Battell Chapel adjusts to new worship model

After severing its 200-year tie with the United Church of Christ last May, Battell Chapel opened its doors last Sunday to students and community members in a new spirit of ecumenicalism.

The controversial split was approved by University officials last spring as a part of a multi-faceted plan to serve a religiously diverse student body. Associate University Pastor and Deputy Secretary Martha Highsmith said she saw the large attendance at Sunday’s service — approximately 100 students and twice as many community members — as a manifestation of enthusiasm for Battell’s new mission, though University Chaplain Frederick Streets said the response was not uniformly positive.

Highsmith said although Battell was originally founded by students, since the 1970s its focus had been increasingly shifting towards the greater New Haven community. Now, she said, Battell is returning to its original mission: to serve religious and spiritual needs on campus.

Highsmith said Sunday’s service encompassed a range of cultural traditions, featuring traditional hymns alongside African-American Gospel songs and live saxophone music.

“The music represented a variety of cultures and traditions,” she said. “We wanted the liturgy to be internationally welcoming to the students.”

While Streets said he was impressed by the turnout at Sunday’s service, he also said there have been negative reactions from many members of the UCC who resisted the initial split. Those members wanted to preserve the historical relationship between the Church of Christ at Yale and the UCC, which descended from the Congregationalists who helped to found the University.

More immediately, student deacon Tyler Guth ’08 said he observed that many people seemed uncomfortable during the service.

“Battell attracts Protestants primarily, and the Protestant students who attended are not used to this type of service,” he said. “I think it’s impossible for one church to reach out to so many denominations at the same time and still maintain a coherent model of worship.”

Two new staff members will advise Battell in further redesigning the service. Siobhan Garrigan, director of chapel worship, said she plans to incorporate symbolism and text from all major Christian traditions into the service at Battell. Patrick Evans, director of chapel music, will focus on selecting music in an effort to make Battell’s service all-inclusive.

“We are embracing many traditions and drawing on lots of different resources,” Evans said. “Yale is a very diverse place in terms of religious experience and must be open to all kinds of backgrounds.”

Streets said that apart from transforming the Sunday service, other changes have been made to welcome students to Battell, including reactivating student deacons and providing service and learning opportunities for students.

The Rev. Susan Olson DIV ’93, program coordinator for church life, said that she is planning mission trips, Bible studies, fellowships, and discussion groups in an effort to reach out to students and involve them in Battell’s activities.

“We are planning on a lot more outreach than in the previous years,” she said.

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