Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Sunday Assembly

New Empire Bingo Club, Edinburgh
Tuesday 22 October 2013, 7pm
Led by: Sanderson Jones & Pippa Evans

Soul Searcher can be a bit tetchy at times. What can I say? There’s a lot to be tetchy about in this world. Until tonight, though, I hadn’t really thought of myself as a no-holds-barred misanthrope, but nothing makes you see the worst in humanity quite like an hour and a half of enforced jollity and really bad music. That and people photographing you without asking permission, which is something I’ve commented on before. You snap me with your camera, I’ll snap right back at you in my blog. Honestly, it would be a courtesy to warn folk on the way in.

I’ve heard some truly awful singing this year at the various churches I’ve attended, but the Sunday Assembly band trumps them all. Deafeningly loud and flat, flat, flat. Ouch! I mean, really, an offence to the eardrums, and no amount of clapping along could disguise it. The songs were 500 miles (I wanna be), Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow, The life of Riley and Walking on sunshine. Exuberant, yes, but in the way that pub karaoke singers are exuberant despite their patent lack of tone and talent. There was a bar but I didn’t buy any alcohol – perhaps the numbing effect would have left me more kindly disposed to the discordant caterwauling. As it was, I felt like the designated driver in a crowd of bar-room philosophers.

And no, Sanderson, I don’t think that a second cello would have succeeded in classing up the act. The absent cellist had gone to his mother’s funeral and had sent a message which was read out by Sanderson Jones, but this was the only genuinely affecting and thought provoking content of the meeting. The rest, as I shall reveal, was … oh dear, where do I begin?

Let’s begin with the other offences to the senses, because the New Empire Bingo Club offends the eye with its pink formica and the nose with its awful stench of hoover bags and stale smoke – doesn’t the smoking ban apply to bingo halls? Someone’s been having the odd crafty fag or twenty in that building. Not a great environment in which to nurture community spirit, but maybe it was the best venue they could get with their limited budget.

They want a bigger budget, of course – £500,000 bigger. Yes, that’s right, they’re crowdsourcing the funds they’ll need to take over the world. Apparently there was also a collection plate going round tonight, but it didn’t come my way, though I’d have bunged them a couple of quid if it had, so they could do with organising that aspect of their fundraising a little better.

Sanderson describes the basic outlook thus: if you had an excellent pair of shoes but there was a stone in one of them, you wouldn’t throw out the shoes, you’d throw out the stone. Richard Holloway’s reaction, apparently, was to tell him, “Well done, you’ve just made your first parable.”

So they’ve thrown out religion and kept all the good bits of church (singing and cake). Their mantra is Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More. What I’m wondering is, do you need to be part of a Sunday Assembly to do that? Do you need to read out Walt Whitman poems and talk about wave-particle duality in terms of dots and wibbly wobbly things and debunk time as a meaningless construct and say “atoms are weird” and ask people if they’ve ever drunk so much absinthe and listened to so much Enya that they feel themselves to be at the centre of the universe? The chap who did this also had the good grace to say, “This talk will be better if you lower your expectations.”

Pippa Evans, who is apparently the 26th most influential atheist in the UK, talked about how it’s okay to fail as a comedian if you’re about to become leader of a worldwide movement that will awaken non-religious community spirit. I didn’t find myself warming to her.

Sanderson Jones talked about finding things to be grateful for. His technique for celebrating life is to think about death. He dreams of dying peacefully in his sleep, but next to someone he dislikes … who hates surprises. This was the only thing that made me laugh. Clearly I haven’t developed the “attitude for gratitude”.

Will the Sunday Assembly succeed in expanding and enlightening and uplifting and all the other affirming and upbeat things they want to do? Other secular movements have come and gone, and none of them has really had the staying power that churches have. But Sanderson and Pippa are hopeful, and good for them. They managed to get fifty folk to come out on a nasty October night, so it could be the start of something wonderful … for those who like that sort of thing.

Frankly, I’d rather go to church.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Craigrownie Parish Church, Cove

Craigrownie Parish Church, Cove
Sacrament of Holy Communion, Sunday 20 October 2013, 11.30am
Minister: Rev Norma Moore

After the not-so-great service at Paisley Abbey last weekend, I carried on northwards and westwards and ended up in the Rosneath peninsula, where I’ve spent a splendid week sequestered at Cove Park getting more work done than I ever thought possible and occasionally braving the rain and the highland cattle to get my daily fix of internet access. There’s definitely something to be said for a break from the norm.

So this week, it was Craigrownie Parish Church, or Craigrownie “Paries” Church if you believe the intimations notice. What is it with church leaflets and proofreading? Apparently people in the peninsula are fighting the scourge of Japanese knotweed, so this may reduce the time they have available to root out typos. I feel I should offer my services; my rates are very reasonable.

Craigrownie is a proper old-fashioned Church of Scotland village kirk with some nice stained glass and the congregational turnout of “about fifty” that I’ve come to expect this year. Whether this is typical for Craigrownie I couldn’t say, but it was a communion service, so that may have drawn a few more than usual. In any case, the church seemed pretty full, although the first thing read out at the beginning of the service was an edict form the presbytery of Dumbarton (yes, yes, it's been pointed out, see comments below, and Matthew 7:1-3) about the linkage of Craigrownie with the neighbouring parishes of Garelochhead and St Modan’s. Linkage … what does that entail? Alas, I won’t be around to find out.

There were proper old-fashioned hymns too, albeit accompanied by ponderous and uneven organ playing, which was at its worst during psalm 121 (I to the hills will lift mine eyes), when the organist couldn’t choose which of the two versions of French in CH4 he/she was playing, settling for a mix-and-match version somewhere in between. Other numbers from the old-school C of S hit parade included Psalm 24:7-10 (Ye gates lift up your heads to St George’s, Edinburgh), God whose almighty word, Now thank we all our God, and O God of Bethel by whose hand, which might be the first paraphrase I’ve heard all year - I need to check that. The paraphrases seem to have gone out of fashion elsewhere, but we actually got two of them at Craigrownie, because we also sang Now, Lord, according to thy word at the end. All that and a sung Amen; you can’t go much more trad than that.

The readings were 2 Timothy 3:14 - 4:5 and Luke 18:1-8, the persistent widow and the unjust judge, and the theme of the sermon was “Persistence in Prayer”, drawing on the readings and on psalm 121, a plea for safety and a statement of faith in the absolute reliability of God, who is constantly there (or should that be here?) looking out for us. Just as God is constant, said Rev Moore, we should be constant and should live in confidence that God will prevail.

Turning to the gospel reading, she asked us to consider why we should persist in praying to God for justice when it is in the divine nature to grant justice? And she offered three answers: 1) through persistent prayer we remain mindful of God and of the need to put our own spiritual house in order and to keep alive our own commitment to justice; 2) by praying persistently for something that doesn’t seem to be happening, we may realise that the answer is in our own hands and that God’s will is to be done through us; and 3) God doesn’t see persistent prayer as nagging, but loves to hear our prayers and wants us to share everything with him, and we ought to consider the judge/widow scenario in reverse – what if God is the one who is persistently asking us to deliver justice?

All of which makes me think of a yet-to-be-written blog post about Try Praying, which I will get round to soon.

I had parked at the foot of the hill, outside the burgh hall, and walked (no, actually, I climbed, because getting anywhere in this part of the world somehow involves a steep, slippery hill) the 250 yards to the church. The locals knew better and had all driven up to the church itself. On the short but perilous journey back to the car I nearly fell over twice (first time moss, second time leaves), I got thwacked in the face by a tree branch and I managed to get soaked even through my waterproof coat. That’s the wet, wild west coast for you.

But now it’s back to auld claes and porridge, and back to the east and my beloved Edinburgh. All that fresh air is fine in small doses, but the Soul Searcher is a city girl at heart.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Paisley Abbey

Service of Thanksgiving for the Royal National Mòd, 2.30pm, Sunday 13th October
Led by: Reverend Iain Thomson
Precentors: Mr John Macleod & Rev Kenny Macleod

I was in unfamiliar territory this Sunday, in Paisley, the town that Starbucks forgot. After trailing round several caffeine-free streets and two grim little shopping malls, tongue hanging out like Miley Cyrus (see, Soul Searcher’s not entirely disconnected from popular culture), I realised that Costa and Caffe Nero have also forsaken this unloveliest of Scottish cities, and I didn’t much like the look of Muffin Break.

Isn’t Paisley too far west for the Soul Searcher? Well, there were two reasons for going there: a) it’s sort of en route to where I have to be on Monday, which is further west, and b) it’s Mòd week, which means that the town should have been buzzing with the excitement of what people persist in billing as the biggest Gaelic cultural event of the year.

Er … should have been. You can’t miss BBC ALBA’s OB trucks, lying in wait for the first of the competitions tomorrow, but the city fathers hadn’t exactly hung out the tartan bunting. Nor had the Abbey seen fit to list the service on its website – not under “services” or “events” or “news” or in its October newsletter. Despite this, a fair crowd had gathered. Difficult to count, but I’m estimating 150+ of a congregation, which isn’t bad going, but it didn’t make for the greatest Gaelic church experience I’ve ever had.

And since it scores low for both ecclesiastical and Gaelic reasons, my review is divided into two parts. This bit for my Anglophone readers, about the church stuff, and a rant about language politics further down the page.

The psalms were 136:1-2, 96:1-3, 98:3-4, 40:5, all attractively printed in multicoloured ink and adorned with the Mòd Phàislig (Paisley Mòd, as if you couldn’t work that out) logo, but whoever designed it could have done with spending a little more time proofing it and weeding out the typos. There’s a new god in town, folks, and his name appears to be Lehovah.

Of the two precentors, the older chap with the white hair was croakier and less easy to follow than the younger chap with the tonsure, who had that bright tenor tone that you want in a precentor, but the tunes were familiar in any case. The real problem was that nobody in the congregation seemed to be singing. I was, and my Mòd competitor friend to the left of me was (you always bump into someone you know at the Mòd) and the chap immediately in front of me was, but all around us sat dozens more folk with their mouths firmly shut. It makes one feel very exposed, and more “listened to”, which doesn’t feel great even for a confident singer like me. Frankly, we made a better fist of it at St Columba’s Free back in March when there were only 16 of us.

The reading was Revelation 5 (quite why, I’m not sure, because it was read in English and then never referred to again), and the text for the sermon was Psalm 100. Rev Thomson spoke for twice as long as was necessary, because he provided his own subtitles by translating everything he said into English (see Gaelic rant below), and in an unintentionally ironic counterpart to the muted congregational singing his theme was that we should sing to God from the very depths of our soul, which we can do wholeheartedly only when we enter into the same spirit as inspired the psalmist.

In a nutshell, we should worship God for all the reasons given in the psalm – because he is God, because he made us, because he tends us like his flock, because he is good and merciful, and because the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever (first question in the catechism, for those who had forgotten).

But hearing any of this was a challenge, because the lectern was positioned in the middle of an echo chamber and the reverberations drowned out quite a bit of what was said. Perhaps it’s just as well he said it all twice.

Chunnaic mi rudeigin air duilleag Facebook caraid dhomh a bhon-dè: “tha e math a bhith beò agus gun a bhith aig a’ Mhòd”. The e a’ còrdadh ri cuid agus buidhe dhaibhsan, ach tha leasan fhathast – fhathast! – aig a’ Chomann ri ionnsachadh mu dheidhinn cleachdadh cànain.

Carson a bhiodh e cho doirbh duilleag Ghàidhlig a chur ri chèile? Nan robh iad air “Dàmhair” a chur an àite “October”, an tigeadh crìoch air an t-saoghal? Bhiodh e furasta gu leòr obrachadh a-mach, nach biodh? Nach eil facail againn airson “welcome”, “prayer”, “psalm”, “reading”, “benediction”, etc? Smaoinichibh, a Chomainn! Dè tha ceàrr air an deilbh seo? Coimhidibh … smaoinichibh … seadh, tha a h-uile rud sa Bheurla!

Dè a’ Ghàidhlig air “Doh!”?

O seadh, agus ar caraid ùr “Lehobhah”? Nach eil cuimhne agaibh air “Na biodh diathan sam bith eile agad am làthair-sa”?

Thuirt mi gu h-àrd gun d’ rinn am ministear fo-thiotalan dha fhèin, agus ’s e a rinn, cho nàdarra nach robh e fiù ’s a’ tarraing anail eadar an dàrna cànan agus an cànan eile … “Cionnas a tha sinn a’ dol a thoirt dha cliù, how are we to give him praise?”

Is e a’ cheist a th’ agam, carson? Cò dha? Is e seo am Mòd, agus bhiodh dùil agad gum biodh Gàidhlig ann, agus a bharrachd air sin, gum biodh tearmann air choireigin aig a’ chànan far nach biodh Beurla a’ tighinn a-steach air a’ chùis.

Trì facail sa chànan eile … does … not … compute!

Agus trì sa Ghàidhlig: o mo chreach! No OMC, mar a bhios a’ chlann ag ràdh. Soul Searcher’s scratched her head about lots of things this year, but this one … this one has finally left me lost for words, in either language. 

Sunday, 6 October 2013

St Paul’s and St George’s Church

Worship Service, Sunday 06 October 2013, 11am
Led by: Richard Cornfield, Associate Rector
Preacher: Vanessa Conant, Associate Rector

After a few small churches where any visitor is conspicuous, I thought I’d go for a big one where I could hide at the back. “Ps and Gs” should be a good place to hide, because there might have been about 200 folk there (beyond a certain number it gets difficult to count, so that’s ballpark), but the people sitting in front of and to the side of me made a point of saying hello, which was nice of them. As I’ve said before, there’s a balance somewhere between being lovebombed and being completely ignored.

Other Episcopal churches I’ve been to so far, Old St Paul’s, St Columba’s by the Castle and St Mary’s Cathedral, have all been pretty trad with their Anglican liturgy. Not so Ps and Gs, which had no liturgy (maybe their early communion service does, but I was still dragging myself out of bed at that point). In fact, so non-liturgical was it that barely anyone said, “Thanks be to God,” in response to the reader’s “This is the word of the Lord.”

It was a service of contrasts, bests and worsts. There’s a band (aaarrgh! thought the Soul Searcher, this is a bad sign) but the guitars/fiddle/bodhran combination gave it a folksier feel—which worked particularly well for My Heart is Filled with Thankfulness (Getty/Townend) but less so for Praise my Soul the King of Heaven—the backing singers had some nice harmonies, and the sound engineers hadn’t gone overboard with amps and base, which is more than can be said for some of the dire worship bands I’ve encountered this year. On the other hand, there were two songs that were so drab, and so deep – a point that deserves a paragraph of its own – that I just gave up and stopped trying to sing at those points.

Okay, about pitch. I’m a mezzo and I can sing from the G below middle C up to the B-flat below high C. That’s just over two octaves, but I wouldn’t want to spend much time singing at the extremes of that range. Keep me between middle C and the F/G an octave and a half higher and I’ll be quite happy, and even that is a big range that most songs for untrained singers, such as people in church congregations, wouldn’t span. As singers know, and as arrangers of songs ought to know, what makes a song comfortable to sing is not so much how high or low the highest and lowest notes are as where the tessitura lies, i.e. the typical pitch range, and once you’re grubbing about at the bottom of what’s comfortable for you it can feel, and sound, like growling. Last week’s music was generally too low, and over the year I’ve noticed that the trendier the music the lower it’s pitched. I think it must have something to do with the worship band style of singing, but it doesn’t make it easy to participate. Goodness knows how a soprano or tenor would fare.

But now that my little rant about gravelly singing is over, let’s go back to the sermon, and hats off to Vanessa Conant, who is right up there in the running for best preacher of the year. Matter of fact, personal and heartfelt, she drew on the story of Jesus preaching from the boats and filling Simon Peter’s nets with fish (Luke 5:1-11) and talked about how frightening it can feel to be called to follow Christ. Let’s bring our fears into the light, she said—the fear of the unknown, of the ridiculous, of looking like an idiot—and acknowledge that our first reaction is to decline the responsibility and ask Jesus to choose someone else.

The abundance of God’s presence can be scary too; it breaks our nets and causes our boats to sink with the weight of it, and of course we want to opt for a safe way out. Being called brings a sense not of certainty or strength but of inadequacy and brokenness, but God calls us not for our strength or competence but for the totality of ourselves, and we don’t have to become someone we’re not to be a disciple.

She was really very good, and didn’t seem to have any speaking notes either. All their sermons are online, so have a listen.

Unfortunately, the chap who led the prayers was the mayor of Dullsville, a real let down after that sermon, but then Vanessa was a hard act to follow.