Central United Methodist, Phoenix, Arizona

Central United Methodist, Phoenix, Arizona, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Central United Methodist
Location: Phoenix, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 10 November 2013, 11:00am

The building

The present Spanish Mission Revival style church, built in 1950 on land acquired in 1946 at what was then the outskirts of the Phoenix city limits, is the fourth structure occupied by this congregation. There is a large campus consisting of schoolrooms, parish hall and sanctuary, enclosing a courtyard with several fountains, a columbarium, and a vegetable and fruit garden. The interior of the church is classic cathedral style, in dark wood and red brick. A large space behind the altar is for choir seating and will eventually accommodate the organ (see below).

The church

In 1870 a lone circuit rider braved the scorching heat of the Sonoran Desert to bring spiritual leadership to the small band of settlers at what would eventually become the city of Phoenix. From that humble beginning, Central United Methodist has become a major religious force in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Their many diverse ministries and missions are all well documented on their website. There is a parish nurse on staff to help parishioners cope with physical and emotional issues as they relate to faith. There are three services each Sunday, including a jazz service held in the parish hall.

The neighborhood

The church is located on Central Avenue, the heart of Phoenix’s commercial district – the area known as the Central Corridor. Several major banks and financial institutions, hi-tech companies, law firms and government agencies, as well as the Phoenix Art Museum and the Phoenix Opera, all call the Central Corridor home. The completion in 2008 of a light rail line connecting Central Avenue with the eastern suburbs of Tempe and Mesa, on the one hand, and nearby areas northwest of central Phoenix, on the other, has strengthened the Central Corridor’s position in relation to posher and trendier commercial areas east of downtown.

The cast

The Revd Larry Norris Jr, pastor, conducted the service and preached the sermon. The liturgist was Ms Bonnie Hicks. The organist was Dr Craig Westendorf. The choir director was Don Morse.

What was the name of the service?

Liturgy with Sermon and Choir.

How full was the building?

About 10 per cent full; there were approximately 25 singers and the same number in the congregation.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

We were wished a good morning and our hands were shaken by several people as we approached the door. Once we were settled inside, a lady named Helen Clark came up to our pew, introduced herself and welcomed us, and gave us a tote bag with the church logo, loaded with literature.

Was your pew comfortable?

Wooden pew, comfortable enough and remarkable for the generous knee room.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet and reverent, with some visiting. The service started promptly on time.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version; the United Methodist Hymnal; and a nicely printed service leaflet.

What musical instruments were played?

Pipe organ, an opus of Orgelbau Glatter-Götz. Installation is ongoing, as the church is currently embroiled in litigation with the architect over unfinished renovations intended to accommodate the organ. Literature available at the back of the church illustrates what will eventually be a fine organ case, but right now the pipes sit rather unceremoniously on the floor at the back of the chancel.

Did anything distract you?

The architecture: a recreation in red brick of a renaissance cathedral with a Southwestern exterior. There are four beautiful rose windows and multiple stained glass windows on the side walls.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Probably about as far up the candle as Methodists can imagine. The crucifer and acolytes were vested in alb (under which, Miss Amanda was pleased to note, they wore black trousers, black socks and proper black leather shoes); Pastor Norris in a green stole over his alb and cincture. The choir wore purple cassocks with white surplices trimmed in purple. The liturgy was a mixture of prayers, scriptural readings, congregational singing, and several choir anthems. There was no communion service today.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

15 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

9 – Simple and direct, clearly presented, but over-amplified, especially considering the small number of people who were present to hear it. The sound system did little to support the pastor's direct and personal style.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Pastor Norris spoke on the Book of Haggai and how the Jews' expectations of rebuilding Solomon's temple was more backward looking than forward thinking. Haggai urged the returned Jews to overcome their reluctance to rebuild the temple (which would end up standing for 200 years longer than Solomon's temple) in confidence in the Lord. Are we, too, fearful of change, so that we do nothing? Are our perspectives flawed? Do we dwell on what we feel is impossible, when we should be thankful for things that are done for us and to us? Remembrance is good, but perhaps God is guiding us into new possibilities. The spirit of God abides here and now, in our nation and the world. Why don't we take a walk in faith?

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

We thought that everything about this service was heavenly, from start to finish. The hymns were all old favorites, and the anthems were sung masterfully by the superb choir (unpaid amateurs, it should be noted, unlike the choirs in several other mainline Phoenix churches). The short benediction verse by John Rutter, sung from the center of the nave after the dismissal, was especially moving.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

It was disturbing and thought-provoking to note that such a wonderful service was taking place in an almost empty church. This had to be combined with the hope that the prophetic reading from Haggai was not unfounded.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

The choir director complimented us on our singing and invited us to join the choir should we wish to do so. Helen Clark, the lady who had greeted us so warmly, caught up with us in the courtyard and told us about the church's outreach to the Native American and Haitian communities and its work with the homeless.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none, but we retired to a nearby restaurant for an excellent brunch – as, we noted, did the choir director and several choir members.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

10 – Heaven on earth. Unfortunately Phoenix is not our home.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes, even though it does make us worry about the fate of mainline Christianity and the future of the church in American society. We are certainly challenged to face our responsibility, as Haggai prophesied.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The hymns and the Rutter benediction.

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