Sunday, 29 September 2013

Niddrie Community Church

Morning service, Sunday 29th September 2013, 11am
Led by: Andy Constable, assistant pastor
Preacher: Mez McConnell, senior pastor

Knitting on the Sabbath might have been frowned upon at one time, but we’re so much more relaxed about that sort of thing now, aren’t we? Actually bringing your knitting to church, though, still seems to be overstepping the mark somewhat, but it’s not the first time there’s been a tricoteuse in the back row; the other one was at Charlotte Chapel. Well, they say that the devil makes work for idle hands.

What I’d have liked in my hands was a bible, but I didn’t see them at the door as I came in, and then I didn’t want to walk all the way back in front of everyone to get one when it came time for the readings (bits of John 15 and John 16 – they’ve been studying John’s gospel all year). But not to worry; I had my work cut out taking notes on Mez McConnell’s sermon, one in a series on the holy spirit, taking us into the same territory covered some months ago at Holyrood Abbey Church, even down to the Edinburgh Castle floodlights analogy to illustrate how the holy spirit illuminates Jesus the better to let us see his splendour. They must teach them all that in evangelical pastor school.

Unlike the Holyrood Abbey preacher, though, Mez doesn’t fight shy of theology, even though the trinity is a concept that’s been baffling his head for fifteen years. Yours and mine both, Mez. He even had a PowerPoint diagram showing that the Father is God, the son is God and the Holy Spirit is God, but that the Father is not the Son or the Spirit, the Son is not the Father or the Spirit, and that there are not three gods, only one.

McConnell is an energetic and engaging speaker, well rehearsed and self-deprecating to a fault – “I can’t guarantee much because I’m just a little dude”, “I can barely string a sentence together”. Oh no, laddie, you’re good and you know it, although I think you might have given J.I. Packer credit for the quotation you read out rather than attributing it to “some old dude”.

Hey, dude alert! As orthodox as the preaching was, the dress code was certainly laid back. Hoodies and combat pants (Mez), assorted trainers (most men), blue hair (the knitting woman), and possibly the best hippy skirt/shawl/sandals combination yet spotted this year. I felt distinctly overdressed and I hadn’t really made a special effort.

For those readers unfamiliar with Edinburgh, it’s worth pointing out that Niddrie is not a smart or fashionable area. If you’ve seen Trainspotting, you’ll know what it used to look like before the housing regeneration schemes got going – acres of boarded up and abandoned flats where only the brave or foolhardy would venture. It looks a lot different now, but it’s still economically deprived and not short of problems. Niddrie Community Church is part of 20 Schemes, a cross-denominational initiative to plant new churches in poor areas, and of the East of Scotland Gospel Partnership, all but one of whose partner churches I’ve already visited this year.

Niddrie Community Church is the sort of place where people spot a new face and immediately come to speak to you (leaning in just a little too close, perhaps, and being just a tad too inquisitive), but that’s better than being completely ignored, which has happened elsewhere. I was approached by the leader of the women’s ministry. Sorry, did we just rewind by about 150 years? The women’s ministry! No, no, the Soul Searcher does not do gender segregation, but apparently NCC does. All the elders and deacons are men, and whatever the women get up to is separate. Sharpen your knitting needles, sisters. You need to go in there and assert yourselves. But seriously, boys – and, more importantly, girls – do you really think this is how a church should be in the 21st century?

Music-wise, it was that can’t-put-my-finger-on-it genre that I’ve encountered a couple of times now. A bit Sally Army, a bit Gospel Hall – only one song I’d heard before, I stand amazed in the presence (How Marvellous! How Wonderful!) – all with a rolling electronic keyboard accompaniment and generally pitched too low but otherwise very singable, and with 70-plus folk singing along the sound fairly filled the sports hall.

About an hour in, I spotted the video camera. They really ought to warn folk that they’re liable to be recorded and tell them where to sit if they don’t want to be on camera. I didn’t expect to be filmed, but on the other hand I don’t think they expected to be blogged about. Let’s call it a quid pro quo.

So that was Niddrie Community Church – bustling, young and “producing children at an alarming rate” – and it’s nice to know that there’s something dynamic happening in the area, even if they all need a lesson in gender politics.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Old Schoolhouse Christian Fellowship

Sunday Morning Service, Sunday 22 September 2013, 11am
Led by: didn’t learn his name
Speaker: Charles Tulloch

Shades of Bellevue Chapel at this morning’s church, which offered not so much a service as a fundraising speech and some holiday snaps, but with better music than at Bellevue … and birthday cake.

The Old Schoolhouse seats sixty and was almost full, but many people were visitors.
After being asked three times if I was from St Columba’s, I had to ask, “Which St Columba’s?”. It seems that the Old Schoolhouse congregation is dwindling, the young folk having upped sticks and decamped to Central: Jesus at the Heart (for those who like that sort of thing, as a famous Morningside lady once said), and that St Columba’s Free Church is coming in to plant a new church and revive the OSH’s fortunes. This makes sense for the Free Church vis-à-vis its geographical coverage of Edinburgh, and I’m sure it can’t be easy for an independent Brethren group to keep going without wider denominational support. At least, I hope I’m right to categorise the OSH as Brethren in my list of churches, based on the history page of its website.

The minister/pastor, whose name I didn’t learn, had been on holiday to Austria. He likes mountains – “all the best scenery is where glaciers have been carving things out” – and can’t understand why anyone would ever go to Holland, because it’s totally flat and there’s nothing to do there. He showed slides of the peaks he’d climbed, on the descent from which he had sung the hymns chosen for this morning: To God be the glory, great things he hath done; Praise the Saviour, ye who know him; Jesus is Lord, creation’s voice proclaims it; and Lord, thy word abideth. And despite the computer having thrown “a hissy fit” before the service began, the technical stuff all went smoothly.

The reading was Luke 8:4-15 (NIV), the parable of the sower, which was the set-up for guest speaker Charles Tulloch’s talk about the work of the Gideons International, described as an organisation of “Christian professional businessmen and their wives”. No businesswomen or their husbands, then? No single women? No blue-collar workers? Or maybe the Soul Searcher’s asking a few daft lassie questions there.

The Gideons give out 80 million “scriptures” (by which I assume he means both whole bibles and New Testaments) a year in 195 countries, only 10 of which raise enough money to pay for the books they distribute, so in the UK 49% of money raised goes towards purchasing books for overseas distribution. That’s a lot of books by anyone’s standards.

Not every school will allow the Gideons to distribute bibles to their pupils, but in a month when the Scottish press has carried stories about the religious indoctrination of children and the dissemination of creationist literature in state schools, the minister/pastor rejoiced in the fact that a bible distribution session in a local school (unnamed) had allowed him to turn a lesson on euthanasia into a discussion of Christ’s return and the promise of eternal life. Because for those who believe in Jesus, everything is going to be all right.

Well, I’ve no objection to such discussions in the context of a comparative religion class, and at least he’s not a young-earth creationist, or he wouldn’t have credited the glaciers for the Austrian landscape. But does it mean that the kids never got their euthanasia debate?

There was coffee, and cake, and chat. Everyone was very nice and friendly, but it left me asking myself, “Yes … but?” It’s unlikely to tempt me back in its current form, although maybe the St Columba’s deal will give the Old Schoolhouse a new lease of life. 

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Liberton Kirk

Morning Worship (early), Sunday 15th September 2013, 9.30am
Preacher: John Young

I have no idea which parish I live in, and I might have reached the end of my Soul Search mission without the thought ever crossing my mind were it not for a very splendid cat. The feline in question has graciously allowed me to live in her house for the past week while her regular butler and housekeeper are on holiday, and what should land on the doormat while I was tending to her every whim but a copy of the Liberton Kirk magazine.

It got me thinking … where I live, over in EH7, I’ve never once in seven years received a leaflet or a newsletter or any other communication from a church in my own (albeit less salubrious) district, although the Presbytery of Edinburgh’s church locator reveals ten churches within a one-mile radius of my flat. Which of these is “my” parish church, though? I’ve no idea. That’s the Church of Scotland, of course. The Catholic directory is “under construction” and full of dead links, and I’m assuming that smaller denominations don’t attempt full coverage.

So who would I call if I wanted to find out which parish I’m domiciled in? The people at 121 George Street couldn’t answer a simple query I had about the General Assembly (which day and what time of day was a particular debate taking place, and this was me asking one week before the Assembly itself – no schedule online, you see), so I expect they’d be equally useless on this one. I could go to the library, I suppose, but who uses a library these days? You really expect a website to be able to serve you up this kind of data, don’t you? I might just have to try all ten local churches and see which one of them claims to cover my street.

But all of this is by the by, because this week it was Liberton Kirk, which, unlike some of its sister churches, has really got its act together. Not only does it produce its 44-page magazine and deliver it to every household in the parish, but it boasts a full programme of activities from badminton and Brownies to Scrabble and Scottish country dancing, on top of its three services on a Sunday and mid-week bible study and praise meetings.

A chap called David, who is a member at Liberton, was kind enough to comment on my blog earlier in the year. I looked for you this morning, David, but I didn’t see you, or I failed to recognise you if you were there. Sorry! But thanks for the recommendation, because I enjoyed the service.

The later service (11am) is for the trendy guitar people, to which Soul Searcher says a resounding, “No thanks!”, but the early service (9.30am) is for people who like proper hymns and no nonsense, and there were about 60 of us. In fact, the minister almost apologised for an unfamiliar hymn, Loving creator, and rightly so, because it really didn’t stand up alongside the others (all from CH4): Immortal, invisible; Jesus, lover of my soul; and You are before me, Lord (psalm 139).

John Young’s theme was “Just 10 – Prosper with a clear conscience”, one in a series of sermons looking at the ten commandments, based on sermons given by one J. John, who seems to be well known to everyone in the world except me. This week, “What is stealing, and is it possible to get by without it?”, which I initially misread on the website as “… is it possible to get away with it?”. Everyone’s at it – the Fiat garage, the respectable Morningside restaurant, the online music downloader – and the sermon notes make it particularly easy to summarise this one because there are eight questions and two places to fill in the blanks. So, here goes:

Three ways not to prosper in life: dishonesty, defrauding and defaulting. Three right ways to prosper: work, saving and prayer. So, yes, I’ll admit to being old-fashioned. No, I have no stolen library books, unpaid taxes or dodgy dealings, so I do pretty well in the “honesty test”, though I can’t claim never to have written a shopping list on an office post-it. But an interesting answer to the final question, “What has God been saying to you today, and how are you planning to respond?”, is contingent on his saying something, otherwise the answer will be, “Nothing”, and, “To what?”.

The reading, incidentally, was Luke 19:1-10, the story of Zacchaeus (NIV). Maybe that’s me sitting up there in the tree trying to see without being seen, but Jesus didn’t call to me this morning.

So that’s all, really. It’s old-school Church of Scotland. The building is kind of back to front, in the sense that the doors are at the pulpit end, so latecomers will be conspicuous, and the scent of the flowers was pretty strong, but not unpleasant.

And on a completely pedantic note, which will be appreciated only by my fellow grammar freaks, I was delighted to note the use of the vocative comma (sadly, more honoured in the breach than the observance) on the embroidered banner that read, “Here I am, Lord”, although it occurred to me that the omission of the comma would be okay if God ever takes up appliqué: “Here I am Lord” … and that in turn got me wondering if the latter version should be, “Here, I am Lord”. And now I’m wondering if there’s a Pedants for Jesus group out there somewhere. 

Sunday, 8 September 2013

North Edinburgh Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland

Public Worship – Lord’s Day, Sunday 8th September 2013, 11am
Pastor: Peter Loughridge

Remember the diagram showing all the Presbyterian churches and their schisms? This one had slipped my notice before now, but there it is, running right along the top, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland, having avoided almost all of the knotwork in the middle since 1712. The North Edinburgh church, which meets in Craigroyston Community High School, is a recent plant, about to celebrate its second birthday, but when Edinburgh last had an RPC church is something I don’t know and didn’t ask, because the post-service conversation led in other directions.

We were a small company, only 18 of us in all, among which the number of visitors was described as “many”. This makes the RPC joint second in the contest for smallest congregation of the year so far, level pegging with the Free Church (Continuing), but still two more than St Columba’s Free Gaelic service. But numbers aren’t everything; Central: Jesus at the Heart was packed to the gunwales and it was a terrible experience … for me, at least.

While we’re talking numbers, Peter Loughridge is also in the lead if we’re counting most bible verses cited in a sermon. Quite apart from the scripture reading (Genesis 50), he quoted Job 23, Isaiah 46, Daniel 1 & 2, Matthew 10, Jeremiah 25, Lamentations 3, Romans 8 & 9, Acts 2, plus at least another two that I didn’t manage to note down. But unlike the floundering preacher who might have been attempting something similar over at Destiny Church, Peter made them all build towards the argument of one of the best-crafted sermons I’ve heard this year. It’s an art form, and whether you agree with the conclusions or not you have to admire the artisan’s craft.

The theme was “God is in Control”, part of a series of sermons on the question, “What is God like?”. So far, they’ve established that he’s good, wise, powerful and holy, and today’s teaching was to show that he is sovereign in all things – in nature, in history, and in the cross. It would have been “too easy” for God to make us all like obedient robots; instead he gave us choice, and we are therefore responsible for our actions. God is never the author of evil, which is the result of sin and rebellion against God, but he can use wickedness to bring good.

Of course, the problem of evil is a big, thorny one, and the trouble with any sermon on it, however cogently argued or thoroughly supported by scripture verses, is that it is likely to bring comfort and confirmation to the believer while still failing to convince the unbeliever. This is probably why Peter offered two suggestions for how to respond, one for the Christian and one for the non-Christian. The non-Christian was asked to consider the fact that God had brought him/her to church today, and that pain, suffering, crimes and disasters are reminders that the world is broken and damaged by sin – in CS Lewis’s words, God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world” – and that we can turn to Jesus for a solution. And the Christian was reassured that bad things can call him/her to deeper faith, and to trust in God as he accomplishes his plan.

The singing was simple but lusty, three psalms (135:1-4 (Walton), 103:16-21 (Lloyd), and 138:1, 4-6 (Warrington)) without instrumental accompaniment, no need for amps or overhead projectors. The psalm book was The Psalms for Singing, 21st Century Edition, a split-page book a bit like the old 1929 Scottish Psalter but with about a hundred extra tunes in it and modernised language. I love a psalm, as I’ve said before. Nothing beats a metrical psalm.

Would I go back to the RPC? They’re very friendly and welcoming, that’s for sure, and I talked to Peter and his wife for ages afterwards, rather monopolising their post-service chat time, for which I must owe the other worshippers an apology. They have the simple worship style that I enjoy, and there’s a part of me that says I could happily sit through such a service every week … if I actually believed what they teach, which is the crux of the problem and the whole reason for my mission. But of course, I know little else about them - nothing about their politics or social attitudes, for instance, which I kind of suspect might veer towards the conservative, but maybe I’m wrong about that. That’s one of the limitations of Soul Searcher’s snapshot approach; further investigation would definitely be required.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Bellevue Chapel

Family Service, 1st September 2013, 11.30am
Chair Person: Sandra Lindsay
Speaker: Steve Packwood

Last week in Musselburgh, I wondered where all the men had gone. Maybe they were at Bellevue Chapel, which seems to have a gender balance tipping more towards the masculine, and a congregation of all ages. With seating for approximately 120, they must have had somewhere between 90 and 100 today, which isn’t bad going compared with some of the other churches I’ve seen this year.

Forewarned is forearmed. I knew I wasn’t going to enjoy the music, described on the Bellevue Chapel website as “contemporary worship led by a praise band”, but even of its kind it was pretty grim – thunderingly aggressive piano obliterating any hint of guitar or base guitar, and an entirely inaudible female vocalist who might as well have been miming alongside her booming male companion. The tech guys in the gallery were busily sound-testing when I arrived, but clearly to no avail. The songs, one from Mission Praise and two from Bellevue’s own supplement, Sing to the Glory of His Name, were instantly forgettable, but I had to smile inwardly at the last one, “We stand and lift up our hands”. We stood, but nobody lifted their hands – a far cry from all the fervent swaying and air punching at the likes of Central, Elim and Hope!

But singing aside, it was a reasonably interesting morning. No bible readings as such, though, which was a bit of a surprise. Their evening services promise “extended bible teaching”, so I’m guessing that would be the time to go if you want to hear scriptures and sermons. But this morning all we got were a few snippets from Amos 5 in connection with the Martin Luther King anniversary and a couple more verses from Romans 10 to round off guest speaker Steve Packwood’s talk about his work on a mission ship, the Logos Hope.

Steve, who is the UK director of development for OM Ships, has a slightly disconcerting tic of licking his lips every few words as he talks. Once you’ve noticed it, you can’t not notice it, so I tried not to look directly at him, concentrating instead on the rather pretty rose window and the other stained glass, partially obscured by the projector screen so that the three saints were visible only from the waist down and I couldn’t work out who they were supposed to be, or indeed why Bellevue bothers to illuminate the glass with electric light (what was once an external wall now backs on to an extension) if only to cover it up again.

Distractions aside, it looks as if the crew of the Logos Hope have a whale of a time sailing the world to minister in every exotic port you can imagine. And after the video about life on board and a bit of a pep talk about donations, Steve turned to the preachiest bit of his talk, reminding us that Christians are to obey the commandment to go and made disciples of all the world, an order that has never been countermanded since Jesus walked the earth, and that they should not feel overwhelmed by the size of the need in this lost world, because every little helps.

There were a couple of other missionaries too, who had been to Burundi to support a project that teaches former prostitutes tailoring skills. Mission seems to be a big deal with Bellevue, as does church planting, although exactly how their denomination is structured (if Brethren are indeed organised as a denomination) isn’t something I could determine from their website.

They seem cheery enough, though, and they do serve a fine cup of coffee, but that music … oh dear, that is something I really don’t want to hear again.