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Hartford Pew Review: Christ Church Cathedral

By Kerri Provost

July 26, 2011

I can’t believe it’s not Catholic.

And neither can some actual Catholics, who are extremely involved in their churches and can claim expertise on what happens during Catholic masses.

The Episcopal Church has sometimes been called “Catholic Lite,” which seems like an overstatement. The structure of the service at Christ Church Cathedral — aside from female clergy — was nearly identical to that of many Catholic services. While I have heard plenty about Catholics using incense in worship, this Episcopal church was the first house of worship where I have actually witnessed such. Christ Church Cathedral has prayer kneelers; yet the only time I saw anyone kneel was during communion, which was delivered altar rail-style. Despite what some wiki-style sites say, Episcopalians do not open communion to all, baptized or not. In a recent bulletin, Christ Church Cathedral explains:

Holy Communion is open to all baptized Christians regardless of age or denomination. For those not yet baptized, you are welcome to come to the altar rail for a blessing.

Because of this stipulation, I will not be providing reviews of the communion wafers, here or anywhere. With that said, nobody asks for your papers before when giving the host; I have never seen anyone turned away. That does, apparently happen in the Catholic Church, but seems reserved for politicians who the Pope deems to be undeserving for whatever reason. Most of us are not on the Pope’s radar, but I digress.

As for “the gays,” St. Patrick-St. Anthony a few blocks away has an LGBT ministry; Christ Church Cathedral does not, though they have a welcome statement on their website: “This is a place for families and singles, old and young, male and female, gay and straight, black and white, Latino and Asian, rich and poor. All who seek God are welcome here.” I saw a few very pierced, very tattooed women at CCC who were welcomed in as warmly as those wearing mid-calf skirts and blouses buttoned up to their chins. The congregation is primarily white and elderly, but there are some people under 45, young families, and people of color. The welcome pamphlet is in English and Spanish, and the Wednesday noon Holy Eucharist is in Spanish

In full disclosure, I did visit this church before starting the review series. Every year, during the weekend of the Greater Hartford Festival of Jazz, Christ Church Cathedral hosts a jazz mass. In 2010, I heard they would have Dixieland Jazz, and since it is my favorite type of jazz but was not on the menu at Bushnell Park, I decided to go. One year later, I remember nothing of the sermon — just how the music was amazing. For the purpose of entertainment, I attended this year’s jazz mass — with music by Ross Tucker’s Hot Cat Jazz Band — and then a regular service for the purpose of research.

Christ Church Cathedral is on the corner of Church and Main, across from the former G. Fox building. Its property is fenced in, but that does not mean that bicycles are welcomed onto the property. People using the MAT garage can get their parking validated.

The grounds are lovely, and wedged between a building that seems perpetually under construction, and the “stilts building,” both of which are a radical contrast. If the cathedral were not beautiful enough on its own, it definitely would appear more so, as it’s flanked by two less charming buildings.

Once inside, there is a warm greeting by someone near the door. During the jazz mass, the balcony was open, but during a more recent regular service, that area was closed. While I wanted to go up there, it would have been hot as blazes anyway.

The pews have latching doors. These struck me as very cool initially, but later realized that a person could feel a bit like being in a pen. If you are the only person sitting in a particular pew, and you happen to be of the non-communion-taking variety, then it can be awkward when the usher says “excuse me” and you have to respond in a way that conveys “I’m aware, but no thank you” in a quiet and respectful manner. The awkwardness lasted for a split second, but did make me curious if there were any norms for how to respond.

Each pew contains a shelf and slanted top, like a lectern. They used three different books (The Book of Common Prayer, Revised Common Lectionary, and The Hymnal 1982) during the ordinary service; which book was to be used was only announced once in my recollection, though they were noted in the bulletin. Additionally, there were welcome packets in each pew. These contain literature about the church’s history, general welcome information, a pen, a guest information card, and a greeting card. As far as I can tell, all of the welcome packet information is also available on their website, which is one of the more detailed Hartford church sites I have read.

Something to know: in the summer, when outdoor temperatures are above 85, it’s almost unbearably hot in here. Both recent visits were made on especially hot days. There was one electric fan that I saw (though there may have been others) and handheld fans in the pews. Dress accordingly.

Christ Church Cathedral contains several locally-sourced ingredients. The three-foot thick brownstone walls are from Portland and reached the current location via ferry on the Connecticut River. Its organ is from Hartford’s Austin Organ Company. Grapevines — found on the Connecticut flag — are carved on the pulpit. A chair features a carving of a deer, to symbolize Hartford. The building feels historical, which makes the lack of air conditioning forgivable.

The jazz mass was easier to follow than the ordinary one. For the former, a detailed bulletin was created; they expect lots of new faces, so they publish details that the regulars don’t need, like how congregations are organized geographically into dioceses. They also share with us all the activities they are involved in from rummage sales to mission trips to helping the hungry and homeless. One of their programs is Church Street Eats, which Susan Campbell profiled in her column back in June. On a more practical level, the bulletin clearly indicated when to sit and stand. The only unclear moment was during collection. The instructions said to stand. I’ve never seen people stand during collection, and many others attending this service must have had the same thought. Some stood, some sat. When I returned during a normal service, which I assumed was attended mainly by regulars, the same confusion existed, with about half the congregation standing.

The jazz mass included “Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Dean Pendleton, when it came time for the homily, apologized for the”hellfire theme”, but explained that the readings are chosen by the Episcopal Church. What was memorable about his talk was that he referenced Toy Story and how the characters respond when they are about to be sent into an oven. Having never seen any of the Toy Story films, this message was totally lost on me, but I understand that I am rare in my lack of popular movie knowledge.

After the jazz mass, a large number of people stuck around for “coffee,” which was one of the best spreads that I have seen. They actually were not serving coffee, but lemonade and iced tea. The lack of coffee can be rectified by a quick trip down the block to JoJo’s, which is another perk of being located in the central business district: no isolation. A few long tables were covered in food options: fruit salad, breads, brownies, cookies, and cake. I skipped out on “Fellowship Hour” after the regular service, but the bulletin indicated that there was one. My guess is they do not have a huge cake there every Sunday.

The regular service was more subdued, and was led by Rev. Leigh C. Preston and Rev. Rachel W. Thomas. In this bulletin, there was a note about decorum before the service:

we commend the keeping of silence. “It is seldom,” writes one Christian, “That God finds a soul quiet enough to speak to.” Think of the holiness and power of God into who presence we come in humility and reverence.

While this was upheld in the pews, there was chatter at the entrance; this seemed like a kind of compromise. People greeted each other warmly, but were then respectful of the right to silence. Even the children attending mass knew enough to behave. The “passing of peace” seemed extended. I had done the obligatory greeting of everyone at arm’s reach and was ready to take my seat when I noticed a number of folks exited the pews to walk about and meet with people on the other side of the church. They earn points for being friendly at appropriate times.

The readings this week still involved hellfire: “The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52). I can appreciate the vivid poetry here, but little else. During this heatwave I already felt like I was in a furnace of fire; I could only shrug at the message. I also struggled to see what this had to do with the first reading, but sometimes they really just do not line up so much; this reflects the Episcopal Church more than Christ Church Cathedral, which as was pointed out earlier, needs to work with what is handed down to them. Thus, the focus was not on the hellfire. Instead, the part about a calling (Romans 8:26-39) was analyzed; to paraphrase– “we think God calling us is going to sound like a great booming voice, but it won’t. God doesn’t want you to be like Moses. God wants you to be like yourself.” The preaching was a little animated, but not overboard. It’s enough to maintain one’s attention without seeming contrived. Then, there was a reference to the mustard seed from Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52, and the reverend talked about a mustard seed necklace she was given as a child, and about all one needs is the tiniest amount of faith, and that uncertainty is okay.

My favorite part, however, was the chanting of the Eucharistic Prayer. The rest of the music was fairly standard. The entire service lasted about one hour. People tended to dress business casual; a few went more formal than that, but I saw no one wearing jeans or short shorts. And yes, I have witnessed people wear daisy dukes to church services elsewhere.

Without stepping foot in the cathedral, you can hear dozens of sermons and selections of music played on CCC’s organ, thanks to the magic of the interwebs. This is a fine way to preview whether or not this might be a place for you; it also is a nice way to make more accessible the sermons to those who have schedule conflicts, sickness, etc., and can not make it to the cathedral.


Stronger Points: Dixieland Jazz Mass and chanting. Being surrounded by history. A balcony. Decent sound system and clergy who speak clearly and enthusiastically. Welcoming congregation. Being, as Susan Campbell writes, “one of the few places the homeless and hungry can get a free weekend meal in Hartford.”

Weaker Points: That the Dixieland Jazz Mass is not every Sunday. Bicycles are not exactly welcomed on the property.

This is a difficult one to rate. The regular service was certainly worth getting out of bed for, but the jazz mass was a higher level of awesome.

Christ Church Cathedral is located at 45 Church Street in Hartford, CT. There is on- and off-street parking available. It is on a main bus route. Bike parking appears limited to sign posts that are not on the church property.

Reprinted with permission of Kerri Provost, author of the blog RealHartford. To view other stories on this topic, search RealHartford at http://www.realhartford.org/.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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