By Alan Bean
Last night, Nancy and I watched a taped version of the funeral service for pianist Van Cliburn. Eight speakers, including George W. Bush and Texas Governor Rick Perry, addressed the 1500 people seated in the theater-style “pews” of Broadway Baptist Church. A choir of 300 belted out hymns handpicked for the occasion by the great pianist himself. I have no intention of checking out in the near future, but if I do, I’ll go with Van’s hymn picks without exception: Love Divine All Loves Excelling, Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah, All People that on Earth Do Dwell, When Morning Guilds the Skies, and Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing. (You can find the complete bulletin for the service here.)
These are all old hymns, the kind that churches like Broadway keep alive. Broadway is known as “the liberal Baptist Church” but there’s nothing liberal or avant garde about the congregation’s musical tastes. In fact, the l-word doesn’t define the church at all, unless feeding the hungry and ministering to the homeless have suddenly become “liberal” activities.
True, Broadway was kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention for refusing to exclude gay members like Mr. Cliburn. Still, I have been attending Broadway for over a year and a half and have never heard the phrase “gay rights” mentioned from the pulpit. Like most older churches, Broadway is a blend of Democrats and Republicans and, for better or for worse, it is considered bad form to push a political agenda from the pulpit. The church lost hundreds of members over its inclusive membership policies a few years back and folks are understandably gun shy.
Van Cliburn, the congregation’s most celebrated member, was certainly no liberal. George W. and the Governor participated in the funeral service at the pianist’s request. But Cliburn was a gay man, and everybody knew it. Thomas Lon Smith, the first to eulogize Cliburn on Sunday afternoon, has been the musician’s devoted companion for the past twenty years. There was nothing controversial about Cliburn’s orientation; it was just a simple fact. Broadway was the perfect church for a man like Cliburn, and Cliburn was the perfect man for Broadway.
At lunch today a woman said Sunday’s funeral service took her by surprise. “We were just sitting around talking for an hour or so, and then Al Travis started playing the organ, and we went into the first hymn and these tears were streaming down my face. All those people singing, and the orchestra playing, it was incredibly moving.”
There is nothing like 1500 people, most of them Baptists, belting out one of the great old hymns of the Christian faith. And there are fewer places every year where you can feel the music move through you like that. Attend a “contemporary” service and all the action is on the stage; half the people in the pews aren’t even moving their lips. It’s performance not participation. The songs are brand spanking new and within a year or two most of them will be consigned to the dust bin. None are built to last more than a quarter century, and that’s intentional. The whole idea is to make the music in the sanctuary sound like hip radio muzak.
I was struck by the depth of the tradition at Broadway last Sunday morning. The service closed with Albert Malotte’s rendering of The Lord’s Prayer. The whole congregation was a choir and hymn books were superfluous. The wave of sound carried me back to my childhood when choirs and soloists sang “Our Father” so often the piece was chiseled into my brain.
Suddenly I was thinking of old Jerry Ward, the Canadian Baptist who graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1936 and peddled his bicycle to Fort Worth, TX to attend Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Ward always spoke of his seminary experience in glowing terms. I don’t know if Ward attended Broadway, but in those days congregation and Seminary were cut from the same bolt of cloth. In 1986, freshly retired from pastoral ministry, Ward climbed back on his bike and retraced the path to Fort Worth he had taken 50 years earlier.
It is impossible to imagine a UBC grad making the same trip even once these days, by any mode of transportation. Southwestern Seminary, like its sister institution in Louisville, has devolved into a cultural relic that, sad irony, shows no interest in preserving great music or exploring new avenues of ministry. These days, hip worship music is coupled with an intellectually indefensible theology that brooks no question or genuine inquiry. The musicians who now lead the music ministry at Broadway Baptist Church taught at Southwestern until the seminary decreed that no one, student or faculty, could join or even attend the renegade congregation.
The soaring music that sent Van Cliburn back to his maker shaped a culture. It wasn’t a perfect culture by any means. It could be intolerant, ethically confused, and theologically unimaginative, the very sins most Baptists in the South seem determined to perpetuate. If Broadway is considered a liberal church it is only in comparison to the rest of Baptist culture in these parts. Broadway is translating a rich heritage into a fresh and exciting vision. Reduced to less than a third its former membership, the congregation is beginning to grow again. A shared love of great music carried the congregation through the decades of decline, and that same tradition binds us together as we move into a promising but uncertain future.
Saying goodbye to Van Cliburn made Broadway a better church. But Cliburn also said goodbye to Broadway on Sunday. He planned the service after all. As Nancy and I watched the choir belting out the great hymns the master musician had placed on their lips I said, “This was Cliburn’s final performance.” The pianist crafted his send off with great care; it was his way of giving his regards to Broadway.
Is there still room for churches like old Broadway Baptist? I certainly hope so. Nancy and I both realize there may not be another congregation in the country that could make us feel so much at home. Brent Beasley, our pastor, has remarked that Broadway offers a kind of alternative worship for young adults who grew up on a thin diet of praise songs and would be hungry for real musical food if they knew there was such a thing. True conservatives eschew trends and fads, be they musical, intellectual or cultural. It isn’t about preserving the past; it’s about building whatever comes next on a solid foundation.