Monday, 29 July 2013

Meeting and greeting

First impressions last, but many churches seem not to think about the impression a first-time visitor gets. So here’s some friendly advice for pastors and deacons and church organisers of all kinds.

And this one’s free, gratis and for nothing, chaps. If you engaged a mystery shopper, you’d be paying market rates for the consumer intelligence you’re about to get from the humble Soul Searcher.

Think how you’d feel if you arrived at a strange church and …
  • nobody spoke to you at all – before, during or after the service
  • you found yourself in an empty corridor with a choice of unlabelled doors
  • the people who greeted you were dirty, unkempt and actually quite scary

All of the above have happened to me this year. I’m not going to name names here. The leaders and preachers are fair game – they’re paid staff, and they’re standing up there telling people how to live their lives. But the doorkeepers and ushers are volunteers and they deserve anonymity.

Three examples:

Scenario 1: 
Two primary school-age children at the door handing out leaflets. They’re shy and don’t make eye contact. It isn’t clear where to go next so I ask. The children look terrified (I didn’t mean to frighten them, honestly!) and point vaguely along a corridor, so I thank them and go where they pointed. It still isn’t clear where the main auditorium is, but at this point an adult comes out of a door and I think that’s my best bet, and as it happens I strike it lucky.

Soul Searcher asks: Don’t you supervise your children? And could you really not spare an adult who’s properly briefed and knows what to do when they encounter a visitor? No harm done, but it doesn’t look good.

Scenario 2: 
The man at the door is huge; no one’s getting past this guy. Okay, he can’t help the way he’s built, but it’s a narrow doorway and he’s two steps higher than I am. He could have stood further in, or out on the pavement, but as it is I have to shake his very sweaty hand as he towers over me and then squeeze past him to get into the building. As I do so, I notice the shiny stains on his lapels and the sores around his mouth, and then he sprays me with saliva as he speaks. The first thing I do when I sit down is get out my anti-bacterial alcohol gel and give my hands a very thorough wipe. 

Soul Searcher asks: Basic personal hygiene – do you really need to be reminded?

Scenario 3: 
If I were directing a movie in which the innocent protagonist is carried off to Bedlam, I’d want to include a scene a bit like this: 

Action: [Heroine’s name] POV as she is marched through the ward. On all sides, madmen and simpletons drool and leer, their faces horribly contorted, eyes wild, laughing and howling. Hands reach out to grasp at her. She turns from side to side as the faces loom nearer.

And if I were a casting agent, I know just the man I’d choose for the close up of the leering simpleton, because he “greeted” me at a church I attended recently.

I felt myself recoiling from him, and even as I did so I reproved myself for reacting in this way. What an unchristian attitude! The poor man can’t help the way he looks. But it was pure instinct to be scared of this man with the weird, unsettling stare and the slow, creepy smile. He was the kind of man you’d hide from if you were a child, and if you were a parent you would be at pains to reassure your frightened children that the funny looking man isn’t actually going to hurt them.

Soul Searcher asks: Would you want your child to encounter a man like this? And do you really think he’s the best guy to put up front, even if he did volunteer and is a nice chap once you get to know him?

Take a leaf out of the airlines’ book. The cabin staff smile, look you in the eye, tell you where to sit and give the impression that they know what they’re doing and that you’re safe with them.

After all, not everybody is as devout or self-mortifying as Dorothy in George Orwell’s “The Clergyman’s Daughter”:

“Dorothy remained on her feet a moment longer.  Miss Mayfill was creeping towards the altar with slow, tottering steps. She could barely walk, but she took bitter offence if you offered to help her. In her ancient, bloodless face her mouth was surprisingly large, loose, and wet. The underlip, pendulous with age, slobbered forward, exposing a strip of gum and a row of false teeth as yellow as the keys of an old piano. On the upper lip was a fringe of dark, dewy moustache. It was not an appetizing mouth; not the kind of mouth that you would like to see drinking out of your cup. Suddenly, spontaneously, as though the Devil himself had put it there, the prayer slipped from Dorothy 'Beasts of England's lips:  O God, let me not have to take the chalice after Miss Mayfill!

The next moment, in self-horror, she grasped the meaning of what she had said, and wished that she had bitten her tongue in two rather than utter that deadly blasphemy upon the altar steps. She drew the pin again from her lapel and drove it into her arm so hard that it was all she could do to suppress a cry of pain. Then she stepped to the altar and knelt down meekly on Miss Mayfill's left, so as to make quite sure of taking the chalice after her.”

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Destiny Church, Leith

Morning service, Sunday 28th July 2013, 11am
Preacher: Graeme Williamson

If you’re looking for the densest concentration of evangelical activity in the Edinburgh area (and why wouldn’t you be?) you might be tempted to pick Holy Corner as an obvious destination, but my vote goes to the more unassuming location of Casselbank Street, Leith, where within a few tens of yards of one another we find South Leith Baptist Church, Leith Free Church, and this morning’s port of call, Destiny Church.

Several people who’ve been following my mission had asked whether I intended to include Destiny, and it’s been on the list for a while, so I decided to pay them a visit today. Their website projects an image of a young, vibrant church with lots going on, and lead pastor Peter Anderson’s YouTube channel is full of enthusiastic hey-it’s-cool-to-be-a-Christian videos in which he “shares what’s in his heart” while standing just a wee bit too close to the camera.

Pastor Pete was not in evidence today. Maybe he was at Destiny’s Gorgie branch, but he left the job of preaching to the 50 folk in Leith to Graeme Williamson, an elder and head of pastoral care, and that’s basically where the whole thing started unravelling.

But before we get to poor Mr Williamson dying on his feet, let’s go back a few steps.

If you google “destiny church edinburgh”, the clever autofill suggestions will immediately bring up “destiny church edinburgh cult”, which is a bit of a worry. They also employ a psychotherapist … which I guess could come in handy if you’re planning to brainwash people. There’s a fairly sinister-sounding Destiny Church in New Zealand, but I haven’t been able to find out if the Scottish Destiny Church is in any way affiliated with its antipodean namesake. (Update 15/08/13: see post-script below)

Anyway, if you like the kind of “worship” that’s popular among three-chord strummers and five-note singers, as heard ad nauseam at Hope!, Elim, Life and Central, then you’ll be right at home at Destiny. Fifteen minutes of that at the beginning to get us all mildly in the mood … strum, strum, yawn!

And here’s another thing I’ve noticed about this kind of church. To them “worship” equals “singing”. I thought that worship included all acts of religious devotion, including prayer, participation in liturgy, reading and meditating on scripture, etc., and outside of church services acts such as charity, good works, evangelism and so on, and that in an even wider sense any act performed by a person who is mindful of God and seeking to recognise and proclaim his worthiness to be praised could be considered as worship. But these trendy churches seem to have shrunk “worship” down to its narrowest musical meaning. They even say things like, “We’ll worship again later”, as if what’s about to happen next (sermon, prayers, etc.) isn’t worship. Am I splitting hairs?

Okay, so back to the hapless Mr Williamson. I don’t know what pastoral care involves, but oratory doesn’t appear to be part of it, and nor does cogent argument. You know something’s going badly wrong when the preacher says things like, “You guys are really not that enthusiastic about your saviour, are you?”, “My, you’re a quiet bunch today!”, and, “Agree with me, please. Act like you’re alive.”

The theme of his message, he said, was “authority”, and he repeatedly invited the congregation to say with him, “I have more power at my disposal than I think I do.” The cruel irony is that despite all his chat about “rising up with new-found confidence” and “standing up in the authority that we have in Christ”, Mr Williamson himself commanded no authority, God-given or otherwise, to inspire his listeners, who responded half-heartedly to his commands to say “rule over”, say “golden rule”, say “destroy”, say “the same”, say “us” … say blah, blah, blah!

The sermon was part of a two-week teaching (Think I’ll be going back for part 2? Think again!) on spiritual warfare, in which context we were reminded of Elisha’s servant in 2 Kings 6, but there was also a detour round “the whole history of the world, starting in Genesis” and round various parts of the new testament, to wit, Colossians 2, Mark 6, Luke 10, Ephesians 1, Ephesians 2 and Acts 19. Snippety, snippety, snip, snip, snip! Chop ’em all up and fling ’em all into the pot, and too many verses spoil the broth.

What an absolute guddle of a sermon. Anyone done any gardening this year? Where is Jesus now? Yes, he’s seated at the right hand of God the father. What would you do if your boss asked you to transfer £100k and you only had permission to transfer amounts up to £10k? If you’re experiencing a demonic attack, come and hide in Jesus. All this and much, much more. He was all over the shop. And then to top it all off he talked about St Paul wanting us to get to the point! And your point, Graeme, was …?

I was relieved when it was all over and Graeme started to pray, but after a minute or so I realised that he was still addressing the congregation, eyes closed, as he urged us to give ourselves to Jesus: “All of you need to respond in some way to God.” Excuse me, Graeme, but I always thought that prayers were supposed to be addressed to God. You appear to be praying … to us!

Call it a false start if you will, because then he started praying again, this time sending his prayers in a more orthodox heavenward direction.

Then there was more “worship”, i.e. singing, although for half of the song they didn’t have the projector on, and the singer’s diction wasn’t the greatest so the uninitiated couldn’t possibly have joined in. And after that the “worship” continued as people drifted out in dribs and drabs.

I didn’t stay for coffee. I stepped out into Casselbank Street and saw the other two churches so close at hand, knowing that I could have chosen better. I even felt a little pang of nostalgia for the Free Church. At least you get psalms and a pukka sermon in there.

Post-script, Thursday 15 August 2013: 
Fittingly, I'm watching "The Social Network" as I write this. In an exchange between Mark Zuckerberg and his ex-girlfriend, she tells him, "The internet isn't written in pencil, it's written in ink." 

Once something's out there, it's out there, and what's out there about the New Zealand Destiny Church is that it's a cult, which is why I got the google autofill results I got (see above). And it seems that the leadership of the Scottish Destiny Church, which isn't affiliated with the New Zealand one, is now fighting a rearguard action to protect its brand identity and distance itself from any association with cults or cultic practices. 

So for what it's worth, here's my take. Destiny Church Leith (and Gorgie, Glasgow, etc) is just an ordinary church. They're evangelical and trendy, they're expanding and excited about it, they're supporting each other in their shared faith, and there's nothing sinister about them. Their style of worship isn't to my taste, but it's unlikely to wash anyone's brain or do any harm. 

I'm not going to change what I wrote about Destiny, because it's a reflection of my experience of the church, both the pre-visit web search and the day of the service. If I removed the comments about the google results, this post-script would make no sense and it wouldn't cure their search engine problem in any case. How you get an internet genie back in its bottle isn't something I can help with, but I hope I can offer an impartial view and maybe put in a friendly word for them.

So good luck to the people at Destiny (the Scottish Destiny, I mean). They seem like nice people, earnest Christians trying to do good ... not a cult. 

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Wilson Memorial Church

Sunday Service, 21 July 2013, 11am
Visiting minister: Rev Melville Schofield

After last week’s ridiculous marathon of a service, I was hoping for something short and sweet today. The sign above the door said the service would be from 11.00 to 12.15, and they didn’t even use up all the time allotted. Punctuality is next to godliness … or something like that.

The United Free Church was formed in 1900 by a merger of the Free Church of Scotland and the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and what remains of it today is descended from the congregations that didn’t join back up with the Church of Scotland in 1929. You really need a diagram to understand all the mergers and schisms, and luckily there’s one online, for those who like spaghetti.

There was nothing about today’s service to distinguish the United Free Church from the Church of Scotland – the same demographic profile (elderly), the same hymnbook (CH4), the same format (five hymns, two readings, prayers, sermon), and the same prospect of terminal denominational dwindling within a generation. Sorry, that was naughty of me! Nice flowers, though – a gravity-defying arrangement of yellow blooms. It’s the first time this year I’ve actually noticed there being any flowers in a church, though I may have overlooked them elsewhere.

Also novel was the sign that read: “Weekly Giving – last week we gave £589 – each week we need £800”. By my calculations, that means they needed £16 from each of the fifty people who attended this morning, and that if they pulled a similar crowd last week the average donation was £11.78. And if my other calculations are correct, that makes United Free worshippers more than four times more generous than Church of Scotland members. Yes, yes, I know that’s a wild extrapolation, but I couldn’t resist the comparison.

The singing was feeble, which was a pity because it really didn’t do justice to a raise-the-roof hymn like Fanny Crosby’s “To God be the Glory”. I sang about as lustily as I usually do, and a lady in the row in front was kind enough to compliment me afterwards, but that only made me wonder if I shouldn’t have toned it down a bit and whispered along with the rest of them. But if you ever need a soloist, I’m available for weddings and bar mitzvahs too.

The readings, from the Good News Bible, were Isaiah 61:1-9 and Luke 4:16-30 (in which Jesus quotes Isaiah 61 in the synagogue in Nazareth), and the Rev Schofield’s sermon discussed the Nazarenes’ “kent his faither” attitude to their home-grown prophet before dwelling at greater length on Jesus’s mission to bind up broken hearts, however they came to be broken, and on the hope of resurrection that cheers the darkness of the grave.

And it was all over by 11.52am. Hurrah for concision! I left the church in a good mood, unlike last week, and I was further cheered by the slightly strange but nevertheless delightful sight of a cat on a leash being taken for a walk down Kekewich Road. The sun was shining, God was (possibly) in his heaven, and just for a little while all was well with the world.

Friday, 19 July 2013

The story so far …

It’s been more than six months, and I’ve attended 30 churches since my mission began, so it’s time to reflect, and where better to start than with a trawl through my Blogger stats?

Right out in front, with more than three times as many page views as its nearest rival, is my review of the Free Presbyterian Church in Inverness. Okay, so I’ve linked back to it quite often in subsequent posts, but even in weeks when I don’t it’s still clocking up the clicks.

The general trend seems to be that the more evangelical a church the more clicks it gets – Holyrood Abbey and New Restalrig are second and third respectively, and Charlotte Chapel and the Elim Pentecostal Church are not too far behind. Quite why that should be I’m not sure. Answers on a postcard, please.

I had wondered how far afield I might have to roam in order to keep myself supplied with new worship experiences, but apart from that trip to Inverness I’ve spent every weekend this year in Edinburgh. Perhaps I need to get out more! But on the other hand, there are so many flavours of church in Edinburgh that I’m unlikely to run out of options any time soon.

It’s also time to review the parameters of my mission, and this week a suggestion from one commentator has prompted me to do just that. He asked whether I might move the goal posts, away from “why I don’t fit and if I’m really okay with that” to looking for authentic faith – either in those who attend the various churches or in myself.

A fair question. It’s all very well being cynical and vaguely witty, but perhaps I should be digging a bit deeper. So here goes …

Authentic faith in others isn’t something I feel able to judge, but I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the people I’ve encountered in the first 30 churches, whether their faith is in voices from beyond the grave or in more orthodox Christianities. The authenticity of their faith is a matter for themselves and their god(s), and I’ve gone for the lower case g and optional plural because I have a suspicion that there are lots of incompatible concepts of the divine that are being believed in out there.

Any glimmer of authentic faith on my own part? Not while the rational part of me is still hung up on the philosophical stuff, but that isn’t to say that I can’t feel moved by a persuasive argument or by sublime religious music … except that there have been few genuinely moving experiences so far. Yes, there’s an aesthetic grandeur in the Anglican liturgy, as expressed at St Columba’s by the Castle and at Old St Paul’s, and there’s an impressive academic rigour to the preaching in the Free Church and Free Church (Continuing), but the more flamboyant charismatic churches just don’t excite me. All that clowning around, waving and dancing seems so unnecessary and immediately makes me suspect a distraction … from the weak theology expounded in the sermon, or from the awkward silence that could allow boredom or doubt to creep in. All that such antics inspire in me is cynicism; you might have noticed.

But I’ve been thinking a lot, and a lot more than I used to, about the kind of God I might be capable of believing in, though it’s easier to start with a short, but by no means comprehensive, list of what I don’t believe.

I don’t believe in a god who intervenes in my daily life. I don’t think he finds me parking spaces or job opportunities or lost five pound notes. Why would he do that for me when he doesn’t help a child starving in the developing world? And how could anyone believe that a god who prioritised such trivialities while ignoring major problems is good or powerful? And in case any readers think this argument is glib, I should point out that there are plenty of churches where you’ll hear prayers of thanks to Jesus for the new plumbing system or for making the sun shine at the Sunday school picnic.

And I don’t believe he intervenes in the world … not for the good, anyway. Eschatologists might see God’s hand in natural disasters (the wreaking thereof rather than their prevention), but as Sam Harris has said, there are Christians who could witness a mushroom cloud over Jerusalem and see a silver lining in it.

I don’t believe in Jesus. Okay, so maybe there was some zealot called Jesus roaming round Palestine in the 1st century CE, but the idea that he was the son of God, and that he also was God and is still God, being of one substance with the father and all that, and that he had to sacrifice himself to himself in order to redeem a sinful world that despised and rejected him and then mostly didn’t believe in him for several hundred years, is such a complex and improbable story that it’s incredible it ever gained credence.

I feel more inclined to believe in an Old Testament-style God than in the triune redux version. I can’t believe in a God who needs paradigm shifts, policy reviews and cabinet reshuffles to get people’s attention and then pretends that that’s what he intended all along. Which leaves me with two options: either a) the Jews have been right all along; or b) the Christians may have a point but their God sure ain’t the perfect being he’s cracked up to be.

And while we’re talking Old Testament v New, another observation from my first 30 churches is that the New Testament gets a whole lot more air time than the Old. Some weeks there hasn’t even been a reading from the OT or anything but scant reference to it, which always makes me think of the Marcionist heretics, whose stance at least seems to avoid the inconsistencies of the accepted canon.

So here I am, with a long way still to go, no nearer a reconciliation but feeling some anthropological satisfaction at having observed so many services and retained my sanity and a certain academic detachment. I’d like to think I’m not so detached that I can’t be moved to experience something, but I keep finding myself thinking of that song from A Chorus Line: “I dug right down to the bottom of my soul … I and I felt nothing.”

Sunday, 14 July 2013

The Kingdom Church

Word Service and Miracles Service, 11am, Sunday 14th July 2013
Led by: Dr Jennifer Irungu and several others

Lord, give me strength! It’s clearly something I lack, because I just didn’t have the stamina to stay to the end of the service at today’s church, the Kingdom Church, which meets in an airless, windowless upper room in what I think used to be a cinema in Great Junction Street. Despite the ministry’s ambitious desire to build beautiful, state-of-the-art facilities by 2015, the present accommodation leaves much to be desired – hot water in the ladies’ room, a toilet cistern that fills up quick enough to let every user flush, and a layout that doesn’t make you worry about fire egress to name just three things. Yes, to echo a link sent to me earlier in the week, the building of a mega-church all boils down to toilets and parking.

Call me a wimp, but after three hours and twenty minutes – yes, that’s three whole hours and another twenty minutes on top – I had to give up and make my escape. And you know what? The service was still going strong as I snuck out. It seemed fitting, therefore, that Dr Jennifer Irungu’s sermon urged us to “put on the face of an ox”, a beast with stamina if ever there was one. I didn’t join in when everyone else touched their faces and declared that they were putting on the face of an ox in Jesus’ name, so maybe that’s why I found myself failing.  

I almost feel inclined to take back what I said about the length of the service at Central: Jesus at the Heart. Almost, but not quite.

I should explain about the ox face thing. It would seem that Bishop Climate Irungu, the husband of today’s preacher, has declared 2013 the year of supernatural anointing, and that July is the seventh month and seven is the number of completion. Therefore many things previously incomplete are to be completed this month. Furthermore, the year is to be divided into four quarters in which the faithful are to assume the characteristics of the living creatures witnessed in Ezekiel 1 – man, lion, ox and eagle. We’ve had three months of man, three months of lion and now we are to put on the face of an ox until the end of September. Still with me? There’s more to come.

Women are like oxen (charmed, I’m sure) because women are strong, we can multitask and we already operate like God (!), whereas men, poor creatures, require all the strength they can get. But we must all put on the face of an ox and ask for divine strength. Once you have the face of an ox you will become an abundance magnet, a favour magnet, a miracle magnet, a money magnet and a wealth magnet. Amen? Someone say Amen?

I think you get the picture. All of Dr Jennifer’s sermon was amplified to genuinely painful decibel levels as she screamed her way through this kind of stuff for roughly an hour. In fact, everyone who used a microphone, except for the woman who read out the announcements and the very thin girl with the extraordinary high heeled shoes who sang one of the songs, held it far too close to their lips, so that every plosive and sibilant was an assault on the eardrum. It was actually physically painful – seriously, I’m talking breach of health and safety law here – and even after the already unbelievably loud singing they still cranked it up further when Dr Jennifer began to preach, two hours and ten minutes in.

The first two hours had been filled with lots of hypnotic repetitive singing, led by a deafening contralto, followed by intercessory prayers, then lots more singing (more upbeat this time with African gospel rhythms, but with no lyrics on the projector and the words indistinguishable in the feedback and reverb, so joining in was possible only if you knew the songs already), and then holy communion, which came in a little sealed plastic tub a bit like this, with a wafer in a separate blister pack on top, and then a bit more singing and a pep talk on tithing. The tone was exuberant, verging on the hysterical, with people up on their feet dancing, whooping, waving huge purple flags and shaking a tambourine.

So, three hours and ten minutes in, Dr Jennifer had finished her sermon and was ready to move on to the anointing. People came forward, arms open, to be touched on the forehead. Three of them fell down and were laid on the floor and covered with red cloths until they could recover their strength – oxen temporarily felled – but I’m afraid I just couldn’t take any more of it. I was hot and tired and hungry and my ears were ringing, and continued to ring for about an hour afterwards. How much cochlear damage did I do by staying as long as I did?

The Kingdom Church describes itself as “Committed To A Big Mission”, “By becoming the best and the biggest church organization in the world.” That’s quite an ambition, and clearly they have some enthusiastic followers who will help them to build their educational facilities, elderly care homes, gyms, Christian restaurants and all the rest. Who says Christianity has anything to do with humility when there are empires to be forged?

Well, good luck to them. If the comments I found online about Bishop Climate and Dr Jennifer Irungu have any foundation in truth (and I won’t repeat them here lest I court a libel suit) then they will reap as they sow. Meanwhile, Jennifer definitely gets a fashion prize for her daring yellow suit with sparkly gold fishtail pleats and not-quite-matching gold shoes. They eclipsed even the skinny singer’s white patent wedge heels, and hats off to her for standing up in those for two hours without falling over. 

Monday, 8 July 2013

Free Church of Scotland (Continuing)

Lord’s Day morning service, 7 July 2013, 11am
Preacher: not the regular minister (I really should have asked his name)

Time flies when you’re having fun; it hardly seems thirteen years since the schism in which the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) separated itself from the Free Church of Scotland with much acrimony and subsequent legal wrangling. Presbyterian churches are worryingly prone to schism, but somehow all the little splinter groups keep going.

There’s little in the format of an FCC service to distinguish it from a Free Church or even a Free Presbyterian Church service, although the keen observer will notice subtle gradations of conservatism. For example, the Edinburgh FCC eschews more recent metrical psalm translations in favour of the 1650 edition, “Translated and diligently compared with The Original Text and Former Translations—More plain, smooth, and agreeable to the text than any heretofore”, and uses the Authorised Version of the bible.

Conservatism in social matters is also evident in the FCC, or perhaps they’re just more willing than other denominations to give public voice to their opinions. As a good social liberal, I’m afraid I just don’t understand churches’ obsession with homosexuality—live and let live, I say—but yesterday there were prayers for the politicians who “do a fearful thing by destroying marriage” and for “those men and women who seek a marriage that is legally withheld from them”. In the same prayer, there were also entreaties for the humility of the royal family and for the conversion of the Jews, “that they may through recognition of Jesus as the Messiah—for no other will come—become true sons and daughters of Abraham”.

Well, I’ll say one thing for the FCC: they’re not afraid to be out of step with the mainstream.

The psalms (2:7-12, 22:15-21, 69:16-21 and 31:19-24) were chosen for their apparent prefiguring of the crucifixion, and we were not to take heed of the “so-called scholars” who would have us believe that these verses do not refer to Christ’s passion. There had also been prayers, incidentally, for the translators, editors and publishers of scripture throughout the world, but I’m not sure if the “so-called scholars” are to be numbered among these.

The abovementioned psalm verses, together with Matthew 27:11-53, formed the basis of the sermon, which spoke of a “red line of blood redemption that runs from Genesis to Revelation” as God in his mercy reveals little by little his truth throughout the scriptures, building up to the climax, the perfect death of Jesus Christ, of which all other prefiguring bible stories (Abraham’s ram caught in the thicket, for example) are but imperfect portraits. If you want the whole sermon, they’re all online, and I should imagine yesterday's will soon be uploaded too.

There were only eighteen people present, including the minister and the precentor, although no fewer than five of them were at pains to tell me afterwards that there are usually many more people there but that lots of them, including the tea committee, were on holiday. I spoke to the preacher but stupidly forgot to ask his name, or I’d have put it at the top of this blog post. The regular minister, James I Gracie, will be conducting next week’s service.

It’s probably safe to say that the FCC is not the place for me. I just don’t feel comfortable around all that social conservatism, even if it’s expressed with genuine sorrow rather than terrifying ranting, and I’m sure I must represent all kinds of sinful worldliness in their eyes too, so we’d be unhappy bedfellows, and I’m afraid even the promise of tea and coffee next time isn’t going to tempt me back. 

Monday, 1 July 2013

St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral

Cathedral Eucharist, Fifth Sunday after Trinity, 30 June 2013, 10.30am
Preacher: the Vice-provost, the Revd Canon John McLuckie

Another week of blandness, this time of the Episcopal variety. Maybe I’m just getting bored now, but yet again there’s really nothing to write home about. I’d been here before for concerts, but never for a service, but it was pretty much as I had expected it to be.

St Mary’s is architecturally impressive, big on music (though its own choir was on holiday this week, relieved by Peterhouse Chapel Choir, who sang Byrd’s Mass for four voices), and well supplied with clergy – three of them involved in the service, plus assorted other begowned people whose function I didn’t fully understand. And the well-heeled and predominantly elderly congregation lives up to the metaphor about the Tory party at prayer.

The readings were Galatians 5:13-25 and Luke 9:51-62, and the gospel was read from the middle of the aisle after much processing, which all seemed a bit unnecessary. The sermon united both readings on the theme of freedom. According to St Paul, freedom lies not in our liberty from compulsions, but in understanding the nature of our desires and putting them to the service of what is good, and it is achieved by following the path of the spiritual life. The evangelist, on the other hand, shows us how Jesus intended to shock people into re-evaluating their priorities, and that we risk allowing ourselves to be tyrannised if we devote ourselves to family or nation rather than to God. What he definitely doesn’t mean by freedom is the freedom to choose between two dozen brands of triviality; rather, we are free when we recognise our shared humanity. Well, so much for that. Not the most earth-shattering sermon ever preached.

What else? The choir were good, the sung creed (Nicene) was probably the least successful of the congregational endeavours, and the organ was a bit on the crashy side, but it’s a big space to fill. Oh yes, and the final hymn was He who would valiant be, from which the New English Hymnal has expunged the hobgoblin and foul fiend, which I always rather liked for the very reason that they seemed unhymnlike, if that’s a word. It is now.