Sunday, 23 June 2013

St Andrew’s and St George’s West Church

Morning worship, Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, 23 June 2013, 11am
Minister: Rev Ian Y Gilmour

Another Sunday, another piece in the jigsaw of church reshuffles. The burgeoning Baptist congregation at Charlotte Chapel are moving to St George’s West Church, which prompts the question of what became of the St George’s West congregation. Answer: they merged with St Andrew’s and St George’s in 2010, necessitating only the addition of a compass point to the name.

So now there are three former congregations under one roof, and a splendid Georgian roof at that. The oval room isn’t what you expect in a Church of Scotland building, and that’s not the only surprising feature, because there is also a peel of eight bells—church bells are quite rare in this country, for anyone who’s reading this furth of Scotland.

St Andrew’s and St George’s big claim to fame is that it was the scene of the Disruption of 1843, though present-day Edinburghers probably think of it mainly in connection with its annual charity book sale for Christian Aid. As it happened, today was the day they handed over the cheque from their most recent sale, last month, with the following thought from visiting minister Rev David Beckett: just as we marvel at how the Victorians could be so complacent about the wages and living conditions of the poor of their own country, so future generations will wonder how we can be complacent about hunger and poverty elsewhere in the world; every generation has its blind spots. The amount raised, incidentally, was “more than £90,000” according to Beckett, or £105,000 according to the church website; both statements can be true simultaneously.

And Christian Aid wasn’t the only aid organisation getting a mention, because the children’s address was about the work of Mary’s Meals

So what about the service itself? Well, there’s an organ and a choir, who were slightly overstretching themselves with Bob Chilcott’s Jazz Mass but got through it. The congregational singing was just about passable, but I felt as if I was unwillingly playing a round of “one song to the tune of another” – something I should be used to from years of psalm singing, but to me Aberystwyth just is Jesu, lover of my soul, and not Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud, as CH4 would have it.

The readings were 1 Kings 19:1-4, 8-15a and Luke 8: 26-39, so we were back in the same territory the Methodists were exploring a fortnight ago, with Elijah fleeing the wrath of Jezebel and Jesus visiting healings on the afflicted, in this case the man whose demons are transferred into the bodies of the Gerasene swine (not “Gadarene” in the NRSV pew bibles). Ian Gilmour asked in his sermon, “What happened next?” Well, Elijah endures the wind, the earthquake and the fire, hears the still, small voice and eventually bestows the mantle of prophecy on Elisha and is taken up to heaven. As for the gospel story, the Gadarenes drive Jesus away (obvious question from Soul Searcher: was it because he cost them a herd of valuable pigs?) but the man whose name was Legion is cured and goes about telling everyone about the miracle.

And then there was a baptism, of a very well-behaved baby called Oscar, which I suppose also made this quite an unusual church visit for me. Six months of assorted churchgoing and only one christening; now I wonder what the statistical odds are.

So that was St Andrew’s and St George’s West Church. Nothing to rant and rave about, really, but that’s the Church of Scotland for you. Even when the institution seems poised to tear itself apart, most individual parishes continue to provide a pleasantly bland worship experience. 

Monday, 17 June 2013

To tithe or not to tithe?

Come ye into His courts, and bring an offering with you – Psalm 96

Now that the conservatives in the Church of Scotland are stirring themselves gently in a schism-ward direction, with Holyrood Abbey the latest congregation announcing its desire to leave the fold, there’s been a story in the Sunday Herald about the potential loss in income from congregational offerings.

That set me a-googling. The Kirk helpfully provides a whole bunch of stats in its Supplementary Reports, showing that in 2011 its income from offerings (before tax recovery) was £60,488,000, and this from an enrolled membership of 432,343 souls. I'll admit to being a bear of very little brain when it comes to arithmetic and accountancy, but I've got a clever calculator, so here goes . . . 

If we divide the total “givings” by the total membership (which does not include regular adherents or casual visitors), the result is £139.91 per annum, or a measly £2.69 donation per person per week.

Okay, so maybe it’s expecting too much of them all to attend every week. Let’s say that only half of them attend regularly, or that they all go but only once a fortnight. They’re still only giving a fiver a week each … and that ain’t no tithe.

My sums could well be wrong, and if so I’ll stand corrected. But I’m really surprised people are giving so little. I have wondered throughout the year whether I’ve been putting enough in the plates at the various churches I’ve attended, especially since I’d be writing about them all (and not always to praise them), but by these standards I feel positively munificent.

On the other hand, maybe the membership figures are seriously overinflated. Who can say?

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Central: Jesus at the Heart

Morning gathering, 10.30am, Sunday 15 June 2013
Led by: Kirsty (with no apparent surname)
Preacher: Kay Cathcart

What you’re about to read isn’t positive, so I’ll start with a caveat. I was in an irritable mood today, what with the traffic and the road closures and the slow service in the coffee shop and the looming deadlines and trying to juggle too many commissions at once … but hey, what harm could it do to throw one more task into the mix? I’d managed to stick to my plan almost every Sunday this year, and it would only be for an hour, right?

Wrong, because the whole bally show went on for an hour and three-quarters. Strike 1. Then there was the awful modern praise music, my thoughts on which I’ve expounded before. Strike 2, although the lead singer did have a cracking voice, but why she wastes it on this banal drivel is beyond me. Oh yes, and she said Hayellula, instead of Hallelujah, but let’s call that a slip of the tongue.

I found myself playing a little game of "spot the liturgical and/or scriptural source or inspiration" to get me through the worst of the music. Some of it’s easy … There is no one like our God, and the new-to-me Noah built the most enormous boat (with actions), but some of it less easy to pin down, such as Waiting here for you, a dirge I also encountered at the Elim church and which contains the bizarre lyric, “we’re desperate for your presence”. Why be desperate for the presence of an omnipresent deity?

Apart from that, I wrote a shopping list and wondered whether to patronise Waitrose or Morrison's (Morrison's won), and I amused myself by admiring the stained glass windows and wondering what the organ must have sounded like when the place still belonged to the Methodists and they still played it. Easily the biggest of the unplayed organs seen so far this year, now its majestic pipes are a mere backdrop for Miss Hayellula and the Sound Systems.

Okay, so that was strike 2. Were the boisterous kids strike 3? Not quite, because they left after a little while to go to their “kids and youth programmes”, held variously in rooms called Lewis, Skye, Islay, Jura, Harris and Room 10. Could they really not think of another Hebridean island?

No, strike 3 was the sermon, given by a woman with the most grating voice I’ve ever heard. It’s something about the accent, the misplacement of certain vowels on the resonator scale … I was already irritable, but I found myself gritting my teeth every time she said “peepul”, which was often, because she spoke for an unconscionably long time. Yes, that was strike 3.

What was she on about? Well, she said she would be “digging around in 2 Corinthians 10”, and so she waffled on about St Paul being gentle with “peepul” but strong against the enemy, and about how we should be consistent … with a little detour around social networking and how she didn’t like the look of the bulldog-type sheep (Beltex is my guess, and they were splendid specimens too) we’d seen in a video about the Happy Hens farm mission project supported by the church.

But at long last the sermon was all over, and all that remained was for her to pray, inviting those who felt they needed particular categories of prayer to stand up at the appropriate times (it’s all right, “peepul” will have their eyes closed). In particular she prayed for those who feel a critical spirit rising up in them, that their hearts may be softened … and for those who cling to the negative, remembering little irritating things and forgetting to see the big picture. Guilty … and guilty. But I didn’t stand up.

I haven’t been so glad to get out of a church since the deeply unpleasant Tridentine mass at St Margaret's and St Leonard's. What was it that irked me so? Could it really have been just the music, or just Mrs Cathcart’s voice? At any rate, I’ve had a bellyful of that kind of worship format, so I’ll be consciously avoiding any churches that go in for it from now on.

Ah! No, wait. Is there such a thing as strike 4? Because I’ve just remembered possibly the most irritating thing of all. The description of God, on father’s day, as “the dad of all dads”. Yeuch! Why does that set my teeth on edge? After all, there’s no one like our God, no one like our father, etc, etc. And yet … and yet … I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me. As I said, I was in an especially irritable mood today. 

Sunday, 9 June 2013

City of Edinburgh Methodist Church

Morning worship, Sunday 09 June 2013, 11am
Led by: Deacon Belinda Letby
Preacher: Rev Eric Potts

I commented a few weeks ago on the great church building reshuffle that’s been going on in Edinburgh recently, including the sale of Methodist Central Hall. I don’t know what the Central Hall congregation had shrunk to by the time they decided to sell up, but Methodist numbers must be dwindling all over town, because the building in Nicolson Square wasn’t exactly bursting at the seams this morning.

It would have been an impressive interior at one time, but it’s sacrificed much of its charm to years of white gloss painting, and the upstairs gallery is a storage space for stacking chairs and old Christmas trees. It also boasts the least comfortable pews yet encountered on my mission.

But it does have a fantastic little choir, all nine of them, who belted out a rip-roaring gospel anthem, Ev’ry time I feel the spirit, and provided harmonies for all the hymns, opening with Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation, and rounding off with Charles Wesley’s own O, for a thousand tongues—seven glorious verses to the tune of Lyngham, one of my personal favourites.

The sermon, or more correctly “the message”, was delivered by Rev Eric Potts and divided into two parts, each following the relevant reading. 1 Kings 17:17-24 and Luke 7:11-17 both recount miracles of a dead son being restored to a widowed mother. Potts twice called Elijah “Isaiah” by mistake, but he can be forgiven that slip of the tongue since he imparted so much else that was of interest—a comparison between Mary Queen of Scots and Jezebel, for instance, and an explanation of the use in this and other passages of Luke’s of the word εσπλαγχνισθη, whose rendering into English as “his heart went out to her” or “he had compassion for her” apparently fails to convey the full import of the sentiment. The other two passages are the parable of the good Samaritan and that of the prodigal son – yet another lost/dead son restored, in keeping with the theme. I bow to Potts’s superior knowledge. It’s nice to learn something from a sermon.

Would I go back? For the singing, yes. It’s right up there with the Salvation Army and St Columba’s by the Castle on the music front ... and I should have mentioned that there's an organ. And I’m tempted by the prospect of hearing one Rev John Knox (yes, really) lead next week’s service. But there are lots more churches to get round, so for the meantime I’ll award a generous mark to the Methodists and move on. 

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Life Church

Worship Service, Sunday 02 June 2013, 11am
Pastor: Adrian Galley

If shouty, clappy, hand-waving worship music is your bag, and if you also fancy a little dance into the bargain, you’ll feel very much at home at Life Church, an independent pentecostal congregation that used to call itself the Apostolic Church. As at Hope! Church and Edinburgh Elim, the music was loud, percussive and as generic as a genre can be. I’ve said it before, but there’s nothing about this kind of music to engage the ear, mind or spirit – limited vocal range, dumbed down lyrics, bland melodies, etc, etc. – and yet the faithful were instantly on their feet, throwing some shapes with their hands a-waving as the band launched into a 50-minute praisefest in which one forgettable chorus segued seamlessly into the next. I joined in, of course, for everything except Jesus, you’re my superhero, which I’m afraid I just couldn’t bring myself to sing. That one was for the kids, in case you were wondering.  

The musical frenzy calmed only for the odd word of prayer, and here’s my first question. The worship leader told us in one of her few non-singing moments about God’s “unconditional love”. I’m wondering now, where in the bible are we told that God’s love is unconditional? Maybe I missed that bit, because God’s love seems to be very much conditional – on obeying his commandments, for instance, or in believing in the divinity of his son. The old testament is all about a god who makes a contract with people who find it difficult to fulfil, and the new testament is about a god who finds a new and more complicated way of striking a different kind of deal with a wider group of people. But every deal comes with conditions attached.

Howsomever, that’s just a little niggle about an unguarded but no doubt sincere comment from the worship leader. The main teaching was given by Pastor Adrian Galley, who quoted from Hebrews, Romans, Peter, Ephesians, Philippians, and Corinthians (nothing from the old testament or the gospels) as he expounded his theme of maturity in Christian life. St Paul chided early Christians for being mere infants in Christ, and the problem persists to this day among “old Christians” who still haven’t grown up. Freedom comes in a moment, but maturity comes over a period of time, said Adrian. There’s nothing else that God needs to do for you once you become a Christian, but there is more that you have to do, and you have to take personal responsibility for achieving that growth in your walk with Jesus. It’s like fitness, apparently. Talking to a really fit person about their training regime won’t actually do you any good; it’s up to you to get down the gym and start working out for yourself, and there’s no shortcut.

What he didn’t tell us was exactly what all this growth and maturity entailed. My own experience is that the more you read the more you uncover the inconsistencies in scripture, so unless maturity brings with it an ability to reconcile the irreconcilable I’m not sure how anyone achieves the growth from Christian infancy to fit-for-heaven maturity, which is why I don't reckon I'll be fit for heaven any time soon. It’s also a rather disappointing message for anyone who’s taken to heart the promise that salvation is theirs simply because they’ve accepted Christ … now there’s a yes/but rider to the bargain, and no great clarity about exactly what you’re supposed to do next. Although, if you're saved anyway, what incentive is there to mature? Why not remain like a little child? Isn't the kingdom of heaven for such as these? So many unasked and unanswered questions. Woolly, woolly, woolly. 

On the plus side, the people were all very friendly and welcoming. This is something the evangelical churches are good at, to judge by my experiences so far this year, and certain of the more mainstream denominations could take a leaf out of their book.