Monday, 28 January 2013

Salvation Army, Edinburgh City Corps

Morning worship, Sunday 27 January 2013, 10.45am
Led by: Envoys Bert and Pat Kidd

You’d need a heart of stone and a complete absence of scruple not to admire the Salvation Army. They work hard and they do good, they’re not afraid to get their hands dirty, and they provide comfort and support to some of the most broken and damaged in our society … and God knows, any of us could be just a financial setback and a bad decision or two away from destitution.

It turns out the Salvationists are also lovely, friendly people, and genuinely delighted to welcome newcomers to their Sunday worship. I was only one of three such outsiders and it was handshakes all round, though I really hadn’t expected a hug into the bargain. Altogether it was a doughty band of 30-odd, more than half of them in uniform, and for the first time in my Soul Search mission I sensed that I was among a group thoroughly united by long acquaintance and common purpose, and the stronger for it, as was evident from their “how-do-you-do? testimony”, in which they prompted one another to stand up and talk about their faith, whether at length or with a simple “happily walking with God”.

The music was good, as I’d expected it would be. After all, why should the devil have all the best tunes? Hymns were accompanied either by brass band or piano, and there were songs by both adults’ and children’s choirs. I’d never before been to a service where the leader stopped the band in the middle of a hymn in order to read out selected verses, but it seems to make sense if you want to emphasise a particular point before resuming. There were some old favourites – the Old Hundredth, Walk in the Light, and How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds, which prompted an “Ain’t that the truth!” from worship leader Envoy Bert Kidd – and singing was generally lusty.

The service opened with a reminder that homelessness is a crisis which Christians are called to address, and with an invitation to a special service later that day on the same theme. In keeping with this, the sermon, by Envoy Pat Kidd, was on “setting the captives free”, with reflections on Matthew 17:17-19 and John 11:38-44 and on William Booth’s Vision of the Lost.

With suitably military precision, the service finished at exactly mid-day, followed almost immediately by an unscheduled fire alarm, much to the amusement of the Sunday school children who it seems had just been singing a song called “Church on Fire”. But thankfully it proved to be a false alarm.

Could I do what the Salvationists do? Could I be like those in Booth’s vision who “actually jumped into the water, regardless of the consequences, in their passion to ‘rescue the perishing’?” No, I can’t see myself ministering to drunks and prostitutes; I’d be scared out of my wits, and I know I don’t have the kind of faith that can override that. Would I worship with them again? Yes, I probably would, and they’re the first of my Soul Search churches of which I can say that. I left with the band’s final hymn tune still running though my head:
Courage, brother, do not stumble
Though thy path be dark as night.
There’s a star to guide the humble,
Trust in God and do the right.
Those lyrics sum up the Salvation Army perfectly. Their faith isn’t brash or vainglorious; it’s humble, practical and driven by their trust in God. I couldn’t do it, but thank goodness they can. 

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

St Mark’s Unitarian Church

Sunday Service, 20 January 2013, 11.00am
Led by: Joan Cook

I approached this service with some enthusiasm. The trinity is probably the aspect of Christian theology I’ve had least faith in and most difficulty in understanding over the years. After all, if there’s just one god, why complicate matters by dividing him in three?

Maybe Unitarianism could be the answer to my prayers … one god and a whole lot of latitude allowing personal interpretation and reinterpretation of the divine. Unitarians see religion is a cultural construct, and themselves as part of an evolving faith that can embrace doubt and dissent and be the richer for it. So far, so promising.

The hymns, from Sing Your Faith, published by the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, certainly expressed this eclecticism:
Bring your traditions’ richest store,
Your hymns and rites and cherished creeds;
Explore your visions, pray for more,
Since God delights to meet fresh needs.

So why did I come away thinking … so what?

It might have been to do with the tone of the sermon/address, which seemed defensive and more than a little aggrieved; why don’t more nice liberal people realise what Unitarianism has to offer in a world of increasingly extreme fundamentalism? It reminded me of an election broadcast on behalf of a political party whose leaders know they have no chance of ever winning but are still bravely going through the motions.

There were no Bible readings and no prayers that were actually announced as such, although there were some “Amens”. The Duke Ellington piano music was an unconventional choice, but the Unitarians aren’t exactly conventional and who’s to say you shouldn’t have jazz to lead you into your period of three minutes’ contemplative silence?

But somehow I felt that by trying to be all spiritual things to all vaguely spiritual people, they’d wound up coming across as something rather less than a proper religion. I wouldn’t say that a religion needs a liturgy and rigid creeds, but surely it needs … I don’t know, something a little deeper, less woolly, more focused on God, if that isn’t too much to ask.  

At some point during those 55 minutes I switched from, “This might be something I can get on board with”, to “What on earth is the point?”, and it’s very difficult to put my finger on exactly what made that happen.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Portobello Spiritualist Church

Service of Worship, Sunday 13 January 2013, 6.30pm
Visiting medium: Glynis Dailly

After the morning's sermon on the Holy Spirit at Holyrood Abbey Church, spirits of a different kind were (allegedly) in evidence at this service, one of the oddest I’ve ever attended.

Visitors to the Portobello Spiritualist Church could be forgiven for thinking they’d been transported back in time by several decades. There’s a faded end-of-the-pier kind of feeling about Portobello at the best of times, and the only people out and about on this cold, wet night were the hardened smokers puffing away outside an uninviting bingo hall. But turn off the grim little street and down the pitch-black alley and you find the unassuming building with its meeting room draped in blue velvet and suffused with the faint but pervasive whiff of Zoflora – a scent which for some Proustian reason I associate with the 1970s, along with carbolic soap, over-diluted lemon squash and those old canvas stacking chairs that never stacked right but sent up a cloud of ancient dust whenever you moved them.

Thankfully the chairs in the PSC were rather more up-to-date and comfortable, but the time-warp feeling persisted, probably because the choice of hymn tunes was also evocative of mid-20th century tastes. Two successive hymns with identical metre were sung to the tunes of “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine” and “Beautiful Dreamer, Wake Unto Me”. Now try to sing them both and tell me you don’t get them muddled up!

Apart from the feeling that we were playing One Song to the Tune of Another, the most interesting thing about the hymns had to be the lyrics. Take, for example, “God of the granite and the rose! Soul of the sparrow and the bee!” They rather put me in mind of the hymns Margaret Atwood wrote for The Year of the Flood, in which a religious sect called God’s Gardeners try to survive in the aftermath of an apocalyptic event. A fine book and well worth reading … but I digress.

So after opening with hymns of an ostensibly Christian persuasion and a reading from 2 Corinthians, the platform was given to the Rev Glynis Dailly, who said prayers naming God and Jesus, and then gave a speech which amounted to a less-than-accurate and highly selective synopsis of the book of Genesis. For example, she claimed that there were two of most kinds of animals on Noah’s ark, but in some cases there were three – a male and two females. No, no, no! Go back and read Genesis 7 again, Missus. Two of every unclean animal, seven of every clean animal, and seven of the fowls of the air, I think you’ll find.

Inaccuracies aside, the burden of her sermon was broadly that you have a covenant with God and you get your rewards in Heaven … or as she put it, in the higher realm of life.

Now, I’d been expecting claims that people could hear voices from beyond the grave, and nothing of the kind had happened yet. But the exhibition of psychic gifts was still to come, and sure enough after we’d sung another hymn it was time for Ms Dailly to tune in to the vibrations of the congregation. It’s worth noting, by the way, that there was no further mention of God or Jesus while this charade proceeded.

There were communications for nine people (not for me, obviously) with vaguely reassuring messages from various dead relatives, three of whom suffered from chest complaints before they passed to the higher realm of life, and she even felt the spiritual presence of an adorable little lapdog who used to love ginger biscuits. Okay … moving swiftly on.

I’ve no doubt that the folk who believe in this kind of thing derive comfort from knowing that their loved ones no longer suffer, are watching over them and are ready most Sunday evenings around 7pm to come back for a wee visit, but it’s basically cold reading plus a whole lot of local knowledge; several of the people for whom she had communications were clearly well known to her before the meeting. I would like to see Ms Dailly try tuning into my vibrations … if I have any, which I very much doubt.

Spiritualist mediums must truly believe that they have a gift. If they were completely cynical and bent on defrauding people, would they combine their performances with Christianity? Wouldn’t they be filling theatres and charging top dollar like Psychic Sally? The phrase folie à deux springs to mind, although in the case of this evening’s service it ought to be a folie à plusieurs, or more accurately a folie à quarante.

Still, personal messages from the spirit world for nine people out of about 40 isn’t bad going. Perhaps over the course of a month there’s time for everybody to get their vibrations tapped. But I won’t be going back to find out. 

Holyrood Abbey Church

Morning Worship, Sunday 13 January 2013, 11.00am
Minister: Rev Philip R Hair

The complicated history of Holyrood Abbey Church is commensurate with the many schisms and mergers in the Scottish protestant churches between the mid-19th century and 1929, when this parish was gathered back into the Church of Scotland, which denomination it now retains, although it seems even now to display a little more evangelical zeal than you’d encounter among its Auld Kirk counterparts that never left the fold.

The theme of the service was the Holy Spirit, with readings from John 14 and 16 (NIV Bible), and with hymns to match, some of which were old chestnuts (Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty) with yous where the thous and thees used to be, and others I’d never heard before.

The minister kept his mic on during all the hymns, so his voice boomed above all others making the two female vocalists up on the dais completely inaudible. The flute was badly out of tune, but the violin, cello and piano made a pretty good fist of the music and most of the congregation joined in. It was also nice to hear Ebenezer, one of my favourite hymn tunes, being played on the piano as we first came into the church.

“How long will the sermon series on the Holy Spirit last?”, Rev Hair had been asked. He didn’t know, but would be led by the Spirit. This was the first instalment: Meet the Holy Spirit. It would not be a theological treatise, he promised – far from it! Instead it would be about personal experience of the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

I’m always slightly suspicious of a clergyman who doesn’t want to talk about theology. The theology’s the best bit! But Rev Hair was earnest and talked well, although he needs to brush up on his Star Wars analogies; I’m no film buff, but I’m sure the hero’s name wasn’t Luke Skywater. Perhaps it was merely a slip of the tongue, but his point was that the Holy Spirit is more than just a force. It, or more correctly He, is a person just like Jesus but whose presence serves to illuminate Jesus in such a way that we often overlook the source of that light. Do we look at the floodlights when Edinburgh Castle’s lit up? No, we look at the castle itself, but without the floodlights we wouldn’t see its majesty so clearly.

This was solid Church of Scotland territory and much as I’d expected it to be, although I was slightly disconcerted by the claim, not by Rev Hair but by another prayer leader, that God is desperate to hear from us. Desperation isn’t something we generally associate with omnipotence. It suggests a craven, needy deity who somehow depends on us for validation. Or did I read too much into an ill-judged choice of vocabulary?

Monday, 7 January 2013

Hope! Church

Sunday worship, Queen Margaret University, Sunday 06 January 2013, 11.00am
Pastor: Glenn Rogers

Third church in, I was expecting something a bit different and Hope! Church (don’t forget the exclamation mark) didn’t disappoint. It’s part of the Assemblies of God ministry and presents a Hillsong-style worship format led by a four-piece band and two vocalists, so I suspected there would be a fair few swaying hands, and so there were. Some worshipers also punched the air and jumped up and down as they chanted a selection of eminently forgettable praise choruses.

Cynics could suggest that this kind of worship – repetitive lyrics, relentless drum beat, high volume, dimmed lights and overhead projection of mildly psychedelic graphics – is designed to induce a trance-like state in which it becomes easier to fancy oneself experiencing religious euphoria, an effect which can be further enhanced by giddiness and fainting brought on by holding one’s hands in the air for twenty minutes. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with getting people in the mood, and their enthusiasm was evident, but this isn’t my cup of tea.

I’m not saying anything other bloggers haven’t covered at greater length. I guess it’s a matter of taste, but to me this kind of music is thin fare indeed.

The welcome, on the other hand, was warm and friendly. I was immediately engaged in conversation by a number of church members eager to chat and find out about me, everyone seemed to know each other and there was a buzz about the place that you don’t feel at every church.

The sermon was on Joshua 1:1-9, focusing specifically on verse 9 and God’s instruction to Joshua to be strong and courageous at a time of transition – taking on Moses’s mantle of leadership and taking the Children of Israel into the Land where there would undoubtedly face hardship – and the oratorical style was more motivational speaker than pulpit preacher.

There seemed to me to be a few gaps in the theological logic of the argument, but since the teaching was “to be continued” next week I can’t assume the lost threads won’t get tied up in the end. And while I can’t argue with the statement that there is no more important decision anyone can make than about his/her relationship with God, it’s the God = Jesus bit that I’ve come to have a problem with, and of course that's the bit that's taken as read.

So what can I say about Hope! Church in conclusion? It’s full of genuine people, some of whom express their faith in ways that would make me uncomfortable. It attracts young people and families, unlike last Sunday’s church, which could have been mistaken for an eventide home, and it seems to be doing something right … but not for me.