Richmond is one of the great cities, and I was there over the weekend for a wedding. I was looking forward to attending a United Methodist church on Sunday. The closest congregation to my hotel was a historic downtown church founded during the 1840s.
It served as a hospital during the Civil War, when Richmond often was within earshot of artillery. Centenary United Methodist in recent years became Virginia’s first pro LGBTQ “Reconciling” congregation within the denomination.
Not looking for an ultra liberal worship experience, I instead found a more moderate appearing congregation about two miles away in Richmond’s beautiful Fan District. Boulevard United Methodist Church is a stately 1920s sanctuary on The Boulevard, a once and still fashionable Old South avenue. Across the street from the church is the headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, whose cannons point straight at Boulevard United Methodist.
Also across the street is the Battle Abbey, built by Confederate veterans to showcase their war trophies. It’s now a wonderful museum for the Virginia Historical Society.
Boulevard Church likely once attracted a full house that probably included some of the cream of Richmond society. On this Sunday there were only about 30 people. But the service was warm and worshipful. The new pastor is a winsome young woman. Her sermon, as she noted, followed the Lectionary, which this week covered Jesus’ words on marriage and divorce. She readily admitted it was a dicey topic but could not be avoided. Recounting her own parents’ divorce, she preached thoughtfully and carefully.
The next day I walked by famous Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, where Confederate President Jefferson Davis worshipped when he received word from General Robert E. Lee that Richmond must be evacuated immediately. After the war, reputedly Lee was at worship there when a black man shocked the white congregation by going forward for communion. According to the story, while everyone remained frozen in their pews, General Lee himself went forward to knell next to the black man. Others followed.
Across the street from St Paul’s is Richmond’s oldest Catholic church, St Peter’s, which also survived the Civil War, and which proclaims Christ’s words to St Peter about The Church.
I also walked by Centenary United Methodist up the street. Next door to it is the large, 5 story Cokesbury Building dating to the 1920s.
The ground floor once housed a large Cokesbury store selling Methodist materials. (Cokesbury is Methodism’s longtime publishing house.) That space is now empty though the signage remains. Upstairs there are residential apartments.
Clearly Methodism was once strong in downtown Richmond. I wonder if anybody in the building that bears its name remembers what Cokesbury is anymore.
Saturday evening at the wedding rehearsal dinner I sat next to the officiating pastor and his wife. He has a nondenominational evangelical congregation that meets in a Richmond suburban movie theater. It’s full of young families. His church founded a new congregation that meets in an old Richmond theater.
Apparently the city church also runs a coffee house during the week for parents of young children. The pastor pointed out that people usually find them on the internet since they don’t have their own church buildings. The same is true in many of our cities, where many grand old sanctuaries now sit mostly empty. Meanwhile, thriving new churches, meeting in rented facilities, are often invisible to the streets-cape. But the Holy Spirit feeds these churches with new souls through social media and word of mouth. It’s good to know that God is still at work in Richmond, which was first settled 400 years ago.