- Associated Press - Monday, May 9, 2016

WEST BARNSTABLE, Mass. (AP) - Take note Plymouth and Provincetown. There’s another 400th anniversary being celebrated in the region, and it starts this week, four years before yours.

West Parish of Barnstable, whose beginnings can be traced back to England in 1616, is widely recognized as the world’s oldest congregational church.

A series of events at its historic 1717 Meetinghouse on Route 149 in West Barnstable planned through the remainder of the year will commemorate the 400-year milestone of this congregation.

The celebration kicks off at 10 a.m. May 15 with a special service re-enacting worship in 1717, complete with parishioners in period costumes and appropriate props of the era.

“I have not seen or heard anyone question that this church (West Parish) is the oldest to use congregational in its name,” said the Rev. David Powers, a historian and retired minister in the United Church of Christ who served at the Dennis Union Church. “The term ‘congregational’ emerged out of that independent group in London that eventually moved to Scituate and then to Barnstable.”

The “congregation” was founded in 1616 by the Rev. Henry Jacob and his followers after a break from the Church of England.

The concept of congregationalism is based on a covenant among believers, as opposed to worship based on a hierarchical model where authority flows from the top down, according to Reed Baer, the current and 36th pastor of West Parish of Barnstable.

Rev. John Lothrop succeeded Jacob in 1623, but he and 42 of his followers were sent to prison. Upon their release in 1634, they set sail for New England, setting up a community in Scituate before leaving for Barnstable in 1639, where the congregation has remained since.

“The history of the town of Barnstable is in lockstep with the history of the West Parish congregation,” said Margaret Housman, West Parish historian. “You can’t separate the two.”

The Lothrop Bible, which traveled with Lothrop from England in 1634, is part of the collection of the Sturgis Library in Barnstable Village, which was once Lothrop’s home and where he conducted some of his early religious meetings.

Fast forward to 2016, where the congregation and its meetinghouse, though centuries old and historic, have embraced modern times.

West Parish of Barnstable, with 280 members, is a member of the United Church of Christ, which Baer refers to as progressive, open and affirming. The congregation’s statement of welcome embraces “all people regardless of race, gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability or economic circumstance.”

“What I love about this church is that it has an incredibly rich history, yet is very forward-looking,” Baer said. “We are faithful in our own time.”

The parish even conducts same-sex marriages, according to Baer.

In addition, West Parish members are active in the community, assisting the homeless and children, among others. During this year of celebration, the congregation has embarked upon a “400 hours for 400 years” campaign for community volunteer efforts, which Baer said he expects will be much more than 400 hours once the work time is tallied.

Baer, who calls himself a “recovering lawyer” who worked in the high-tech industry in the Boston area, has been pastor of West Parish of Barnstable for 18 years. His wife, Christie, is associate pastor of the parish and leads the congregation’s popular and contemporary Saturday afternoon service, which is geared to families with children who would otherwise not be available to attend a Sunday morning worship service.

When asked to look ahead to year 401 and beyond for West Parish of Barnstable, it was all about community for Baer.

“We will continue to look for new ways we can be of service to the wider community,” he said.

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Information from: Cape Cod (Mass.) Times, http://www.capecodtimes.com

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