Monday, 14 January 2013

Portobello Spiritualist Church

Service of Worship, Sunday 13 January 2013, 6.30pm
Visiting medium: Glynis Dailly

After the morning's sermon on the Holy Spirit at Holyrood Abbey Church, spirits of a different kind were (allegedly) in evidence at this service, one of the oddest I’ve ever attended.

Visitors to the Portobello Spiritualist Church could be forgiven for thinking they’d been transported back in time by several decades. There’s a faded end-of-the-pier kind of feeling about Portobello at the best of times, and the only people out and about on this cold, wet night were the hardened smokers puffing away outside an uninviting bingo hall. But turn off the grim little street and down the pitch-black alley and you find the unassuming building with its meeting room draped in blue velvet and suffused with the faint but pervasive whiff of Zoflora – a scent which for some Proustian reason I associate with the 1970s, along with carbolic soap, over-diluted lemon squash and those old canvas stacking chairs that never stacked right but sent up a cloud of ancient dust whenever you moved them.

Thankfully the chairs in the PSC were rather more up-to-date and comfortable, but the time-warp feeling persisted, probably because the choice of hymn tunes was also evocative of mid-20th century tastes. Two successive hymns with identical metre were sung to the tunes of “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine” and “Beautiful Dreamer, Wake Unto Me”. Now try to sing them both and tell me you don’t get them muddled up!

Apart from the feeling that we were playing One Song to the Tune of Another, the most interesting thing about the hymns had to be the lyrics. Take, for example, “God of the granite and the rose! Soul of the sparrow and the bee!” They rather put me in mind of the hymns Margaret Atwood wrote for The Year of the Flood, in which a religious sect called God’s Gardeners try to survive in the aftermath of an apocalyptic event. A fine book and well worth reading … but I digress.

So after opening with hymns of an ostensibly Christian persuasion and a reading from 2 Corinthians, the platform was given to the Rev Glynis Dailly, who said prayers naming God and Jesus, and then gave a speech which amounted to a less-than-accurate and highly selective synopsis of the book of Genesis. For example, she claimed that there were two of most kinds of animals on Noah’s ark, but in some cases there were three – a male and two females. No, no, no! Go back and read Genesis 7 again, Missus. Two of every unclean animal, seven of every clean animal, and seven of the fowls of the air, I think you’ll find.

Inaccuracies aside, the burden of her sermon was broadly that you have a covenant with God and you get your rewards in Heaven … or as she put it, in the higher realm of life.

Now, I’d been expecting claims that people could hear voices from beyond the grave, and nothing of the kind had happened yet. But the exhibition of psychic gifts was still to come, and sure enough after we’d sung another hymn it was time for Ms Dailly to tune in to the vibrations of the congregation. It’s worth noting, by the way, that there was no further mention of God or Jesus while this charade proceeded.

There were communications for nine people (not for me, obviously) with vaguely reassuring messages from various dead relatives, three of whom suffered from chest complaints before they passed to the higher realm of life, and she even felt the spiritual presence of an adorable little lapdog who used to love ginger biscuits. Okay … moving swiftly on.

I’ve no doubt that the folk who believe in this kind of thing derive comfort from knowing that their loved ones no longer suffer, are watching over them and are ready most Sunday evenings around 7pm to come back for a wee visit, but it’s basically cold reading plus a whole lot of local knowledge; several of the people for whom she had communications were clearly well known to her before the meeting. I would like to see Ms Dailly try tuning into my vibrations … if I have any, which I very much doubt.

Spiritualist mediums must truly believe that they have a gift. If they were completely cynical and bent on defrauding people, would they combine their performances with Christianity? Wouldn’t they be filling theatres and charging top dollar like Psychic Sally? The phrase folie à deux springs to mind, although in the case of this evening’s service it ought to be a folie à plusieurs, or more accurately a folie à quarante.

Still, personal messages from the spirit world for nine people out of about 40 isn’t bad going. Perhaps over the course of a month there’s time for everybody to get their vibrations tapped. But I won’t be going back to find out. 

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