Mystery Worshipper: Brother Juniper
Church: Park United Methodist
Location: Bloomfield, New Jersey, USA
Date of visit: Monday, 24 December 2007, 7:00pm
Outwardly attractive and of grey stone, rather a streamlined version of Gothic. It was a bit stark for my taste, but quite elegant and dignified (if one does not mind the distractions of two large banners, which were at odds with the overall simplicity.) The sanctuary is lighted by charming antique fixtures which were a gift from Thomas A. Edison himself. Edison was also present at the building's dedicatory service in 1929. The Christmas eve decorations were lovely poinsettias, pine, and white lighting in a very effective arrangement.
They appear to be extremely family oriented, and this service alone would underline the family values element. Among their many ministries are hot meals for those in need, in conjunction with other churches in the area, and hospital and homebound visits to the sick by registered nurses who are members of the parish.
Bloomfield, in northern New Jersey, was founded in 1812 and was originally four times the size it is now, several neighborhoods having seceded over the years to form their own municipalities. The church's immediate neighborhood is an odd mix. Bloomfield College, an interesting conversion of many colonial buildings into an attractive urban campus, and the imposing Presbyterian church on the green directly opposite, both lend a quiet dignity and remind one of colonial times and the Revolutionary War. The residential area surrounding is largely modest, with large houses (clearly originally residences for rather prosperous families of old) mostly converted to flats or offices. There are also some imposing apartment buildings which probably date from the early 20th century. The business area, within a stone's throw of the church, is quite modest – bargain shops, nail salons, and what must count as one of the largest concentrations of fast food chains within a square mile.
The Revd Wayne Jack Plumstead, senior minister, and the Revd John McCullough conducted the service, with their wives assisting with the cup at communion. Mr David Calabrese presided quite competently at the organ.
What was the name of the service?Celebration of Holy Communion, followed by a Service of Carols, Lessons and Candlelighting
How full was the building?
Just about every seat was occupied. I would estimate that at least half of those in attendance were children and teenagers.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I had arrived early to spend some time in silent prayer – not an easy task, since the incoming congregation members were apparently unaware that the bulletin encouraged them to "prepare for worship in an attitude of silence and reflection." An usher brought me a service booklet and candle shortly after I was seated. My impression was that of a welcoming group.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, it had the standard degree of comfort.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I was reminded of the old term "hustle and bustle." I have no idea if this was unique to Christmas Eve, but there was a great deal of talking – and the parents were no less quiet than the many kids.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The first spoken words were as follows: "Gracious God, your angels broke into the midnight of a sleeping world singing the news that Christ was born in Bethlehem." As a prelude to the service, a group of five soloists, some of them children, had sung a piece called "Star Child" which I'll have more to say about in a moment.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Special leaflet containing all responses and songs.
What musical instruments were played?
The organ was the predominant instrument, and Mr Calabrese was indeed quite accomplished. Other instruments included handbells (by a fair to middling bell choir), violin, and guitar.
Did anything distract you?
Rarely have distractions so abounded in any church where I have Mystery Worshipped. To begin with, the singing was for the most part dreadful. And I was greatly disappointed to see that their definition of lessons and carols differed from the conventional concept. Little scripture, few traditional hymns, a good deal of sentimental twaddle such as "The Miracle of Christmas" and "What Christmas Means to Me." The pew behind me was occupied by several young women with young children, who talked to their children endlessly during the service. One of them even hummed along with the parade of soloists. Finally, I'm accustomed to small children pointing and laughing when, during congregational hymns, they hear my operatic voice, but this was a rare church in that the adults pointed and laughed as well!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was so centered on children that it seemed a caricature of, let us say, an internet site or television commercial for family values. Overall, the service seemed more like a pageant than a service of worship. The readers tended to deliver the lessons in a tone they might use for Peter and the Wolf: "Little boys like Peter are not afraid of wolves."
Exactly how long was the sermon?
I wouldn't call it a sermon. At one point, the Christian education director, Kathy Martinez, gathered the children around her to sit on the chancel steps for an abridged version of story hour.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
1 – Granted, the children undoubtedly loved being involved. Ms Martinez asked them several questions such as "Who is the best to go to when you don't feel well?" although some of the answers were not exactly what she was expecting. One little boy quite sensibly answered the above question with "A doctor," although Ms Martinez made it clear that she thought he should have said "Mum and Dad." I don't recall the Gospels mentioning that Jesus of Nazareth stressed the family unit as being at the center of salvation. Parental knowledge is hardly on a level with that of the divine, and surely one does not base faith solely on honoring one's parents.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It boiled down to "God knows what is best for us, just as do our parents."
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The decorations were tasteful and festive, and the congregation did appear to be a very welcoming, warm group. I came away with a sense that these people were, despite it all, very nice.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The opening "Star Child" number made it clear that this is a church where anyone who can breathe can serve as a soloist, whether gifted with the ability to sing on key or not. I never thought any parish could take the grand prize trophy for dreadful music away from the RCs, but this indeed was accomplished. Some of the songs, previously unknown to me, gave the impression of a poor grade school pageant. A children's group delivered such a horrid rendition of "Just When We Truly Needed Peace" that it brought to mind chalk squeaking on a blackboard – they not only were off key, but all went off key in different directions. The Rock of Ages Youth Ensemble presented "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" in throaty tones of crooning that made me wonder if they had been told to swallow the notes to sound like "one voice." Some of the adult choir seemed competent, but the overall presentation did not give an impression that the most basic competence is mandatory. Amazingly, the congregation broke into applause at various points.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The service lasted longer than I'd expected, but I had reached my point of endurance long before its end. Please forgive me for leaving early, but I just couldn't take any more!
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I did not attend – although I'm sure that a gathering entitled "The Cup of Justice Fellowship Hour" could hardly have been dull.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – I am very liturgically oriented, and, since my previous exposure to Methodism consisted entirely of having read the Wesleys, the lack of emphasis on the sacramental and liturgical was a disappointing surprise. This would be a nice church for those whose main concern is family – and, as their website shows, much in the parish is aimed at the young. But it was far from my tastes.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. Though it was far from the forms of common worship that I prefer, the clear happiness and fellowship reflected in some of those around me reminded me that there are, after all, many paths.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The eternal question of why a church blessed with such a clearly competent organist does not make better use of his talents. (I understand from their website that the position has since fallen vacant.)