Friday, 27 December 2013

St Cuthbert’s Parish Church

Christmas Eve, 24 December 2013, 11.30pm
Ministers: the Reverend David W Denniston, the Reverend Charles Robertson and the Reverend Jane M Denniston

Bah Humbug! Soul Searcher is not a fan of Christmas, at least not of most of it. Yes to turkey and sprouts, but no to rampant consumerism, queuing in Sainsburys and the awful loop of Christmas pop songs played just about everywhere from mid-October onwards.

But I couldn’t not go to church on Christmas Eve. My dear friend C, the cafeteria Catholic at whose behest I attended St Peter’s last year, kick-starting the whole year of blogging, had suggested a return visit, but then she bottled out, so no brownie points for her. So I thought I’d try St Cuthbert’s, last experienced through a fug of soup odour in May, the week the general assembly was in town and Princes Street gardens were playing host to the Heart & Soul festival.

No soup this time, but lots of electric candles to light the first half of the service, until the house lights came up at midnight. A reversal, if you will, of the Tenebrae service at Old St Paul’s, with all the lights going out until we ended in darkness.

St Cuthbert’s is one of those churches that seems too ornate to be CofS, with friezes and frescoes and all manner of fripperies to distract the eye. They also have an organ, played by one Dr Jeremy Cull, who treated us to Bach’s Christmas chorales from the Orgelbuchlein on the way in and Widor’s Toccata in F on the way out. After all the dire “praise” music I’ve endured this year, it’s nice to hear some old-school church music played well.

But as for the choir, well, not so great. Six feeble voices were largely drowned out by one of the male ministers (wasn’t sure which was which) who left his microphone on throughout all the hymns, although they attempted a feeble descant for See in Yonder Manger Low. I feared that they might try the same for O Little Town of Bethlehem and O Come, All Ye Faithful, but we were spared what could have been a car crash.

Congregational enthusiasm was difficult to judge because of the mic’ed-up minister, but there were 60-something people in various degrees of mufflement against the mid-winter weather, although one woman had opted for bare arms, bare legs and peep-toe stilettos. Brrrr! Soul Searcher, who likes to be prepared for draughty churches, wore her new hat, crocheted by her own fair hand, but still found herself coveting her neighbour’s white fleecy, furry, ear-flappy, tie-under-the-chin hat. But Where did you get that hat? wasn’t what we were there to hear about.

The carols were: On Christmas Night All Christians Sing, Child in the Manger, See in Yonder Manger Low (complete with errors on the OHP), While Humble Shepherds, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Still the Night, Joy to the World (which I didn’t realise had quite so many verses), and O Come, All Ye Faithful.

The readings were Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, and Luke 2:1-20, and the sermons, or “talks”, of which there were two for some reason, were about the innkeeper, starting with a grim little piece of doggerel called “The Tale of the Innkeeper”. In a nutshell, we are all of us innkeepers, thinking there is no room in our lives for Jesus, but let us not miss another opportunity in life, because he always has room for us. Quite why it took three clergypeople to deliver this I’m not sure; maybe they just don’t want to be alone at Christmas.

But I can’t say that I felt moved or uplifted at any point. Maybe after all these churches I’m just bored now. The year is nearly ended and there’s nothing new under all those vaulted ceilings. 

Monday, 23 December 2013

Try Praying

Where: on the buses, in little booklets and online 
Led by: a very nice man called David Hill

I’d seen the bus adverts, stuck behind one in traffic, most likely, but I wasn’t sure who was behind trypraying until I met David, parishoner of Liberton Kirk, who commented on my blog and who turns out to be the campaign co-ordinator.

David gave me the booklet (also downloadable) and asked me to try the seven-day prayer challenge. And I did. And I promised that I’d write about it. That was more than seven weeks ago now. Soul Searcher has had a lot on her plate, but finally she’s getting round to it.

So how to review trypraying? The short version is simple: tried it, didn’t work!

But there’s a difference between, “I tried it and it didn’t work for me,” and “I tried it and it didn’t work and therefore it doesn’t work for anyone.” Clearly there are many who believe that it does work, that prayer is effective, that God listens and responds, that it isn’t just some kind of pointless lunatic activity akin to having an imaginary friend.

So there has to be a longer and, I hope, more carefully considered version too.

Regular readers will know by now that the Soul Searcher is a grumpy, grudging grouch who finds plenty to complain about almost everywhere. So if you asked me what I honestly thought about prayer, about its purpose and efficacy, you could expect a fairly sceptical answer.

But it’s also worth checking sources, so let’s start with the Westminster Catechism’s definition of prayer (q98):

“Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.”

And now let’s pick it apart and think about what that really means. It means that a petition for anything not agreeable to God’s will doesn’t count as prayer, so if your prayer goes unanswered it might be because you’ve prayed for the wrong thing. But how do you know if what you desire is acceptable or not? Well, perhaps because acceptable desires are fulfilled and unacceptable ones aren’t … which leads us right back round in a circle. 

This definition would also seem to suggest that unless you confess your sins it doesn’t count either. Ditto for acknowledgement of his mercies. So if any one element is lacking, you’re unlikely to get what you’re praying for.

More detailed definitions of prayer expand on the basic premise, explaining that it’s about more than mechanical lip service, not what you say but what’s in your heart, etc. So here’s another question? If God knows what’s in my heart, why do I have to tell him? Okay, so there’s always some value in trying to set out your thoughts in proper order, like writing a list of all the things you need to do rather than just worrying about the general mess your life is in … or like writing a blog about churchgoing for a whole year instead of just letting all the spiritual mayhem swirl around in your brain.

Back in October, at Craigrownie Parish Church, the sermon covered some of this, but not in any great depth, although the minister did have quite a tidy argument to account for unanswered prayers.

But maybe not every prayer expects an answer. There are prayers of acknowledgement and of thanks, as well as prayers of petition. There are prayers whose purpose is to cement one’s membership of a congregation/sect/faith, everyone reciting the same prayer together. This is prayer as fan mail; the fans don’t really expect the admired celebrity to write back to them in person, but the act of sending the letter makes them feel like part of something bigger … maybe?

I don’t know really. I’ve never idolised a pop star or actor, so I’m guessing here. Maybe it’s my lack of idol-worshipping instinct that makes prayer not work for me. It’s just hard to see how the petty little god prayed to at Holyrood Abbey, Elim and St Stephen’s, who is unable to do any of the things that a truly almighty god would do, could be worth praying to.

There could be another purpose to prayer, of course. Prayer as meditation, to get your mind into some kind of receptive state, to calm yourself, to focus your thoughts, etc, etc. But to commune with a supernatural being? Hmmm … not sure I can really go for that.

One of the themes that I’ve brought up during my Soul Search mission is the theological difficulty I have in equating Jesus with God. While I could just about believe in God the Father, there’s too much messy Christology around the person and purpose of Jesus, around the trinity and so on, for me to believe in the divinity of Jesus. However I leave my year of Soul Searching, it’s going to be without Jesus.

… and trypraying is all about Jesus. For trypraying, Jesus equals God, and they don’t want to muddy the waters with too much theology. The campaign is aimed, after all, at people who wouldn’t darken the doors of a church. Soul Searcher quite likes churches; she just isn’t too keen on what she tends to find in them.

So what can I say about trypraying? I don’t want to condemn it as pointless. There are some genuinely well-intentioned people involved in promoting it, and good luck to them. If their forthcoming Pray, Say, Display campaign to widen the scope of the project succeeds, they might get a few more people talking regularly to God, feeling better about themselves, finding a purpose in life, and that’s got to be good. But there’s a step somewhere beyond that, when all those brought to prayer by trypraying start to get a bit more inquisitive … and then they’ll find themselves where I am, fifty churches down and still no answers.

Sorry, David. 

Monday, 16 December 2013

Robin Chapel

Choral Evensong, Advent 3 (Gaudete), 15 December 2013, 4.30pm
Chaplain: Revd Thomas Coupar
Preacher: Very Revd Mgr Michael Regan

It was the third Sunday in Advent, and once again John the Baptist was very much to the fore, starting with a rousing rendition of On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry, which fairly raised the rafters. There were only eleven worshippers, but the thirteen choristers made a big noise in a small space.

Maybe they get more folk attending when the weather isn’t fierce and filthy, but if you’ve never been to the Robin Chapel then you’ve missed a choral treat. Built in memory of Robin Tudsbury as part of the Thistle Foundation, it is described as interdenominational but appears to be more or less Anglican. They have a super little choir who sing evensong every week, yesterday’s music list being:
  • Hymns 34, 573 (Common Praise)
  • Plainsong Preces and Responses
  • Ps. 14
  • Amner Cesar’s Service
  • Gibbons This is the record of John
  • Naylor Festal Responses 

Bit of a wobble on the final verse of the Gibbons, but it was pretty impressive. Even the collects were sung, and the order of service is from the 1929 Scottish Prayer Book, which features such charming archaisms as, “In Quires and Places where they sing, here followeth the Anthem.”

The visiting preacher, the Very Revd Mgr Michael Regan from the Metropolitan Cathedral, wins the prize for the best vestments of the year bar none. Germolene pink satin – rose pink, he called it – with elaborate floral embroidery and a befringèd cope. It even surpasses the gold and yellow number worn by Jennifer Irungu at the Kingdom Church, though he might lose a point or two for not accessorising with sparkly high heels. Maybe that would have been over-egging it.

The readings were Isaiah 35 and Matthew 11:2-15, and the sermon was about preparing a way for the Lord, citing lyrics from Les Miserables and reflecting on what it means to be touched by love, when we can begin to discern what the prophets have been talking about. At just seven minutes long, it’s probably the shortest address of the year, but there was a lot of singing to get through, and having sat through some dire sermons during my mission I'm not going to complain about concision.

I’ve noted a couple of times throughout my year of churchgoing that there’s something aesthetically pleasing about the Anglican liturgy, and especially so when it’s all set to such fabulous music. Does it do anything for me spiritually? Er … no. Sorry. But maybe that’s just because I’m dead inside.

But they’re doing a Christmas carol service next Sunday at 4pm, which should have some good music. How many people they can fit in is another matter, as there’s probably only seating for thirty or so. First come, first served, I guess. 

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Pilrig St Paul’s Church

Sunday Worship, Second Sunday of Advent, 08 December 2013, 11am
Minister: Rev Mark Foster

Déjà vu aplenty this week, as I added yet another Church of Scotland congregation to my list. Pilrig St Paul’s happens to be my parish church, in the sense that I live in the geographical area assigned to it, although I didn’t find this out until the middle of September when my visit to Liberton Kirk prompted me to wonder about the churches on my own doorstep.

Maybe I’ve been to too many C of S churches by now, but there were echoes of other services, not least last week’s at Duddingston Kirk, as Pilrig St Paul’s’ (how many apostrophes should there be?) minister, Rev Foster, is more or less a younger version of Dr Jack – same avuncular tone, same balance of humour and seriousness, similar physique though slightly more flamboyant sartorially in his big blue dress and purple stole.

Echoes, too, of Wilson Memorial’s tiny and barely audible choir (muted echoes, I guess), as Pilrig St Paul’s boasts just four choristers, and the same demographic imbalance seen at Musselburgh Congregational Church – fifty-odd mostly elderly folk, 90 per cent of them female, and three bewildered children. The building could have held four times this number with room to spare.

The children’s address was pretty chaotic, involving an invisible time machine, its invisible keys, the symbolism of purple and clues that had been hidden around the church in Sainsburys bags – honey, hairy shirt … can you guess who it is yet? A bear? Fred Flintstone? Unfortunately, the final item, a leather belt, had been found by a diligent worshipper on arrival and handed in to lost property so it had to be brought out again to complete the puzzle, and even then none of the kids could guess. But, yes, all the grown-ups knew it was John the Baptist.

Kids out of the way at Sunday school, the sermon was about John the Baptist as an unconventional role model, unlikely to win friends or influence people. Rev Foster suggested Hallmark has missed a trick by not producing Advent cards featuring John the Baptist with “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”, or “Ye viperous brood” as the sentiment. But in a nutshell, the rantings of this lunatic preacher (John, I mean, not the Rev Foster) are a seasonal reminder that our lives need turning around.

Readings were Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12 (NIV) and hymns were from CH4. The organ is set in an ornate carved wall of pipes and pulpit, somewhat ponderous in the jaunty little advent carol but coming into its own for the more traditional hymns, but I do have to wonder why the organist passed up the opportunity to use Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen, as printed, and choose Crüger instead. Still, a chorale is a chorale and I suppose I shouldn’t complain. At least they weren’t singing praise choruses.

So I’m almost at the end of my year of churchgoing, and I ought to be asking myself if I’ve actually learnt anything. Hard to say. Nothing new or challenging today, at least. At some point soon, I will need to start gathering my thoughts and drawing some conclusions. 

Monday, 2 December 2013

Duddingston Kirk

First Sunday in Advent, early service, Sunday 01 December 2013, 10am
Minister: Rev Dr James Jack

A reader of and commentator on my blog asked if I’d be interested in visiting her church, which she described in somewhat cryptic terms as a “south-east Edinburgh gem … near the shores of a loch”. Aha! Where else but Duddingston Kirk?

Everyone’s seen Henry Raeburn’s famous picture of the skating minister, the Rev Robert Walker, skating on Duddingston Loch, lovely views of which you can see from the kirk gardens, although Walker’s parish was the Canongate Kirk.

Whether Duddingston’s current incumbent, Dr Jack, is a skating man or not I couldn’t say, but he does have a magnificent baritone voice and a sense of humour that the congregation seemed to appreciate, and I have to say I enjoyed the service. So thank you, Eileen, for the recommendation.

I failed, however, to count how many people were present, mostly because I sat at the back and couldn’t see into the transepts or gallery, but it was a fair sized crowd, and that was for the early service. They do another one at 11.30, so it seems to be a thriving congregation.

We kicked off with – hurrah! – a paraphrase, The Race that Long in Darkness Pined (Isaiah 9:2-7), and as I observed at Craigrownie, it’s nice to know that the paraphrases haven’t been completely forgotten in the move to CH4. The hymn selection was much in the same vein too – Rejoice, the Lord is King, Away in a Manger and O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, plus the more lyrically experimental ‘I have a dream,’ a man once said to the tune of Repton. I wonder if that one will survive to CH5. Slightly odd, though, to choose Lift up your Hearts! We Lift them to the Lord, when we could have had Tell out, my Soul, the Greatness of the Lord to the same tune (Woodlands). During one of the hymns (I don’t recall which), Dr Jack wandered up to the back rather like an exam invigilator, but if he hadn’t done so I wouldn’t have been able to hear his super voice; there are some funny acoustics in that space.

It reminded me of Craigrownie in other ways too. Maybe it’s the village setting, or maybe it’s because both Craigrownie and Duddingston sit somewhere towards the trad end of the Church of Scotland spectrum where their style of worship is concerned – sung amen, stained glass, minister in academic robes, etc.

The readings were Isaiah 2:1-5 and Matthew 24:36-44, the children’s address was about Mary and the sermon was on the theme, No One Knows the Day and Hour. Last time I heard a sermon on this theme, before this year’s mission, I almost missed a ferry from Mull back to the mainland, because no one had told me the service would last almost two hours – I really didn’t know the hour – and with only 13 in the congregation it would have been rude to leave early. But I made it back to Craignure in time on that occasion, and luckily Dr Jack runs a tighter ship than the evangelicals of Tobermory.

He launched into his sermon with a few lines of Santa Claus is Coming to Town, but he quickly turned to the disconnect we can feel during the festive season – “an uneasiness, or even embarrassment, that hovers unspoken over the frivolity of Christmas” while we all run around like headless chickens and Isaiah’s vision for peace among the nations seems lost in the machinery of commerce and warfare. Who wants to listen for the voice of a mouldy old prophet? But we need a mental intermission in the midst of the extravaganza, a little head space to raise that faith question.

I agree. I hate Christmas, and there are still 20-odd shopping days to go.

There were prayers, of course, for those killed, injured and bereaved in the Glasgow helicopter crash. How could there not have been? It fitted with the sermon, really. On the one hand, everyone’s so busy with their exciting lives and their profound ambitions and their trivial daily concerns, and then in an instant everything can change utterly. No one knows the day or the hour.