Church To Close As Turnout Falls -- Demographic Change Shares Blame

Final service

Capitol Hill United Methodist Church will hold its final service at 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 31. The congregation meets in Central Lutheran Church, 1710 11th Ave. -------------------------------------------------------------------

After 129 pioneering years, members of Capitol Hill United Methodist Church, Seattle's second oldest congregation, have voted to disband at the end of this month.

"It's been a very painful decision. When the vote was taken . . . hands went up and heads went down," said the Rev. Kay Wright, the church's pastor.

With many already working in demanding human-service jobs, members concluded they did not have the financial resources or the personal energy to reverse the church's long decline.

But the congregation will leave a legacy of ministry that spans the generations and chronicles the changing face of Seattle.

Founded by the Rev. Daniel Bagley, who was instrumental in getting the University of Washington located in Seattle, the church served some of the city's first families. More recently it served the needs of racial minorities, gays and lesbians, teenagers, the mentally ill and homeless people on Capitol Hill.

But it fell victim to the area's changing demographics as families moved to the suburbs and the neighborhood became more transient. The congregation lost some members through natural attrition. Internal splits within the membership during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s also hurt.

"We passed critical mass some time ago," said Wright.

A good turnout for worship was only about 30 people, she said. The congregation sold its storybook stone sanctuary two years ago and has been meeting in shared space at Central Lutheran Church.

But even as they prepare for their final service Oct. 31, members are leaving with a sense of accomplishment.

"We're proud of our tradition of inclusiveness and trying to reach out to a more diverse population," said Michael Siptroth, a member of the church's board of trustees.

Capitol Hill United Methodist Church is one of only two Methodist churches in Seattle that have declared themselves "reconciling" congregations, that is, affirming and welcoming gays and lesbians.

"It was very much on the edge of social ministry," said the Rev. Jan Anderson, a former minister of the church in the early 1980s. Whether protesting the Trident nuclear submarine base or serving meals to the homeless, Anderson said the church offered a unique ministry. "I will probably never serve a parish like that again," she said.

The congregation was founded in 1864 at Second Avenue and Madison Street. The city's first church was the Rev. David Blaine's Methodist-Episcopal Church, now First United Methodist Church in downtown Seattle.

Bagley's Methodist-Protestant congregation, originally housed in a brown wood-frame sanctuary, prospered and eventually built its landmark stone church at 128 16th Ave. E. on Capitol Hill in 1906.

Even into the 1950s, the church was a picture of health.

Alvirita Little, 80, recalled the church had "great finesse." People dressed up for church. Socials featured the nicest china and silverware, and beautiful tea services, she said. The worship services were rooted in Methodist traditions.

All that changed in the 1960s, however, as the church began to reach out to the young people on Capitol Hill with a blend of cutting-edge activism and contemporary-worship services. Some of the older members left for more traditional Methodist churches, Little said.

Little played a role in how the church was to define its character.

Little was the church's first black member, joining in the early 1950s. After she had begun to attend the Capitol Hill church and volunteer as the minister's secretary, the minister invited her and her family to join.

Though some members did not want a black family in the congregation and eventually left, on the Sunday the family was taken into the church the whole congregation rose to its feet to welcome them. "I had never seen that happen before," said Little, a lifelong Methodist.

Other forces, meanwhile, also were reshaping the church.

As Group Health Hospital began to expand, the church became harder to get to because of parking problems, said Lucille Scheytt, 74, who along with Little now attends University United Methodist Temple across from the UW.

Maintenance of the old stone church on Capitol Hill was extremely expensive, Scheytt added. The slate roof leaked. "It got worse and worse. We couldn't build the congregation up when the building needed repair," she said.

Yet the inner workings of the church accelerated. In 1966, the Rev. Hal Perry became pastor of Capitol Hill United Methodist Church, joining with Methodist ministers of two other area churches to form a ministerial team to better serve inner-city residents.

The Capitol Hill church opened a coffee house in its basement for young people, and set up a lounge for former mental-health patients.

It also reached out to the rest of the surrounding neighborhood, including the gay community. It began rewriting hymns so they were more inclusive, long before most mainline churches began looking at gender references, said Perry. It worked with Ecumenical Metropolitan Ministry and the Church Council of Greater Seattle to set up the Neighbors in Need food-bank system in the early 1970s, he said.

But divisions were developing. The Rev. Melvin Woodworth said when he became pastor in 1974, the church was divided into three groups: mainstream Methodists; the younger, more nontraditional membership, and former mental-health patients. The conflict was between the first two groups, said Woodworth.

Woodworth added, however, it was exciting to be part of a congregation that liked innovative worship and was socially involved. "Capitol Hill has done a tremendous amount of good over the years meeting the needs of people who have been part of the congregation," he said.

And for those in the larger community, too. Anderson, the former pastor, said 80 different community organizations were meeting at the church in the 1980s, from theater groups to various 12 Step programs, like Alcoholics Anonymous.

Wright, the current pastor, noted that a member of Capitol Hill United Methodist Church read in the newspaper in the early 1970s that the Metropolitan Community Church, many of whose members were homosexual, was having trouble finding a place to worship.

The Capitol Hill congregation decided to offer space in its church. However, some members of the Capitol Hill church opposed the decision and left.

Wright praised the congregation for being ahead of its time in seeing its mission right outside its front door. However, resources and support did not keep up with the inner city's pressing needs.

She said the church will be remembered for the love it gave to God and neighbors. "This is a church that has worked very hard at being faithful to the Gospel," Wright said.