A Sermon Preached at the Consecration of Christ Church, New Haven, January 6, 1854 (Fr Thomas Clap Pitkin)
The one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Christ Church parish was celebrated in 2004, the sesquicentennial of our founding as a mission, and culminated in 2006, the anniversary of our achieving parish status. In the mid-nineteenth century many new parishes were born in the Episcopal Church with a mission to make practical the renewed High Church theology and fervor found in English and American seminaries. The connections of Christ Church to the Catholic, sacramental theology of the Tractarians (the Oxford Movement) and also to New Haven’s poor and dispossessed have been hallmarks of the parish from its founding, and today are strong in our consciousness.
We were founded in 1854 as a mission of the city’s first Episcopal parish, Trinity. There was no church beyond the city center, and the small structure of the first Christ Church was erected on the edge of town, adjacent to the almshouse and the town farm, an area then called Poverty Square. The much needed church was created by the zeal and generosity of the three Edwards sisters, parishioners of Trinity who were strong adherents of the Oxford Movement. The early mission enabled New Haven Episcopalians to receive Holy Communion more than once a month and to attend Morning and Evening Prayer services during the week. By 1856, attendance at Christ Church had grown to ninety-three families with over one hundred and fifty Sunday School children. The Rev'd Joseph Brewster was called as our first rector, and a Relief Society was established to enable congregants to aid the poor.
Under the rectorship of Erasmus Van Deerlin (1884–86) and George Brinley Morgan (1887–1908) we developed as one of the early Episcopal congregations to focus fully on the Eucharist, reverently and solemnly observed, as the standard of the Church’s worship of God. Dr. Morgan used the parish newsletter, the “Chronicle,” to instruct and encourage the parish in advanced matters of high churchmanship such as Eucharistic vestments and lights on the altar, the sign of the cross, the rule of Lent, the Daily Office, the offering of Mass on weekdays, and the use of the Eucharist at funerals. From 1895–98 Fr. Morgan oversaw the construction of the current church, a masterpiece by the Gothic revival architect, Henry Vaughan. Vaughan designed both the building itself, and also the interior fixtures and decorations, including ornate mahogany carvings by the Bavarian sculptorJohannes Kirchmayer. The completion of this elaborate building enabled the blossoming of Christ Church as a center of Anglo-Catholic worship and devotion.
This reached full bloom in the rectorships of Frederick Burgess (1909–12) and William Osborne Baker (1913–34). In 1910, the Blessed Sacrament was reserved in the Lady Chapel, incense was used in the High Mass, and Mass was offered daily, with special observance of holy days. In the same year Fr. Burgess established deaconesses in habit (eventually three in number) to be resident at Christ Church; they would serve the sacristy of the church, the children of the church school, and the poor and orphaned of New Haven until the early seventies. Fr. Baker was active in the Anglo-Catholic movement internationally; under his leadership the parish hosted the first American Catholic Congress of the Episcopal Church in 1925.
In the decades that followed, under the rectorships of C. Clark Kennedy (1934–49) and William G. Kibitz (1949–77), Christ Church maintained its tradition of solemn liturgy and Catholic devotion while serving the surrounding community. For years the residents of a nearby state orphanage were brought to the parish for Sunday services. In 1961, Fr. Kibitz oversaw the addition to the church of a new parish house and rectory designed in the modern style. He also oversaw significant giving to the church’s endowment and the construction of the nearby Seabury Apartment complex used for housing for seniors on a fixed income. The Rev’d David Boulton (rector from 1978–83) made good use of the large dining hall when the independently financed Community Soup Kitchen needed a new home. Today, it is New Haven’s primary soup kitchen, providing a vital ministry to the urban poor. Fr. Boulton also began our current practice of allowing AA and other such groups to meet in the parish lounge on weekday evenings.
Under the rectorship Jerald G. Miner (1985–95) the 1979 Book of Common Prayer was adopted as our missal, while the structure, tradition, and solemnity of our Services were changed very little; and the 1982 Hymnal was introduced. Women had already been raised up for the priesthood or served at the altar under Frs. Kibitz and Boulton, and Fr. Miner now appointed, in turn, female as well as male curates. An evangelism committee was organized. The laity (led especially by one curate or another) began to lead new ministries for the spiritual formation and Christian witness of gays and lesbians in the parish and larger community, the spiritual formation of parish women, aid to poor and homeless women and children who otherwise were slipping through the social services net, and delivery of the Eucharist to the sick and shut-in. New dialogue was begun with neighborhood residents, businesses, and the Soup Kitchen. Lay leadership revitalized the curriculum and staffing of the Church School.
Under the recent rectorship of Charles S Gilman, Jr. (1998-2002) Christ Church celebrated the hundredth anniversary of Henry Vaughan’s church, a masterpiece of architecture, with a year of festive Solemn Masses culminating with a rededication of the building by the Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev’d Frank Griswold, on the Eve of Pentecost. Beginning in 1998, the church provided offices and a student center for the Episcopal Church at Yale, a chaplaincy which maintains independent worship services on the Yale campus and which provides pastoral support to undergraduates. Christ Church became the national office for Affirming Anglican Catholicism, an organization of Catholic Anglicans in England, Canada, and America which studies and encourages the compatibility of progressive social issues and orthodox Christian theology. The Undercroft Bookstore was begun by our curate, the Rev’d Susan McCone, providing a good resource of often hard-to-find works of theology, as well as the national sale of Christ Church’s unique blend of incense. With Berkeley Divinity School, the church hosted “The Holiness of Beauty,” a national conference of Affirming Catholicism focused on the connection of spirituality and the arts. Under the guidance of the Rt. Rev’d Keith Whitmore, Bishop of Eau Claire, the Vestry committed itself to the goals of maintaining Christ Church as a national center of progressive Anglo-Catholicism, doubling church membership, and both growing and lessening dependence on the church endowment. These goals continue to be pursued by the parish leadership under Fr. Cobb’s direction.