Monday, 25 November 2013

St Michael and All Saints

High Mass for the Feast of Christ the King, Sunday 24 November 2013, 11am
Led by: a whole bunch of clergy and servers
Sermon by: Fr Malcolm Aldcroft

Last week I had a hankering for Bach. This week I got to hear O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht sung by the choir of St Michael and All Saints at probably the highest mass I’ve attended all year. If it’s smells and bells you’re after, St Michael and All Saints even eclipses the Tridentine Latin mass at St Margaret’s and St Leonard’s, and has the advantage of actually including the congregation by processing around and puffing everyone with incense. It doesn’t half stick in your nostrils, though. I could still smell it two hours later.

If the Anglican communion is a spectrum, this is the end at which it looks more Catholic than the Catholics, and to someone with such Presbyterian instincts as mine it’s an uncomfortable experience to witness the clergy bowing to a separate little Marian altar and singing Hail Mary, although this bit was after the mass itself was ended. Nor have I ever heard the Lord’s Prayer changed to include the blessed and ever glorious virgin Mary, the apostles Peter and Paul, Andrew of Scotland, Michael and all saints, but that’s what we got in this version of the 1970 Scottish Liturgy. Excuse me while I have another little Presbyterian shudder … eeurgh!

The mass was sung, led by a choir of ten, and an organist who scores top marks for sneaking a few motifs from Once in Royal David’s City into the tune of Crown Him with Many Crowns, as well as singing along to the prayers. As well as choir and organist, there were three clergy in gold and red vestments and six servers in black and white vestments, which is quite a high staff-public ratio considering there were only 37 in the congregation.

Slightly confusingly, although the gospel reading (cue bells and huddled clergy) was Luke 23:33-43 as advertised in the pew-sheet, the other readings were from Malachi 4 and 2 Thessalonians 3, and not Jeremiah 23 and Colossians 1 as in the sheet. No pew bibles were supplied.

The sermon was short and sweet; it has to be when there’s all that mass to get through. On this the Feast of Christ the King, we were asked to consider how a king or queen can be recognised without his/her crown on. One of the men crucified beside Jesus failed to recognise him, and indeed his majesty cannot be measured in human terms. Oh yes, and it was stir-up Sunday – last chance to do your Christmas baking.

Soul Searcher has not been baking. Soul Searcher’s mother, on the other hand, had her cake done a fortnight ago. I’m not sure if I believe in god, but there’s definitely such a thing as a domestic goddess and I’ve a long way to go to learn to bake like her. Maybe that’s another project for 2014.

There’s definitely something appealing about the Anglican mass, incense and Mariolatry aside, and I can see why some people like the ritual and rhythm and predictability of it. Nothing too challenging in the sermon, hymns that everyone knows, an hour and a quarter circumscribed by tradition and familiarity, but still not my cup of tea.

Mind you, I bumped into a friend at St Michael’s, and it’s only the fourth church this year where I’ve met someone I knew, so that’s two Anglican churches, a Free Church and a Free Church Continuing – the extremes of the whole high/low continuum. I keep thinking that the bumping-into-friends hit rate should be higher after fifty churches, but perhaps I just don’t know enough nice, godly people. 

Post-script, Tuesday 26 Nov: actually, now that I think about it, there are two other churches where I've met people I know, both Church of Scotland. That takes the hit rate up a bit, and balances the extremes. 

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Edinburgh City Vineyard

Sunday 17 November 2013, 10.30am
Led by: David Hart

Soul Searcher was a happy bunny this morning. She met the big scary deadline (three days early, thank you very much) and for the first time in many weeks actually took a day off.

So I was in a good mood when I headed into the Hilton hotel in Grosvenor Street to attend the Edinburgh City Vineyard, a fairly new congregation that’s part of a network of UK and international churches that I’ve somehow managed not to hear of at all until relatively recently.

Vineyard has its own record label, which doesn’t mean that its music is any good. There’s not much to distinguish its praise music – led by a guitarist introduced only as “this good-looking man” – from the trendy droning heard at Hope!, Life and other strum-along churches of that ilk, and I’ve said often enough why this isn’t my kind of thing so I won’t explain why again.

You get a Vineyard CD in your welcome pack, but I’m not adding it to my iTunes library. There’s chocolate in there too, for those with a sweet tooth, and even if you’re not a first-time visitor there are doughnuts every week. It could be a dangerous church for anyone watching their waistline, and since all those weeks of deadline meeting and near immobility have not helped mine I really shouldn’t have indulged. But I did.

After 35 minutes of “worship” (definitions of which I’ve discussed before), it was time for David Hart to deliver his talk on Sharing Jesus: how do we practically do it? A believer should not assume, he said, that the onus is on other people to recognise the presence of Jesus in his/her life and to come and find out more. Rather the onus is on the believer to come out of his/her comfort zone and speak to others.

And the believer who wants to share Jesus should not do as David does with the wilting plants in his hanging basket – resentfully pour a bucket of water over them from time to time and then wonder why it just runs off the hard surface of the soil leaving the poor plants as thirsty as ever. Instead, the plants need to be fed little and often, letting the moisture soak in properly.

He cited a few bible verses (Romans 1:14 and 13:8, and Matthew 10:8), but there wasn’t a bible reading, which seemed something of an omission, but maybe they do bible study at other times during the week.

Thankfully, there was no reprise of the music after the talk. But all the people were very lovely and friendly (about 30 of them, plus some children in the next room), and if you like this style of worship they seem to be a close-knit and supportive group of folk. I was invited to join them for carol singing, which I will have to miss because of a prior engagement, and that made me realise just how soon Christmas will be upon us once again.

So, as an antidote to the Vineyard praise music, I listened to Bach’s Christmas Oratorio  on my way to the supermarket – note to self for 2014: must take up choral singing again – and to Take the Floor on the way back from the supermarket – note to self for 2014: must take up Scottish country dancing again and work off that doughnut … and the rest!

Sunday, 10 November 2013

What do non-churchgoers do on Sunday mornings?

Soul Searcher isn’t going to church today. She has a big, scary deadline just a week away, and a smaller and less scary one tomorrow, so she has to work. Yes, on the Sabbath.

She can’t help but think that she’d be further ahead now if she hadn’t spent so many other Sunday mornings in church. 

Maybe other people just have a lie in. Lucky them. 

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Morningside

Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Morningside
Morning meeting, Sunday 10.30am
Talk by: Brother Leitch
Watchtower study led by: Brother McCracken, with readings by Brother Gladwyn
(all name spellings are guesswork on my part)

I’ve never had my door knocked on by Jehovah’s Witnesses – at least, not when I’ve been at home. But then again, I seem to be off the radar of all the religious organisations that you might think would want to witness to me, as I’ve observed before.

So at the risk of mixing my metaphors, since the mountain hadn’t come to Mohammed, I set off to find the mountain, which in this case was a small hill on Oxgangs Green. If I were trying to sell a property in the vicinity, I’d try to call it Morningside too, but let’s face it, once you’ve crossed the Braid Burn you’re in Oxgangs and you can’t really deny it. The clue is in the street name.

I didn’t (and still don’t) know very much about Jehovah’s Witnesses besides the usual lore … they can’t have blood transfusions, don’t dink coffee (Soul Searcher can’t live without her caffeine), believe that heaven has a limited capacity but you can work your way to the front of the queue, and have inaccurately predicted the end of the world several times. Actually, their website has lots of myth v. fact information for those who want to find out what they’re really about.

What I can definitely say without fear of contradiction after this morning’s experience is that they are incredibly welcoming and pleasant and all seem like genuinely lovely people. Who would leave such as these shivering on a doorstep? And they know their bible inside out too, which I’ll come to in a moment.

The format of the meeting is a talk (peculiar to each congregation) followed by bible study based on the articles in “The Watchtower: Announcing Jehovah’s Kingdom” (which will be the same in every congregation throughout the world, week by week). There were three hymns/songs, from “Sing to Jehovah”, which were sung somewhat hesitantly to a piano accompaniment. I’d never heard any of them before, and sight-singing isn’t my strong suit, but I did my best.

The talk, given by Brother Leitch from the Portobello congregation, who admits to once having been knocked over by a hungry Charollais sheep, was entitled “Never become dull in your hearing”. He asked us to think about three ways in which animals use their sense of hearing: 1) to flee from danger; 2) to herd together for protection and feeding; and 3) to search for food. Likewise, since faith follows the thing(s) heard (Romans 10:17) and because it is difficult to explain about Jesus if you have become dull in your hearing (Hebrews 5:11), we should be alert and responsive and should flee (1 Timothy 6:11) from the things that Satan has set in the world to distract us, such as violent movies and other examples of immorality. The faithful should also draw comfort and inspiration from the fellowship of other believers, as did the two Estonian women who made a three-day round-trip just to attend a meeting. And we should be hungry for spiritual food (Matthew 4:4 and 5:6) – this is where the boisterous Charollais came in; it just couldn’t get there fast enough when it heard the feed bucket rattling – and should listen to the call to study and, once studying, listen to the subtle rhythms of our own hearts and adjust our lives to work on what is lacking, striving all the while to ignore the siren call of the world that would dash us on the rocks.

All in all, as well-crafted a talk as I’ve heard this year. Can’t argue with that.

And now it was quiz time. Brother McCracken chaired the seminar-style study session like a brisk, avuncular schoolmaster, putting me rather in mind of Robert Robinson, not so much for his physical appearance as for his habit of addressing everyone by their surnames (Brother Smith, Sister Jones, etc) as he went round the room inviting answers to the Watchtower questions on this week’s theme, “Jehovah’s Reminders are Trustworthy”, and responding to most of them by saying, “That’s right.”

The Witnesses do their homework, I’ll give them that. Copies of Watchtower were underlined and highlighted and annotated, and almost all of the fifty people present (as with most places of worship visited this year, attendance was “about fifty”) answered at least one question, even the wee boy of about six or seven. It’s an interesting format and it must be effective. No snoozing at the back such as you might get away with in many churches, and you’d need to have all that information at your fingertips if you were going to go out there and make disciples of all nations, which is what seven million Witnesses are doing – “zealously proclaiming God’s Kingdom in more than 230 lands.” Quite what constitutes a land I’m not sure. There aren’t that many nation states in the world, but this time next year there could be one more independent country to add to the list … if the Lord’s swift judgment doesn’t come before September 18th, of course.

Would I go to a Kingdom Hall again? Actually, I might, if only to observe another of those study seminars. It’s something more churches ought to do, because there’s a whole lot of so-called believers out there who can’t answer simple questions about their own faith, and it’s unlikely you’d be able to level the same accusation at a Jehovah’s witness, which might explain their success in worldwide evangelism.

Could I actually subscribe to what the JWs believe? That’s another question, and the answer is probably no, but if they ever do come knocking on my door, I’d be up for a discussion about it.