Saturday, 30 March 2013

2038: The End of Religion

2038: The End of Religion
Edinburgh International Science Festival, Saturday 30th March 2013, 6pm
Panel: Paul Braterman, Keith Gilmour & Rev Andrew Frater
Chair: Alex Wood

The events indexers boldly refrained from appending a question mark to the title of this debate. Initially, I assumed on scanning through the Science Festival website that 2038 had something to do with the “end” of Unix time, when 32-bit encoding is going to run out of digits – a new millennium bug, if you will – but it seems that after 25 years of the Science Festival, the Humanist Society Scotland simply wanted to look another 25 years into the future.

The speakers were an academic chemist and science blogger, a teacher of religious, moral and philosophical studies, and a Church of Scotland minister so liberal that I’m surprised he’s allowed to be a minister, although he explained that the ordination of CofS ministers allows for liberty of opinion on such points of doctrine as do not enter into the substance of the faith. Which points those may be is another question.

There was consensus among the speakers that the literalist, creationist and other obscurantist trends in Christianity ought to be challenged and routed, that religion should keep its paws off education and politics, and that the church doesn’t have a monopoly on morality. It might have been better sport to have a creationist among them, and after the opening speeches I was half hoping that there would be some fundamentalist nutters in the audience, but if there were they didn’t ask any questions. Probably a good thing, really, because there was certainly plenty to talk about without having to deal with real live fundamentalists too.

A few interesting perspectives worth pointing out: Rev Frater made a distinction between religion on the one hand, which begins with dogma, and on the other hand faith, which begins with an experience. He also said that the rot set in when the Emperor Constantine became a Christian. Keith Gilmour made everyone laugh by saying that an omniscient god deserves our sympathy for having to watch the equivalent of a six-billion-inmate Big Brother house 24/7 for all eternity. And Paul Braterman hit the nail on the head by pointing out that the churches will continue to exercise power unchallenged until humanist/sceptical/secular people, or indeed liberal and free-thinking religious people, learn to organise themselves, volunteer, provide charitable services and form the kind of “constituency” that religious interests have so successfully formed, so that when governments break down or abdicate responsibility there's someone other than right-wing Christians to step into the breach.

A quasi-religious organisation for atheists? It’s been suggested often enough, it’s been tried a few times, but somehow it never quite sticks. How pernicious do the fundamentalists have to become before the nice liberals start organising? If the end of the world hasn't struck before we get there, let’s ask again in 2038. 

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Old Saint Paul’s

Office of Tenebrae, Wednesday 27th March 2013, 7.30pm
Led by: choir and clergy

Old Saint Paul's isn't your run-of-the-mill Anglican church. Its colourful history is worth a read, and its ornate building with its feels-like-you're-outdoors-when-in-fact-you're-indoors stonework is worth a visit. Nor is the Office of Tenebrae your run-of-the-mill church service. Composed of the offices of Matins and Lauds, but celebrated the night before, this is how the order booklet described what was going to happen:

“Apart from the chant of the Lamentations (in which each verse is introduced by a letter of the Hebrew alphabet), the most conspicuous feature of the service is the gradual extinguishing of candles and other lights in the church, until only a single candle, considered as a symbol of our Lord, remains.

“Towards the end of the service this candle is hidden, typifying the apparent victory of the forces of evil. At the very end, a loud noise is made, symbolising the earthquake at the time of the resurrection (Matthew 28:2), the hidden candle is restored to its place, and by its light all depart in silence.”

And that’s exactly what happened. The chanting was performed by sixteen choristers in red robes and white surplices; the first traditional church choir encountered in my mission so far, which seems surprising somehow. There were also four clergy, one of whom had the job of extinguishing candles at regular intervals, but I didn’t see what became of the others once they all got up beyond the rood screen. Maybe they were also involved in the chanting, but from the nave there wasn’t a great deal to be seen, and the less so the dimmer the lights got.

The chants were all set in plainsong or faux-bourdon style, the Benedictus and Miserere having particularly lovely harmonies. All in all, it was a sterling effort by the choir. There’s a lot of text to get through in an hour: Psalm 69, Lamentations 1: 1-14, Psalms 76 and 77, 1 Corinthians 11: 17-34, Psalms 90 and 36, Luke 1: 68-79, and Psalm 51, all sung and interspersed with sung responses. In fact, the only words spoken throughout the entire service were the Collect.

It all sounded very pretty, of course, but it scored nil for audience participation. All the congregation had to do was stand, sit and kneel in the right order, and listen. But God likes a song well sung – it pleases him better than a bullock that hath horns and hoofs, as Psalm 69 points out – so he ought to have enjoyed last night’s Tenebrae.

I found myself wondering how soon there would be too little light to read my order of service by, and what the choir would do at the point where all the lights were finally extinguished. Answer: they withdrew to a room beyond the choir stalls where there was some dim light, and the bright lights from the stairwell were still visible through the glass doors (health and safety, one presumes) but apart from that almost all the lights went out, creating a quite eerie atmosphere as the last five minutes or so were conducted if not in complete darkness at least in shadow.

And then there was the Collect, a good loud bang to symbolise the earthquake, and the restoration of the hidden candle. Supplementary question from curious bible reader: why did only Matthew mention the earthquake? You’d think the other gospel writers would include it if it happened, wouldn’t they? The synoptic problem rears its ugly head again. 

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Carrubbers Christian Centre

Evening service, 6.30pm Sunday 24th March 2013
Led by Dave Hampton
Sermon by Associate Pastor, Rev David Anderson

This wasn’t the church I meant to go to today, but having misread a website and planned to go to a service that wasn’t actually taking place, I needed to find a substitute at the last minute. As it turned out, Carrubbers were holding a special service for guests, as the nice couple sitting behind me explained.

It was less cringe-makingly trendy than I’d been expecting – no swaying hands or jumping up and down, but lots of vigorous and well-rehearsed music (maybe a wee bit heavy on the drums) to jazz up the old chestnut How Great Thou Art, a very singable setting of Psalm 23 and the not-quite-so-old chestnut How Deep the Father’s Love for Us. We were also treated to two more songs in similar style by the band and choir of four, so a general thumbs-up for the music.

Dave Hampton, who works for Christians in Sport, invited a student triathlete called Declan up on to the dais to share his testimony about how God has changed his life. Declan described the resurrection as “kind of a big deal”, which must count as the understatement of two millennia. Then there was a reading from Mark 15: 21-47, and then it was over to David Anderson for the sermon, concentrating on verses 42 to 47, part of a series on “following Jesus to the Cross”.

Anderson’s sermon was accompanied by lots of physical movement. Remember those scenes in Minority Report where Tom Cruise pushed and pulled at the images on the big screen with sweeping gestures? A bit like that. I’d lay odds the next generation of iPads will allow us to do something similar on a smaller scale, but that’s by the by.

The sermon was a bit of a muddle. Usually I can summarise a sermon in a paragraph, but this one was all over the place. Luckily for those who are interested, Carrubbers sermons are all available online for anyone who really wants to check the logical progression from Joseph of Arimathea’s act of charity in burying Jesus to why we should hate our lives in this world and be prepared to die so that we can live eternally like the seed that must die before it can grow (John 12:24).

But I’ve missed out one important detail. Right at the outset, Dave Hampton showed us a video a bit like this one, only not this exact one but a sequel that I couldn’t find online, and nor could I find out who made it/them. Clever stuff, though. I particularly like the Pharisee’s hash-tag #unfollowJesus.

The one we watched was about how a tweeter called @mark_writer puts together the gospel afterwards, asking Peter for some eye-witness accounts and trying to answer the question “Who do you say I am?”, drawing on the opinions of the Centurion and others. If you’ve ever compared the synoptic gospels and wondered about the inconsistencies between them, imagine asking three contemporary writers to compile accounts of an event based on tweets and news clips. Oh yes, and tell them to wait at least thirty years before they tackle the project, to write it in a language other than that spoken by any of the original witnesses, and then to throw away all early drafts and original source material. Now if you think about the gospels as the end product of a lost 1st century wiki written by fans and critics, it sort of makes sense.

Sort of!

Monday, 18 March 2013

St Mary's RC Cathedral

St Mary’s RC Cathedral
Mass for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Sunday 17 March 2013, 7.30pm
Celebrant: Rev Jeremy Milne (by process of elimination, see below)

It wasn’t a good start to a Sunday. Having stayed up too late the night before, poor little Soul Searcher just couldn’t get her lazy bones out of bed for a morning service. Luckily, St Mary’s holds five masses every Sunday, three times in English and twice in Polish, so I had no excuse not to go to one of them.

I’d decided on a Catholic church this week because of the papal election, but the cathedral wasn’t exactly buzzing with excitement about the new pontiff. They were still reeling from Cardinal O’Brien’s resignation, of course, as was acknowledged in Fr Milne’s homily: “What a Lenten journey this is proving to be for us.”

At least, I’m assuming it was Fr Milne. The newsletter listed four clergy, two of them Polish, and since the priest officiating referred to “what Fr Michael has written in the newsletter”, he could not himself have been Fr Michael, nor did he have a Polish accent. Ergo, he must have been Jeremy Milne … I think.

The gospel reading was John 8:11, the woman caught in adultery, so the theme of the sermon was forgiveness, which “helps to propel us beyond the obstacle of our resentment, anger and bitterness towards the future”, a timely reflection for a congregation that has been “forced to examine how we deal with forgiveness” in recent weeks.

The singing was the worst I’ve heard anywhere so far in my mission. It was impossible to tell whether anyone in the scattered congregation was singing at all, but one grotesquely over-amplified female voice shrieked from the public address system, over a florid Richard Clayderman-style piano accompaniment. There is an organ, and there is an organist, but on this occasion it was just piano and caterwauling. I couldn’t see where the singer was, having sat too far forward, but when I did locate the source of the noise I realised there were four singers, not one. Either there’s a problem with the microphones or they have three silent choristers. 

According to the newsletter, the choir (which sings at the mid-morning service) and the music group (which was what I was listening to) are both looking for new members, if anyone feels like rushing to their rescue. To be fair to the one shrill treble, without her efforts there would have been no singing at all.

The hymns, from Liturgical Hymns Old & New, were all entirely unknown to me and all in the same not-really-with-it-but-trying-very-hard-to-be-contemporary genre. There was a sentimental hymn to St Patrick, it being his feast day, which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Daniel O’Donnell album, three other hymns, a responsorial psalm of sorts, and something sung to the Londonderry Air which wasn’t announced or listed on the hymn board and whose lyrics were lost to poor diction. And as for that famous top note … close but no cigar!

I took the opportunity to look up in Liturgical Hymns Old & New the hymn that had troubled me so much at St Margaret's and St Leonard's. Sure enough, the lyrics have been revised; Nostra Aetate has achieved something.

But on the whole it wasn’t a scintillating experience. Maybe everyone else was as tired as I was, and maybe the morning services are a riot, but this one was frankly pretty boring. Perhaps they’ll perk up a bit after their Lenten penance is served and they’ve recovered from their recent traumas. 

Sunday, 10 March 2013

St Columba’s Free Church

Gaelic service, Sunday 10 March 2013, 3pm
Minister: Prof Donald MacLeod

No, it isn’t an accidental double-posting. I went to two churches today, both called St Columba’s and both on Johnston Terrace. You can read about the other one, St Columba's by the Castle, here

This is a denomination I know well, or used to, although St Columba’s wasn’t the church I attended regularly. I might get round to revisiting Buccleuch in due course, but I chose St Columba’s today because it was offering one of its monthly Gaelic services. Greyfriars Kirk (Church of Scotland) holds a weekly Gaelic service, the only other I’m aware of in Edinburgh, and that’s also on the list for a future Sunday, but until today it had been a long time since I’d been to a Gaelic service anywhere or sung a Gaelic psalm.

There’s nothing quite like a Gaelic psalm, and those unfamiliar with this unique heterophonic style of psalmody should check out how it can sound at its best. I can’t claim that our little company produced anything resembling such a sound, but since there were only sixteen of us we didn’t do too badly.

It was a familiar format: three psalms (or parts thereof), a Bible reading and a sermon, and prayers for all the usual things plus a petition for our language, literature and music and for the viability of our communities and culture – not something English-speaking congregations have to worry about on the whole. And there were some familiar faces; I’ve said before that Edinburgh can feel like a small place, but Gaelic Edinburgh is even smaller.

Gaelic is the fourth language I’ve encountered on my mission so far, the others being English (obviously), Latin (mutedly) and whatever “tongues” is (if you believe it’s a language at all). Beachd no dhà bhuam sa Ghàidhlig gu h-ìosal, dhuibhse aig a bheil ùidh annta … but this first bit will be in English.

Donald Macleod preaches a thorough sermon, in typical Free Church style. The reading was Mark 4: 21-41, and the sermon concentrated on verses 35-41, Jesus quelling the storm. To summarise, this episode illustrates the power of Christ and the frailty of the disciples. Jesus was keeping an appointment with the elements; he knew the storm was coming. After a hard day’s preaching, trying to make the disciples understand how the kingdom of God could grow like a mustard seed, he slept the sleep of the righteous in the boat, the humble carpenter leaving the sailing to fishermen who knew the sea better than he did.

At this point, Prof MacLeod added a little aside about how the church should assign responsibility according to aptitude. Hmmm, thinks the Soul Searcher, and if the Free Church excludes women from ministry and eldership, what does that say about our aptitude? Grumble, grumble . . .

Anyway, getting back to the story, Jesus rebuked the wind and the storm immediately subsided. The boat is like the church, beset by conflict but still sailing after two thousand years. And when we ask ourselves, as Christ asked the disciples, why after all we’ve seen and heard we still do not believe, we should remember that we are all little boats on the storm-tossed loch and that Jesus can awake in us and bring about the same great calm witnessed that day in Galilee.

Would I go back? Probably. I’m on a roll now, having found three churches out of fourteen that warrant a second visit. And now, English readers, it’s time for you to tune out. Na smuaintean Gàidhlig air an robh mi a-mach na bu tràithe:

A bheil cànan gu diofar mas e an aon teachdaireachd a gheibhear san eaglais an ath dhoras sa Bheurla? Chan eil fhios agam a bheil a’ cheist seo a’ cur dragh sam bith air muinntir na h-eaglais (an Eaglais Shaor neo eaglaisean eile) aig àrd ìre, agus le sin tha mi a’ ciallachadh aig an ìre far an dèan iad co-dhùnaidhean air trèanadh mhinistearan agus gnothaichean rianachd eile a bheir buaidh air co-thional is coimhearsnachd.

Nan tigeadh e gu h-aon ’s gu dhà, taghadh eadar cànan is eaglais … uill, tha Dia buan ach bidh cànanan a’ dol à bith. Agus ann an saoghal caochlaideach làn peacadh, nach eil soisgeul ann an cànan cèin nas cudromaiche na cleachdadh comhfhurtail san t-seann chànan air sgàth ’s gur ann san t-seann chànan a tha e?

Dh’fhalbh Eubhrais is Greugais is Laidinn, agus chan e naomh-chànan a tha sa Ghàidhlig. Tha an eathair bheag fhathast a’ seòladh, ach tha na tonnan a’ leum a-steach. Nuair a dh’fhalbhas ginealach MhicLeòid, am bi ministearan ann a bhios comasach air searmon a thoirt seachad sa Ghàidhlig, neo am bi seirbheisean mar a chunnaic mi an-diugh air am fàgail ann an taigh-tasgaidh eachdraidh na h-eaglais?

St Columba’s by the Castle, Scottish Episcopal Church

Eucharist for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Mothering Sunday, 10 March 2013, 10am
The Revd Bob Gould, Presiding
The Revd Canon John Richardson, Preaching
The Revd Canon Zachary Fleetwood, Rector
Helen Smailes, Organist

It’s good to be able to write something nice about a church for a change, after several weeks of mixed reviews. Of all the places I’ve visited so far, St Columba’s by the Castle is only the second of which I can honestly say that I enjoyed the service and I’d go back there, the other being the Salvation Army.

Just to confuse my readers, I also visited another St Columba's later on the same day. You can read about St Columba's Free Church here

There’s an overabundance of Victorian church buildings in Edinburgh, many of which are a legacy of the 1843 Disruption, and I’d assumed that St Columba’s by the Castle was a former Auld Kirk or Free Kirk given over only latterly to the Scottish Episcopal Church. I assumed wrongly, tending to forget that the late 19th century was also a time of change and renewal in the Anglican communion. The design of St Columba’s by the Castle was inspired by the Oxford movement, and as such it boasts some very lovely stained glass in an otherwise simple interior.

This is the first place I’ve been on my mission where I’ve met anyone I know. What’s surprising is that it should have taken thirteen churches for this to happen; Edinburgh can feel like a small place at times. It’s also the first place where I’ve seen a dog in the congregation, but I didn’t get to meet him/her.

It was also only the second time I’ve heard an organ played (or possibly the third - I'm not sure about Charlotte Chapel), this one considerably less grating on the ear than at Morningside United Church, and the hymns (mostly from With One Voice: a Hymn Book for all the Churches) were proper Songs of Praise stuff, four of them to Irish, Scottish or Welsh melodies, lending a pleasingly Celtic flavour to the proceedings:
  •  Let All the World in Every Corner Sing
  • Lord of All Hopefulness, Lord of All Joy 
  • I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say
  • Lord, Make Us Servants of Your Peace
  • Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah
There was also a chanted psalm (Ps 32) and sung responses from St Anne’s Mass set by James MacMillan. Everyone sang, and the only part of the service that didn’t require congregational participation was the sermon. A far cry from St Margaret’s and St Leonard’s, where the priest might as well have done the whole thing on his own at home for all it involved the laity. There was more Latin to be heard too, as we learnt that today was also known as “Laetare Sunday” from the opening line of the introit to the Roman mass: “Rejoice ye with Jerusalem, and be glad with her, all ye that love her” (Isaiah 66:10). We were therefore enjoined to rejoice in God’s love, forgiveness and reconciliation.

The Revd Zachary Fleetwood said in his welcome that mothering Sunday occasioned “a slight relaxation of Lenten piety”, which was to be reflected in the clergy’s resuming their practice of processing out, suspended at the beginning of Lent – and perhaps also in the birthday fizz and home baking served downstairs afterwards. There were four clergy involved, plus the Revd Zachary, which seems like a staff quota many churches would envy. I don’t know enough about Anglican hierarchy to understand the difference between rectors, canons, deacons and priests, despite the Revd Canon John Richardson’s explanation of why he was wearing a deacon’s stole rather than whatever he usually wears, but they seem all to have their roles to play.

The sermon was on Luke 15, the prodigal son. I am no doubt reading it wrong, but I always felt sorry for the good son, the Pharisee. All he did was stick to the rules and what thanks did he get for it? Richardson talked about the gospel prodigal for a while and then told us another story, about an outspoken senior cleric in a northern town who was accused of an offence against four people he had worked with. At first he denied the allegation, then he resigned and then he admitted he had fallen short of what he should have done. The news was met with incomprehension and dismay among those he claimed to have led, who saw him as a hypocrite, but the senior cleric is human and as such as likely to sin as any of us. However his brother may disapprove of him, he may seek forgiveness from and reconciliation with his father in heaven. 

He didn’t name names, but we all knew who he meant. It was an altogether more charitable view of those seen as having strayed than I heard at the Free Presbyterian Church a month ago.

About five minutes later, after a somewhat chaotic Peace that involved everyone getting up and roaming around the church, not just a polite handshake with immediate neighbours, Richardson was royally upstaged by one of the Sunday School children who took the microphone to deliver his own summary of the same parable, which they’d been learning about downstairs. The confident little boy got a round of applause for his efforts, and he almost got all the details of the story right. But as the church warden noted, “Like all family relationships, it’s complicated.”

And that was it, apart from the coffee and the birthday drinks and the chat downstairs, which was all very friendly. People who like a traditional service would love St Columba’s by the Castle. Even the incense smells good, and that isn’t something I ever thought I would write. 

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Why theology isn’t for laypeople

Not a church this time … just a few reflections

The arguments against the existence of a supernatural god are compelling. The arguments against the existence of the Christian god in particular are practically unassailable. I read Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion again last week and I’ve got to hand it to him, it would be extremely difficult for any reasonable person to arrive at an alternative conclusion without compromising their logic or contriving some kind of compartmentalisation that allows them to believe the patently unbelievable Sunday stuff as well as the mundanely quotidian. 

And yet ... and yet, there's that God-shaped hole that cries out to be filled. 

An awful lot of Christians claim that the existence of God is obvious to them and that his presence and beneficence are real and palpable in their lives. And if it isn’t obvious to the rest of us and we don’t feel him moving and shaking us, then it’s our lack of faith, our sin, our doubt, our whatever-we’re-not-doing-that-they’re-doing that leaves us in this awful state of abandonment. There’s no sensible answer to that, so there can be no discussion on the point. How convenient.

It’s interesting to see what Jonathan Sacks says about doubt“We don’t for a moment believe that the existence of God is so obvious and overwhelming that you’ve got to be crazy not to believe in God.” This seems to me a better starting point for an intelligent debate. Begin with the doubt, acknowledge the difficulty of reconciling failure and suffering and the problem of evil in the world with the hope that there’s a purpose to life and a reason to live a good one, and see how you get on from there. If nothing else, we can enjoy the cut and thrust of the theological debate.

Theology is the application of logic to the illogical, an attempt to rationalise belief in the unbelievable. It seems strange to me that most Christians (and perhaps people of other faiths too, although I haven’t met them in large enough numbers to generalise) have such a profound lack of interest in theology. “Just have faith” cuts off any further lines of inquiry and no doubt leaves them feeling all warm and glowing and holier-than-others inside. If you have enough faith, you don’t need to be logical. Or theological.

No one should shy away from examining their beliefs, but a typical Christian reaction to a sceptical question or a simple thought experiment is to act offended, to go on the defensive and to disengage, or to do the smug, pitying thing and earnestly wish for the as-yet-unsaved sinner to see the light. And it’s not just ordinary churchgoers who avoid theology; it’s the clergy too.

I remember asking my first awkward theological question at about the age of twelve when a minister came to visit us at school. I don’t recall the question now, but the answer was more or less, “Don’t worry your little head about that.” I was annoyed to say the least, the teacher was embarrassed and quite cross with me, and I came away suspecting that perhaps this clever and important man didn’t actually know the answer. Maybe that’s what led me to a degree in philosophy, where I could enjoy a good argument with people who didn’t assume that every intellectual challenge was an affront to their sincere and deeply held beliefs.

Somewhere in the bowels of the Vatican, in New College and in every theology department in the world there will be people (mostly men, I’d wager) delving with great academic rigour into the kind of debates that underpin Christian doctrine, but by the time the message is spun and sound-bitten it will have been put beyond debate, so that regular clergy and ordinary folk in the pews are not required to consider it too deeply. All they have to do is believe it.

The beleaguered food industry might provide us with an analogy here. Most people in the developed world don’t grow their own food. It’s grown and packaged and marketed and distributed by processes that we don’t usually think about, and all we have to do is pop along to the supermarket and buy it. We’ve all got to eat, and the supermarket’s convenient. It’s only when beef products are discovered to contain horse flesh that we question the process. The industry investigates, offers its reassurances and pretty soon we’re happily scoffing frozen lasagne again. Those who opt out of the commercial food industry entirely will be branded mad hippies and treated with mild disdain; surely they’re just making life harder for themselves by growing their own lentils.

Growing your own theology is undoubtedly harder than lapping up ready made Christianity, so I’m not surprised it’s a minority pursuit. And you pretty much have to grow your own because churches don’t encourage theological debate among their members, adherents, visitors, etc. Far too dangerous!

Churches don’t like people who ask too many questions; it threatens the status quo, scares the horses (I'm all out of horse jokes), sows doubt where they’d prefer some nice, cosy certainty, and could leave a priest or pastor or bible study leader looking foolish if they can’t immediately produce a trump card. So what happens? People with questions find themselves sidelined, or they simply absent themselves and look elsewhere, and the great harvest of souls continues to gather the low-hanging fruit, the pliable, biddable, gullible and meek who will inherit the earth because it never occurred to them to think otherwise.

People like me are a problem for most churches. They fear we’re the thorns that spring up and choke the crops in Matthew 13. Of course, if we’re to take Matthew at his word then the tares are the children of the wicked one and will be allowed to grow until the moment of harvest and then thrown into the fire. What a prospect! All we did was express a little bit of doubt, but there’s so little room for doubt in Christianity that it’s easier to condemn than to accommodate. So I guess I'm just going to burn. 

I’m twelve churches into my mission so far, and I’m not encouraged. Of course, I’m only scratching the surface – a snapshot here and there, a wee taste of other people’s religious practices – but I’ve seen little that makes me want to go deeper, if indeed there’s anywhere deeper to go. 

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Elim Pentecostal Church

Sunday morning worship, 03 March 2013, 11.00am
Pastor: Gordon Allan

Charlotte Chapel isn’t the only church on the move. There’s been a grand game of musical churches going on in Edinburgh recently, and the Edinburgh Elim church is now in Morningside Baptist Church’s old building at Holy Corner. Morningside Baptist Church has bought the Methodist Central Hall and rebranded itself as Central: Jesus at the Heart. And if you’re wondering where the Methodists went, they’ve merged whatever used to happen at Central Hall with the congregation that’s been at Nicolson Square for almost 200 years. 

So Edinburgh Elim is in a new building and has a new pastor, and if its aim is to appear modern and relevant then it seems to be doing not badly for a denomination approaching its centenary. The music is provided by a “worship team” similar in style to Hope! Church but less bland and forgettable, and there were even two hymns I’d heard before – "Just as I am without one plea" and "How great thou art".

I’ve rehearsed my dislike for three-chord praise music and its insipid greetings-card lyrics often enough so I won’t do that again, but I never cease to wonder at the habit among evangelical worshippers of raising their hands in the air, palms forward like holy antennae as if it improves divine reception. I still chuckle at a Catholic friend’s mischievous comment “Grace Receptors: On!” in the face of this phenomenon, which I’d assumed was an optional extra, but one of today’s songs actually included the line “with our hands lifted high in praise” … and of course, most people did as instructed.

I’d been expecting a Pentecostal service to be a bit more hysterical than this one turned out to be. There were a few shouts of “Alleluia!” but none of the more excessive manifestations sometimes associated with the gifts of the spirit. This was Morningside after all, so one expects a certain degree of restraint and decorum.

Nevertheless, there was a man sitting a couple of rows behind who spoke in tongues, something I’d heard of but never actually heard done before. I will admit to complete ignorance when it comes to the linguistics of glossolalia, but I suppose it’s a human instinct to seek an interpretation of any speech-like noises we hear. The only words discernible to me sounded like “אבא בבקשה” (Hebrew: father, please), which seemed a suitable sentiment for prayer, but there are many more languages in the world than I have a passing acquaintance with and I’ve no doubt speakers of Russian, Hakka or Swahili might pick up on other syllables that seemed meaningful in their own languages. At the risk of being cynical, a magician might have heard, “Abracadabra” … who’s to say?

I spoke to this chap afterwards and he said he didn’t know what he said when he spoke in tongues, but he was undoubtedly grateful for the gift. He also offered to pray for me there and then, which was awfully nice of him, but I did find myself thinking back to what the pastor had said about the unsaved “wanting what they’ve got”. I can safely say that I don’t want to have an unknown language pouring out of my mouth willy-nilly – I’d rather know what I was going on about – but it must be quite something to have the faith and assurance they seem to enjoy at Elim.

The sermon was on Psalm 42, described by Pastor Allan as “a prophetic psalm, laden with godly hope”, so there was much talk of thirst and water, which led us to the “living water” of John 7:38 and possibly the best extended metaphor I’ve ever heard: “God put the plug in the bath of heaven. It filled up and overflowed and it’s been cascading ever since.”

The coffee flowed freely too, and everyone was friendly and enthusiastic without being overwhelmingly inquisitive. For the church visitor, there's a happy medium somewhere between being love-bombed and being totally ignored, and Elim's struck it. They seem to have a busy social agenda, lots of evening activities and so on, if that’s what you’re looking for from a church. And most importantly, they seem to be happy, which is more than can be said for some of the churches I’ve been to recently.

But I also heard something strange, something which I’d dismissed as a slip of the tongue when I heard it before at Holyrood Abbey: that God is “desperate” to hear from us. Desperation didn’t strike me as characteristic of an omnipotent god, but here it was again at Elim: “Jesus is desperate to invade our lives.” That’s two heavily loaded words in a short sentence. An invasion is a hostile act; nobody invites an invasion. Do you have to ask to be invaded or does it happen to you against your will? If he’s desperate to invade my life, and if he’s omnipotent, why doesn’t he just do it? I’d be powerless to resist. But here I am, unchanged. Maybe I ask too many awkward questions, or maybe I’m just so keen to discover the logic among all the babble that I’m failing to see the wood for the trees.