On Sunday at 10 a.m., the Rev. John Branson will look out over the majestic sanctuary at Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church as he leads his final service as rector of the parish. After more than 21 years, Branson is retiring as the chief cleric of the downtown church, home to a congregation of about 500 members.
Under Branson's leadership, Christ & Holy Trinity's physical space and its ministries have grown substantially. One of the landmark building projects of the last generation in downtown Westport was the construction of the church's 3,000-square-foot Great Hall. That addition, which cost close to $5 million and was completed last year, culminated a seven-year capital campaign, "New Foundations of Faith," launched by the church in 2004.
The Great Hall serves the church's ministries, including its preschool, church school and youth programs, choirs, and its music and arts program. The hall also functions as a meeting space for scores of community organizations, such as the Boy Scouts, Alcoholics Anonymous and guide dog training programs.
Following the massive fire that ravaged neighboring Saugatuck Congregational Church last November, Christ & Holy Trinity leaders offered their Great Hall for Saugatuck to host both its community Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.
Branson, 64, has also overseen the expansion of the church's ministries. In recent years, the church's youth group has taken mission trips to Mexico, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, as well as the Gulf Coast region following Hurricane Katrina. Closer to home, the church partners with Habitat for Humanity to build homes in Bridgeport and Stamford.
During Branson's ministry, the Christ & Holy Trinity congregation has increased from about 350 families and individuals when he arrived to its current total of about 500.
A native of Concord, N.H., Branson arrived at Christ & Holy Trinity in January 1991 after a 10-year ministry at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Chatham, N.J. He previously spent seven years at Trinity Episcopal Church in Hartford, which followed his ordainment in 1974. He studied at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, Yale Divinity School and the Center for Christian Spirituality at the General Theological Seminary in Manhattan.
Branson sat down with the Westport News this week in his Christ & Holy Trinity office to discuss his ministry in Westport, the growth of the parish and the future role of the Episcopal church in the lives of its congregants.
Q: How has the Christ & Holy Trinity congregation changed during your ministry?
A: We've become woven into the wider fabric of Westport and its community life in its variety of activities -- whether it be various arts programs, athletic programs, or endeavors in town to attend to the needs of young people, some of the elderly, as well as newcomers to the town.
We also have a strengthened network with the various faith communities in the town. We have a stronger relationship with other Christians and Jews in town. Also, we have increased awareness of those beyond town -- whether they be in Bridgeport or Mexico or the Dominican Republic or in Africa.
The change that has occurred at Christ & Holy Trinity is a stronger wovenness with others, both here, in Bridgeport and farther away.
Q: What is unique about the Christ & Holy Trinity congregation?
A: We've been blessed with a wonderfully rich heritage, originally from the Church of England, a heritage that emphasizes aspects of worship and liturgy and music and an aesthetic as it relates to beauty. And the challenge is to take that orientation to a certain aesthetic and translate it by means of the Gospel of Christ into the world in a way that the wider world comprehends and appreciates.
Some of the parables of Jesus speak of taking the resources with which we have been blessed and using them not for our own sakes, but using them for the sake of the kingdom of God and for our sisters and brothers in the world, and especially those in need. It's a matter of claiming the Church of England heritage, but then using it in such a way that it really serves the wider needs of various communities and not to keep it closed to ourselves, but to be able to share it with the wider world and especially those in need.
Q: What is the importance of the church's capital assets such as the Great Hall?
A: We've literally invited the wider community in to use these resources. We've formed a kind of slogan or theme called "sheltering body and soul," where we reach out to others so they can be in this place for a period of time to recollect themselves and go back into the world strengthened and empowered to do their work and ministry in the world.
We find that having physical structures that can embrace people for a period of time, then renew them and send them forth into the world is a very important part of our life, similar to what a home is. It's a place where we come back to find shelter, but it's also a place we go out from to do our work and live our lives in the world.
Q: How does the church relate to other institutions in downtown Westport?
A: This church is wonderfully positioned downtown, where it can be a resource to the wider community in many different respects.
In the hub of the community is the need for the spiritual aspect, so that the religious fabric is woven into a thriving downtown community, where you have retail and the cultural and the arts, as well as the religious, as well as orientations toward learning like the library, as well as the Family Y. We very much want to be part of that mix, so that our resources can be utilized and people can remember the importance of their spiritual life.
Q: What are your retirement plans?
A: My wife and I are moving to Fearrington, N.C. We've purchased a home, so we're going to be working on that.
We now live in a house that is provided by the church, a rectory. For the first time, we're moving into our own home, as opposed to living in church-provided space.
Likely after Christmas, we will begin to serve other churches in a capacity as assistants and as an interim, but the full-time ministry as being rector of a church, we're stepping back from that responsibility. But after Christmas, we'll probably serve in some capacity in some of the churches either down there or perhaps other parts of the country.
This is a significant leap of faith into a new place and a new way of living.
Q: How do you envision the role of the church in congregants' lives in the future?
A: We need to identify Christ & Holy Trinity as an Episcopal church as one of what we call the "mainline" denominations. And the mainline churches are in the midst of a very precipitous decline as far as attendance and numbers are concerned.
Whereas, after the second World War, mainline churches had significant influence in American life, our influence is waning. While the more evangelical churches have come to prominence in the last 20 years, the mainline churches still have a significant role in the education and moral development of our parishioners and especially our young people.
During the age of technology, how we live in the world is still established by a strong foundation of moral principles, standards and guidelines that the church provides and by which we prepare our young people for their future role in the world.
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