Majesty & Faith

Christ Church, one of the oldest and most historic churches in the United States, embarks on a journey of restorative grandeur



Christ Church in Greenwich is a triumph of wealth and Trinitarianism in this leafy corner of the United States,” John Cheever wrote in his journal in 1960. “To be buried from this chancel would, it seems, assure one a place in Heaven.”

Well, yes. This grand Episcopal church does seem like that sort of place. The crenellated bluestone tower, the imposing Gothic arches, the dazzling stained glass windows made by Gorham and Tiffany—but wait, wait. Have you noticed that odd black fabric swaddling the sanctuary’s upper edifice? It looks like some sort of very gloomy memorial. But it’s actually safety netting, to ensure that no churchgoer gets clocked on the head by a chunk of falling granite and is thus buried from that glorious chancel before he is quite ready.

Then, too, one hears that the massive “Transfiguration” window on the front façade—depicting Jesus on a mountaintop suffused with God’s light—is in danger of, er… “falling out?” the Rev. Dr. James B. Lemler offers helpfully. “Yes. Every hundred years, you need to do some restoration of windows around the leading and that sort of thing. The problem with the big windows here has been the wood and terra-cotta that hold them in have deteriorated so badly that it’s possible that they could begin to collapse.”

“We did lose a window last year—a minor one on the side,” adds Carter Harris, the church’s senior warden. “To lose the Transfiguration window would be a tragedy.”

These historically sensitive structural fixes require gobs of cash. This is to say nothing of the church’s substandard boilers, water-damaged ceilings, drafty,
energy-inefficient spaces, and peeling paint and plaster in the sanctuary—“our most sacred space,” Harris notes. To address all this and more, Christ Church has embarked on a capital campaign—called “Rise Up, Restore, Rejoice!”—that aims to raise a cool $10 million. One is tempted to think, No problem, this is Christ Church, “one of the biggest, oldest, and richest Episcopal churches in the United States,” The New York Times says, and the spiritual home of Rockefellers, Havemeyers, Converses and in more recent times, Bushes.

But the notion that Christ Church is made of money appears to be overstated. “We’ve named that the ‘bullion in the basement’ syndrome,” says Rev. Lemler, a tall, gentle, funny man who has been the church’s rector since 2008. “People just think we go down and shave some off as we need it, and of course that’s not the case.”

Actually, Lemler has steered the church past a bumpy phase marked by scandal (the 2008 conviction of an esteemed music director for possessing child pornography), wilting morale and declining attendance—the latter an issue for churches everywhere. Christ Church is firmly back on track now, but its bigness, both in terms of physical size and mission, can be taxing. The church’s campus ranges across ten acres, and includes not only the great stone structures of 1910—church, parish house and (former) rectory—but also a chapel, a nursery school and the 1861 Tomes-Higgins house, designed by Calvert Vaux. Christ Church bought Tomes-Higgins in 1963, voted narrowly (and thus divisively) to keep it in 1981, when it was falling into disrepair, and restored it at great expense in 1997. “Now the campus is like the village green of Greenwich,” observes Marnie Dawson Carr, who recalls parishioners braving a snowstorm to vote on the fate of Tomes-Higgins.

 

Cornerstone of Community

Christ Church’s mission has nothing of the insularity of a country church. The campus hosts around 50,000 meetings a year, church-related and not. “The third oldest Alcoholics Anonymous group in America is here, for example,” says Rev. Lemler. Neighbor to Neighbor, which provides food and clothing to residents in need, is quartered at Christ Church, as is the Greenwich Suzuki Academy, whose cello music wafts down to Rev. Lemler’s office on weekday afternoons. Christ Church paved the way for Temple Shalom to build on former church property next door in 1955, and today hosts the nondenominational Trinity Church during summer. The church’s outward gaze travels far beyond the community. Priscilla Meek, wife of advertising giant Sam Meek and head of the church’s refugee committee, won international praise in the fifties for aiding displaced Hungarians. Her mission was carried on in the seventies and after by Marnie Dawson Carr, who, working with the national church, resettled refugees from other troubled lands.

“We believe strongly that our call is hospitality,” Rev. Lemler says. “Hospitality in every sense of the word.”

In Christ Church’s long and colorful history, hospitality was not always an option. In colonial New England, Congregationalism was the state religion, and it viewed the minority Episcopalians (called Anglicans then) with distrust. “We actually have documentation that when the first priest came to celebrate the Eucharist at the Knapp Tavern across the street—the Knapps were loyal Anglicans—he had to be accompanied by the sheriff of the county, because there were threats against his person,” Rev. Lemler says, chuckling. “That was in 1705.”

The Anglicans built Horseneck Chapel on the brow of Put’s Hill in 1749, and laid the stone steps, down which General Israel Putnam later escaped inrushing British troops. During the war, Connecticut Anglicans were fierce loyalists, unlike southern Anglicans such as George Washington; and with the British defeat their church lay in tatters. But under the leadership of Samuel Seabury (1729–1796), the first American Episcopal bishop, who once preached at Horseneck Chapel, the church quickly regained its footing, untethered to the Church of England, though Episcopalians are still a “province” of the worldwide Anglican communion.

In America, Episcopalianism has always been associated with the well educated and the socially active; fourteen Presidents of the United States have been Episcopalian, far more than any other denomination. “At one point, half of the United States was Episcopalian,” says Marnie Dawson Carr of the mid-twentieth-century years, when people used to grumble that “rich white Episcopalian men run the world.” (Carr’s father, former Time Inc. president James A. Linen, was one of them.)

Christ Church itself came to be viewed as a seat of American power brokers. Example: Parishioner Sam Pryor, executive vice president of Pan Am, secretly engineered the 1940 Presidential nomination of Wendell Willkie, a little-known internationalist who favored aiding Britain against Germany, ensuring that neither of the far more popular isolationist candidates, Thomas E. Dewey or Robert Taft, would emerge to divide the country bitterly over the war. Another parishioner, Frank Pace, served as Secretary of the Army in the fifties and was a confidante of President Eisenhower. And Prescott Bush, elected to the United States Senate in 1952, spawned a line of presidents.

Christ Church’s “outwardness” is a manifestation of its hospitality. But if hospitality begins at home, then “home” too must occasionally get loving care, for the church is more than a pile of stone and glass. Rather, as John Cheever wrote in a slightly different context, it expresses “the unequalled poetry of our faith.”    

 

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