The vestry on the second floor at Christ Church where I serve as Senior Minister is reached by walking through a dark mosaic-embossed passageway overlooking the splendid Byzantine/Romanesque chapel and sanctuary beyond. It’s quite dramatic. The room is comfortably furnished as a meeting space and also holds clerical vestments, so it has been my launching pad every Sunday for the past 32 years.
Above the fireplace mantel, a fancy plaque reports the room was appointed and dedicated in memory of the son of founding pastor, Ralph W. Sockman, who died at the age of 21 in 1940. Sockman was a famous and highly respected elder of our church in his day, having served as NBC Radio’s featured preacher for more than 30 years. He was the charismatic personality responsible for assembling the people and resources to build Methodism’s cathedral on Park Avenue in New York City.
I didn’t give much thought to the dedication until about 10 years ago when an old friend asked me if I knew the story of William Sockman’s death. She was the aged matriarch of a family that had owned and operated an upstate resort for multiple generations. For several decades my family spent the month of August there since I was “minister-in-residence” (like a chaplain), fashioning a kind of grand talisman of our family life—it’s been a wonderful respite for us.
Now by coincidence Sockman’s family also spent the month of August there 70 and more years ago. Like us, he evidently needed a summer interlude for his urban-immersed son and daughter.
My friend told of a terrible tragedy, something unexpected and startling. It seems young Sockman fell in love with one of the men of the matriarch’s extended family. Given religious and cultural conditions they saw no discernable path forward for their love, and so they created a suicide pact. William leapt to his death from the 9th floor of the Sockman Park Avenue apartment. His paramour ended his life by inhaling the gas from his kitchen oven.
It was hard to hear and absorb this story as she told it. Frankly, it’s still hard. And I’m left with the knowledge that the tragedy is baked into the actual church building where I work. Each Sunday I now notice the dedication above the mantel in the vestry as a perpetual memorial to our failure to love as expansively, as courageously, as Jesus did. In this way it helps me stay focused on what matters most and recommitted to the Christ Church mission to love God above all things, and our neighbors as ourselves.
One more coincidence to report: my son is gay, too. He’s a beautiful expression of God’s grace and possesses great spiritual depth. It wasn’t long after I learned about the tragedy that he quietly told me how difficult it was to know that the denomination he had grown up in did not really want him. At the time he was second year in seminary, discerning his future.
Unlike how a former generation performed, Luke has been surrounded by love and acceptance by his family and local church community. But some years have passed and he’s now on the vestry of a church of another denomination that understands the gifts he holds for them.
What a terrible waste the church creates in its self-righteous obstinance!
Christ Church has long been a reconciling congregation. We started that process years before I learned about the Sockman tragedy, but it served as a prod to get on with the program for restoring redemptive and compassionate regard for all those the wider church and culture have historically excluded, creating the conditions for despair and hopelessness among those deemed irredeemably different.
Surely one important and obvious step forward is simply to remove language from our church’s Discipline that specifically and categorically singles out one class of humans for disapproval. It’s long overdue. The Simple Plan does the deed.
The Rev. Dr. Stephen Bauman, Senior Minister
Christ Church United Methodist, New York City