Sunday, 25 August 2013

Musselburgh Congregational Church

All Age Family Service, Sunday 25th August 2013, 11am
Minister: Janice E Andrews (but service mostly led by a Sunday School teacher whose name I didn’t learn)

“We’re looking for Humpty Dumpty. Is he in the congregation?”

Not a traditional call to worship, but these were the first words uttered at today’s service at Musselburgh Congregational Church, part of the Congregational Federation (or possibly the Congregational Federation in Scotland, whose website is less easily navigable).

Not knowing much about congregationalism, I was a bit puzzled as to why there still are any congregational churches, having learned last week at the Augustine Church that the Scottish Congregational Church had joined forces with the United Reformed Church. But as is true of the many presbyterian schisms, you really need string and several extra dimensions to illustrate the interwoven histories of non-conformism. I’m not sure I’ve got the whole picture clear in my mind, but I did find an interesting article about the history of the tradition, from which I learnt that Scotland’s first female minister was a congregationalist ordained in 1928, forty-one years before the Church of Scotland caught up and let the girls join in.

Women and forty-one years are significant for this post, as I’ll explain anon, but first I have to go back to Humpty Dumpty for a minute.

The official call to worship was from Psalm 90, “Lord, you have been our dwelling place,” and Humpty was merely an example of the cuddly toys that the congregation had been making for the Olivebank children’s day care centre. But the whole service had a juvenile bent to it, because it was all focused on the Sunday School and the start of the new academic year.

What the usual service for grown-ups is like is something I would have to go back to find out, but this was all about Maths (cutting up bits of paper and counting the corners to show how God’s love grows the more you give it away, which very nearly resulted in the teacher falling off the dais while wielding a pair of scissors - but no children were harmed), English (“U” and “I” are required to make the alphabet, and other endeavours, complete), and Religious and Moral Education (remembering what to pray for using five fingers), all with audience participation. To all of this the minister then added her own address about putting on the full armour of God, and there were prayers and hymns (Mission Praise) with organ accompaniment, and scripture readings (Psalm 136:1-9 and Romans 12: 3-7).

But here’s what I noticed most. I was sitting beneath a Cradle Roll poster (tried to find an image online and couldn’t, but you know the one I mean – I think it may have been designed by Hilda Goldwag, or have I imagined that?) and noticed that I was just beside the list of baptisms from the year of my birth, 1972. Yes, folks, I’m forty-one, and I feel about a hundred, but that’s not the point. In that year there were fifteen baptisms in Musselburgh Congregational Church, which would be one every three or four weeks. In today’s congregation there were a dozen children in the Sunday School and another forty or so adults. This year, I’ve happened upon only one infant baptism, at St Andrew’s and St George’s West Church, and two adolescent baptisms at the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Dwindling, ever dwindling.

So, twelve kids and forty adults, or thereabouts. The typical attendance for most of this year’s churches has been “about fifty”, and that’s not just a lazy estimate; I always count. But here’s another odd thing ... even setting aside the fact that women tend to outlive men and that most congregations are full of elderly people, the predominance of women at today’s service was out of all proportion to what statistics might predict. I counted six men and one little boy, so they were outnumbered by almost nine to one. This has got to be the first time I’ve been in a 90 per cent female congregation this year, and I can’t account for it. In a traditional fishing community, you might have assumed the men were out at sea, but that’s not Musselburgh in the 21st century, so I’m stumped. Any theories?

Post-script, Monday 26 August 2013: I knew there had to be an image of the Cradle Roll poster online, and sure enough, here it is

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Augustine United Church

Morning Worship, Sunday 18th August 2013, 11am
Minister: Rev Fiona Bennett

Maybe I’m crazy (you’ve read my other blog posts – you decide), but I set out to visit a city centre church in the midst of the Edinburgh festival, which doesn’t rest on the Sabbath and was already in full flow by mid-morning. I made it through the tourist throng just in time for the start of today’s service at Augustine United Church, which I felt I ought to include in my mission if only for the sake of completing the trinity that is the ecumenical church partnership of AUC with Greyfriars Kirk and St Columba’s by the Castle.

I’m glad I did, because it’s reminded me of how nice a church can be if it tries, after a recent run of not very inspiring Sundays.

Having absorbed through a series of mergers the traditions of several other city churches, including a denomination I’d never even heard of (Evangelical Union, anyone?), AUC describes itself as a “progressive and inclusive” member of the United Reformed Church.

It “offers affirming space” to LGBT Christians, which is a far cry from some of the sentiments I’ve encountered elsewhere this year, and today’s service featured an interview with playwright Jo Clifford, who had also written part of the liturgy used for the communion (alcohol free and with gluten-free wafers for those who didn’t fancy the crusty brown loaf). By sheer coincidence, it was the second time this week that I’d been to hear Jo, the first being at a Traverse Theatre talk on Monday, and I had no idea she was a member of the congregation.

Jo’s play, The Gospel according to Jesus, Queen of Heaven, was denounced by an archbishop who said it was hard to imagine a greater affront to Christianity than her – not her play, Jo herself. Ouch! That’s got to hurt. But there is something very affirming about hearing Jo speak about her experience of being a transwoman and about her work and her family (her late partner, once a colleague of mine – yes, Edinburgh’s a village! – was herself a hugely talented and vivacious woman who died far too young), and she talks with such enthusiasm and encouragement about other creative artists that I feel I ought to go and see everything she recommends.

More importantly, for someone whose very nature inspires fear and hatred in many who wouldn’t even attempt to understand her, Jo seems to be at peace with herself, in the sense of peace as completeness described by Rev Fiona Bennett in her sermon.

But achieving that peace isn’t an easy or painless process, as we heard in Isaiah 5:1-6 (the vineyard thrown back to the wilderness) and Luke 12:49-53 (Jesus coming to bring fire to the world) – unsettling readings for anyone who thinks of Jesus as a cuddly chum or God as a doting daddy. Transformations are forged in conflict and division, said Fiona, but out of the conflict peace and new life can grow, which is treasure beyond price.

I’m sure there are many who would mock the churches at the extreme liberal end of the spectrum, which is where I’d place AUC with their Maker/Redeemer/Spirit trinity and painstaking avoidance of gendered language, but I applaud their efforts. They’ve thought about the aspects of patriarchal Christianity that offend and exclude people and they’ve taken steps to address them, and there’s a fair few churches I’ve seen this year that could learn a lesson in humanity and humility here. 

Friday, 16 August 2013

Why I feel I have a right to criticise

Not that I’m feeling defensive or anything, but a recent conversation prompts the following thoughts.

Churches promise the earth. They fling their doors open to the public claiming to offer a warm welcome and, more importantly, that if you accept their invitation to come in you’re going to hear something so amazing that it will change your life. They’re promising no less than the truth about life and death, morality and salvation, an explanation of our puny little place in a great big awesome universe. Who could say no? These are the questions every one of us is grappling with, and churches claim they can provide the answers … or at least that they know a man who can.

But what do you find inside most churches? Lacklustre music, a confusing, contradictory, boring or incoherent sermon, and people who don’t exactly give the impression that the secrets of the universe have been vouchsafed to them or that the assurance of salvation cheers them. And maybe a cup of tea if you’re lucky. Small wonder, then, if the church visitor comes away thinking that the product didn’t turn out quite as advertised.

Great claims, great expectations, great disappointments.

Over the past seven and a half months, I’ve realised two things: a) I actually really like going to church, and b) most churches aren’t worth going to. There are a whole lot of dreadful churches out there; the ones that have disappointed me vastly outnumber the ones I’ve enjoyed enough to consider going back to.

What do the churches make of my reviews? For the most part, I don’t know. I suspect that some who’ve felt the sharper end of my pen, if they are aware of my blog at all, go on the defensive, assume I bear a grudge, deny that I’ve accurately represented my experience. Well, that’s their business. Others, I’d like to think, will ask, “My goodness, is that really how we appear to an outsider? We should do something about that.”

I can count on the fingers of one hand (with room to spare) the number of invitations I’ve had to come back again and give a church a second chance. I can’t blame them for not wanting the likes of me to return, but on the other hand (not the one I was counting on) aren’t they in the business of saving souls? And doesn’t my soul appear to be in particular peril? I’ve bared enough of it for them to see how black it is. Surely nothing, not even taming my proud spirit, can be too great a challenge if God is on your side. Or am I not worth saving?

I suspect that I’m just too awkward a customer. There are easier targets for a church seeking malleable new members – people who are poor, socially disadvantaged, addicted, bereaved or otherwise weakened. It fits with the Christian tradition of surrendering power and status and worldly goods, stripping away all vanity and wandering the world as a mendicant … except that kirk sessions and leadership committees are packed with articulate, educated, professionally successful, middle-class men (and some women) whose job is to keep the wheels turning, and who have the advantage of not being plagued by doubts like mine, or at least not voicing them.

It’s been suggested that I’m poking fun, and that I’m clearly already an atheist so why hang around just to have a dig at organisations who are trying to do good things for people who are genuinely responsive to the message of salvation? Okay, so a little humour can add leaven to a dry write-up, but here’s a newsflash, folks: most people don’t think theology’s fun or funny. But I think it’s fascinating, and I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t think it was important, or if I thought I was beyond the pale, because eternal damnation’s no laughing matter either. Knowing I was beyond God’s love or any hope of redemption would be a cause for existential angst, not gentle satire. And if I simply wanted to ridicule every church in Edinburgh, there would be easier ways to do it than braving a strange new church every weekend.

God’s got to have a sense of humour, don’t you think? Look at us. If we’re the pinnacle of his creation he’s got to be having a laugh. And a great big powerful god isn’t going to crumble or cower or cry in a corner if I ask a few questions about him, so why should his advocates on earth do so?

And if he created me, and endowed me with the intellectual wherewithal to wonder about him and write about him and maybe get a few others thinking about all the big stuff too, then I reckon I’m within my rights.

Not everyone let down by a church will complain about it. Some will, of course, and I daresay some can cause big problems for their former friends and colleagues if they feel sufficiently aggrieved. But fear not, church chaps. For all her rhetoric and superficial hostility to your cause, the Soul Searcher is a mild-mannered creature who means you no harm. She's just a bit lost, and so far none of you has really made a concerted effort to rescue her.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

St Stephen's Comely Bank

Worship Service, Sunday 11 August 2013, 11am
Led by: Graeme Williamson, Ministry Associate

The sign outside says “Church of Scotland”, but St Stephen’s Comely Bank’s website, beautifully designed though it may be, makes no mention of its denominational affiliation in any obvious place, so I dug and dug until eventually I found in its most recent online newsletter (Winter 2012, and here we are now in August 2013) the following coded message:

“Going into 2013 we face uncertain times as a congregation, with General Assembly of 2013 poised to consider whether the Church of Scotland ceases to be a church founded on scripture. However we must keep to our calling locally to be a witness to the truth and to proclaim God’s kingdom in word and action.”

Potential schismatics, then? Well, they still seem to be inside the fold, but St Stephen’s was part of the Fellowship of Confessing Churches, set up to oppose the ordination of gay clergy in the Church of Scotland, and presumably also to advocate the expulsion of those gay clergy already ordained—because let’s face it, Scott Rennie isn't the Kirk's only gay minister, is he? But alas, the Fellowship of Confessing Churches’ website is no longer active, so no clues there, and there was nothing mentioned in today’s service to indicate the current state of play in church politics, the prospects for St Stephen’s or anything else even vaguely gossip-worthy.

But it’s safe to say that in a broad kirk St Stephen’s is veering towards the conservative. Indeed, Graeme Williamson (not to be confused with his struggling namesake over at Destiny Church) and youth minister Daniel McKinlay both trained at Cornhill Scotland, whose pastors’ training course is open only to men – well, us gals’ll just get back in the kitchen, shall we? Actually, Cornhill also trains both “men and women to teach the Bible in other contexts, such as youth/children’s work and women’s ministry.” Nice to know we’re not considered completely useless, I suppose.

Daniel and Graeme didn’t do all the work, though. The readings and prayers were led by women (and the world didn’t end in a flash of lightning), although the praying woman described God as “at full stretch” trying to help people in Zimbabwe, which isn’t how I imagine an omnipotent god. But it’s not the first time I’ve heard this kind of thing, and if you’re looking for a limited, needy, craven little god you will find people at Holyrood Abbey and at the Elim Church appealing to such a deity too.

The music was pretty awful, the forlorn unplayed organ upstaged by a badly balanced band whose keyboard was amplified over all other elements so that even the saxophone was inaudible (that’s quite an achievement of sound engineering), and most of the hymns/songs were pitched too low. We started with one recognisable hymn, Crown Him with Many Crowns, but it was all downhill from there.

The readings were Revelation 4 and 5 (NIV), so we met once more the living creatures (ox, lion, man and eagle) of Ezekiel and of Kingdom Church, but the sermon concentrated on chapter 5. It wasn’t so much an exegesis as a walk through – the scroll, the lamb and the new song pondered over and a few not-very-probing questions asked but not really answered. If you were looking for the message of Mr Williamson’s sermon you really had to ignore the lamb, lion, seals and songs and go back to the first thing he said—that the church was then and is now in the midst of doctrinal error, moral compromise and persecution—and the last—that it is a mighty encouragement to know that there is a plan and someone truly worthy to bring it to fruition, so stand firm in the assurance that there is a bigger picture, and a higher throne. 

Not the greatest sermon ever preached but, as I said before, worlds away from the car crash at Destiny and for that we should all be grateful. All in all, it was a bit of a disappointment. Another church trying very hard to be trendy, and leaving me stone cold.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Seventh Day Adventist Church

Worship Service, Saturday 3rd August 2013, 11.15am
Pastor: Jimmy Botha

Many moons ago, in the Martinmas term of academic year 1990-91 to be precise, I attended a Greek translation class led by a man who performed a kind of semi-striptease during every lesson. I’m sure it was subconsciously done on his part, but everyone giggled about it, and for the life of me it’s all I can remember of his class now; the author and the text we were translating elude me entirely.

He’d start off fully dressed, with either an anorak or an academic gown as the outer layer, which would last about five minutes. Then off would come the sports jacket, sometimes there would be a sweater too, the tie would be loosened, the cuffs unbuttoned, the sleeves rolled up and the wristwatch unbuckled, and all this would take until about twenty-five past the hour. Thus unencumbered, he would teach for about ten minutes before reversing the process, so that by five to he would be fully dressed again and as soon as the chapel clock began to strike he’d be out the door with never a backward glance.

What made me think of him today after all this time was the preacher at the Seventh Day Adventist Church this morning taking off his jacket and then his shoes during the sermon. I didn’t notice what he did with his socks, belt, etc, because I was too far back to get a clear view. He didn’t have it down to the same fine art as the Classics chap, but he was gearing up for something a lot more exciting than just putting everything back on again, because there were to be two baptisms by total immersion and it was going to involve Pastor Jimmy Botha getting down into the pool with the initiates. Once he did, he stayed in there for a good twenty minutes, if not longer—right through the children’s address and a hymn as well as the dunking—and from where I was sitting he could barely be seen, but apparently the water was nice and warm so I guess he felt comfortable enough.

A few weeks ago, when I attended the Christian Science church, I remarked that it was a denomination unusual in having been founded by a woman. Well, here’s another one, and of roughly contemporaneous origin. Seventh Day Adventism is the legacy of Ellen G White, whose visions and voluminous writings underpin the doctrines of what is now a vastly wealthy worldwide church. Bearing in mind everything I’ve read online about the cult-like characteristics of the SDA church, much of it written by disgruntled former members, I have to say that their website looks straightforwardly Christian enough, and that there was nothing about today’s service that seemed deviant or sinister. But one man’s orthodoxy is another man’s heresy.

Worshipping on a Saturday is one thing that sets them apart, and keeping the true Sabbath is considered essential to salvation, nor do they defile their bodies with drugs, alcohol or unclean foods, and the two teenage boys baptised this morning promised to uphold both these beliefs, among others, as they entered into their adult lives as church members. They seemed willing enough to take the step, and good for them. One of them also sang a solo in a rather lovely baritone voice that he was clearly only just getting used to, and not a hint of nerves.

There was lots and lots of singing – no fewer than twenty hymns in all, including the young lad’s solo, a really rather good a capella quintet and a badly discordant quartet (a shame, because their hymn was And can it be that I should gain, one of the few today I’d ever heard before, and the treble line was woeful). So out of the twenty, there were seventeen hymns for the congregation to sing, some of which they knew better than others. The hymn books used were the Seventh Day Adventist Hymnal and Songs of Fellowship, and most of the songs fit a genre I’m slightly unsure how to name—think old-school Gospel Halls or those missionaries you used to see at the seaside sometimes (do they still do that?) and you’d be on the right track.

We were told that the sermon would be “technical and theological”. I’ve nothing SDA to compare it against, but it wasn’t very technical by the standards of some other denominations I’ve encountered this year, basically describing (with reference to Hebrews 9 and 10 and Jeremiah 31) how the old, flawed system of temple sacrifices was superseded by the new paradigm of salvation through Christ’s sacrifice. The take-home point was summed up thus: “Aren’t you glad that God can forget stuff?” i.e. he forgets about sin.

It went on a bit. All that singing takes time, of course, and I’m assuming that they don’t have a baptism every week, but we were hitting the hour-and-three-quarter mark by the time the service ended. But I’ve sat through a lot worse and a whole lot longer. And since I’ve observed the “true” Sabbath this week, I’m giving myself a rare church-free Sunday tomorrow.