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 befringèd 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. 

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Pilrig St Paul’s Church

Sunday Worship, Second Sunday of Advent, 08 December 2013, 11am
Minister: Rev Mark Foster

Déjà vu aplenty this week, as I added yet another Church of Scotland congregation to my list. Pilrig St Paul’s happens to be my parish church, in the sense that I live in the geographical area assigned to it, although I didn’t find this out until the middle of September when my visit to Liberton Kirk prompted me to wonder about the churches on my own doorstep.

Maybe I’ve been to too many C of S churches by now, but there were echoes of other services, not least last week’s at Duddingston Kirk, as Pilrig St Paul’s’ (how many apostrophes should there be?) minister, Rev Foster, is more or less a younger version of Dr Jack – same avuncular tone, same balance of humour and seriousness, similar physique though slightly more flamboyant sartorially in his big blue dress and purple stole.

Echoes, too, of Wilson Memorial’s tiny and barely audible choir (muted echoes, I guess), as Pilrig St Paul’s boasts just four choristers, and the same demographic imbalance seen at Musselburgh Congregational Church – fifty-odd mostly elderly folk, 90 per cent of them female, and three bewildered children. The building could have held four times this number with room to spare.

The children’s address was pretty chaotic, involving an invisible time machine, its invisible keys, the symbolism of purple and clues that had been hidden around the church in Sainsburys bags – honey, hairy shirt … can you guess who it is yet? A bear? Fred Flintstone? Unfortunately, the final item, a leather belt, had been found by a diligent worshipper on arrival and handed in to lost property so it had to be brought out again to complete the puzzle, and even then none of the kids could guess. But, yes, all the grown-ups knew it was John the Baptist.

Kids out of the way at Sunday school, the sermon was about John the Baptist as an unconventional role model, unlikely to win friends or influence people. Rev Foster suggested Hallmark has missed a trick by not producing Advent cards featuring John the Baptist with “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”, or “Ye viperous brood” as the sentiment. But in a nutshell, the rantings of this lunatic preacher (John, I mean, not the Rev Foster) are a seasonal reminder that our lives need turning around.

Readings were Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12 (NIV) and hymns were from CH4. The organ is set in an ornate carved wall of pipes and pulpit, somewhat ponderous in the jaunty little advent carol but coming into its own for the more traditional hymns, but I do have to wonder why the organist passed up the opportunity to use Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen, as printed, and choose Crüger instead. Still, a chorale is a chorale and I suppose I shouldn’t complain. At least they weren’t singing praise choruses.

So I’m almost at the end of my year of churchgoing, and I ought to be asking myself if I’ve actually learnt anything. Hard to say. Nothing new or challenging today, at least. At some point soon, I will need to start gathering my thoughts and drawing some conclusions. 

Monday, 2 December 2013

Duddingston Kirk

First Sunday in Advent, early service, Sunday 01 December 2013, 10am
Minister: Rev Dr James Jack

A reader of and commentator on my blog asked if I’d be interested in visiting her church, which she described in somewhat cryptic terms as a “south-east Edinburgh gem … near the shores of a loch”. Aha! Where else but Duddingston Kirk?

Everyone’s seen Henry Raeburn’s famous picture of the skating minister, the Rev Robert Walker, skating on Duddingston Loch, lovely views of which you can see from the kirk gardens, although Walker’s parish was the Canongate Kirk.

Whether Duddingston’s current incumbent, Dr Jack, is a skating man or not I couldn’t say, but he does have a magnificent baritone voice and a sense of humour that the congregation seemed to appreciate, and I have to say I enjoyed the service. So thank you, Eileen, for the recommendation.

I failed, however, to count how many people were present, mostly because I sat at the back and couldn’t see into the transepts or gallery, but it was a fair sized crowd, and that was for the early service. They do another one at 11.30, so it seems to be a thriving congregation.

We kicked off with – hurrah! – a paraphrase, The Race that Long in Darkness Pined (Isaiah 9:2-7), and as I observed at Craigrownie, it’s nice to know that the paraphrases haven’t been completely forgotten in the move to CH4. The hymn selection was much in the same vein too – Rejoice, the Lord is King, Away in a Manger and O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, plus the more lyrically experimental ‘I have a dream,’ a man once said to the tune of Repton. I wonder if that one will survive to CH5. Slightly odd, though, to choose Lift up your Hearts! We Lift them to the Lord, when we could have had Tell out, my Soul, the Greatness of the Lord to the same tune (Woodlands). During one of the hymns (I don’t recall which), Dr Jack wandered up to the back rather like an exam invigilator, but if he hadn’t done so I wouldn’t have been able to hear his super voice; there are some funny acoustics in that space.

It reminded me of Craigrownie in other ways too. Maybe it’s the village setting, or maybe it’s because both Craigrownie and Duddingston sit somewhere towards the trad end of the Church of Scotland spectrum where their style of worship is concerned – sung amen, stained glass, minister in academic robes, etc.

The readings were Isaiah 2:1-5 and Matthew 24:36-44, the children’s address was about Mary and the sermon was on the theme, No One Knows the Day and Hour. Last time I heard a sermon on this theme, before this year’s mission, I almost missed a ferry from Mull back to the mainland, because no one had told me the service would last almost two hours – I really didn’t know the hour – and with only 13 in the congregation it would have been rude to leave early. But I made it back to Craignure in time on that occasion, and luckily Dr Jack runs a tighter ship than the evangelicals of Tobermory.

He launched into his sermon with a few lines of Santa Claus is Coming to Town, but he quickly turned to the disconnect we can feel during the festive season – “an uneasiness, or even embarrassment, that hovers unspoken over the frivolity of Christmas” while we all run around like headless chickens and Isaiah’s vision for peace among the nations seems lost in the machinery of commerce and warfare. Who wants to listen for the voice of a mouldy old prophet? But we need a mental intermission in the midst of the extravaganza, a little head space to raise that faith question.

I agree. I hate Christmas, and there are still 20-odd shopping days to go.

There were prayers, of course, for those killed, injured and bereaved in the Glasgow helicopter crash. How could there not have been? It fitted with the sermon, really. On the one hand, everyone’s so busy with their exciting lives and their profound ambitions and their trivial daily concerns, and then in an instant everything can change utterly. No one knows the day or the hour. 

Monday, 25 November 2013

St Michael and All Saints

High Mass for the Feast of Christ the King, Sunday 24 November 2013, 11am
Led by: a whole bunch of clergy and servers
Sermon by: Fr Malcolm Aldcroft

Last week I had a hankering for Bach. This week I got to hear O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht sung by the choir of St Michael and All Saints at probably the highest mass I’ve attended all year. If it’s smells and bells you’re after, St Michael and All Saints even eclipses the Tridentine Latin mass at St Margaret’s and St Leonard’s, and has the advantage of actually including the congregation by processing around and puffing everyone with incense. It doesn’t half stick in your nostrils, though. I could still smell it two hours later.

If the Anglican communion is a spectrum, this is the end at which it looks more Catholic than the Catholics, and to someone with such Presbyterian instincts as mine it’s an uncomfortable experience to witness the clergy bowing to a separate little Marian altar and singing Hail Mary, although this bit was after the mass itself was ended. Nor have I ever heard the Lord’s Prayer changed to include the blessed and ever glorious virgin Mary, the apostles Peter and Paul, Andrew of Scotland, Michael and all saints, but that’s what we got in this version of the 1970 Scottish Liturgy. Excuse me while I have another little Presbyterian shudder … eeurgh!

The mass was sung, led by a choir of ten, and an organist who scores top marks for sneaking a few motifs from Once in Royal David’s City into the tune of Crown Him with Many Crowns, as well as singing along to the prayers. As well as choir and organist, there were three clergy in gold and red vestments and six servers in black and white vestments, which is quite a high staff-public ratio considering there were only 37 in the congregation.

Slightly confusingly, although the gospel reading (cue bells and huddled clergy) was Luke 23:33-43 as advertised in the pew-sheet, the other readings were from Malachi 4 and 2 Thessalonians 3, and not Jeremiah 23 and Colossians 1 as in the sheet. No pew bibles were supplied.

The sermon was short and sweet; it has to be when there’s all that mass to get through. On this the Feast of Christ the King, we were asked to consider how a king or queen can be recognised without his/her crown on. One of the men crucified beside Jesus failed to recognise him, and indeed his majesty cannot be measured in human terms. Oh yes, and it was stir-up Sunday – last chance to do your Christmas baking.

Soul Searcher has not been baking. Soul Searcher’s mother, on the other hand, had her cake done a fortnight ago. I’m not sure if I believe in god, but there’s definitely such a thing as a domestic goddess and I’ve a long way to go to learn to bake like her. Maybe that’s another project for 2014.

There’s definitely something appealing about the Anglican mass, incense and Mariolatry aside, and I can see why some people like the ritual and rhythm and predictability of it. Nothing too challenging in the sermon, hymns that everyone knows, an hour and a quarter circumscribed by tradition and familiarity, but still not my cup of tea.

Mind you, I bumped into a friend at St Michael’s, and it’s only the fourth church this year where I’ve met someone I knew, so that’s two Anglican churches, a Free Church and a Free Church Continuing – the extremes of the whole high/low continuum. I keep thinking that the bumping-into-friends hit rate should be higher after fifty churches, but perhaps I just don’t know enough nice, godly people. 

Post-script, Tuesday 26 Nov: actually, now that I think about it, there are two other churches where I've met people I know, both Church of Scotland. That takes the hit rate up a bit, and balances the extremes. 

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Edinburgh City Vineyard

Sunday 17 November 2013, 10.30am
Led by: David Hart

Soul Searcher was a happy bunny this morning. She met the big scary deadline (three days early, thank you very much) and for the first time in many weeks actually took a day off.

So I was in a good mood when I headed into the Hilton hotel in Grosvenor Street to attend the Edinburgh City Vineyard, a fairly new congregation that’s part of a network of UK and international churches that I’ve somehow managed not to hear of at all until relatively recently.

Vineyard has its own record label, which doesn’t mean that its music is any good. There’s not much to distinguish its praise music – led by a guitarist introduced only as “this good-looking man” – from the trendy droning heard at Hope!, Life and other strum-along churches of that ilk, and I’ve said often enough why this isn’t my kind of thing so I won’t explain why again.

You get a Vineyard CD in your welcome pack, but I’m not adding it to my iTunes library. There’s chocolate in there too, for those with a sweet tooth, and even if you’re not a first-time visitor there are doughnuts every week. It could be a dangerous church for anyone watching their waistline, and since all those weeks of deadline meeting and near immobility have not helped mine I really shouldn’t have indulged. But I did.

After 35 minutes of “worship” (definitions of which I’ve discussed before), it was time for David Hart to deliver his talk on Sharing Jesus: how do we practically do it? A believer should not assume, he said, that the onus is on other people to recognise the presence of Jesus in his/her life and to come and find out more. Rather the onus is on the believer to come out of his/her comfort zone and speak to others.

And the believer who wants to share Jesus should not do as David does with the wilting plants in his hanging basket – resentfully pour a bucket of water over them from time to time and then wonder why it just runs off the hard surface of the soil leaving the poor plants as thirsty as ever. Instead, the plants need to be fed little and often, letting the moisture soak in properly.

He cited a few bible verses (Romans 1:14 and 13:8, and Matthew 10:8), but there wasn’t a bible reading, which seemed something of an omission, but maybe they do bible study at other times during the week.

Thankfully, there was no reprise of the music after the talk. But all the people were very lovely and friendly (about 30 of them, plus some children in the next room), and if you like this style of worship they seem to be a close-knit and supportive group of folk. I was invited to join them for carol singing, which I will have to miss because of a prior engagement, and that made me realise just how soon Christmas will be upon us once again.

So, as an antidote to the Vineyard praise music, I listened to Bach’s Christmas Oratorio  on my way to the supermarket – note to self for 2014: must take up choral singing again – and to Take the Floor on the way back from the supermarket – note to self for 2014: must take up Scottish country dancing again and work off that doughnut … and the rest!

Sunday, 10 November 2013

What do non-churchgoers do on Sunday mornings?

Soul Searcher isn’t going to church today. She has a big, scary deadline just a week away, and a smaller and less scary one tomorrow, so she has to work. Yes, on the Sabbath.

She can’t help but think that she’d be further ahead now if she hadn’t spent so many other Sunday mornings in church. 

Maybe other people just have a lie in. Lucky them. 

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Morningside

Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Morningside
Morning meeting, Sunday 10.30am
Talk by: Brother Leitch
Watchtower study led by: Brother McCracken, with readings by Brother Gladwyn
(all name spellings are guesswork on my part)

I’ve never had my door knocked on by Jehovah’s Witnesses – at least, not when I’ve been at home. But then again, I seem to be off the radar of all the religious organisations that you might think would want to witness to me, as I’ve observed before.

So at the risk of mixing my metaphors, since the mountain hadn’t come to Mohammed, I set off to find the mountain, which in this case was a small hill on Oxgangs Green. If I were trying to sell a property in the vicinity, I’d try to call it Morningside too, but let’s face it, once you’ve crossed the Braid Burn you’re in Oxgangs and you can’t really deny it. The clue is in the street name.

I didn’t (and still don’t) know very much about Jehovah’s Witnesses besides the usual lore … they can’t have blood transfusions, don’t dink coffee (Soul Searcher can’t live without her caffeine), believe that heaven has a limited capacity but you can work your way to the front of the queue, and have inaccurately predicted the end of the world several times. Actually, their website has lots of myth v. fact information for those who want to find out what they’re really about.

What I can definitely say without fear of contradiction after this morning’s experience is that they are incredibly welcoming and pleasant and all seem like genuinely lovely people. Who would leave such as these shivering on a doorstep? And they know their bible inside out too, which I’ll come to in a moment.

The format of the meeting is a talk (peculiar to each congregation) followed by bible study based on the articles in “The Watchtower: Announcing Jehovah’s Kingdom” (which will be the same in every congregation throughout the world, week by week). There were three hymns/songs, from “Sing to Jehovah”, which were sung somewhat hesitantly to a piano accompaniment. I’d never heard any of them before, and sight-singing isn’t my strong suit, but I did my best.

The talk, given by Brother Leitch from the Portobello congregation, who admits to once having been knocked over by a hungry Charollais sheep, was entitled “Never become dull in your hearing”. He asked us to think about three ways in which animals use their sense of hearing: 1) to flee from danger; 2) to herd together for protection and feeding; and 3) to search for food. Likewise, since faith follows the thing(s) heard (Romans 10:17) and because it is difficult to explain about Jesus if you have become dull in your hearing (Hebrews 5:11), we should be alert and responsive and should flee (1 Timothy 6:11) from the things that Satan has set in the world to distract us, such as violent movies and other examples of immorality. The faithful should also draw comfort and inspiration from the fellowship of other believers, as did the two Estonian women who made a three-day round-trip just to attend a meeting. And we should be hungry for spiritual food (Matthew 4:4 and 5:6) – this is where the boisterous Charollais came in; it just couldn’t get there fast enough when it heard the feed bucket rattling – and should listen to the call to study and, once studying, listen to the subtle rhythms of our own hearts and adjust our lives to work on what is lacking, striving all the while to ignore the siren call of the world that would dash us on the rocks.

All in all, as well-crafted a talk as I’ve heard this year. Can’t argue with that.

And now it was quiz time. Brother McCracken chaired the seminar-style study session like a brisk, avuncular schoolmaster, putting me rather in mind of Robert Robinson, not so much for his physical appearance as for his habit of addressing everyone by their surnames (Brother Smith, Sister Jones, etc) as he went round the room inviting answers to the Watchtower questions on this week’s theme, “Jehovah’s Reminders are Trustworthy”, and responding to most of them by saying, “That’s right.”

The Witnesses do their homework, I’ll give them that. Copies of Watchtower were underlined and highlighted and annotated, and almost all of the fifty people present (as with most places of worship visited this year, attendance was “about fifty”) answered at least one question, even the wee boy of about six or seven. It’s an interesting format and it must be effective. No snoozing at the back such as you might get away with in many churches, and you’d need to have all that information at your fingertips if you were going to go out there and make disciples of all nations, which is what seven million Witnesses are doing – “zealously proclaiming God’s Kingdom in more than 230 lands.” Quite what constitutes a land I’m not sure. There aren’t that many nation states in the world, but this time next year there could be one more independent country to add to the list … if the Lord’s swift judgment doesn’t come before September 18th, of course.

Would I go to a Kingdom Hall again? Actually, I might, if only to observe another of those study seminars. It’s something more churches ought to do, because there’s a whole lot of so-called believers out there who can’t answer simple questions about their own faith, and it’s unlikely you’d be able to level the same accusation at a Jehovah’s witness, which might explain their success in worldwide evangelism.

Could I actually subscribe to what the JWs believe? That’s another question, and the answer is probably no, but if they ever do come knocking on my door, I’d be up for a discussion about it. 

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Sunday Assembly

New Empire Bingo Club, Edinburgh
Tuesday 22 October 2013, 7pm
Led by: Sanderson Jones & Pippa Evans

Soul Searcher can be a bit tetchy at times. What can I say? There’s a lot to be tetchy about in this world. Until tonight, though, I hadn’t really thought of myself as a no-holds-barred misanthrope, but nothing makes you see the worst in humanity quite like an hour and a half of enforced jollity and really bad music. That and people photographing you without asking permission, which is something I’ve commented on before. You snap me with your camera, I’ll snap right back at you in my blog. Honestly, it would be a courtesy to warn folk on the way in.

I’ve heard some truly awful singing this year at the various churches I’ve attended, but the Sunday Assembly band trumps them all. Deafeningly loud and flat, flat, flat. Ouch! I mean, really, an offence to the eardrums, and no amount of clapping along could disguise it. The songs were 500 miles (I wanna be), Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow, The life of Riley and Walking on sunshine. Exuberant, yes, but in the way that pub karaoke singers are exuberant despite their patent lack of tone and talent. There was a bar but I didn’t buy any alcohol – perhaps the numbing effect would have left me more kindly disposed to the discordant caterwauling. As it was, I felt like the designated driver in a crowd of bar-room philosophers.

And no, Sanderson, I don’t think that a second cello would have succeeded in classing up the act. The absent cellist had gone to his mother’s funeral and had sent a message which was read out by Sanderson Jones, but this was the only genuinely affecting and thought provoking content of the meeting. The rest, as I shall reveal, was … oh dear, where do I begin?

Let’s begin with the other offences to the senses, because the New Empire Bingo Club offends the eye with its pink formica and the nose with its awful stench of hoover bags and stale smoke – doesn’t the smoking ban apply to bingo halls? Someone’s been having the odd crafty fag or twenty in that building. Not a great environment in which to nurture community spirit, but maybe it was the best venue they could get with their limited budget.

They want a bigger budget, of course – £500,000 bigger. Yes, that’s right, they’re crowdsourcing the funds they’ll need to take over the world. Apparently there was also a collection plate going round tonight, but it didn’t come my way, though I’d have bunged them a couple of quid if it had, so they could do with organising that aspect of their fundraising a little better.

Sanderson describes the basic outlook thus: if you had an excellent pair of shoes but there was a stone in one of them, you wouldn’t throw out the shoes, you’d throw out the stone. Richard Holloway’s reaction, apparently, was to tell him, “Well done, you’ve just made your first parable.”

So they’ve thrown out religion and kept all the good bits of church (singing and cake). Their mantra is Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More. What I’m wondering is, do you need to be part of a Sunday Assembly to do that? Do you need to read out Walt Whitman poems and talk about wave-particle duality in terms of dots and wibbly wobbly things and debunk time as a meaningless construct and say “atoms are weird” and ask people if they’ve ever drunk so much absinthe and listened to so much Enya that they feel themselves to be at the centre of the universe? The chap who did this also had the good grace to say, “This talk will be better if you lower your expectations.”

Pippa Evans, who is apparently the 26th most influential atheist in the UK, talked about how it’s okay to fail as a comedian if you’re about to become leader of a worldwide movement that will awaken non-religious community spirit. I didn’t find myself warming to her.

Sanderson Jones talked about finding things to be grateful for. His technique for celebrating life is to think about death. He dreams of dying peacefully in his sleep, but next to someone he dislikes … who hates surprises. This was the only thing that made me laugh. Clearly I haven’t developed the “attitude for gratitude”.

Will the Sunday Assembly succeed in expanding and enlightening and uplifting and all the other affirming and upbeat things they want to do? Other secular movements have come and gone, and none of them has really had the staying power that churches have. But Sanderson and Pippa are hopeful, and good for them. They managed to get fifty folk to come out on a nasty October night, so it could be the start of something wonderful … for those who like that sort of thing.

Frankly, I’d rather go to church.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Craigrownie Parish Church, Cove

Craigrownie Parish Church, Cove
Sacrament of Holy Communion, Sunday 20 October 2013, 11.30am
Minister: Rev Norma Moore

After the not-so-great service at Paisley Abbey last weekend, I carried on northwards and westwards and ended up in the Rosneath peninsula, where I’ve spent a splendid week sequestered at Cove Park getting more work done than I ever thought possible and occasionally braving the rain and the highland cattle to get my daily fix of internet access. There’s definitely something to be said for a break from the norm.

So this week, it was Craigrownie Parish Church, or Craigrownie “Paries” Church if you believe the intimations notice. What is it with church leaflets and proofreading? Apparently people in the peninsula are fighting the scourge of Japanese knotweed, so this may reduce the time they have available to root out typos. I feel I should offer my services; my rates are very reasonable.

Craigrownie is a proper old-fashioned Church of Scotland village kirk with some nice stained glass and the congregational turnout of “about fifty” that I’ve come to expect this year. Whether this is typical for Craigrownie I couldn’t say, but it was a communion service, so that may have drawn a few more than usual. In any case, the church seemed pretty full, although the first thing read out at the beginning of the service was an edict form the presbytery of Dumbarton (yes, yes, it's been pointed out, see comments below, and Matthew 7:1-3) about the linkage of Craigrownie with the neighbouring parishes of Garelochhead and St Modan’s. Linkage … what does that entail? Alas, I won’t be around to find out.

There were proper old-fashioned hymns too, albeit accompanied by ponderous and uneven organ playing, which was at its worst during psalm 121 (I to the hills will lift mine eyes), when the organist couldn’t choose which of the two versions of French in CH4 he/she was playing, settling for a mix-and-match version somewhere in between. Other numbers from the old-school C of S hit parade included Psalm 24:7-10 (Ye gates lift up your heads to St George’s, Edinburgh), God whose almighty word, Now thank we all our God, and O God of Bethel by whose hand, which might be the first paraphrase I’ve heard all year - I need to check that. The paraphrases seem to have gone out of fashion elsewhere, but we actually got two of them at Craigrownie, because we also sang Now, Lord, according to thy word at the end. All that and a sung Amen; you can’t go much more trad than that.

The readings were 2 Timothy 3:14 - 4:5 and Luke 18:1-8, the persistent widow and the unjust judge, and the theme of the sermon was “Persistence in Prayer”, drawing on the readings and on psalm 121, a plea for safety and a statement of faith in the absolute reliability of God, who is constantly there (or should that be here?) looking out for us. Just as God is constant, said Rev Moore, we should be constant and should live in confidence that God will prevail.

Turning to the gospel reading, she asked us to consider why we should persist in praying to God for justice when it is in the divine nature to grant justice? And she offered three answers: 1) through persistent prayer we remain mindful of God and of the need to put our own spiritual house in order and to keep alive our own commitment to justice; 2) by praying persistently for something that doesn’t seem to be happening, we may realise that the answer is in our own hands and that God’s will is to be done through us; and 3) God doesn’t see persistent prayer as nagging, but loves to hear our prayers and wants us to share everything with him, and we ought to consider the judge/widow scenario in reverse – what if God is the one who is persistently asking us to deliver justice?

All of which makes me think of a yet-to-be-written blog post about Try Praying, which I will get round to soon.

I had parked at the foot of the hill, outside the burgh hall, and walked (no, actually, I climbed, because getting anywhere in this part of the world somehow involves a steep, slippery hill) the 250 yards to the church. The locals knew better and had all driven up to the church itself. On the short but perilous journey back to the car I nearly fell over twice (first time moss, second time leaves), I got thwacked in the face by a tree branch and I managed to get soaked even through my waterproof coat. That’s the wet, wild west coast for you.

But now it’s back to auld claes and porridge, and back to the east and my beloved Edinburgh. All that fresh air is fine in small doses, but the Soul Searcher is a city girl at heart.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Paisley Abbey

Service of Thanksgiving for the Royal National Mòd, 2.30pm, Sunday 13th October
Led by: Reverend Iain Thomson
Precentors: Mr John Macleod & Rev Kenny Macleod

I was in unfamiliar territory this Sunday, in Paisley, the town that Starbucks forgot. After trailing round several caffeine-free streets and two grim little shopping malls, tongue hanging out like Miley Cyrus (see, Soul Searcher’s not entirely disconnected from popular culture), I realised that Costa and Caffe Nero have also forsaken this unloveliest of Scottish cities, and I didn’t much like the look of Muffin Break.

Isn’t Paisley too far west for the Soul Searcher? Well, there were two reasons for going there: a) it’s sort of en route to where I have to be on Monday, which is further west, and b) it’s Mòd week, which means that the town should have been buzzing with the excitement of what people persist in billing as the biggest Gaelic cultural event of the year.

Er … should have been. You can’t miss BBC ALBA’s OB trucks, lying in wait for the first of the competitions tomorrow, but the city fathers hadn’t exactly hung out the tartan bunting. Nor had the Abbey seen fit to list the service on its website – not under “services” or “events” or “news” or in its October newsletter. Despite this, a fair crowd had gathered. Difficult to count, but I’m estimating 150+ of a congregation, which isn’t bad going, but it didn’t make for the greatest Gaelic church experience I’ve ever had.

And since it scores low for both ecclesiastical and Gaelic reasons, my review is divided into two parts. This bit for my Anglophone readers, about the church stuff, and a rant about language politics further down the page.

The psalms were 136:1-2, 96:1-3, 98:3-4, 40:5, all attractively printed in multicoloured ink and adorned with the Mòd Phàislig (Paisley Mòd, as if you couldn’t work that out) logo, but whoever designed it could have done with spending a little more time proofing it and weeding out the typos. There’s a new god in town, folks, and his name appears to be Lehovah.

Of the two precentors, the older chap with the white hair was croakier and less easy to follow than the younger chap with the tonsure, who had that bright tenor tone that you want in a precentor, but the tunes were familiar in any case. The real problem was that nobody in the congregation seemed to be singing. I was, and my Mòd competitor friend to the left of me was (you always bump into someone you know at the Mòd) and the chap immediately in front of me was, but all around us sat dozens more folk with their mouths firmly shut. It makes one feel very exposed, and more “listened to”, which doesn’t feel great even for a confident singer like me. Frankly, we made a better fist of it at St Columba’s Free back in March when there were only 16 of us.

The reading was Revelation 5 (quite why, I’m not sure, because it was read in English and then never referred to again), and the text for the sermon was Psalm 100. Rev Thomson spoke for twice as long as was necessary, because he provided his own subtitles by translating everything he said into English (see Gaelic rant below), and in an unintentionally ironic counterpart to the muted congregational singing his theme was that we should sing to God from the very depths of our soul, which we can do wholeheartedly only when we enter into the same spirit as inspired the psalmist.

In a nutshell, we should worship God for all the reasons given in the psalm – because he is God, because he made us, because he tends us like his flock, because he is good and merciful, and because the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever (first question in the catechism, for those who had forgotten).

But hearing any of this was a challenge, because the lectern was positioned in the middle of an echo chamber and the reverberations drowned out quite a bit of what was said. Perhaps it’s just as well he said it all twice.

Chunnaic mi rudeigin air duilleag Facebook caraid dhomh a bhon-dè: “tha e math a bhith beò agus gun a bhith aig a’ Mhòd”. The e a’ còrdadh ri cuid agus buidhe dhaibhsan, ach tha leasan fhathast – fhathast! – aig a’ Chomann ri ionnsachadh mu dheidhinn cleachdadh cànain.

Carson a bhiodh e cho doirbh duilleag Ghàidhlig a chur ri chèile? Nan robh iad air “Dàmhair” a chur an àite “October”, an tigeadh crìoch air an t-saoghal? Bhiodh e furasta gu leòr obrachadh a-mach, nach biodh? Nach eil facail againn airson “welcome”, “prayer”, “psalm”, “reading”, “benediction”, etc? Smaoinichibh, a Chomainn! Dè tha ceàrr air an deilbh seo? Coimhidibh … smaoinichibh … seadh, tha a h-uile rud sa Bheurla!

Dè a’ Ghàidhlig air “Doh!”?

O seadh, agus ar caraid ùr “Lehobhah”? Nach eil cuimhne agaibh air “Na biodh diathan sam bith eile agad am làthair-sa”?

Thuirt mi gu h-àrd gun d’ rinn am ministear fo-thiotalan dha fhèin, agus ’s e a rinn, cho nàdarra nach robh e fiù ’s a’ tarraing anail eadar an dàrna cànan agus an cànan eile … “Cionnas a tha sinn a’ dol a thoirt dha cliù, how are we to give him praise?”

Is e a’ cheist a th’ agam, carson? Cò dha? Is e seo am Mòd, agus bhiodh dùil agad gum biodh Gàidhlig ann, agus a bharrachd air sin, gum biodh tearmann air choireigin aig a’ chànan far nach biodh Beurla a’ tighinn a-steach air a’ chùis.

Trì facail sa chànan eile … does … not … compute!

Agus trì sa Ghàidhlig: o mo chreach! No OMC, mar a bhios a’ chlann ag ràdh. Soul Searcher’s scratched her head about lots of things this year, but this one … this one has finally left me lost for words, in either language.