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A music director fired, a church divided

For 31 years, hundreds of people who went to services at Lexington's First United Methodist Church were drawn by the music program run by Albin C. Whitworth.

The performances often featured works by Bach, Brahms, Beethoven and Handel sung by a choir of more than 100 accompanied by Whitworth on a massive pipe organ.

Although the size of some mainstream Protestant congregations in Lexington has declined in recent years, the 1,800-member First United Methodist thrived and was especially popular for its all-music service every fifth Sunday.

Now members of the West High Street church say it is suffering from a painful division after the September firing of Whitworth, 70.

The numbers of those singing in the choir have dropped from more than 100 to about 30, members say. And Sunday attendance at the downtown church dropped by nearly 200 from mid-April to mid-October, according to church bulletins.

Issues that divide congregations or cause members to leave are not unusual in Christian churches. Several Kentucky churches, including Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington and First Baptist Church in Somerset, have suffered schisms in recent years. (See story, A14.)

Speaking in October at First United Methodist, Lindsey Davis, the bishop who oversees the Kentucky Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, talked about "the pain of recent weeks" and the need for reconciliation.

"The church of Jesus Christ has always experienced conflict," he said. Sharp differences are "not the part that we like to advertise. It's not the part we enjoy, but it's been part of the reality of church life since the beginning."

That knowledge hasn't made it any easier for members of First United Methodist, founded in 1789.

The reasons for Whitworth's firing are unclear. In a Sept. 10 letter, the staff-parish relations committee told Whitworth that his actions "demonstrated a refusal to work positively with the staff."

Committee members told him that he was being terminated because he could not get along with the Rev. J. Paul Brunstetter, the lead minister, Whitworth said, adding he thought he was being given time to work out the differences over "leadership styles."

"This has caused us all great grief," Whitworth said.

Brunstetter and officials at the Kentucky Methodist Conference did not return telephone messages asking for an interview. Bob Duncan, the chairman of the church's staff-parish relations committee, said he could not comment because personnel matters are confidential.

Lexington physician David Kirn, a member of the congregation for 22 years, said he has stopped attending as a result of Whitworth's firing.

"I think it's had a huge impact on the church," said Kirn, noting that Whitworth was one of the church's greatest assets.

Former Lexington Vice Mayor Isabel Yates, a member for more than 40 years, said she is among those who have stopped attending, partially because she is caring for an ailing relative and partially as a result of Whitworth's termination .

Yates said she attended church shortly after the firing and noticed that familiar faces were missing.

"It was so sudden and so definitive that most people could not understand why it came about that way," Yates said. "It caused a lot of hard feelings. It is still my church. But many of us are very uncomfortable."

"When you are 220 years old, a lot of things happen along the way," said Foster Ockerman Jr, a Lexington attorney and First United's church historian. "The current situation in the church affects a lot of people emotionally. But our bishop has said it has been handled appropriately according to church law. The church's next steps are to bring about healing and reconciliation and go about the Lord's work."

Linda Peel, a member who chose to stay in the choir, said there are now about 25 or 30 people singing in the choir.

"I feel like the choir needs me," Peel said.

Peel was so concerned about the issue that she wrote about it on her blog: "Currently there is a lot of hurt, anger, disappointment, and confusion surrounding this termination."

But she explained her decision to stay: "I sing as a way to use the gifts God has given me as an act of worship and to glorify Him. And I will continue to sing as a tribute to a man who has given so much of himself to make the music ministry of our church a vital part of that worship."

It's a marked change in the situation for Whitworth. In 2007, the church celebrated his 30th anniversary as music director.

"To simply say Albin Whitworth is the most gifted and talented musician I have ever worked with would not give proper perspective," Brunstetter said in an interview with the Herald-Leader at the time.

The Rev. Robert Bridges, former vice president of Asbury Seminary and Asbury College, has attended the church since 2001, but stopped going when Whitworth was fired.

"I personally think it was so mishandled, we don't feel comfortable worshiping there," Bridges said. "It began as a philosophical issue about style of worship — traditional versus less traditional approach — and it morphed into a personality issue."

Whitworth has been a proponent of using traditional church music instead of more contemporary styles.

Jim Averitt, a church member who stopped attending when Whitworth was fired, said he hoped that Whitworth could get his job back and the church could reconcile.

The firing is expected to be discussed at a Nov. 23 church meeting, and Whitworth's supporters hope that the choir director will be reinstated.

Yates hopes for reconciliation: "I hope that healing will occur. I think it's going to take a long time."

During a recent interview at his home, Whitworth took telephone calls from well-wishers and concerned choir members.

"I'm in the middle of a dust storm," he said, "and when the dust settles, we'll decide what to do."