Simsbury United Methodist Church
Simsbury United Methodist Church, Simsbury, Connecticut
Mid-sermon this Sunday while listening to the articulate presentation by the pastor, and taking note of her choice of illustrations, I had a small epiphany: how hard it must be for those in affluent suburban churches of a liberal do-good tradition to find a mission, a purpose, a specific local purpose for the existence of the church. The problem for Methodists is aggravated by the example of founder John Wesley who was the busiest of souls transforming 18th century England from Hogarthian debauchery to middle class righteousness. Wesley earned the name Methodist because he was most methodical in piety, study, and, to the point, good works.
Roman Catholicism finds its mission wherever the church is raised because first and foremost it perceives itself as God's chosen dispenser of grace for an always needy world. Baptists, I heard the comparison made with Methodists in a column on Methodist Hillary and Baptist Bill, tend to see themselves as the mission, whereas Methodists feel the necessity of having a mission.
In my growing years my home church sponsored a missionary to India. The pastor, an advocate of the Social Gospel, crusaded against the consumption of alcohol, volunteer firemen's bingo, and Joe McCarthy, while championing World Federalism, pacifism, the Cooperative movement, and a sympathetic attitude toward Red China. The idea of a mission in our own backyard, other than getting our hearts and heads right with a socially active Jesus, was never really a theme I heard in our church's pulpit.
In urban residential churches, like the two I served for my entire fulltime ministry, the local mission was obvious: to keep the fellowship open to everyone, no small feat in communities in demographic transition, racially and ethnically. But what does a pastor do in Simsbury?
Of course I don't know that community in depth. My excursions to that town have been limited to the Ford Motor dealership. But, judging from the congregation this Sunday and seeing the generous income from the contributions of only 230 envelope units, I've got to believe that average family income of this town to the northwest of Hartford is between $60,000 - $100,000. Like many of Hartford's surrounding suburbs, including the one we live in, Simsbury's attraction, if not the only one, is that it isn't Hartford, but near enough to that hub of commerce for an easy commute.
I raise this issue not because I have any easy solutions. I am not comfortable with noblesse oblige, because I have trouble thinking of myself as one of the nobility. Nor do I have a sense of guilt about my small financial attainments. I am drawn to the Roman Catholic attitude, that the church shows God's presence on earth. I also subscribe to Kierkegaard's analysis of the human condition, that all of us are subject to fear and trembling by virtue of our humanity. To live with a semblance of order and satisfaction is pretty much a fulltime struggle. Besides, there is always another generation to prepare for discipleship. So, I have no hankering for crusades. Nor do I think the kingdom advances an inch by way of the political process. God may still need prophets, but I'm not one of them.
Simsbury, I feel for you.
Building: a very substantial brownstone building with a red tiled roof and a chess rook tower complete with gargoyles, the church architecture, style and substance, match surrounding governmental buildings, giving the impression that the Methodist Church is part of the local establishment. The interior, wood Gothic, reminded me of a chapel at Windsor Castle. The sanctuary was vaguely cruciform, the arm toward the parish building shorter than the other where the piano and orchestral instruments are stored. Large chandeliers with offset lighting brightened the sanctuary. The choir sat in the chancel behind a recessed organ console. Pipes of the Austin organ gleamed behind the choir and over the front entrance. Trompette ranks jutted fore and aft. Wreaths and candleholders, a Christmas tree filled with angels, and a large Advent wreath announced the season. I found the room to be very warm and appealing. I would have enjoyed preaching there.
Welcome: in United Methodist Churches in the New York Conference I try not to identify myself as a retired pastor. That is, I don't want to blow my cover as Critical Christian. I have known every pastor of the Simsbury Church for the past thirty years, except the current pastor, who might know me from Adam, but not from Valley Stream. Therefore, we held back on the charm and enthusiasm, more so than in recent weeks. Like Jesus tells us, you get what you give. No one sought to intrude on our guarded privacy. The ushers at the door were warmly smiling. During the passing of the peace, the woman in front of me, who had been subjected to my bellowing, asked if I had sung in choirs. But, since we weren't that forthcoming, neither were most of the people we met.And I did avoid the clergy. With these disclaimers, I would rate the congregation's welcome as open and warm.
Children: I grew up with the adage, rarely honored, that children should be seen and not heard. This Sunday morning no children were seen but one was heard, sighing loudly in satisfaction, timed perfectly as if in response to the Chancel Choir's fetching Advent carol about Christ, the Apple Tree. Church School is conducted at the same hour as the "traditional" service, the one we were attending. No children's message, no children's participation.
Music: the Chancel Choir sang three anthems, one of them, "And the Glory of the Lord," from Messiah, unannounced. A fulltime music director and organist provided the accompaniment to the hymns from The United Methodist Hymnal. The Doxology was sung without gender neutering. I asked the director how many tenors in the choir. "Six," he replied, "the other three were absent this morning by reason of illness." A flautist accompanied the prelude anthem, "Carol for Advent," by Don Besig on the traditional Greensleeves. Music, in other words, was carefully integrated into the order of worship and done with good taste on the seasonal theme.
Sermon: the title, "From Resignation to Readiness," aimed at the very human tendency to give up in a hopeless situation. Think Babylonian Captivity. Think Jesus' Palestine under the Roman yoke. Think divorce or forced retirement (!). The Gospel summons us from this surrender in adversity to renewed hope and effort to change our worlds. I could have wished the preacher were freer from her manuscript, but, as I've insisted before, I'd rather hear a good sermon read than a poor sermon presented with flourish and fluency. It was, however, in an example of readiness that the small epiphany gripped me. The preacher held up as an example a church in an urban community fallen on hard times. The congregation didn't give up and move out; it stayed and provided ministries of compassion to the homeless and ministries of righteousness to the drug pushers. Yes, I thought to myself, that's wonderful, that's beautiful, that's the Gospel in action, but what has it to do with me? Dr. Paul Scherer, professor of homiletics at Union Theological Seminary half a century ago, often reminded his students that having the right ammunition in the pulpit is only half the job; the other half is having sharp aim. Like I said, I feel for the Christians of Simsbury.
This and That: in the never ending creativity of preachers to find another way of saying the obvious, the associate pastor invited us to pray with, "Let us be in the spirit of prayer together." Why not just "Let us pray"?
I scouted the Internet for this church's website, found it, but was dismayed to see that the former pastor's name was still posted there. Someone should advise the webmaster of the change. In the next generation, churches with multiple staffs will include a fulltime Webmaster. Remember, you saw it here.
Rating: three and a half haloes (four, if we had been more gregarious). Here's a Methodist Church in which we could worship... and perhaps help muddle through to a more appropriate sense of local mission.