South United Methodist Church
South United Methodist Church, Manchester, Connecticut
In the course of a career of Sundays some will arrive with special demands upon the preacher. I think of that fateful Saturday night when Nikita Khrushchev's bluff was called by John F Kennedy and Russian ships bearing missiles turned back home. I think of the month of Sundays following September 11, 2001. They were mornings when worshipers listened, really listened, to what their pastor had to say. This Sunday, March 23rd, belonged, I thought, to that special category of Sabbaths.
It was a morning of great expectations... at least for me. The Iraq War had begun. Young men and women, my stand-ins, in harm's way by bullets and grenades had already perished thousands of miles from home. We drove in silence across the Connecticut River to this United Methodist Church. I was hoping for a word of grace to lift my soul from the sorrows of our nation and our world. Sure, I know, as you do, the ecclesiastical company line about war being unChristian. I didn't look for any flag-waving, would, in fact, have been turned off by holy patriotism. The pastor did read a letter from the United Methodist Bishop of New England to the churches in the Area. It was balanced in its wording, fully cognizant of the likelihood most Methodists would be worried principally about the servicemen on the front lines.
The pastor, however, felt moved by the Holy Spirit to present to his congregation a full-blown explanation as to why the war was wrong, evil, in fact, and the causation for Islamic hatred being American indifference to racism, poverty, and injustice. This diagnosis was text book liberation theology, on which he was probably nurtured in seminary. All of the usual culprits were indicted: television violence, football, and video games. In the preacher's mind, and the minds of those who share his convictions, he surely deemed his sermon prophetic.
But there I was, a recently minted layperson, looking for a word of grace. I thought of Jesus' rhetorical questions in the Sermon on the Mount: "Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?" Well, hardhearted soul that I am, more hawkish than many of my colleagues of the cloth, maybe I deserved the stone and cobra. Fact is, I couldn't get out of that building fast enough, no Coffee Hour, no small talk; dear, let's just go and have brunch at the local diner and drown our sorrows in coffee.
The pastor failed me. His zeal for righteousness made him forget to tell the truth in love. I have been there and done that myself; and, with sufficient perspective, prayed to God to forgive me. Congregants are almost as forgiving as God; and, maybe, if I knew the pastor better, had been blessed with his personal care, I might be able to give him the benefit of the doubt. But this fellow is old enough to know better.
I wouldn't return.
Welcome: we've been forming a bad habit, arriving at the church slightly, just slightly, after the service has begun. From Call to Worship to Benediction and beyond, the only people who spoke to us and we to them were those near us in the nave during the Passing of the Peace (not too bad, since the greetings were for the most part "Good morning!"; and lasted less than three minutes). Like I reported above, we got out of the place as quickly as possible.
Building: one of the most appealing rooms for worship we have found in our year of wandering from church to church. I would describe the building as Tudor, with a rook-like bell tower; a wooden ribbed plaster ceiling; cruciform with blunted arms; two balconies, one in the back and one on the side (occupied by handbell choir paraphernalia); carved wood freestanding altar piece; a divided chancel; pulpit and lectern; grand piano; and translucent windows without a single piece of stained glass. But the room gave the impression of openness and light. Very tasteful dossals of purple and white hung the walls on either side of the altar. It was an altogether lovely visual experience.
Children: none. Why is a mystery to me. I searched the website, the order of worship, and the monthly newsletter and I could find no reference to a Church School. My guess is that it is held during one of the three separate hours of worship, 8:00, 9:45, and 11:30. A Downs' Syndrome youngish man did the candlelighting and was greeted with applause.
Sermon: enuf' said... except, maybe, that the preacher was articulate and literate, if in the service of a "down" message.
Music: the hymns, three of them, did not include "Onward, Christian Soldiers" (sorry, a little sarcasm). They reiterated the peace theme of the service. One of them, "O Day of Peace That Dimly Shines," was new to me (and to the pastor), and, with its syncopated rhythms, virtually unsingable. The worship began with a prelude on the grand piano and concluded with "Let There Be Peace on Earth" on the pipe organ. The adult choir, sixteen voices, evenly divided between men and women, sang twice. The director stood in the middle of the chancel in front of the cross and used large movements of his hands and arms. I found it most distracting. But the music made was very good.
Some Quick Observations: the online website (www.gbgm-umc.org/sumc-ct) is dated and incomplete... The order of worship would benefit from the inclusion of texts for the anthems and a more careful formatting of column separation... A Litany in Time of War was inserted. Just why anyone would think litanies are aids to worship beats me: I find them wearisome, sermons in the guise of prayer, making me say things I probably wouldn't otherwise... The designated lections for the third Sunday in Lent were abandoned in favor of passages supporting the peace theme of the service. But we still endured three readings and a Psalter... The audio system was excellent... I saw no evidence of A/C... The United Methodist website lists South Church with an average Sunday attendance of 288. But, from what I counted this morning, the congregation is divided over three services, meaning that none of them overflows... A monthly newsletter was available. It was too long by several pages and absent any arresting writing. Obviously no one in the congregation has yet volunteered to maintain the website, which could go a long way to eliminating the need for a hard copy newsletter and would provide much more timely fellowship information.
Rating: two haloes, less if the building hadn't been so appealing.