As many of you know who are following this blog, St. Giles and Centenary churches are in the final phase of a dynamic discussion of amalgamation. The plan now is for both congregations to vote on the merger definitively on February 23 2014.
This afternoon the One Main Street Choir and its guest The Tempus Choral Society of Oakville offered their annual “Gateway to Christmas” service of music and readings at the Centenary site. It was a splendid program, shaped around some very fine singing of the Christmas movements of Handel’s Messiah. As is customary I offer a few words of welcome somewhere near the one-third mark of the service, giving thanks to One Main Street’s music director Brian Turnbull, the choirs, and then asking those who attend to dig deeply and generously into their pockets for the work of both choirs.
It seems plausible that a One Main Street United Church (with whatever permanent name it decides upon for itself) will not be choosing to be a rebirth congregation at either the St. Giles or the Centenary sites. Neither building is likely a fit for the mission and purposes of this new congregation. So I found myself trying to understand and to share that understanding with those gathered this afternoon.
I looked up at the sparsely attending group and I said that in the four and a half years I have been minister in this place I have never once preached from the pulpit. I have stood behind that pulpit once (on a Tuesday afternoon I think about two years ago) and looked out on the pews that I had read somewhere once sat about 1500 people and were full. I spoke that Tuesday afternoon alone in the sanctuary in a preacher’s voice from the pulpit unaided by amplification. My voice soared into the space easily and clearly. The Centenary church was built in 1868 as a preacher’s space. It was built for my voice.
It was built for the preaching of the word.
No wonder, then, that the Centenary sanctuary is a beautiful place for choral and instrumental music. The Gateway to Christmas service attested to this in so many ways. The parts in the singing were clear to be heard, no muddledness from the acoustic, reverberation from the large choruses piling up in richer and richer tapestries of sound.
And yet, this building and the Centenary congregation just appeared together in 1868. There was no gathering of a small band of people wanting to start a church worshipping in a school hall somewhere nearby. There was just a need in bustling 19th century Hamilton in which Methodism was a vital part for another sanctuary to accommodate the overflowing number of Methodists in town.
There was a grace that informed that appearance of building and congregation, a grace that informs all our efforts as people of faith to be better people than we are. The building itself now appears no longer to serve us in our efforts as people of faith to be better people than we are. The pews have been a long time without anywhere near those 1500 people they could sit. But the grace in which Centenary appeared in 1868 is also the grace in which something new is being born in the merging of St. Giles and Centenary.
The song we heard sung today in the Centenary sanctuary is a gateway through which we all may go with thanksgiving and joy to the new life that just awaits our realization.