Sunday 29 June 2014

Separation of church and state

Soul Search 2013 is a blog about churchgoing in 2013. We're now half way through 2014 and I am no longer posting regularly, although I still allow comments as they arise. However, I have had to delete a number of comments relating to the Scottish independence referendum. This isn't the place for them. There are plenty of other people blogging about the referendum, so please take your comments elsewhere. Thank you, kind readers.

Thursday 27 February 2014

It’s the Wrong Trousers!

... thoughts on modesty and patriarchy

It was all over bar the shouting. I'd finished my year of church visiting and didn't think many more people were going to notice my little blog. And then Mr Anonymous discovered my post about the Free Presbyterian Church in Inverness, almost exactly a year after it first appeared online, and it all started kicking off.

To describe this commentator as intemperate would be putting it mildly. So great is his rage that he struggles to express himself clearly at times, making some of what he's written unintentionally comical, as you'll see if you can be bothered to trawl through all the stuff he's felt duty bound to tell me about what true Christians would and would not do, wear or drink. Don't feel obliged, dear readers.

Thankfully, not all my readers are like Mr Anonymous. And indeed, there are other anonymous commentators who have written considered and thoughtful things and have behaved like perfect blog guests. Thank you, lovely people. 

Two interesting things arise from the whole coffee/trouser/haircut rant:

a)    the importance to Mr Anonymous (and perhaps to others in his denomination, although I will not extrapolate so far as to assume that they all share his views) of the outward appearance of a god-fearing woman, and the fact that what is on her legs or head is more significant than what is in her heart or mind; and

b)    the surprise expressed by some of my readers, secular and religious alike, that there should be such a dress code in any Scottish church in the 21st century (I'd assumed it was common knowledge), and that a woman's otherwise uncontentious fashion choices or hairstyles should draw any comment whatever in church circles or should be deemed to reflect on her character, morality, piety or fitness for salvation.

But if we're talking religiously sanctioned clothing options, we're getting into the realms of the veiling debate ... active choice or symbol of oppression? ... and that isn't somewhere I ever planned to go with my blog. Perhaps non-Christian religions are best kept out of it, since I don't have enough knowledge to comment wisely on the politics of the hijab or of tzniut compliance. However, the comments about trousers remind us that even here in Scotland there are some Christian groups that take a very strict view of what women should be allowed to wear, and of their conduct and their obedience to what a male-run church dictates.

Now, I'm all for modesty. It's been many a long year since any part of my body above the knee or below the collarbone was exposed to public view ... okay, maybe a hint of cleavage in the only dress I own (and can still fit into) that could pass for evening wear, but most of the time you'll find me fully buttoned up. If there was a shop called Frum Gear for Fat Girls, I'd probably buy my whole wardrobe there. But if I did have the figure to flaunt and I felt like flaunting it, I really don't see that that's any business of the adherents or leaders of a church to which I have never belonged, and I have to wonder how FP women and girls manage to do the gardening, play sport or climb trees while wearing a skirt, or how they feel when they don't want to get their knees frozen or their knickers revealed to the world on a particularly windy day but haven't the freedom to dress for the weather. 

I'm assuming here that that they're allowed to garden, play sport, climb trees and leave the house without a chaperone, but who knows? Now that I've started thinking about it, I'm thinking the worst.

If a man restricts what his wife and daughters can wear, what else is he stopping them doing? The FPs may have been following these rules for more than a hundred years, and may believe that they are honouring a tradition that is millennia older than that, but anyone who thinks that they're just a few oddballs and they don't matter needs to take a look across the Atlantic to the burgeoning Christian patriarchy movement in America, where quite staggeringly regressive movements such as Quiverfull and the Above Rubies ministry are raising up new generations of obedient Christian girls who will pledge to their fathers complete authority over their "purity" and every other aspect of their lives (until they marry, when their husbands will take over), who will receive no sex education and only the restricted curriculum in other subjects that is approved by their churches' home-schooling regimes, and who will remain in ignorance of their rights and of their capacity to do anything other than breed, pray and obey until the day the Lord returns to rapture up the faithful.

And their brothers are being brought up in the same households, expecting to lead and dominate and to get an obedient and unquestioning wife.

It's scary stuff and we should take it seriously. All of us, including the nice liberal churches who don’t like to rock the boat, should take it seriously.

A politician once said that we should understand less and condemn more. Mr Anonymous lives by this injunction, as we have seen, but perhaps more of the "mainstream" churches could take a leaf out of his book. I know that sounds as if I'm contradicting everything I’ve just written, but bear with me. What I mean is that, rather than just not being as extreme as the actively patriarchal, woman-hating, contraception-forbidding, education-suppressing churches on the right wing of the Christian spectrum, they could try exploding the myths that these sects and movements perpetrate.

And it's not all happening overseas. Only last week, news stories emerged about the misleading information offered to women visiting some pregnancy advice centres in the UK, and the issue isn't so much about their pro-life stance as about the tactics they employ, the lack of transparency about their funding sources and their unregulated access to vulnerable women who are being led to believe that they will receive professional and impartial medical advice. These aren't women who are members of the churches involved, but their bodies are still seen as a suitable site on which to stage a moral battle. The religious organisations backing these centres may believe they have God on their side, but since when did God require his servants to be insidious and underhand while they are about his work?

Churches who want to retain any credibility should publicly distance themselves from such groups and movements. They're giving Christianity a bad name, and "Sorry, not my department," just doesn't cut it as an excuse for inaction. But if churches, and individual Christians, keep silence and allow their fellow Christians to carry on unchecked, who can blame the secularists for tarring them all with the same brush?

Of course, some of the extremists are not devious or dangerous single-issue campaigners. Some of them are just outspoken trouser-fetishists with nothing better to do than inundate other people's blogs with their shouty comments. Those in the latter group are pretty harmless. Nobody needs to condemn them; they condemn themselves.

There may be FP folk reading this who are horrified to find themselves mentioned in the same blog post as some of these other groups, but if it hadn’t been for an FP adherent’s extreme reaction to my blog I would probably never have lumped them all in together or found myself associating what could be dismissed as an antiquated and mildly misogynistic attitude to clothing with a broader agenda to suppress women's freedoms in the name of religion. 

Until now, I’d always thought of the FPs simply as a slightly less fun version of the Free Church – a bit odd and cheerless, perhaps, and to judge by my visit last year not very friendly either, but nothing to worry about too much. Now, thanks to the comments from one of their worshippers, I see them as the thin end of a wedge whose fat end can look very sinister indeed. 

Let us take comfort where we can, though. The prospects for FP girls aren't so very bleak. Some of them grow up to become members of Parliament and hold their own opinions ... or at least those of their party, rather than those of their parents. 

But hey, maybe I've got it wrong. A single, childless woman with a mind of her own and several pairs of trousers to choose from ... in the eyes of certain people who call themselves Christians, I'm past saving and nothing I say should be given too much credence. Meanwhile, the justified trouser-haters of cyberspace can be assured of their place in heaven.

Monday 10 February 2014

Summing up … second attempt

So a month has gone by and my Soul Search mission seems a long way behind me already. Maybe I’ve actually got this out of my system. Maybe I don’t need to sum up neatly. Maybe I can just say, “Been there, done that, no longer interested.”

I started 2013 with the tentative label “post-Christian monotheist”, and I reached the end of it without having to change that label. Am I a monotheist? I am prepared to be a theist, in the sense that I cannot say (as the fool doth in his heart) that there is no god with enough certainty to call myself an atheist, and yet I’m not particularly comfortable with the idea of being an agnostic, which is the category you might expect the unconvinced to fall into.

But one thing’s for sure. Christianity is a thing of my past. There will be no more churches. I can’t see myself ever again being lured towards such a belief system. It might look attractive and simple at the outset, but scratch the surface and you’ll spend the rest of your life trying to reconcile its myriad inconsistencies. Of course, you could just adopt a blind-faith attitude that stonewalls all argument and criticism, but that’s not a very mature or persuasive stance to take.

Oh yes, you have to be persuasive, because once you’re in, you’re supposed to evangelise and recruit and spread the word, like a lowly latecomer in a pyramid sales scheme. But at some point – and it may take years to reach that point – you’ll realise you’ve been sold a pup. I realised that a long time ago, if I’m honest about it, but I wanted to be really, really sure. And after fifty-odd churches, I'm about as sure as I can be … where Christianity is concerned, at least. I’m not ruling out other faiths; I am in no position to do so at this stage.

And before you ask, no, I don't think Christianity has value because it instils a sense of morality. Atheists/agnostics/secularists aren’t running around killing and robbing each other, or if they are it’s not because they're godless. If anything, it’s the religious folk who seem to do most damage, because their belief that their atrocities are in a righteous cause allows them to be so much more extreme and intolerant.

Religiously inspired codes of morality may reinforce the rules that civilised people would come up with anyway in the absence of religion, but that doesn’t mean that religion, or god, is the source of all morality. Anyone who says that if he/she wasn’t a Christian he/she’d be completely amoral and would be committing crimes left, right and centre is a person to be avoided. Being a dangerous person whose criminal and/or immoral instincts are suppressed by Christianity is nothing to be proud of. Being a civilised person who acts morally without needing to be told to is more to be desired.

Nevertheless, there are some areas in which a deity could be acknowledged – as a notional creator, for example, and I have no problem with that concept. The literal six-day creationists are barking, of course, but I can make room in my world view for a first cause, however that is to be understood.

I can also make room – indeed, I could hardly deny it room, if it’s omnipresent – for an overarching almighty entity that is too great and mysterious to be fully understood, however rational we try to be. But the physical paraphernalia attending the Christian version of this entity – all thorns and nails and tail feathers – is not the substance or manifestation of any god I can believe in.

So that’s where I am so far. Still pondering, but not beating myself up about it. Still doubting, but open to persuasion. And still blogging, occasionally, and trying not to get too riled by the intemperate commentators who insist on USING CAPITAL LETTERS ALL THE TIME!

Tee-hee, giggles the Soul Searcher. At least people are reading my blog -- it's been visited by people in 57 different countries. That's one for every week I've been writing it. Who'd have thought people as far afield as Benin, Chile, Qatar and Hong Kong would want to read about Edinburgh churches?

Monday 13 January 2014

Summing up … first attempt

So there have been three church-free Sundays since the end of my year of churchgoing. On the first one I worked (deadlines and bad planning having scrubbed out any possibility of “fun” over Christmas and the New Year), and on the second and third I met up with a friend to visit the Botanic Gardens and then the National Museum.

And no, I’m not missing going to church.

Trying to sum up what I’ve learned in the past year is taking longer than I’d thought. No definite conclusions … not yet, anyway. Except perhaps this one … that there will be no more churches. I’ve been there and done that, and seen more varieties of this crazy thing called Christianity than I bet a lot of people could claim to have experienced. And there’s nothing there for me. If I want music, I’ll go to a concert or listen to a CD. If I want a lesson, I’ll read it from a book. If I want the intemperate opinions of social conservatives, I’ll read the Daily Mail. Actually, no, I don’t think I could stomach that. And if I want to pray or read the bible, I don’t need to sit in a strangely decorated building in order to do that.

All the Jesus stuff needs more mulling over. There are big questions about exactly how much I can bring myself to believe, and as you might have worked out by now the term arch-sceptic might just about begin to describe my approach to most faith claims.

More to come when I’ve worked more of it out, if that ever happens. 

Friday 27 December 2013

St Cuthbert’s Parish Church

Christmas Eve, 24 December 2013, 11.30pm
Ministers: the Reverend David W Denniston, the Reverend Charles Robertson and the Reverend Jane M Denniston

Bah Humbug! Soul Searcher is not a fan of Christmas, at least not of most of it. Yes to turkey and sprouts, but no to rampant consumerism, queuing in Sainsburys and the awful loop of Christmas pop songs played just about everywhere from mid-October onwards.

But I couldn’t not go to church on Christmas Eve. My dear friend C, the cafeteria Catholic at whose behest I attended St Peter’s last year, kick-starting the whole year of blogging, had suggested a return visit, but then she bottled out, so no brownie points for her. So I thought I’d try St Cuthbert’s, last experienced through a fug of soup odour in May, the week the general assembly was in town and Princes Street gardens were playing host to the Heart & Soul festival.

No soup this time, but lots of electric candles to light the first half of the service, until the house lights came up at midnight. A reversal, if you will, of the Tenebrae service at Old St Paul’s, with all the lights going out until we ended in darkness.

St Cuthbert’s is one of those churches that seems too ornate to be CofS, with friezes and frescoes and all manner of fripperies to distract the eye. They also have an organ, played by one Dr Jeremy Cull, who treated us to Bach’s Christmas chorales from the Orgelbuchlein on the way in and Widor’s Toccata in F on the way out. After all the dire “praise” music I’ve endured this year, it’s nice to hear some old-school church music played well.

But as for the choir, well, not so great. Six feeble voices were largely drowned out by one of the male ministers (wasn’t sure which was which) who left his microphone on throughout all the hymns, although they attempted a feeble descant for See in Yonder Manger Low. I feared that they might try the same for O Little Town of Bethlehem and O Come, All Ye Faithful, but we were spared what could have been a car crash.

Congregational enthusiasm was difficult to judge because of the mic’ed-up minister, but there were 60-something people in various degrees of mufflement against the mid-winter weather, although one woman had opted for bare arms, bare legs and peep-toe stilettos. Brrrr! Soul Searcher, who likes to be prepared for draughty churches, wore her new hat, crocheted by her own fair hand, but still found herself coveting her neighbour’s white fleecy, furry, ear-flappy, tie-under-the-chin hat. But Where did you get that hat? wasn’t what we were there to hear about.

The carols were: On Christmas Night All Christians Sing, Child in the Manger, See in Yonder Manger Low (complete with errors on the OHP), While Humble Shepherds, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Still the Night, Joy to the World (which I didn’t realise had quite so many verses), and O Come, All Ye Faithful.

The readings were Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, and Luke 2:1-20, and the sermons, or “talks”, of which there were two for some reason, were about the innkeeper, starting with a grim little piece of doggerel called “The Tale of the Innkeeper”. In a nutshell, we are all of us innkeepers, thinking there is no room in our lives for Jesus, but let us not miss another opportunity in life, because he always has room for us. Quite why it took three clergypeople to deliver this I’m not sure; maybe they just don’t want to be alone at Christmas.

But I can’t say that I felt moved or uplifted at any point. Maybe after all these churches I’m just bored now. The year is nearly ended and there’s nothing new under all those vaulted ceilings. 

Monday 23 December 2013

Try Praying

Where: on the buses, in little booklets and online 
Led by: a very nice man called David Hill

I’d seen the bus adverts, stuck behind one in traffic, most likely, but I wasn’t sure who was behind trypraying until I met David, parishoner of Liberton Kirk, who commented on my blog and who turns out to be the campaign co-ordinator.

David gave me the booklet (also downloadable) and asked me to try the seven-day prayer challenge. And I did. And I promised that I’d write about it. That was more than seven weeks ago now. Soul Searcher has had a lot on her plate, but finally she’s getting round to it.

So how to review trypraying? The short version is simple: tried it, didn’t work!

But there’s a difference between, “I tried it and it didn’t work for me,” and “I tried it and it didn’t work and therefore it doesn’t work for anyone.” Clearly there are many who believe that it does work, that prayer is effective, that God listens and responds, that it isn’t just some kind of pointless lunatic activity akin to having an imaginary friend.

So there has to be a longer and, I hope, more carefully considered version too.

Regular readers will know by now that the Soul Searcher is a grumpy, grudging grouch who finds plenty to complain about almost everywhere. So if you asked me what I honestly thought about prayer, about its purpose and efficacy, you could expect a fairly sceptical answer.

But it’s also worth checking sources, so let’s start with the Westminster Catechism’s definition of prayer (q98):

“Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.”

And now let’s pick it apart and think about what that really means. It means that a petition for anything not agreeable to God’s will doesn’t count as prayer, so if your prayer goes unanswered it might be because you’ve prayed for the wrong thing. But how do you know if what you desire is acceptable or not? Well, perhaps because acceptable desires are fulfilled and unacceptable ones aren’t … which leads us right back round in a circle. 

This definition would also seem to suggest that unless you confess your sins it doesn’t count either. Ditto for acknowledgement of his mercies. So if any one element is lacking, you’re unlikely to get what you’re praying for.

More detailed definitions of prayer expand on the basic premise, explaining that it’s about more than mechanical lip service, not what you say but what’s in your heart, etc. So here’s another question? If God knows what’s in my heart, why do I have to tell him? Okay, so there’s always some value in trying to set out your thoughts in proper order, like writing a list of all the things you need to do rather than just worrying about the general mess your life is in … or like writing a blog about churchgoing for a whole year instead of just letting all the spiritual mayhem swirl around in your brain.

Back in October, at Craigrownie Parish Church, the sermon covered some of this, but not in any great depth, although the minister did have quite a tidy argument to account for unanswered prayers.

But maybe not every prayer expects an answer. There are prayers of acknowledgement and of thanks, as well as prayers of petition. There are prayers whose purpose is to cement one’s membership of a congregation/sect/faith, everyone reciting the same prayer together. This is prayer as fan mail; the fans don’t really expect the admired celebrity to write back to them in person, but the act of sending the letter makes them feel like part of something bigger … maybe?

I don’t know really. I’ve never idolised a pop star or actor, so I’m guessing here. Maybe it’s my lack of idol-worshipping instinct that makes prayer not work for me. It’s just hard to see how the petty little god prayed to at Holyrood Abbey, Elim and St Stephen’s, who is unable to do any of the things that a truly almighty god would do, could be worth praying to.

There could be another purpose to prayer, of course. Prayer as meditation, to get your mind into some kind of receptive state, to calm yourself, to focus your thoughts, etc, etc. But to commune with a supernatural being? Hmmm … not sure I can really go for that.

One of the themes that I’ve brought up during my Soul Search mission is the theological difficulty I have in equating Jesus with God. While I could just about believe in God the Father, there’s too much messy Christology around the person and purpose of Jesus, around the trinity and so on, for me to believe in the divinity of Jesus. However I leave my year of Soul Searching, it’s going to be without Jesus.

… and trypraying is all about Jesus. For trypraying, Jesus equals God, and they don’t want to muddy the waters with too much theology. The campaign is aimed, after all, at people who wouldn’t darken the doors of a church. Soul Searcher quite likes churches; she just isn’t too keen on what she tends to find in them.

So what can I say about trypraying? I don’t want to condemn it as pointless. There are some genuinely well-intentioned people involved in promoting it, and good luck to them. If their forthcoming Pray, Say, Display campaign to widen the scope of the project succeeds, they might get a few more people talking regularly to God, feeling better about themselves, finding a purpose in life, and that’s got to be good. But there’s a step somewhere beyond that, when all those brought to prayer by trypraying start to get a bit more inquisitive … and then they’ll find themselves where I am, fifty churches down and still no answers.

Sorry, David. 

Monday 16 December 2013

Robin Chapel

Choral Evensong, Advent 3 (Gaudete), 15 December 2013, 4.30pm
Chaplain: Revd Thomas Coupar
Preacher: Very Revd Mgr Michael Regan

It was the third Sunday in Advent, and once again John the Baptist was very much to the fore, starting with a rousing rendition of On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry, which fairly raised the rafters. There were only eleven worshippers, but the thirteen choristers made a big noise in a small space.

Maybe they get more folk attending when the weather isn’t fierce and filthy, but if you’ve never been to the Robin Chapel then you’ve missed a choral treat. Built in memory of Robin Tudsbury as part of the Thistle Foundation, it is described as interdenominational but appears to be more or less Anglican. They have a super little choir who sing evensong every week, yesterday’s music list being:
  • Hymns 34, 573 (Common Praise)
  • Plainsong Preces and Responses
  • Ps. 14
  • Amner Cesar’s Service
  • Gibbons This is the record of John
  • Naylor Festal Responses 

Bit of a wobble on the final verse of the Gibbons, but it was pretty impressive. Even the collects were sung, and the order of service is from the 1929 Scottish Prayer Book, which features such charming archaisms as, “In Quires and Places where they sing, here followeth the Anthem.”

The visiting preacher, the Very Revd Mgr Michael Regan from the Metropolitan Cathedral, wins the prize for the best vestments of the year bar none. Germolene pink satin – rose pink, he called it – with elaborate floral embroidery and a befring├Ęd cope. It even surpasses the gold and yellow number worn by Jennifer Irungu at the Kingdom Church, though he might lose a point or two for not accessorising with sparkly high heels. Maybe that would have been over-egging it.

The readings were Isaiah 35 and Matthew 11:2-15, and the sermon was about preparing a way for the Lord, citing lyrics from Les Miserables and reflecting on what it means to be touched by love, when we can begin to discern what the prophets have been talking about. At just seven minutes long, it’s probably the shortest address of the year, but there was a lot of singing to get through, and having sat through some dire sermons during my mission I'm not going to complain about concision.

I’ve noted a couple of times throughout my year of churchgoing that there’s something aesthetically pleasing about the Anglican liturgy, and especially so when it’s all set to such fabulous music. Does it do anything for me spiritually? Er … no. Sorry. But maybe that’s just because I’m dead inside.

But they’re doing a Christmas carol service next Sunday at 4pm, which should have some good music. How many people they can fit in is another matter, as there’s probably only seating for thirty or so. First come, first served, I guess.