Attending a service at the Second Congregational Church last Sunday was a return to familiar ground, but with some very noticeable differences. The most prominent one was that the church is openly concerned about its future.
Both the First Congregational Church and Second Congregational Church are part of the United Church of Christ, the denomination I’ve been attending my whole life. When I first moved to New London, I would alternate between the two churches. As my attendance became more sporadic, I wound up attending the First Congregational Church on the Sundays when I was able to make it into a pew.
The challenge facing both churches is the same one that is facing older congregations across the country: how to maintain a large, historic church building with a smaller, often older membership. Each Congregational church has another denomination renting the space for their own services, an arrangement that is not uncommon in other larger church buildings around the city. The Second Congregational Church is also exploring a new building relationship with the Drop-In Learning Center.
Rev. Matthew McCaffrey, the interim pastor at the church, wove the situation into his sermon about fears of a punitive God. McCaffrey said one should not blame God or blame the victims of tragedy or hardship as sinful, but rather to pay extra attention to one’s own conduct and seek spiritual guidance.
“It’s not about God pulling the strings…It’s about ourselves turning and repenting,” said McCaffrey.
McCaffrey said he had been reading about the history of the church and learned that it had its own brushes with hardship, notably the destruction of its first building by fire and the later burning of its newly renovated parish hall. McCaffrey said the church was able to recover from both incidents, but said it would be more challenging to respond to such disasters today due to the current shrunken membership. He said the congregation should be looking to nurture and grow the church, but that it might have to make difficult decisions in order to do so.
The service followed the usual order of prayers, Bible readings, and hymns, with communion as well since it was the first Sunday of the month. The congregation boasted enough singers to sustain a small choir. The building itself is a towering stone structure, the spire easily recognizable in the New London skyline, with a recessed altar, rounded balconies, and simple stained glass windows.
McCaffrey said the Second Congregational Church has a somewhat “maverick” history, which includes ties to the Underground Railroad. He said he considers the congregation to be more adventurous and progressive, with members who are open and inclusive.
“It’s a faithful church. The folks who are here are really working hard to discern what God wants for them,” he said.
Ellen Scala, who has attended the church for 16 years, said she was raised as a Unitarian while her husband was raised as a Catholic; she thought the Congregationalist service was a good balance between the faiths. However, Scala was also concerned about the church, saying several people have left in recent years.
“It is a commitment to the people at this point,” she said.
Dolly Sanders, who has been a member for about 24 years, said members are doing their best to meet expenses and keep the church running. She said she chose the congregation after visiting several churches in Groton and New London.
“It’s a very warm church,” she said. “People are very friendly here.”
Sunday services at the Second Congregational Church start at 10 a.m.