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. 


  1. At least you got to a Watchnight service - the one I would have gone to was cancelled on account of the bad weather forecast.

    Agree with your comments about the over commercialisation of Christmas. It's no fun when you see mince pies on the shelves in September. Three months of the year are dedicated to Christmas in retail!

    There was a cartoon in the Christmas edition of "Private Eye" that summed it all up. A family of four, two adults and two children on their way to church, one child says to the other "why are they taking us here anyway".

    Christ might well be "the reason for the season", but it's not remembered by many.

  2. I have read this blog with much interest over the last wee while. My major challenge to you is that I don't believe you are exploring faith at all - you are reviewing churches based on what you like and don't like.

    A huge proportion of your comments are based on how something sounded - e.g. music "feeble voices" "dire praise music", the timbre of speaker's voices etc - or looks, how long it goes on for etc. All of your comments on based on your perceptions of what you see and hear in other people. Almost nothing relates to God or, as you put it on your bio, 'faith'...

    The Christian life is about the heart and I suspect you have been around churches long enough to have heard that. HOWEVER, I suspect it is this very thing that turns you off at the moment because you have seen and experienced hypocrisy in others which has caused you to default into a position of commenting on what you see rather than what you believe - I think it was Mark Twain who said "I would accept their salvation if they looked like a people who had been saved"...

    My suspicion is that every time you hear the phrase "personal relationship with Jesus" you cringe... but I also suspect this says more about you than it does about 'preachers' or about Jesus. I worry this is more about your own isolation (this seems like an unhealthy solo project to me and should either have been done with a group of friends or, dare I say it, not at all). The fact is, faith is as it is defined - trust in something you cannot necessary see or control and this is where I can see no evidence in your quest... rather than exploring "faith one church at a time", I feel you are actually exploring church, one faith at a time and the result of this can only be isolation, confusion and dissatisfaction.

    'Faith' is a lifelong journey and I recommend in 2014 you change how this is done... Why not explore faith one church at a time by committing to one church for a year and if you don't feel any more complete, commit to another one for a year... I suspect the outcomes would be very different and I believe by immersing yourself in the culture of one institution you will find yourself more at home and more able to truly explore faith. I go to a church which has it's issues and I often disagree with much of what is said, but my role as a member is not to agree 100% with all the teaching, but rather to prompted into thinking about it and finding what I believe.

    Here's one thing I know... Jesus loves you. That for me has to be the starting point, not what key they sing the songs in... find somewhere that allows you to believe that and everything else will fall into place.

    You're obviously incredibly bright, musically talented and resolute in your opinions. I guarantee that every one of the churches you have ripped apart this year would be better places if you committed to one of them and contributed to how they operate.

    1. Thank you, Neil, for reading the blog and for taking time to comment so fully. I appreciate the interest that people have taken in my unhealthy little project, and I will be trying to draw a few conclusions in the next week or so based on my year of reviewing.

      I've never pretended that I can offer an in-depth view, just snapshots, and I recognise that my approach has its shortcomings, which I've acknowledged throughout the year. But first impressions count and a lot of them aren't good. Your Mark Twain quote sums it up; the people you meet in churches aren't the greatest advert for Christianity.

      I agree that faith -- whatever that is -- is probably a lifelong journey, but I can't see myself committing to one church for a year starting in 2014. Been there, done that, and for much longer than a year.

      I dare say it's true that my cringing response to the "personal relationship" shtick says more about me than it does about any of the churches I've visited. They are obviously doing something right or they'd have closed for lack of worshippers, and I am obviously doing something wrong, or feeling something wrong, or being something wrong.

      And yes, I'm scathing about some of them and I try to leaven my observations on some of the worst aesthetic offences with a bit of humour -- I can't not comment on the silly hats and squeaky voices -- but the underlying purpose of exercise, even if I have failed to express my feelings clearly enough, has been a serious one.

      If you "know" that Jesus loves me, that raises epistemological questions for me. I would need to see the evidence, interrogate the sources, and cross-examine the witnesses, and the in/convenient thing about Christianity is that the reasons Christians give for their faith usually boil down to one of the following: a) unquestioning (or perhaps partially questioning) reliance on a book; b) personal revelation, which raises all the same questions of proof plus a whole bunch of other psychological ones; and c) following in a moral/cultural tradition. I'm afraid I can't get past the theology/philosophy to accept a faith position that requires me to reject logic and rationality.

      All of which leaves me at the end of my year pretty much where I was at the beginning, but having seen some sights along the way.

      Where next? I don't know yet. That's the honest answer. I just don't know.

  3. Hi Soul searcher...thank you for your blog. I was listening to a lady called Jackie Pullinger-a very candid, non-conformist Christian, who is delightfully eccentric and painfully straight forward. In a recent interview she echoed much of what you've said. Interestingly, the turning point for her on her journey of/to faith was when she finally met Christians who, in her own words, "actually seemed to enjoy Jesus".
    I assume (my powers of deduction may be totally skew iff!!) your a lecturer/research fellow at uni; possibility in Philosophy? Anyway, I in no way have the academic credentials you do but can relate to some of the epistemological questions you have, that make it a tad difficult in the realm of Christendom at times. I think there's an attitude of passivity (if that makes sense!) endemic in the “institutional” version of Christianity, which in my not so humble opinion, stifles any kind of meaningful dialogue and certainly doesn’t encourage those pesky, annoying questions/ers . However, a book that challenged my pre-conceived idea that to believe in/follow Jesus we have to throw away any vestige of rationality or logic, is Nancy Pearcy's book " Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from it’s Cultural Captivity"-once you get past the Americanisms It’s a really well researched book and a big chunk of it explains Nancy’s search for God, and how the logical inconsistencies of other worldviews forced her (even against her will!) to accept that Christianity was the only logical way to explain reality. In coming to her conclusion Nancy critiques other philosophical/world views chapter by chapter, but in essence the book's aim is to demonstrate that the Christian world view is entirely compatible with science and reason. I read the book a while ago, and needed to read it twice, with a dictionary handy!! I would love to hear your views on the book and the arguments she makes.
    In answer to your question “what/where next?”, why not do wee book reviews on your blog? (Schedule permitting). People could suggest books for you to read. You could give a wee review/critique and people could respond/discuss/dialogue.
    House group is the way forward for me I feel-I think I'm finished with church as we know it.
    Thanks again soul searcher... your a brave lass to expose yourself (in the metaphorical sense) to all those churches. Don't judge the Jesus of the gospels by an institution that has strayed so far from his message and mission.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Anon. Alas, I am nothing so estimable as a lecturer or research fellow. The philosophy degree was more than twenty years ago now and I've followed other paths since. These days I'm a struggling writer/editor and part-time parliamentary reporter -- forbidden, by virtue of this latter employment, from blogging about the most significant event of 2014, but that's bureaucracy for you.
      It's interesting that you've found the house group to be the way forward rather than the institution. If that's part of a wider trend, it would be difficult to map; I don't imagine there's a church census collecting statistics about people who are just doing their own quiet thing. That must have been how Christianity got started, before Paul started writing letters and bossing everyone about.
      I'll look into the books you mention. I never have the time I'd like to devote to reading these days, but I resolve to read more in 2014, so you never know ... there could be the occasional book review, but I don't think I could manage one a week.

  4. I've loved reading your blog Soul Searcher! It's nice to have a view point from "the outside in" if you will. Actually, it's been refreshing!
    I'm a Christian (although that term is used so freely, it's ridiculous and I'm not at all a "typical" Christian.) but for me, faith isn't about church. Faith is about God. It isn't a church or a denomination. It's deeper. Let me try to explain what I mean. Here goes :)
    "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." (That's from the Bible. Might as well define faith straight from the source. Hebrews 11: 1, if you're interested).
    Faith, essentially is Substance and Evidence. Faith is made up of things hoped for, that's its substance. Christians hope in God and His promises. The evidence of this faith, this hope, is our day to day lives (if I understand correctly). So you see, faith is really just about You and God. NOTHING else.
    Faith, is a deliberate choice. Only YOU can make it. Besides, what have you to loose? All God really wants of us is have faith. Hope in Him, and His promises, and show this with evidence in our lives. He isn't going to condemn you (so far as I know) for not going to the right church or not going to church at all for that matter.
    And Neil is right, Jesus Loves YOU. As to logic and reason, what of them? Can't that too be just a matter of personal feeling or conviction? What's logical to you, might not be to me! By the way, what kind of faith position are you talking about exactly in your comment to Neil?
    Anyway, I hope this helps... somehow. Maybe this all just sounds like a rehash of stuff you've already heard, but I thought I'd try!
    I'll be praying for you, I really will!


    1. Thank you, Rebecca-Joy, and please accept my apologies for not responding before now. I must have meant to come back to this post and got distracted ... the same goes for the Anonymous comment of 6 Jan.

      As you'll have seen from subsequent posts, I'm still not sure, and not sure that I'll ever be sure. But I do like logic. I like to be able to back things up. Of course, that too could change ...

  5. For me I had to make a concerted effort and choice to separate the "church" from the truth claims and person of Christ. I wouldn't judge Nelson Mandela by his family history, or how his family choose to behave, so why on earth would I do the same with a man who made the truth claims Jesus did; a man who has had a far greater affect on human history and society than any other human being.

    May be house church is the future for the church-God's way of bringing folks back to basics, de-professionalising the ministry, and breaking down the barriers of tradition, nepotism, and misogyny. You should try a house church near you-and blog on it lol.

    Look forward to hearing your views on the book.

    Have great 2014 Soul Searcher!!