The Bethany Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church looks far older than the communities around it. In the semirural South Carolina countryside west of Clover, SC, generally a land of farms, fields, and whitewashed houses on rolling hills, it stands with a sort of atavistic defiance to its setting.
The church rises tall upon a green lawn, framed at its back by forest, flanked on one hand by the elementary school across the road and on the other by its cemetery, rank upon rank of headstones marching to the roadside in every direction. Its walls were of mortared red brick, darkened by age. Tall, arched windows of stained glass march down the sides of its central hall. A tower rises beside the front entrance, its crenelated top more reminiscent of an English parish church than anything typically found in South Carolina.
The floor of the church’s sanctuary sloped down from the front doors towards a raised stage. Lurid red carpeting covered the floor and red cushions sheathed the three columns of pews that filled most of its space. A strip of red separated the front row of pews from the stage. The church altar stood at the stage’s foot, draped in red fabric and laid with a cross and candlesticks wrought from gleaming silver. A broad wooden pulpit rose directly behind the altar, at the stage’s forward edge; behind it sat three high-backed wooden chairs for the church’s pastor and other prominent speakers, and behind them rose the church choir loft. Two secondary wings opened onto the main sanctuary at either side of the stage, separated from the hall by panelled wooden doors that could slide up onto their ceilings on runners like suburban garage doors.
All the sanctuary’s walls, from rear to sides to choir loft, were painted in seamless white. Those stained glass windows seen from outside punctuated the walls, framed by age-darkened wood and set with tiny plaques naming worshippers whose donations helped restore them over the years. An identical window stood behind the choir loft’s seats, but it was sealed and its glass removed long ago when the church expanded beyond its old sanctuary. Outside, the church’s walls lighten noticeably where its original brickwork gives way to later additions.
The sanctuary’s ceiling was easily its most striking feature. Two ventral beams of heavy, dark wood stretched the length of the chamber, crossed at regular intervals by seven matching lateral beams. Taken together, they arched the ceiling along its middle and resembled nothing so much as the segmented plates of a turtle shell, as seen from inside the putative beast. Within each segment was a grid of molded, white-washed squares, torn here and there where age took its toll on the paint and plaster-work. Electric lamps hung from the ceiling on long chains, adding their light to that already pouring in through the many windows.
A formidable congregation gathered beneath that turtle shell ceiling come the start of the day’s worship service. From a quiet seat in the rear of the sanctuary Churchspotting was able to count over fifty individuals in the sanctuary, not including those seated in the secondary wings and those on stage among the choir. All told the full number on that Sunday was well over sixty persons, though probably less than a hundred.
The day’s ceremonies began with a reading of announcements, followed by prayer, followed in turn by a hymn sung by the full congregation. Public prayer was conducted at the Bethany ARP in the following manner. First the presiding speaker, whether the church’s pastor or an elder, afforded the community a period of silent prayer; worshippers sat with heads bowed, eyes closed, in silence. In time the speaker began to pray aloud while the congregation remained seated, sometimes at considerable length, until the prayer was closed a last thanks to the deity. Music at Bethany ARP was highly traditional, composed wholly of the human voice and a simple piano accompaniment.
The congregation recited the Lord’s Prayer together immediately after the day’s first hymn. Then the church’s pastor, Alan Arthur Morrow, holder of that post since 1992, called the congregation’s children to the front pews for a children’s sermon. Morrow, a tall, bald, older man, began by asking the children to make a list of bad things they did in their daily lives. Once they’d compiled a list, which he committed to a whiteboard brought down before the stage, Morrow explained to them that these bad acts were ultimately sins: violations of God’s law.
Morrow taught the children that all people were sinners, including themselves, but that if they asked God’s forgiveness for their transgressions he would “put [their] sins out of sight,” a point he illustrated by wiping the white board clean of text. Because of this, he said, “let us love Him and worship Him and serve Him all the days of our lives.”
After the children’s sermon deacons walked the aisles bearing trays for the congregation’s donations, backed by accompaniment from the piano. Once the day’s tithe was gathered the congregation recited from catechism statements printed in that day’s church bulletin. Among other things they affirmed that they believed there to be one god in the universe, a godhead composed of three personalities (Father, Son and Spirit) which were nonetheless one being. Morrow read each catechism question from the pulpit; the congregation read out the appropriate response in unison, save for those who knew their catechism well enough to recite it from memory.
A second hymn followed this group recitation, then another period of prayer. The remainder of the service, about half its overall length, was the pastor’s sermon. First Morrow read from the Bible, specifically Luke 7:36-50. His selection told the story of an evening Jesus spent in the house of Simon, a priest of the mainstream Jewish establishment in his day, at which a woman of ill repute in her neighborhood washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and anointed his feet with expensive oil. To better set the scene for his congregation Morrow described contemporary styles of eating and architecture: specifically, the Roman fashion of eating from low tables while reclining upon couches, and the layout of a Roman-style urban villa with its atrium opening onto the street.
Morrow focused on the contrition and passion of the woman in her tending to Jesus, and the self-righteousness of Simon when he rebuked Jesus for associating with a woman of such poor reputation. He asked his congregation how they would treat a drunk, a prostitute or an open homosexual who entered their church and called them to be “a friend to sinners,” as he repeatedly described Jesus.
A final hymn followed the sermon’s close, after which the congregation of Bethany ARP made for the sanctuary’s front doors. The land outside was cool under a gray sky, and leafy boughs stretched over the church’s cemetery hung yellowed and inflamed by the changing seasons.