Golden Hill United Methodist Church
Golden Hill United Methodist Church, Bridgeport, Connecticut
In the continuing journey to my past we returned (55 years later) to a church, one of the great cathedrals of my childhood, where I attended a District youth rally and heard the church's pastor, William Alderson, preach a sermon on "The Philosopher's Stone." Touching that stone, like applying an alchemist's potion, to any sour situation will turn it to sweetness. The stone celebrated in sermon turns out to be a verse in Ezekiel, Chapter 3, verse 15, a footnote really, "I sat where they sat." Not bad, wouldn't you say, for the preacher... and his 16 year old listener now 71.
That is, I returned with high expectations, not only because of the past but because of the present pastor. I had received glowing reports from former members of my church on Long Island; and I had read a column from the local Bridgeport paper written by the pastor: it was interesting and made a telling theological point winningly.
Unfortunately, we arrived on a sub-par morning, for which the pastor indirectly apologized at the door at the end of the morning when he realized I was a retired minister from the same Conference. More about the disappointment under Sermon. I don't believe in omens, but if I did, I might have sensed early that trouble lay ahead; because when we followed the car in front of us into the parking lot, we found that the church has the privilege of the city hall lot on Sunday. We almost pulled into the wide space reserved for The Mayor. He's the fellow convicted of fraud (or is it embezzlement?), likely to be sentenced on July 1st to many years in prison.
As we drove away after the Coffee Hour, my companion in critique turned to me and lamented all of the downtown churches (mostly Hartford) on hard times, just what is to done with these huge arks of faith when the congregation dwindles to a remnant. Golden Hill will soon be in that category, if it isn't already. The building stands on a hill (of course, but it doesn't look golden) but it is hemmed in by a highway on one side and a decaying central city on the other. Once a magnet for the entrepreneurs and strivers of the up-and-coming metropolis, it has suffered, as many downtown cathedrals have, from the emigration to the suburbs. Golden Hill is, in fact, the "last church standing," a merger of First, Trinity, Newfield, and Washington Park since 1970.
I have no satisfying answer to the problem of church fortunes rising and falling with demographic changes. One part of me, the rational part, insists that steel and stones do not a church make, but are, in the long view of the history of salvation, just a little more permanent than the tabernacle in the Sinai desert. Another part of me, the emotional one, fully understands just how connected people are to particular plots of ground and their architecture. Sometimes that emotional loyalty holds on hoping against hope for a revival that only rarely comes. Endowments allow congregations to continue long after any likelihood of efficient use of those resources (i. e., using money to benefit the widest possible number of souls). Like the King of Siam said, "It's a puzzlement." In this very untidy world downtown churches add to the untidiness.
Building: a Gothic cathedral, a city set on a hill, now dwarfed by the highway and the trees of the park across the street. My eyes went immediately to two hanging lamps in the chancel, crimson colored glass, held by golden chains reaching to the ceiling. I've never studied church architecture, but I suspect those lamps, were they in a Roman Catholic Church, would indicate, when lit, the Presence of the Host. The choir sang and sat in the divided chancel. The high altar remained against the back wall. A sturdy communion table, custom-made, surely, to match the rest of the decorative wood carvings, stood front and center at the entrance to the chancel. The nave has the feel of a small St. Patrick's. There was even a hint of incense, which may have been scented candles or a recently applied cleaning agent. The audio was excellent. I could not tell if there was A/C, but I would suspect, considering the age of the building, that there isn't any... and, telltale sign, the summer Sunday schedule is earlier.
Welcome: an usher spotted us as newcomers, took us in tow, inquired about where we lived, and raised an eyebrow ever so slightly when I explained that I was returning to the scene of a memory fifty-five years old. We went to Coffee Hour anticipating a lively reunion with other gray hairs and an opportunity to show off just how much I knew about the men pictured in the social hall's gallery of pastors. But for the first ten minutes no one so much as said "Hello!" Then it dawned on me why. Those refreshing themselves with coffee and cake were probably wondering why I wasn't welcoming them... me with my white face and bald head. I looked like I was one of the patriarchs of the church's storied history; they were newcomers, mostly African-Americans, surrounded by lively children. The pastor, stuck at the front door gathering a week's worth of worries from several parishioners, never got to the Coffee Hour in time to size up this stranger's predicament.
Music: a pipe organ accompanied the hymns and the anthems, the postlude being especially vibrant, a short composition by Couperin. The more I suffer the hymn books in other denominations, the more I am grateful for the wisdom and judiciousness of the committee that put together the United Methodist Hymnal. The congregation sang two Lenten hymns, "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" and "What Wondrous Love Is This" (two of my favorites) and an Easter carol, "Because He Lives" (not one of my favorites). The choir sat in the chancel, sang an old warhorse of an anthem, in keeping with and restating the theme of the sermon, "God So Loved the World," from John Stainer's Crucifixion. Obviously the pastor and the music director in this church work together to make the music complement the service theme.
Children: few were in evidence. Church School is held between an early communion service and the 10:30 am main service. Knowing from my own experience the vibrancy children bring to the hour of worship, I would, were I asked, and I wasn't, encourage the church to suffer the little ones the way Jesus did and Fanny Crosby might have.
Sermon: it was entitled, "The Gospel in a Minute." The preacher recited John 3:15-16 at the beginning and the end. In between we had a Quaker meeting; that is, we bowed in ten minutes of silent prayer, by way of learning how to pray. It was an interesting exercise. I didn't fall asleep. But I kept hearing a voice that sounded very much like friend and former lay leader, Bill Craig, observing at the front door following a service in which I tried the same sermonic trick, "Well, Bob, how does it feel to take a Sunday off." In fairness to Dr. Schofield-Boldt, the sermonic idea was novel and daring and did come with printed instructions... even if it foundered on the expectations of a couple of souls from upstate.
Computer: the church maintains an up-to-date website, http://www.gbgm-umc.org/goldenhill. The directions to the church were slightly incomplete. I could have turned either way on Main Street, but I guessed correctly. No newsletter information is posted. But the illustrated church history, including a paragraph about member Fanny Crosby (and playing in the background her tune, "Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross"), is appealing. The sermon titles are listed and the pastor has a letter about Lent. The Sunday schedule is included and a description of the fellowship and service programs the church provides.
Rating: two and a half haloes. I do feel the necessity of returning on a more auspicious Sunday.