus my eyes to read the announcements.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Middle of the road Protestant Congregational New England. We sang the Gloria Patri, there was an Old and New Testament lesson, we sang the doxology and a benediction. The congregation was truly one of the most even cross-sections of society I have ever seen, with an even balance of young and old (and everything in between), and all seemed interested and participated in the service.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
16 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Rev. Kent Allen delivered his sermon very well, articulating clearly in this reverb-plagued building. He spoke in an almost conversational style which made it seem more like a friend telling you a story, which was a nice touch.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He based his sermon on Mark 2:1-12, the story of the men who lowered their friend through a hole in the roof down into the room in which Jesus was healing the sick. Rev. Allen stated that "friendships are a key component to a full life."

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Seeing the sanctuary of a New England Congregational church almost filled completely with young and old alike – truly moving for a denomination whose membership has been struggling in the past few decades.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Singing from The New Century Hymnal is by far the most hellish experience one can encounter in church. The hymns have all been revised or reworded to delete all male references to God, and all texts updated into ultra-modern English. New hymns written for the hymnal lack substance and depth, such as the new favorite, "The weaver's shuttle swiftly flies across the tapestry / then patterns, textures, varied hues emerge for all to see." To make matters worse, the "revised" versions of some classic hymns actually change the theological basis of the original piece. Take, for example, this tragedy: I learned "Bring forth the royal diadem, and crown him Lord of all." In this hymnal we sing, "Attend the Savior's sovereign claim, and crown Christ servant of all." Sovereign claim? Perhaps he did make a sovereign claim, but I'm catching a "maybe he wasn't really the sovereign" tone here. Definitely a book for learning how not to revise a hymnal.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
After throwing my hymnal back in the rack with utter disgust, I was greeted by many nice folks who commented that I "should be in the choir," although I didn't see or hear a choir, so perhaps it is on sabbatical right now.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I spent so much time talking with people that I completely missed the coffee time after worship. By the time I made my way to the church hall, folks were cleaning up.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – I am still an Episcopalian at heart, so I missed the liturgy, but enjoyed this church for what they offered.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Flipping through the pages of the hymnal, aghast at the changes made to some of my beloved hymns.
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