Fifty-two Churches

I am not a religious person, but this morning marked the second Sunday in a row that I’ve continued with a concept that I hadthought about for a number of years (but officially commenced last weekend); visit a different local church, temple, mosque, or coven every week for a year (within reason) and then blog about it.

Some background on my religious proclivities or lack of: I attended church as a child thanks to my mother, who was determined to see some spirituality instilled in me and my siblings, mostly Congregationalist churches in Georgetown and Andover, Massachusetts. My father was an atheist who claimed to be a “Home Baptist” and a parishioner in the “Church of Saint Mattress.” He did not attend my baptism at the age of 13, and indeed blamed the demise of a pet gerbil on that same event coming a day after I was officially inducted into some long-forgotten church in Andover. I attended an all-boys prep school in Massachusetts founded by an Episcopalian Bishop – Phillips Brooks – a famed orator, clergyman, and rector of the Trinity Church in Copley Place in Boston. Chapel was conducted several nights a week after dinner, was compulsory, and a few of the faculty were ordained ministers. I was baptized at Brooks in Lake Cochiewick a second time by the late Reverend George F. Vought (along with a Buddhist classmate from Thailand) and was eventually confirmed as a member of the Episcopalian church in the Brooks Chapel – probably my favorite religious memory to this day.

The Churbuckian religious status today:

  • I don’t go to church and don’t consider myself religious
  • I am a “registered” congregant of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Osterville, but again, do not attend services
  • I was married in the Cotuit Federated Church by a visiting minister who once played on a famous UCLA national championship basketball team in the 1950s and was extremely tall
  • The Cotuit church is the “Churbuck church” – we get married and buried there – but I have only attended services once to see my neighbor Reverend Jeremy do an awesome baseball-themed service last summer
  • I am not a big Jesus guy and don’t go for the miracle stuff, but understand it is powerful stuff – and has dominated Western thought for the last 2009 years.
  • I am monotheistic in the Einsteinian sense that I believe something ties stuff together.
  • I do not take communion when I do attend services because I am agnostic
  • I do not sing hymns because I am tone deaf and annoy people sitting around me who usually think I am mocking the music
  • I subscribe to the foxhole theory of atheism. I prayed very earnestly for my life in 1981 while delivering a decrepit 60-foot ocean going catamaran to Florida in a November gale

So – with all of that said as a form of disclaimer and disclosure: why visit random houses of worship and then write about them? Good question. Let’s see:

  • It is a nice way to spend a couple hours on a Sunday morning that would be otherwise spent doing email and reading the Sunday Times.
  • The music can be quite good
  • The architecture of some churches is impressive
  • I live near some old churches with some significant colonial history behind them
  • It seems like an interesting thing to do, especially religions I know nothing about like Greek Orthodox, Hinduism, Jehovah’s Witnesses …..
  • It could be very enlightening
  • I get to be pedantic and indulge my interest in 19th century American intellectual and spiritual history
  • It’s a good excuse to go to different places and find a nice lunch and a walk afterwards
  • It beats blogging about interactive marketing

I intend to limit my range to Southeastern Massachusetts, Cape Cod and the Islands. My criteria? Try to visit as many diverse denominations and faiths as possible, seek interesting churches, and always attend with the utmost respect and humility. This is not a “critique” of churches or religions, nor will I award stars, rankings, or any judgments. So, let’s start off.

11.1.09: St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Falmouth, Massachusetts, on the village green.

At the invitation of my good friend Paul Noonan, I attended a very unique service in this wonderful stone church on Falmouth’s historic village green. Entitled Solemn Evensong for The Feast of All Saint’s Day, this was an afternoon service on the first early afternoon of the late fall – the day after Halloween and the first night of daylight savings time. I attended in bowtie and blazer and was greeted by Mr. Noonan for being overdressed. I reminded him that alumni of The Brooks School would no sooner appear in chapel without a coat and tie as they would go to the dining hall without pants.

The organ and choir were the main attraction of this musical service, which has its historical antecedents in vespers or evening prayers. There was no sermon nor standard religious drill, but instead most, if not all of the proceedings were sung by the choir.

The prelude was Johannes Brahms “O Welt, ich muss dich lassen” – or “O World, I Now Must Leave Thee” – in keeping with the avowed purpose of the All Saints service which was to remember the congregations’ deceased from the previous year.

I sat alone, near the back, and found the service amazingly relaxing and meditative, particular the Lessons, which were sung – The Magnificat and the Nunc dimittis. Coming from the WASP tradition, this is pretty much a familiar, “home-team” sort of church experience for me.

The program gave an excellent explanation of Evensong:

“Based on the services held daily in the medieval Church, Evensong, as arranged in the Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican Church, has been sung regularly in the Church since the sixteenth century, the Tudor Age (with only a few breaks during the Commonwealth in the Seventeenth Century. Here the music is sung by the Choir. ”

The church is quite intimate and cozy, with a very high cathedral ceiling, wonderful stained glass made in England, and dark woodwork. This is a very late 19th century “English” church. Attendance was somewhat sparse – a shame given the quality of the wonderful choral music, and I believe I was the youngest person in the congregation (there were very young people signing in the choir). Mr. Noonan recommended I return for another musical service, the “Compline.” I will likely do so.

11.8.09 West Parish of Barnstable, West Barnstable, Route 149

For years I have admired this amazing white clapboard church off of Route 6 in West Barnstable. The architecture and the exposed bell in the belfry make this a jewel of Cape Cod’s ecclesiastical architecture.

I arrived a bit before the 10 am service and was warmly greeted, given a name tag, and shown a pew in the back of the meetinghouse. This church was built in 1717 and is the oldest Congregationalist church in the United States. A quick digression on Congregationalism or the United Church of Christ – this is the “ancient” denomination of New England, the direct descendant of the Pilgrim’s faith, and indeed the hymnal is the “Pilgrims’ Hymnal.” Based on what I read in Barbara Tuchman‘s Bible and Sword, the faith of the Pilgrims (not to be confused with the Puritans who settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony in Boston) was very Old Testament and almost Jewish in its close dogmatic affinity to Israel. While the Pilgrims fled England in the early 17th century for Leyden, Holland and then Plymouth, the current tenor of Congregationalism is very community focused, social, and liberal in its approach.

I realized my plan of slipping unnoticed into random churches was both rude and unreasonable. When the Reverend Reed Baer asked if there were any visitors I stood and introduced myself by name and hometown. The layout of the church is very interesting – with the Parson ascending steep stairs to a pulpit high above the congregation who sit in “penned” pews with gate door and spindle railings. The layout is square – with the congregation sitting in a u-pattern in front of the pulpit. An upper balcony looked very inviting, and I spied a head or two sitting above me. There was organ music, but the choir sang with a pianist seated near them on the main floor of the church.

There was no stained glass, just nice 24-pane windows (and lots of them). The church was flooded with light on the sunny morning and the wood was all exposed and naturally finished with, heavy split beams supported by several slender columns.

The theme of the service was “healing.” The Parson, a former corporate attorney who was ordained later in his career, was very well spoken and friendly. The house was very nearly packed and had a very warm, community feel in the way the congregation said goodbye to some long-time parishioners who had sold their home to be near their children.

As I departed I met my old captain, David Ellis, from the M/V Point Gammon, the Hy-Line ferry to Nantucket that was my summer job during high school and college. We hadn’t seen each other for 30 years and had a good time reconnecting on the steps of the narthex (which is today’s word of the day).

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

10 thoughts on “Fifty-two Churches”

  1. Your perspective on religion and Cap Code churches is far more interesting and useful than anything I’ve read on interactive marketing.

  2. Have you read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity? You might enjoy it. I’m a big fan.

  3. Please, please, please visit Christ the King in Mashpee. I would pay money to read the write up you do.

    The former church had been on Rt. 28 in Santuit I ‘believe, but the growing congregation required that a larger church be built.

    The result is something my father termed the Taj Mahal of Catholic churches. It is large and garish. The ushers are quite militant so be on your best behavior and sit where they tell you. They are often referred to as Tosti’s Troopers after the former pastor and architect of this monstrosity. The music is interesting – try to attend a morning service when the children’s choir is “performing”. The adults attending Mass must think this is the Barnstable County Amature Hour or have great concern for the fragile egos of these young folk because they seem to applaud after every hymn.

    Attending Mass here gives me great appreciation for the parish we attend here in NJ.

  4. Mike — Christ the King is definitely on the list as the Big Catholic Experience of the Tour de Churches. I may save that one for later though. I am really itchy to do the Greek Orthodox church in Centerville and am open to recommendations for a mosque as well.

  5. St Peter’s Episcopal Church in Bourne (Buzzards Bay) has always caught my eye for the boat prow, cruciform mast and fisherman in foul weather gear that adorns the entryway. But then, Peter became a fisher of men.

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