Long Ridge United Methodist Church
Long Ridge United Methodist Church, West Redding CT
Just as my enjoyment of a feast of chateaubriand and salmon does not mitigate my enjoyment of a BTL with fresh ingredients on white toast, so my celebration of a grand ceremony in a fishy cathedral does not lessen my appreciation for simple worship in a small meeting house. There were no bagpipes and tartans this Sunday, but plenty of warmth and enthusiasm as I returned to the church where my preaching career began. The present pastor, like me in June 1953, has just begun her time with that congregation of Connecticut Yankees, some of whom trace roots to the land and the church a hundred years and more. Pastor Marion Ryan Hubbard is fifty-two and a student at Drew Seminary, a resident of nearby Bethel, a former and very devout Roman Catholic in Woodside, Queens, who has found a home and a ministry among Methodists.
In the winter of 1955 I wrote a paper for a professor of sociology at seminary. The subject was church and community in West Redding CT. I noted then the trickle of exurbanites, mostly from New York, people who found the idyllic Connecticut hills a respite from the rush and tumble of the big city. Among the residents and constituents of that small church were Charles and Harmony Ives (he was America's first and foremost composer of modern music), Walter Tittle (a portrait artist of the literati and celebrities of the 1920's), and Jean Dalrymple (director of New York City Center's dramatic productions). The "locals," people who provided skilled services for these exurbanites and others, pretty much ran the church. I foresaw the day when the outsiders would outnumber the insiders and wondered what struggles awaited that little church.
Well, not to worry: fifty years later the church is peopled by a similar mix of souls on the socio-economic and academic measures of status. Young families with lively children filled the benches. Only one couple remembered Bob and Barbara Howard. I participated in their wedding service in 1956. They lived for the next forty years in New Jersey, returning in 1995 to provide care for her aged mother. No, I didn't recognize them, but they spotted me during the Passing of the Peace. We lingered beyond the coffee hour, gabbing happily and closing up the church, just as in the days recently past in my last appointment.
The little church is alive and well fifty years later, with plenty of warmth and Gospel simplicity in the service of Christ's summons to make the world like the kingdom of God. Like I hinted earlier, I do enjoy a well-made BTL as much as a medium rare filet mignon.
Building: a New England meeting house on a country road off a narrow and winding thoroughfare. The outdoor plumbing has yielded to modern expectations and environmental restrictions. The two-seater is now a storage shed. The kitchen, begun a few years after my departure, now has a commercial stove and every device necessary to make country suppers frequent occurrences on the church calendar. The sanctuary can accommodate one hundred worshipers, one hundred ten if the single slave bench in the balcony is occupied. The windows are clear, the seats are cushioned, and the decor is white, white, white. A small wooden cross is suspended on thin, almost invisible, fish line over the entrance to the pulpit and choir. The communion table, in my day recessed behind the communion rail, stands now in front of the first bench. Perched on the table, large candles, the size of firewood logs, burned a warm and holy greeting as we arrived. New lamps, eight of them, in the manner of chandeliers, hung from the ceiling. A lovely rose window of opalescent glass brightened the wall behind the choir. The electronic organ, far better than the Hammond Mr Goodfield played in my day, filled one corner of the room.
Welcome: we were outfitted immediately with name tags by a friendly usher so, she told us, "the pastor can say your name when she serves you communion." I got the distinct impression that many of those present that morning were relatively new to the church, didn't know each other, and certainly had never heard of me.
Children: Pastor Hubbard was not like her nursery rhyme namesake: she went to her cupboard and found it full of food, the better to tell the children a personal story about feeding the birds, and reinforcing the story with a small bag of bird feed for each child, summoning them to love God's winged and (un-winged) creatures. One bubbly boy, with a round cherubic face, was irresistible in his willingness to volunteer all kinds of irrelevant information. Someone should sign him up for the Bill Cosby TV show. If I were seven instead of seventy, I would find the new pastor fun to be with... even up front where people stare at you.
Music: two of the three hymns sung by the congregation were to be found in a special hymnbook of contemporary hymns, apparently from an ecumenical press (meaning a strong influence of modern Roman Catholic music sensibility), much better than those supplements, providing praise songs, I've found in many pew racks. The organist played a meditative prelude and a rousing postlude, appealing adornments to the worship I would not have anticipated in a small country church. But the difficulty of the music and her competence in playing it suggests the church may have at the console someone who is a professional musician.
Sermon: well, the illustrations, charming as they were, did not reinforce the points being made, but at the start of any career one is allowed some latitude. The lection for the day was Jesus' verbal whacking of the Pharisees. The preacher's take on the text focused on the Pharisaical need to receive special treatment... a habit of mind from which clergy are not exempt. In God's eyes we are all special. The sacrament of holy communion, for which the table was set this morning, shows just how special God deems us, giving his own Son to nourish our lives by the offering of his own life. What Pastor Hubbard may have lost with an imprecision of expression, she more than made up for with directness, openness, and personal warmth... and, for me, that wonderful echo I heard of my New York City.
Other Items of Note: the printed order of worship, with crisp and clear print, was singular for the day, not like fifty years ago, when we observed paperless Sundays. Small church, yes, but one with literate, caring, and accomplished personnel.
On the way to the church and on the way home we took note of Calvary Baptist Church, now occupying the building where a country general store once sold goods at much higher prices than the nearest mall. The parking lot was filled with cars. A couple of telltale signs suggest to me it is probably a hardshell Baptist church, fundamentalist and evangelistic. The United Methodist's corner on the ecclesiastical market in West Redding has been challenged. The Baptist presence also hints at the influx of (a) Southerners and (b) working class Christians. I would also speculate that many of the Baptist parishioners find their way to the church from a far greater distance than those attending Long Ridge UMC.
Rating: four haloes, but if you name isn't Bobby Howard, you might be inclined to reducing the number to three and a half.