Majesty & Faith
Christ Church, one of the oldest and most historic churches in the United States, embarks on a journey of restorative grandeur
(page 2 of 2)
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.”