Monday, 29 April 2013

St Matthew's, Rosslyn Chapel

St Matthew’s, Rosslyn Chapel
Quietness by Candlelight, Sunday 28th April 2013, 5pm
Led by: a woman who didn’t introduce herself by name

When I looked on the website for St Matthew’s, Rosslyn Chapel, a few weeks ago, it said that during British summer time the Office of Compline would be celebrated at 5pm on the last Sunday of every month. What could be more sublime than hearing “Before the Ending of the Day” echoing round the ornate vaults of that architectural gem? I was looking forward to this.

When I looked at the website again last Saturday, it had been updated and what was now billed was “Quietness by Candlelight, a reflective service with music and meditation”. Nothing daunted, I decided to give this a go, but it turned out to be a much lower-key affair than I’d been expecting.

Have the traditional liturgical offices fallen out of favour, or was it the priest’s night off? I don’t know, but here’s what Quietness by Candlelight involved. The theme was “peace”.
  • some hesitant arpeggios on an electric organ 
  • reading from Revelation 21:1-6 
  • reading from a book called “All will be well” by Joan Wilson, whose daughter Marie was killed in the Remembrance Day bombing in Enniskillen in 1987 
  • seven minutes of “quiet time” during which we were invited to light candles – I didn’t 
  • a prayer for peace in Syria, Afghanistan, Korea and elsewhere, followed by another trite little prayer in badly scanned greetings-card rhyme format 
  • more hesitant organ music, this time with crunchy little chords

Lacklustre is the word that springs to mind. Luckily it was all over in 22 minutes.

There were eight of us altogether: the leader, the organist, the page turner, two regulars and three visitors. Would Compline have drawn a bigger crowd?

Monday, 22 April 2013

Edinburgh Christadelphian Ecclesia

Morning Service, Sunday 21st April 2013, 11.15am
Presiding: Peter (I didn’t learn his surname)

I’ve mentioned before that I find the Trinity a difficult concept to buy into. Think about it: if Jesus was/is God, then lots of things he says about God in the gospels make no sense, because he clearly isn’t talking about himself. Of course, Trinitarians have all kinds of proofs and arguments to show how the Trinity is implicit or explicit throughout the bible, including the Old Testament.

One of the daftest of these arguments cites the use of the plural form “Elohim” from the very beginning of Genesis. “See,” they will tell you, “even at the creation there was plurality in the godhead”, failing to recognise a) the singular verb, and b) the fact that the plural can be used to indicate greater magnitude or excellence as well as greater number. Okay, I’m no scholar, but this really is Hebrew 101 stuff.

The Christadelphians don’t buy the Trinity either. It simply isn’t in the bible, they say, and I’d concur with them. A summary of what Christadelphians believe explains their view of the status of Jesus and his relationship with God and with humanity, among other things. I can’t say I agree with them on biblical inerrancy, even with a caveat for transcription errors, or on other points of their doctrine, but it’s as valid a perspective as any other.

But unless you knew about the Christadelphians’ unique Christological stance, you probably wouldn’t detect any difference between their form of worship and that of other independent churches – four hymns (first piano accompaniment was a bit Les Dawson but things improved as the service went on), two bible readings, several prayers, an “exhortation” (sermon) and breaking of bread.

The wine was in a common cup with no napkin to wipe between recipients, which is all very well for the cosy couples who were holding hands at every opportunity, but rather less palatable for the rest of us. However, since non-members are not invited to partake I was spared that germ-laden peril. I’ve never understood the appeal of the common cup – other than to the church officer who would otherwise have to wash up all those little shot glasses – or of the over-handled bread. Do people believe that consecration removes bacteria?

The exhortation drew on the two bible readings, John 15 and John 16, and on various other passages of scripture, with references to Edinburgh’s road works (don’t get me started!), cycling, horticulture and swans along the way, but essentially the burden was that God treats us better than we deserve because he recognises us differently from how we recognise ourselves.

Everyone I spoke to was really lovely, very welcoming and friendly, full of enthusiasm and information about their various groups and activities and their charity work in Bosnia. I’ve noted before that the welcome or lack of it can really make a difference to how I feel about a church, so the Christadelphians get a big thumbs up on this score.

One of the things I’ve been realising, though, is that the format I’ve chosen for my Soul Search mission has some serious limitations. To get beyond the rituals and liturgies and the platitudes that make up most sermons and through to the stuff about what a particular denomination actually believes in would require more than attending public worship. I would need to dig into their catechisms and confessions and various brands of apologetics, attend their bible study groups, etc., and quite frankly I don’t have time for that. All I can do is take a snapshot, although the nice Christadelphians have said they’d be very happy to see me there again. Well, we’ll see.

Monday, 15 April 2013

New Restalrig Parish Church

New Restalrig Parish Church
Lord’s Day Service, Sunday 14th April, 11.00am
Minister: Rev David Court

I begin with a few musings inspired by the sermon at New Restalrig Parish Church (I’ve included their web address, but the links are mostly dead ends, including one that reads: “400 Bad Request – You smokin what?”) But more of that anon. First, a little quiz:

Who was the founder of Christianity? Easy: Jesus. Wrong, it’s a trick question. It was Paul, of course. Everyone knows that, don’t they?

Well actually, no, lots of people seem not to, or not to care either way. I’m not claiming to be an expert but I’ve read a little bit, and there are lots of people who haven’t, believers and unbelievers alike.

The constituency that makes the greatest and most sweeping assumptions about the bible despite not having read it seems to divide between two camps – non-religious people who simply couldn’t give a fig (let’s call them Group A), and on the other hand Christians who are so secure in the overwhelming loveliness of Jesus that they feel they don’t need to read the fine print (we’ll call them Group B). Both groups may be blissful in their ignorance, but Group B really has no excuse for being unable to defend what they claim to believe in.  

The people who have taken time to bone up on the scriptural minutiae also divide between two camps – atheists who want to be able to back up their arguments (Group C), and on the other hand clergy, theologians, scholars, etc. (our final group, Group D).

The trouble with the bible, as I came to see it, is that the more I read it the less comfortably the Old Testament and the New Testament seemed to sit together.  Far from complementing each other, I realised that they actually contradict each other on many apparently vital points, but Christian apologists have applied themselves to reconciling them, interpreting the Old to retro-fit with the New and logging every such effort in concordances and confessions all neatly cross-referenced together in a body of work that has kept Group D in business for hundreds of years. 

Group B people simply swallow up the general message without checking the facts. After all, those nice Group D people have done all the hard work for them.

So what did the congregation make of Rev. David Court’s substantial sermon on Phillippians 3:1-11? I guess I’ll never know, but here’s the summary:

Paul found his footsteps dogged by the Judaisers who sought to impose Jewish law on the nascent church. The graphic language he employs in this epistle (look out for the dogs, the evildoers and those who mutilate the flesh) demonstrates the extent of his concern; the gospel itself was at stake. The Judaisers held that in order for gentiles to become Christians they had to embrace the law, but Paul insisted that salvation depended not on good works and human effort but on God’s grace alone.

These dangers are still prevalent in the church today, according to Rev Court, because the idea that we can pay our way by cloaking ourselves in religious activity and good works is ingrained in human nature. But all attempts to make ourselves acceptable to God are doomed to failure, and realising this was what set Paul free.

Citing Thomas Chalmers’ sermon, “The expulsive power of a new affection”, Court explained that moral reformation never works; we cannot change the heart or redirect its desires without help from the outside.

So I looked up Chalmers’ sermon, and lo, I found a perfect description of myself in it. Here he is talking about people who “disrelish spiritual Christianity”:
“As it is, they cannot get quit of their old affections, because they are out of sight from all those truths which have influence to raise a new one. They are like the children of Israel in the land of Egypt, when required to make bricks without straw - they cannot love God, while they want the only food which can ailment [sic – I think this is a transcription error and should read ‘aliment’] this affection in a sinner's bosom - and however great their errors may be both in resisting the demands of the Gospel as impracticable, and in rejecting the doctrines of the Gospel as inadmissible, yet there is not a spiritual man (and it is the prerogative of him who is spiritual to judge all men) who will not perceive that there is a, consistency in these errors.”

Point taken. I’m not saying everyone’s oot o’ step bar oor Jock. I’m Jock in this scenario. But my question is this. Let’s suppose that Paul is right. What do we do with the Old Testament? Why not chuck it away and just make do with the gospels and the epistles as the holy books of this new cult? Ah, but you need to keep all the bits of the psalms, prophets and Torah that are seen as prefiguring Christ. Can’t have a prophecy-fulfilling messiah without a record of the prophecies he's supposed to have fulfilled, and so the retro-fitting continues and the ink flows and the theologians stay busy.

And the man and woman in the pew? I don’t know. I can’t be inside other people’s minds, but to my own mind there is a big problem with the Christian solution to this problem – that once you genuinely believe, all the problems and contradictions and doubts magically dissolve away. Not if you keep on reading the bible, they don’t. Perhaps Group B have the answer: read the bits you like, cherry-pick what gives you comfort and don’t bother your little head about the hard sums. It’s like buying insurance. The policy holder is persuaded that they’re getting comprehensive cover, they’re alerted to the exclusions and other terms and conditions but they don’t bother to read them, and unless they actually suffer a catastrophe they’ll be quite content knowing that everything’s taken care of. “Simples!”, as a certain famous meerkat might say.

Not so simples, says the Soul Searcher.

Apart from the sermon, which I’m still mulling over 24 hours later, it was a typical Church of Scotland service: four hymns trad and trendy, one metrical psalm and a children’s address. Nothing to write home about there. But the whole Pauline revisionist, Old/New Testament thing continues to trouble me. 

Sunday, 7 April 2013

More than a hymn sandwich?

Today was the first Sunday of 2013 when I didn’t go to church, so instead of a church review I’m offering a few thoughts on singing. Anyone who’s read the blog postings to date will know that the quality of the singing is something of a preoccupation for me as I work my way through churches of all denominations.

I don’t know if anyone’s ever counted the number of times singing is mentioned in the bible, but without having to research very thoroughly I can think of dozens of references to singing for joy, singing to praise the Lord, singing loudly, with or without the accompaniment of instruments ten-stringed and otherwise, and not just in the psalms but throughout the Old Testament. The New Testament is scanter on singing references, though not completely devoid of them. I couldn’t find anything about singing in the gospels, but maybe more apt scholars than myself will correct me on this point.

Some churches clearly place greater emphasis on singing than others; the reformed churches’ greater emphasis on congregational participation might explain why the singing in the Catholic churches encountered so far in my mission has been so lacklustre by comparison with most (but not all) of the Protestant churches. And to my dear Catholic friend who pointed out that participation can be spiritual without necessarily having to be physical I say, “Point taken, but it couldn’t hurt to sing along too!” I will also own up to his suggestion that what I really enjoy is a hymn sandwich. Yes, I love to sing, so a church with great music is obviously going to score higher than a church where people just mutter into their hymnbooks.

But there’s more to church than just singing, or there should be. Ever since I wrote about why theological inquiry is not encouraged, or may even be actively discouraged, I’ve been thinking about the juxtaposition of theology and theatre. The latter can mask the former. While the music, costumes, stained glass and general fun and games all continue to entertain and to meet expectations, it doesn’t occur to the worshipper to ask too many questions about what lies behind it all. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m more inclined to be sceptical when the music’s trying to be trendy, as at Hope! Church, or when the racial ideology is disturbing, as at St Margaret’s & St Leonard’s. Give me a great choir to listen to or a nice long metrical psalm to sing and I can put all my doubts on hold … or some of them, for a little while at least.

There’s only been one church so far where there was absolutely no singing – the Quaker Meeting House. That wasn’t for me, but it did make me think about what would be left if you took the hymns out of other church sandwiches, and just how palatable worshippers would find the crusts that remained. 

Monday, 1 April 2013

St Giles’ Cathedral (High Kirk)

Morning Service, Easter Sunday, 31st March 2013, 11.30am
Minister: Very Revd Gilleasbuig Macmillan

It may be the mother church of Presbyterianism, but St Giles’ never quite feels like a Church of Scotland church, thanks to its ornate d├ęcor and fancy costumes – the choir in monk-like tunics and the clergy and ushers in gowns that would sit equally well on a university chancellor or a town crier.

Perhaps I should have visited St Giles’ earlier. As it is, I’ve been tackling Edinburgh’s historic churches in reverse order of dissent. Old St Paul’s was founded by a breakaway group from St Giles’, and St Columba’s by the Castle was founded by a breakaway group from Old St Paul’s. Of course, walking out and forming new churches is a time-honoured tradition in Scottish church history, but it didn’t occur to me at the outset of my mission to follow the order in which the various schisms took place.

It’s difficult to know where to sit for the best vantage point in St Giles’, because there’s always something obscured by a substantial pillar, but I struck lucky and managed to see the organist, the back of the choir altos, and the left elbow of the minister when he stood in the pulpit.

The music was wonderful, from the Bach on the organ to the choir’s Britten Te Deum and Vaughan Williams Let all the world in every corner sing, and the congregational hymns included Easter favourites Jesus Christ is risen today and Crown him with many crowns, this last featuring a soaring descant from the choir.

All the choral music left only ten minutes for the sermon, uncharacteristically short by Presbyterian standards and featuring a touching anecdote about the new Pope and various messages about new beginnings and how the Easter story is not merely to be told and retold but to be lived by grown-up Christians who rebel against the idea of a puppeteer god who manipulates people like rag dolls. Not the most profound or challenging sermon ever preached, but on a day when most people were probably thinking about the sleep lost in the change to BST and how soon they could get their jaws around a chocolate egg, maybe it was all anyone was likely to take in.