Interview with Carl Chamberlain of the Amsterdam United Methodist Church

Reverend Carl Chamberlain. Photo provided.

I was an hour early but didn’t realize it until Reverend Carl Chamberlain of the Amsterdam United Methodist Church on Golf Course Road came laughing out of his office to inform me. Despite showing up at the wrong time, Chamberlain graciously agreed to an interview and tour of his church on the spot. We sat first in the sanctuary where I asked him my questions.

Towne: How did you come to pastor this church?

Chamberlain: The Methodist tradition is organized a little differently than some of the others. The Episcopal framework, as we call it, allows for appointment rather than a call from the local church. To my Methodist friends I call it like a military commission. When one is ordained as an elder you have some full-time guarantees, such as a full-time job and compensation package, but on the flip side, the bishop gets to choose where they go and when that happens, so I was appointed by the Bishop to be the pastor here last July.

Towne: You told me your wife is a minister in the Methodist Church as well?

Chamberlain: Yes. My wife Heidi pastors the Fonda – Fultonville United Methodist Church, and the Salem United Methodist Church in Stone Arabia.

Towne: What are some of your beliefs about church, and do your personal views differ from the denomination in any way?

Chamberlain: I was attracted originally to the Methodist Church, and while I grew up in the Methodist tradition I had some soul-deep, heart-deep questioning early on whether I fit. One of the remarkable things that John Wesley did as a theologian and organizer was to look at scripture and divided down our responsibilities into two areas: one was what he called works of piety, and that includes regular attendance at worship, participation in the sacraments, and we practice two of them – baptism and communion, personal and family prayer and Bible study and those sorts of “churchy” things; but the second and equal to that, he said, and I feel strongly about this, is most of the teachings of the church are what we call works of mercy, where we have people of active faith with a responsibility for scriptural obligation to meet the needs of other people. Some are more historically relevant now, like being against slavery, but then, working for acts of justice and mercy in the community is part of our responsibility as people of faith. I find those to be so solid for me that I don’t sense any difference between expectations and teachings of the historic church and what I embrace for myself.

Towne: Tell me a little of your musical traditions in the Methodist Church.

Chamberlain: Oh, going back to John and Charles. Charles Wesley was a phenomenal poet, a skilled pianist. He would come home with a tune in his mind and the words to go with it and go rushing up the stairs of his home to his study upstairs so he wouldn’t forget anything, ignoring the family, in order to write a tune or words down. John and Charles both have authored many, many hymns over the years. If it had not been for their church organizing renown and movement in creating the Methodist Church they would have been known as musicians within our larger church. I suggest anybody to go to the indexes in their hymnals in their own traditions to find the hymns that were written by the Wesley’s. Their father Samuel and a nephew also named Samuel also wrote familiar hymns.

One of the things we often experience, although it is not so often stated out loud, is that when we sing the hymns and say the words together we are learning our theology. They are statements about God, about our responsibility, about how we relate to one another and to the communities around us. The hymns sometimes teach us, sometimes, as much as sermons or scripture.

Towne: Music has a way of getting to the heart of you.

Chamberlain: Absolutely. Martin Luther once famously said, “He who sings, prays twice.”

Towne: In the past you have hosted certain arts groups, such as the “Drums along the Mohawk” production. Tell me, what are your future plans for supporting arts groups and how does that fit into your general vision for your church?

Chamberlain: It happens that my sense of ministry closely matches John Wesley’s vision. In his first Methodist preaching house in Bristol, England, he stipulated “no pews,” and at the end of the worship service the pews would be stacked around the outside so that the space could be used by the community: for the poor, for the sick, for medical treatment, for housing for the homeless. So we have a long and rich history of the Methodist church buildings being used as community centers. That’s where I’m coming from. Looking at our church building here on Golf Course Road, I wanted to be a building that’s seen first as a community resource. One of those ways is to invite the community in when we do have programs. Last December we had the St. Petersburg Men’s Quartet from St. Petersburg, Russia. This last spring we had the Skye Family from Newfoundland, Canada. They are a Celtic music group. This summer, of course, we had the “Drums Along the Mohawk” theater company using our facilities for rehearsals, for presentations in August at Ghelston Castle. I’d like to see those things happen frequently, but not just the arts but for other services for the community. A week ago we hosted the Red Cross blood drive here in this location. I would like to see the outreach of the church family here use the building as a tool in those different ways.

Towne: What do you think of the verse 2 Peter 1:20 that states that “no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.”

Chamberlain: I’ve never been a chapter and verse memory person and there will always be people in congregations that know a lot more than I do, who will give you chapter and verse on that. But, I know in my experience, there are a lot of things that God speaks to and about that are not automatically a black and white, clearly referenced from scripture, within historical context and culturally different now than in history that are important yet were’nt even a part of conversation 2000 years or more ago.

So we listen to God speaking in different ways than the simple black and white of ink on paper. Scripture has always been interpreted from the beginning, and sometimes we need education and experienced background to come close to fully interpreting. So, I shy away from looking at black and white, ink on paper pronouncements from scripture, and when I have a reference I look for context and the meaning and the application historically, before I start looking at whether or not it sits in a particular local event. It’s so easy to do what is called “Eisegesis” which is to look at an event and apply our own values to it and then look for Scripture to back it up. That’s a misuse of scripture in my understanding. That seems to be part of the theological understanding of most traditions as well. A very common yet inappropriate use of Scripture.

Towne: If you had to pick a Bible verse to share and you had only one what would that be?

Chamberlain: I would have to go to a small cluster. For me, when Jesus was asked what was the most important commandment, he went back to a couple of what we call Old Testament references in the Bible that Jesus used and I think we can learn from it to. He quoted what the Jewish community called the Shema, the statement of faith, the core principle of Judaism. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.” And then he said, equal to that though, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two things hang all the law and the prophets.” Everything else in scripture can be found in a deep and more full understanding of those two: love God, and that the primary responsibility in relationship, and then take care of each other. To really understand that you have to understand Jesus wasn’t using the English word “love” but something closer to the Greek word “agape” which means taking a look at and understanding another person needs; what would best serve them and then to do what we can to help the other person to do well and grow.

So, all those hearts and flowers things we think of around St. Valentine Day… The scriptural reference to love so often is not that romantic love but the “agape,” the goodness towards others love kind of love. Love God and take care of each other.

Jay Towne

Jay Towne is a resident of Amsterdam, has published six books and is the writer and director of a radio drama, Any Good Thing, that currently airs on WOPG.