University Church in Yale marks 250 years of tradition and reform
New Haven, Conn. — The University Church in Yale, the oldest continuously operating college church in the nation, will mark its 250th year with a series of events this fall that will begin with a special anniversary service on Oct. 7, featuring renowned preacher Barbara Brown Taylor.
The worship service will take place at 10:30 a.m. in Battell Chapel, corner of Elm and College streets. All are welcome.
An Episcopalian priest since 1984, Taylor has been described as one of the most effective preachers in the English-speaking world. She teaches at Piedmont College and at Columbia Theological Seminary, both in Georgia. Before becoming a full-time teacher, Taylor spent 15 years in parish ministry. In recent years, she has lectured at Yale, Princeton and Duke universities, and has preached at churches across the country. She is the author of 11 books, including “When God is Silent,” “Home By Another Way” and “Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith,” which received the 2006 award for Best General Interest Book from the Association of Theological Booksellers.
The Oct. 7 service will also feature the debut of a hymn by Thomas Troeger, the J. Edward and Ruth Cox Lantz Professor of Christian Communication at Yale Divinity School, as well as a choir concert. A reception will follow.
Other 250th anniversary events will include an exhibition on the history of the church at the nave of Sterling Memorial Library and a choir concert featuring past and former University organists performing music of the church’s history. Details on those events will be announced separately.
Throughout its history, the University Church has mixed tradition with reform. The president and fellows of Yale established the church in 1757 in response to a petition from students and tutors demanding a place of worship to call their own. This generated some controversy at the time, as previously only associations of local Congregational ministers had the power to establish a church, engage a preacher and authorize the celebration of the sacraments.
Two years later, to accommodate the needs of an ever-growing student body, ground was broken for First Chapel, a building that was completed in 1763 and later became known as the Atheneum. By 1820, the booming interest and involvement in the church made necessary the construction of the Second Chapel, which was completed four years later. The church moved to its current home in Battell Chapel in 1876. The building, a memorial to those who fell in the Civil War, was considered the most beautiful college chapel of its day, and is still renowned for its Victorian Gothic architecture.
Throughout the church’s history, ministers from a wide array of Christian traditions — including Episcopalian, Congregational, Presbyterian, Lutheran and Baptist — have served as pastors to the church. Some of the most renowned preachers and leaders of the 20th century have preached at the church, including the late William Sloane Coffin, who as Yale chaplain fostered a mission of social and political justice in the church, as well as Marion Wright Edelman, Desmond Tutu and Reinhold Niebuhr.
Yale students were required to attend daily chapel services for the first 170 years of the church’s history. That ended in 1927, when the student body could no longer fit into the space of Battell Chapel, and the position of Yale chaplain was created to ensure that students retained a sense of religious duty. The Yale chaplain also served as pastor of the University Church until last spring, when the University appointed Roman Catholic laywoman Sharon Kugler as Yale chaplain, and the pastorate of the University Church became a separate post. This change reflected the fact that the Yale Chaplain’s Office, in response to the wider array of religious traditions on campus, has grown more multi-faith in focus while the University Church continues the strong tradition of Christian worship.
Today, worship at the University Church is ecumenical, drawing on the wealth of many Christian traditions and denominations. Similarly, the music in the church, led by the University Church Choir, includes a range of traditional, contemporary and global hymns, anthems and instrumental music. Worship services are held at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday year-round, with Holy Communion celebrated on the first and third Sundays of each month. Evening prayer is held at 9:15 p.m. on Wednesdays during the academic term in Dwight Chapel, 63 High St.
The University Church also sponsors a number of programs designed to foster leadership, fellowship, friendship and service among students.
The current pastor of the church is Martha Highsmith, who also serves as deputy secretary of the University. Noting that the church’s founders could not have imagined the extent of the transformation of religious life on campus, she adds, “The church continues to serve as a faithful witness of the Christian faith as lived out in an ever-changing world.”
The University Church serves all members of the Yale community and the surrounding area. Highsmith says, “You will find a warm welcome, whether you are here for a single Sunday, a semester, a college career or a lifetime.”
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