Christ Church, United Methodist, New York, New York
We have a winner! In the House that Sockman Built, we found this first Sunday in February a vibrant, literate, tasteful, inspiring, and intelligent witness to the Christian Gospel. If I had any complaint, and I really don't, it might be that the sensibility of the service required a graduate degree to appreciate fully; but, hey, we were on Park Avenue, the camel hair overcoats abounded and the marble columns pleaded for an appreciation of the historic Christian tradition. Something like that.
I have a small personal history with this church. In the spring of 1975 Christ Church went looking for a new pastor, someone to replace the retiring Harold Bosley, who was Ralph Sockman plus one chronologically. Early in my tour as a Methodist clergyman I had fantasized about this church, what the preacher for the morning identified as a pace-setter for the denomination, that maybe someday I would be appointed there. But when the opportunity came knocking on my door, I declined, persuaded that the church to which I had been appointed a scant year and a half earlier was just as important in the scheme of God's salvation as one on the boulevard of the rich and famous. Besides, how does one cut lawns, clip hedges, and fix sprinkler systems where there is little grass and lots of pavement? So we stayed in the 'burbs and lived long enough never to have regretted it.
Barbara and I were in the Big City this weekend for a mini-reunion with college classmates, an event which featured a matinee of "Wonderful Town" and a dinner at Stella del Mare on Lexington Avenue. We stayed Saturday night at the Williams Club, took a taxi Sunday morning to 60th Street and Park Avenue, and arrived a full half hour before the Call to Worship. My interest in attending this church was piqued by an advertisement in The New York Times reporting that the guest preacher would be the Dean of Duke University Chapel, William Willimon. I had read articles written by him in one denominational journal or another, and, in reading them, been impressed with his intelligence and wisdom in representing the Gospel and Methodism. I also noted in the ad that, it being a first Sunday communion service, Haydn's "Missa Brevis Sancti Joannis de Deo" would provide the music for the Eucharistic liturgy.
The pastor, Ralph Sockman plus three, Stephen Bauman, can take the credit, because he surely must be responsible, along with the Director of Music, for the felicitous integration of the music with the elements of worship. I could hope that the next communion Sunday I find myself in a pew at Christ Church we might hear a contemporary mass, like the one a year ago at Immanuel UCC in Hartford, a Caribbean setting with steel drums, where Haydn's music had lately been.
But let me recount the church's excellences this morning of our attendance.
Building: as splendid as you would expect and require on Park Avenue. No meetinghouse this, it is a Byzantine structure, more attuned to Istanbul than New England. The decor is blue and, of course, gold. Everywhere. Modern chandeliers are the one concession to contemporary architecture. Marble pillars could obstruct one's vision, like those at St. John's Episcopal in West Hartford, but they do lend gravitas to the worship. The audio system worked well for Barbara; but I lost a few of the preacher's words. Day lilies, among other flowers, filled the chancel vases. A rear balcony provided space for an extensive antiphonal division for the pipe organ, with row upon row of trompette pipes extending eight to ten feet parallel and high above the benches. There was no stained glass, but plenty of iconic figures, over which presided inside the dome a large representation of Jesus, looking far more Middle Eastern than most depictions of the Lord I have seen in United Methodist churches. For a virtual tour of the building go to the church's website:http://www.christchurchnyc.org/tour.html
Welcome: we arrived, as noted above, a half hour early, and were greeted by an usher warming herself by a portable heater in the very chilly narthex. If she was chilly, her smile was warm. Once the service began, we passed the peace in a matter of a couple of minutes (Praise the Lord!), some of us saying not the ritual words but a simple "Good morning!" We meant to go to the Coffee Hour, but in the narthex we found a colleague in Methodist ministry (also retired) and reminisced entirely too long. But, boy, it was fun! On the way down to the refreshments, I found another acquaintance, a lay leader of Christ Church in years past; and once again we regaled each other with ancient stories, swapped business cards, and promised to keep in touch. What can I say, I felt at home... which may be more the consequence of my fortuitous meetings with old friends, than the graciousness of the Christ Church congregation.
Children: they were not in evidence this morning. Church School is held an hour and a quarter earlier than the 11AM worship service; and, during the worship, there is a program for young Christians in the parish house. Barbara and I simultaneously remarked that the congregation was youthful... which means younger than we are, a lot younger, in fact. The choir consisted mostly of twenty and thirty somethings. I asked the leading layman about this influx of young people. He credited the programs initiated by a previous associate pastor and the present pastor's daily two minute segment on CBS radio at 5:44 PM throughout the week, November through May.
Music: terrific! Haydn, Mozart, three singable hymns, a small orchestra, a choir of thirty-five members, evenly divided between men and women, and a brilliant pipe organ. That pipe organ was shown off to good advantage on the postlude by Vierne, "Carillon," always a treat.
Sermon: very listenable, with a strong message about preaching, how it should afflict the comfortable, just as Jesus did when he returned to his home church (as in the text for the morning, Luke 4:21-30, wherein Jesus provokes the neighbors to outrage with his claims to the wideness of God's mercy). Dr. Willimon drew illustrations from his work with Duke students and young seminarians. He seemed to suggest that it was the preacher's duty to jolt the congregation from its familiar patterns of thought with the wonder and the vastness of the Gospel's God. But since he didn't choose to discomfort us this morning, I concluded that he really favored Soren Kierkegaard's advice for preaching the hard truth, that it's best to "wound from behind," making it clear that the preacher is as vulnerable to judgment as his or her hearers. The preamble to preaching might better be red letter words from John 8: "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." Jesus, of course, was without sin, so it was well within his prerogative to offend the home folks. Nonetheless, a very good sermon for an excellent service.
Computer: the online website (see above for the URL) is very well done indeed; but it contains little current information. It reads more like a folder with general information. Obviously the church has decided to avoid website maintenance by posting only material that can stay the same month by month throughout the year. I had hoped to find a newsletter or even a schedule of upcoming events. Sermons were posted. But no luck on other current matters; such money and energy as the church puts into electronic communication must go mostly to CBS.
Rating: four and a half haloes, which could have been five if there had been bagpipes (only kidding!).