Sunday, 24 February 2013

Church of Saints Margaret and Leonard

Tridentine Latin Mass, Second Sunday in Lent, 24 February 2013, 1.00pm
Celebrant: Fr John McLaughlin (I think, judging from a fuzzy photo on the website)

I always enjoyed Latin at school, and I’d never heard a Latin mass so I thought it would be interesting to attend the Tridentine Latin Mass still celebrated by the Society of St Pius X in defiance of the liturgical revisions sanctioned by the Second Vatican Council.

Unfortunately, despite listening attentively throughout today’s service, I still haven’t heard a Latin mass, because it was practically inaudible. I’m not blaming the fidgeting children; they were a minor distraction. But the priest rattled his way through the service in a kind of mumbled whisper and with his back to the congregation, so that even though booklets with parallel Latin and English translations were provided it was impossible to find the place because I was straining to hear even a single word I recognised.

When he turned round to face us and deliver his sermon in English, he actually had a nice, clear speaking voice that was perfectly easy to hear, but why he couldn’t have raised the volume even a little during the Latin bits I don’t know.

His homily was based on a gospel passage, Matthew 17:19, in which James, John and Peter witness a vision of Jesus talking to Moses and Elias. Saints who see visions – like Peter and like the children at Fatima, St Bernadette, St Philip Neri et al – are so enraptured by these divine apparitions that they lose all sense of time, of hunger, of pain, of earthly things in general. God’s infinite wisdom, justice and perfection are more than the brains of created beings such as ourselves can understand, so any vision granted to us is but a tiny piece of what we’re aiming for – the fullness of God for all eternity.

And then he turned back to the altar to tinker with various objects (chalice, purificator, paten, pall, veil, burse, corporal, ciborium, all helpfully explained in the booklet), while the server knelt behind him and acted as bridesmaid, holding up the hem of his chasuble every time he genuflected, which was often. Of course, none of this could be seen very clearly and next to nothing could be heard as he muttered his way through his lines at breakneck speed.

And then he stopped muttering. The most solemn moment of the mass had arrived. This was, according to the booklet, not just a re-enactment of the divine sacrifice but Christ actually offering himself again in our presence, described thus:
“The angels gather round in awe and reverence; the priest prays the canon in silence, and all should be quiet and still, for the great moment is fast approaching when our Lord Jesus Christ will come down upon the Altar.”

Communion was offered to the congregants, there were closing prayers including Hail Mary, which was the only part of the service during which anyone else besides the priest and the server spoke, and then there was a nasty little anti-Semitic hymn, O come and mourn with me awhile, led by one confident female voice joined by a few feeble followers, but the sound hardly did justice to the lungpower of 40-50 people.

I joined in with some hesitation, wondering as at previous churches about the unplayed or unplayable organ whose pipes have become no more than decoration, and when I looked up at the end of the hymn, the priest had disappeared and the whole thing was over. It had taken less than 50 minutes.

Why conduct worship in a language the worshippers don’t understand? Three possible reasons spring immediately to mind: a) because the language itself is considered holy and God wishes us to use it when we speak to him; b) because that’s what our ancestors did and we want to maintain continuity with that tradition; and c) because the poetry of the language aids meditation and opens our minds and hearts to experience the divine. There may be others too, of course.

But what on earth is the point of turning up to watch the back of an ornately dressed man muttering at an altar without even being able to hear the cadences of his speech, let alone the words? This is a liturgy that’s stood the test of time, and if SSPX members love it so much that they’d risk excommunication for their adherence to it then I hope they can conclude that it’s worth it, but what sits oddly with their stance is the impression given – to this outsider, at least – that the actual content of the liturgy isn't really all that important. Perhaps it is enough for the laity simply to be in the presence of the priest as he performs the sacred ritual, and to be invited to participate in the tail end of it, but if this is what all Catholic churches were like before Vatican II then I can see why change was deemed necessary.

It’s a mystery all right, and probably one that my human brain will never comprehend. I had expected ceremony and solemnity, and there was some of that. I had expected Latin, and there was some of that too, though listening to it was the auditory equivalent of watching a shadow play in a dark room while wearing sunglasses.

Did Christ descend upon the Altar? Not that I noticed, but since the whole business was a private transaction between the priest and an unseen other, or others, it could well be that the gathering of angels and the re-sacrificed saviour were indeed present, imperceptible to worldly sinners but visible to the saints and mystics we’re enjoined to hold in reverence.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Charlotte Baptist Chapel

Morning service, Sunday 17 February 2013, 11.00am
Led by: Lead Pastor Paul Rees
Preacher: Assistant Pastor Andy Prime

Christians are hypocrites. That’s straight from the horse’s mouth, or rather straight from the mouth of Andy Prime, who offered this apology at the conclusion of his sermon. But horses were very much the meat of the matter too, because just like the rest of the nation Andy couldn’t resist a few equine jokes to illustrate his main (mane? … sorry, I’m letting this horse thing gallop away with me) point.

There are too many so-called Christians out there, he said, who are like beefburgers with no beef in them, like the salt that’s lost its saltiness or the light under a bushel (or in the NIV, under a bowl, which is somehow less poetic). The theme was “Salt and Light” (Matt 5:13-16), and the argument was cogently made. Jesus was preaching to uncover a scandal and expose hypocrisy, and to explain in these four verses the purpose of discipleship: 1) for the praise of your Father in Heaven; 2) for the sake of a dark, decaying world; and 3) for the sake of those who hate you and will persecute you.

That last one roused an echo of last week’s sermon at the FP Church in Inverness, but the tone couldn’t have been more different. Rather than leave us with the grim inevitability of being despised by a world that hates Christ, Mr Prime suggested that persecution may be the means by which God calls us to shine for him, though our instinct is to hide our light.

The place was packed. I’d say 200 downstairs and however many fit in the gallery upstairs, which I couldn’t see fully from where I was sitting, but latecomers were being shoehorned in wherever there was the odd space. It’s the fullest church I’ve been in for a long time, and I’m glad I went when I did, because Charlotte Chapel is being sold this year and the congregation is moving to St George’s West Church. How many churches in this day and age are outgrowing their premises? Not many, I’d wager.

That many people singing together is pretty powerful, and the hymns were a mixture of old and new, starting with an old chestnut, “You servants of God, your master proclaim”. “You servants”, note, not “Ye servants”, although they couldn’t do much to modernise “God ruleth on high” so they just left that as it was. Then there was “Light of the world who stepped down into darkness”, which I’d never heard before, and two more with new words to old familiar tunes, one of which, the Londonderry Air, was a particularly brave choice for congregational singing given its wide range, but it seemed to work out okay.

There was an electric piano and an organ, both played at once, but I couldn’t work out if the organ was connected to the surrounding pipework or was a standalone electronic thing. I suspected the latter and found myself wondering about unplayed organs in churches that have opted for alternative accompaniment. Is it just fashion, or could there be a shortage of organists, or organ tuners? I feel a little spin-off investigation coming on.

So that was Charlotte Chapel – busier than I’d expected, gently buzzing, confident in its vision (illustrated with a diagram on its website for the avoidance of doubt) and in keeping with its motto, “Conspicuous for Christ”. Obviously an attractive place to worship, but not the place for me. The fault is mine, of course. I just can’t get back on board with all the Jesus stuff. The whole point of my mission is to put that to the test, though, and you never know, one of these days …

Friday, 15 February 2013

Religious television in the UK

Religious television in the UK
Satellite platforms, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
Presented by: a colourful cast of characters

This time last year, when I was writing (fiction) about a cult-like church obsessed with eschatology, I watched an awful lot of religious TV by way of research, and very enlightening it was too, but not in the way the broadcasters intended. People who don’t venture beyond the documentary zone of the electronic programme guide (EPG) or who are not fans of the word-of-faith movement or believers in creationism will probably never have seen the programmes I’m talking about, but if you thought that all religious broadcasting amounted to was Songs of Praise, Alleluia, or some well-rehearsed hymns introduced by a cosy celebrity like Thora Hird (anyone remember Praise Be!? … I’m showing my age), then you need to think again. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio …

First there’s EWTN, a long-established channel which belongs in a category all of its own, broadcasting Catholic programmes old and new, and not involving itself at all in the fun and games the other channels are having on the evangelical merry-go-round of shared content and blurred brand identity, of which more below. Mostly it seems to feature an elderly nun telling the rosary, or earnest discussions between clean-cut young priests in a library.

Then there are the channels showcasing a variety of African churches, hysterical sermons, chaotic healing sessions and intemperate debates. The programmes tend to have pretty poor production values, but they must have their followers, even if they aren’t as slick or well funded as some of the “white” religious channels which occupy the more prominent spots in this part of the EPG.

And it is to this third category that I now turn, because when I first got Sky TV I could barely believe my eyes and ears. Is this kind of thing really allowed on UK television? Can’t people see that they’re charlatans one and all? There isn’t a snake oil salesman alive who couldn’t learn a thing or two from the folk who appear on some of these channels. Just start at 580 on the EPG and keep clicking the arrow-up button, and you’ll find undreamt-of worlds of greed and hypocrisy masquerading as faith, and all manner of low-life conmen grasping for your money.

By far the vilest and most obviously criminal of these is Peter Popoff, long since exposed on primetime US television as a fraudster by Johnny Carson and arch-sceptic James Randi, but still disgracing our screens on this side of the pond. Ofcom have claimed they can do nothing to prevent his infomercials from being broadcast in this country because the channels that carry them are not operating under UK broadcast licences, but maybe the Advertising Standards Authority will get round to dealing with him one of these days. In the meantime, he remains free to hawk his magical manna bread and miracle spring water to the gullible and desperate.

May God strike Popoff down! Oh yes, Lord, and while you’re in smiting mood, spare a thought for Don Stewart and his green prosperity handkerchiefs. Haven’t seen him on telly for a while now, but no doubt he’s still out there scamming away as before.

But my personal favourites are Larry and Tiz Huch, whose ministry seems to revolve around promoting a tawdry range of pseudo-Judaica (pseudaica?) which will deepen faith and enhance prayer … somehow or other. Larry does all the talking and Tiz gazes adoringly at him, nods a lot and echoes what he says with a lot of little Tourette-ish amens. Occasionally she’s allowed to say a few words about the effectiveness of the latest powerful “prayer tool”. You can see she’s champing at the bit, but Larry doesn’t surrender airtime willingly. Poor Tiz! She might actually have something interesting to say for herself, but sadly we’ll never know.

You don’t have to watch religious TV for very long to notice that there’s a small but constantly rotating cast of characters all guesting on one another’s shows. So for instance, Jonathan Bernis of Jewish Voice Ministries (my thoughts on the Messianics could fill several blog posts and then some, so I’ll leave that for another day) will invite Larry Huch onto his programme, but before you know it Bernis himself will be a guest of Sid Roth’s, and Sid will pop up on yet another show or channel. An awful lot of this content is years old and frequently repeated, but the messages seldom change.

The personalities divide basically into five categories with some overlap:
a) sellers of tat and miracles: the Huchs, Peter Popoff, Benny Hinn, etc;
b) evangelists to the Jews: Mike Evans, the unctuous Mr Bernis, the shouty and excitable “Rabbi” Schneider, and a rather sweet couple called Barry and Batya Segal, who actually seem really nice and I wonder if I ought to lump them together with the others;
c) creationists, of which the grand-daddy of them all is “Dr” Grady McMurtry, whose most-used phrase, without a trace of irony, is “the fact of the matter is”;
d) stadium preachers: Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, Hinn again and others who aspire to inherit the mantle of Billy Graham; and
e) studio sofa preachers, chat hosts and fundraisers, chief among whom are Rory and Wendy Alec of God TV and their slightly more homespun British cousins Howard and Lesley Conder of Revelation TV.

Other bloggers, most notably Gordon Hudson, have compiled comprehensive dossiers on the theological bent and business dealings of Revelation TV, so it’s worth checking out Gordon’s blog on this and other matters. And a warning to anyone who thinks of further googling on the subject of our friend McMurtry: you will become incredulous and irate and waste a lot of your precious time and he’ll be no less smug or illogical at the end of it.

Both Revelation TV and God TV used to broadcast from the UK but left to set up elsewhere to evade the strictures of their Ofcom licences. The lower-budget Revelation TV headed for Spain, but mega-rich God TV went all the way to Jerusalem, where they have installed themselves in a state-of-the-art studio complex in anticipation of the second coming.

But until that longed-for moment arrives, viewers of God TV will watch a lot of appeals for money, a lot of advertisements for Wendy’s books, a fair few sweaty concerts starring “prophet” Kim Clement, and a lot of interviews with bizarre people you really wouldn’t want to associate with unless you were … well, unless you were Rory and Wendy Alec.

Christianity is all about a resurrection, and it seems that any televangelist’s career can be resurrected no matter how thoroughly dead they might once have appeared. Peter Popoff popped up again, didn’t he? And he’s not the only one. Rory and Wendy have recently welcomed back to their sofa Todd Bentley, star of the controversial Lakeland revival, a phenomenon in which people apparently received healing in a fall-to-the-floor-shaking kind of way reminiscent of the Toronto blessing.

Yes, we’ve seen it before and it will no doubt come round again, but there were allegations of financial impropriety and Bentley stepped down and it’s all well documented elsewhere so I’ll say no more than that Bentley is back, as of Thursday 14 February 2013, a grotesque parody of penitence begging for cash for God TV’s vital work in hastening the day of rapture. If you think the Messiah’s a long time coming, you could always help them out; the first thing you’ll see when you visit their website is a “donate” box.

Christians of every stripe should be concerned about these channels, about their shaky theology, their potential to influence credulous viewers and the warped image of Christianity they project. Jews should be concerned about the thinly cloaked missionary efforts and the Messianics' have-your-cake-and-eat-it approach to the tenets of two obviously incompatible faith positions. Scientists, politicians, educators -- in fact, all of us -- should  should be deeply concerned by the diets that claim to cure cancer, the "evidence" for a young earth and the promotion of other crazy theories in the name of God. 

Revisiting all this tripe has well and truly sickened me, so where does this leave my own little Soul Search mission? Uncomfortable, quite frankly. Angry at times. Suspicious of evangelists, most certainly. In fact, apart from Barry and Batya, who come across as engaging and genuine and who actually make some quite interesting programmes, there’s not a single religious broadcaster I could bear to be in the same room with. It doesn’t bode well, but these virtual churches are so unlike any real-world church I’ve ever been to that I think I can still live in hope. And so the mission continues. 

Monday, 11 February 2013

Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland

Sabbath morning service, Sunday 10 February 2013, 11.00am
Minister: Rev. George G. Hutton

What does “welcome” mean? I find myself reflecting on the disconnect between signs on the outside of the building saying “All Welcome” and “Visitors Welcome”, and fifty people inside the building who uttered not a word of welcome to this visitor, far from her Edinburgh home for the weekend but determined to continue the mission. Admittedly, there were two men in the vestibule who shook my hand, but I suspected they probably wouldn’t have done so unless I’d stuck my hand out first (was I breaching some kind of FP protocol by being so forward?), but I don’t recall the word “welcome” being used then or at any other point in the next hour and thirty-five minutes – yes, really! – and in exchange for my “good morning” to the woman who sat in the same pew as me all I got was a grimace in return.

The FPs have a fearsome reputation for being grim, joyless and uncompromising. Deserved or not? I wasn’t sure, but I approached this service with an open mind and a fair idea of what to expect – no instrumental accompaniment, sit down to sing but stand up to pray, and a leg-cramp-inducingly long sermon to sit through. It couldn’t be so very far removed from the many hundreds of other Presbyterian services I’ve attended in my lifetime. Could it?

Now, I do like a metrical psalm, I must admit. I’ve never been one for trendy worship music, and what was good enough for King David is good enough for me. There’s also an admirably robust logic behind the exclusive psalmody practised by the Free Presbyterians and other churches that have evolved down the same branch of the ecclesiastical tree that seems apt and in keeping with their view of scripture. How many times must I have sung my way around the psalter, and to how many tunes? Enough, I thought, to find no surprises here, so I was somewhat taken aback to encounter three tunes I’d never heard before. They were pitched a wee bit too high and the overall choral tone was less than harmonious, but everyone sang, which is more than can be said for some congregations I’ve been part of. The psalms, incidentally, were Psalm 24:1-6, Psalm 8 in its entirety, and Psalm 132:11-14.

But the main event, of course, was the sermon. Mr Hutton affects a “pulpit voice”, with a sing-song cadence and phrases of almost exactly equal length, lending everything he says a hypnotic quality. That might have been one of the reasons why several people nodded off, and I actually heard snoring at one point, but they might just have been exhausted by the sheer length of the sermon. I’m estimating at least 50 minutes – the other 45 being taken up with the three psalms, one bible reading (1 John 3, whole chapter) and one very long prayer – but it might actually have been longer. I wasn’t wearing a watch, and it didn’t seem appropriate to fish around in my handbag to check the display on my mobile phone.

The theme of his sermon, taking 1 John 3:1-3 as the text, was the nature of “sonship” and the privilege of being sons of God and therefore being like Christ, who is not ashamed to call us his brethren. Everyone sitting in that church, said Hutton, was either a child of God or a child of the devil. There is no in between, and that should be a matter of concern to us. Unless you are born again, you are a child of the devil, but a sinful world rejected Christ when he came unto his own and continues to reject those who receive and believe in him. This will always be the case, and Christians can expect to be despised by the world. Cheerful stuff!

The three text verses were frequently intoned throughout the sermon, which gave the appearance of being a deep and detailed theological argument but actually contained so much repetition that the salient points could probably have been delivered in around fifteen minutes if he’d been more concise about it – or indeed in a little over 100 words, as above. Nevertheless, I got the impression that the capacity a) to deliver and b) to endure a long sermon might be considered a virtue for preacher and congregants respectively.

I took a lot of notes, but no one else moved a muscle, except to slump involuntarily into slumber, and I found myself waiting for something conclusive, convincing, persuasive … whatever is supposed to seal the deal and send you home thinking about what you’ve heard and what it means for your life and your relationship with the Almighty. But that moment never came. Maybe I should have surrendered to the general tone of droning portentousness and allowed all that muted indignation to wash over me like whale song, because by analysing what was actually said I realised I’d pricked the balloon … and after he’d spent so long filling it with hot air too.

And then suddenly, in the final thirty seconds of his sermon, Hutton changed tack and issued a bizarre non-sequitur of a coda, as follows: “How sad it is that someone brought up in a Free Presbyterian manse should support the position of the present government, which would legislate to permit a gross immorality that is an abomination to God the creator.” That’s verbatim, by the way.

Clearly this was a reference to the legalisation of gay marriage, but who was the individual in question? I haven’t followed enough of the debate to know which son or daughter of the manse has been thus estranged from the church whose unforgiving code of ethics he/she had no doubt been expected to adopt, and cursory Googling has found no more than an FP petition to the Scottish Government on the subject with no names named. The congregation, one presumes, knew exactly who he was talking about.

And then it was all over. A final short prayer, a few notices about service times, the communion in Dingwall and a forthcoming sermon on “the history and destiny of the Jews according to scripture” (I’d like to have heard that, actually), and everyone left the church. They couldn’t have vacated the place faster if there had been a fire drill, and hardly anyone spoke … not to one another, and certainly not to me. No handshakes on the way out, no valediction, no eye contact, no acknowledgement of my presence. That’s their prerogative, of course. It’s their church and their faith and I don’t claim to be worth noticing, but I wonder if they ought to amend their signage so that it reads “Visitors Admitted” or something of that ilk, something that promises less than “Visitors Welcome”.

“Visitors not actually turned away” might do the trick. It occurred to me I could have turned up hatless and betrousered just to see what they’d have done. I wouldn’t, of course. I’m not setting out to shock or insult anyone, or to draw attention to myself, but I left with what are no doubt diabolically inspired feelings of cheerlessness and disappointment.

Chilled by the cold wind as much as by the FP experience, I headed along the road to Costa Coffee. The young man behind the counter smiled at me and I could have hugged him; I was among human beings once again. It was a simple transaction. All he was selling me was a latte, but he did it with good grace. The message the FPs are selling – that Christ has bought sinners their salvation through his death and resurrection – is infinitely more significant, though the sales technique is unlikely to win many loyal customers. But that seems to be just how they like it. 

Monday, 4 February 2013

Quaker Meeting House

Meeting for worship, Sunday 03 February 2013, 11.00am
Led by: “the Spirit”

Silence is a difficult thing to achieve in our noisy world, and in a room full of people all trying to be silent the smallest of movements can seem incredibly irritating. Thus the throat-clearing, nose-blowing, jacket-folding, wriggling-in-one’s-seat kind of noises became amplified and impossible to tune out.

I’d done my homework, so I knew that the Quakers sit in silence until someone feels moved by the spirit to speak, and I was wondering how easy it would be to sit still for a whole hour. As it turned out, it was easier for me than for some of the other 80 people in the room, especially the children, one of whom remained completely unchecked by his parent(s), allowing the drumming of impatient feet to drown out any possibility of meditation. After ten minutes of incessant shoe percussion I was beginning to think I'd not be able to stand it much longer, but thankfully that was the moment when the kids were taken to another room, leaving the adults to our more muted and occasional shufflings.

It was twenty-five past the hour before anyone spoke, a brief observation about something she’d read in the Bhagavad Gita. At 11.33 someone spoke for about two minutes about adversity and life’s apparent unfairness, and about fifteen minutes after that a third person talked about liking other people and liking oneself. So over the hour the breakdown was roughly as follows:
  • drumming of child’s feet: 10 mins 
  • vaguely spiritual observations: 4 mins
  • not-quite silence: 46 mins
And that was it, barring the announcements which followed the end of the meeting proper.

Did it feel spiritual? Did it nurture my soul? No, not really, although it did occur to me to wonder whether other religious groups with more structured and dramatic worship formats are simply filling up an hour with unnecessary noise. But I didn’t feel bored, didn’t wish I’d brought my knitting, didn’t find myself thinking about work, so that period of silence at least took me to a place of neutrality, even if I didn’t find communion. Nor, to my surprise, did I doze off, despite the incredible heat in the room and my not having slept well the night before. 

Is it worship? For the Quakers, yes. As for myself, there’s something lacking … the lyricism of liturgy, music, Bible readings and familiar prayers. Maybe these are no more than window dressing, or maybe they’re just different routes to the same end, but for me the silence isn’t quite enough.