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.