Hartford United Methodist Church
The United Methodist Church of Hartford, Connecticut
Fifty years ago this past June, I was ordained a Deacon in the United Methodist Church. In that denomination at that time Deacon's Orders were the penultimate step toward full ordination, which usually took place two years later. I was finishing my double appointment as pastor with a Local Preacher's License, to the Long Ridge Methodist Church in West Redding (CT) and, necessitating a Sunday drive of ten swift miles, the Newtown (CT) Methodist Church down the hill from the fancy residences in that town, in a neighborhood called Sandy Hook.
The site of my first ordination was what is now named Hartford United Methodist Church, just over the line from West Hartford on Farmington Avenue. The pastor of the church in 1955 was Dr. Loyd Worley, who had led my home church through ten of my growing years. The ordaining bishop was 92 year old Herbert Welch, whose family in another century concocted the process by which the juice of the grape can remain unfermented (more's the pity!).
For the first time in fifty years since that personally signal event, we returned to Hartford UMC, even though the church is just a ten minute drive from our home in retirement. The congregation was welcoming a newly-minted Elder and newly-appointed pastor, thirty-four year old, Bryan Hooper. Most recently he had served a church in Greenwich Village.
It was for me, who, admittedly, was hoping for the best, an auspicious beginning. Sure, it would have been nice if more congregants had been present; but I was told at coffee hour that the once prospering premier Methodist church in the capitol city had fallen on hard times and the membership had dwindled. That ratio, of bald heads and gray hairs to those with luxurious growth, touted as the sure sign of a vital church, one to three, was reversed to three to one. A child did bawl during the sermon, but the murmurs of infants were mostly absent. Still, again admitting I am hoping for the best, there appears to be a core of loyal members, a heterogeneous racial and economic mix, with whom the new pastor can build a strong a vital witness in Hartford.
I may be a bit rusty in this worship review enterprise, having not been moved to do one for months; but let me try, using the checklist that has emerged over the last three years.
Building: I had forgotten how spacious is this roughly cruciform (more Maltese than Latin) building, but it seated a sufficient number in 1955 to accommodate a session of the New York East Annual Conference, with close to eight hundred delegates. Major repairs and repainting await the leadership of Pastor Hooper. From a quick survey of the nave, it appears there is a roof leak; or there was one and the ceiling has yet to be repaired. The lawn and grounds could use the loving attention of a landscaper. A workday contingent might, among several straightening up chores, sweep up the cigarette butts which clutter the cracks where the sidewalks meet the grass. If the hope is to win new recruits for the Methodist witness in Hartford, sprucing up and fixing up will be a top priority. Maybe you don't judge a book by its cover; but most of us judge a church that way.
And, oh yes, wouldn't air-conditioning be nice! It would also distinguish Methodists from nearly all of the other mainline Protestant churches in Hartford.
Welcome: the pastor on his first day in his new parish stood by the door as worshippers arrived, greeting each one, stating his name, asking for theirs, welcoming them with a "glad you have come." An excellent gesture. Congregants quickly spotted us as newcomers. A greeter at the coffee hour, without asking, stuck name tags on us. I submitted to this labeling, although I am usually put off by it, with the rationalization that the new pastor needed it even if I didn't want it. We were friendly and, I suspect, brimmed with expectations for a vibrant Methodist church nearby. Consequently, under the red letter rubric of getting back what you give, we were engaged in several conversations, one of them with the lay delegate to the Annual Conference who surprised me with her wisdom about the difficulty in this moment in Christendom of achieving a truly heterogeneous (age, race, social and financial status) congregation. As in days of yore, we found ourselves closing up the building, so long did we linger over coffee and conversation.
Children: not many in evidence, and no children's sermon. One thirteen year old teased me and I him at the coffee hour. The prelude and postlude, French horn and piano, were played by a young man, probably in his teens, maybe on the verge of twenty. Of course, it's summer and Sunday School is on vacation. Still I missed the noise and vibrancy children, even, and maybe especially, fidgety ones bring to worship.
Music: an appealing duet of piano and French horn played a Mozart composition before the worship began. The horn player reappeared at the end of worship as a pianist, playing Bach's "Invention No. 13 in A Minor." I loved it, but my colleague Ralph Roy would be less favorably inclined. He thinks we spend too much time in the 18th Century and should go with tunes of more recent vintage. The soprano soloist did sing the always-affecting "Simple Gifts." But one Sunday is insufficient to make a judgment about the church's music. Maybe next week the soloist will sing, "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," and a flautist will accompany another soloist singing "Consider the Lilies." Music, good music, from every time and place, everything from plainsong to Gospel, deserves a hearing in Christian worship. I'm all for employing in the worship of God the vast riches of our whole musical heritage.
And, of course, the church has in its pew racks that most splendid of all modern hymnals, the United Methodist Hymnal. We sang four hymns, two of them unfamiliar to the congregation by reason of the songs' contemporaneity; one of the others the rousing spiritual, "Every Time I Feel the Spirit." I bellowed and no one complained.
Sermon: preacher Hooper's inaugural message was timely, hopeful, and, always a plus for me, literate. He began with Hartford on the horizon, heading west on Rte 84 crossing the river, seeing the capitol city bathed in the setting sun, a beautiful sight. He concluded his sermon with the same imagery, only this time likening the bathing light of the setting sun to the grace of God, that Hartford, as with God's whole creation, is "drenched in grace." Nice symmetry. In between the opening and the closing Pastor Hooper managed to convey his intention to have a long ministry in Hartford, to become involved with the community and to lead the church in its ministry to the world. And, giving evidence of his resourcefulness, he included a reference to the morning's reading from Romans 8, suggesting that Christians have a summons to look to the bright side, to see the world bathed in the sunshine of God's love. He sounded all the right notes and did it with graceful humility and a sense of humor.
I said to the Lay Delegate, referring to the pastor, "Looks like you've picked a winner."
Website: worse than non-existent; it exists (though I won't give you its hyperlink) and is empty. I mentioned this issue to Pastor Hooper, saying, "If you want to be in the game, you had better attend to this deficiency." His reply was to report that his job prior to seminary was developing and maintaining websites. 'Nuf said.
Incidental Issues: Pastor Hooper must be six foot two or three; the pulpit microphone was mounted for his shorter predecessor. To address the mike the new preacher has to bend over. Time to raise the pulpit or extend the mike neck.
It was communion Sunday. We went forward in true Methodist fashion to the rail to receive the bread and the cup. It's a small matter, but one that troubles me: the communion stewards handed the bread cubes and the cups to us. Of course, the stewards washed their hands with anti-biotic soap (right?), but, considering the hygienic reason for individual cups, it would seem to be appropriate that each of us serve ourselves as the trays are passed our way.
Haloes: four, a hopeful four, probably three were it not for the bright promise which filled (drenched?) the service. The banner to the left, taken from a photograph of a lamppost outside the church is, we can hope and pray, a portent of Pastor Hooper's ministry in Hartford among the Methodists and everyone else.