Sabbath morning service, Sunday 10 February 2013, 11.00am
Minister: Rev. George G. Hutton
What does “welcome” mean? I find myself reflecting on the disconnect between signs on the outside of the building saying “All Welcome” and “Visitors Welcome”, and fifty people inside the building who uttered not a word of welcome to this visitor, far from her Edinburgh home for the weekend but determined to continue the mission. Admittedly, there were two men in the vestibule who shook my hand, but I suspected they probably wouldn’t have done so unless I’d stuck my hand out first (was I breaching some kind of FP protocol by being so forward?), but I don’t recall the word “welcome” being used then or at any other point in the next hour and thirty-five minutes – yes, really! – and in exchange for my “good morning” to the woman who sat in the same pew as me all I got was a grimace in return.
The FPs have a fearsome reputation for being grim, joyless and uncompromising. Deserved or not? I wasn’t sure, but I approached this service with an open mind and a fair idea of what to expect – no instrumental accompaniment, sit down to sing but stand up to pray, and a leg-cramp-inducingly long sermon to sit through. It couldn’t be so very far removed from the many hundreds of other Presbyterian services I’ve attended in my lifetime. Could it?
Now, I do like a metrical psalm, I must admit. I’ve never been one for trendy worship music, and what was good enough for King David is good enough for me. There’s also an admirably robust logic behind the exclusive psalmody practised by the Free Presbyterians and other churches that have evolved down the same branch of the ecclesiastical tree that seems apt and in keeping with their view of scripture. How many times must I have sung my way around the psalter, and to how many tunes? Enough, I thought, to find no surprises here, so I was somewhat taken aback to encounter three tunes I’d never heard before. They were pitched a wee bit too high and the overall choral tone was less than harmonious, but everyone sang, which is more than can be said for some congregations I’ve been part of. The psalms, incidentally, were Psalm 24:1-6, Psalm 8 in its entirety, and Psalm 132:11-14.
But the main event, of course, was the sermon. Mr Hutton affects a “pulpit voice”, with a sing-song cadence and phrases of almost exactly equal length, lending everything he says a hypnotic quality. That might have been one of the reasons why several people nodded off, and I actually heard snoring at one point, but they might just have been exhausted by the sheer length of the sermon. I’m estimating at least 50 minutes – the other 45 being taken up with the three psalms, one bible reading (1 John 3, whole chapter) and one very long prayer – but it might actually have been longer. I wasn’t wearing a watch, and it didn’t seem appropriate to fish around in my handbag to check the display on my mobile phone.
The theme of his sermon, taking 1 John 3:1-3 as the text, was the nature of “sonship” and the privilege of being sons of God and therefore being like Christ, who is not ashamed to call us his brethren. Everyone sitting in that church, said Hutton, was either a child of God or a child of the devil. There is no in between, and that should be a matter of concern to us. Unless you are born again, you are a child of the devil, but a sinful world rejected Christ when he came unto his own and continues to reject those who receive and believe in him. This will always be the case, and Christians can expect to be despised by the world. Cheerful stuff!
The three text verses were frequently intoned throughout the sermon, which gave the appearance of being a deep and detailed theological argument but actually contained so much repetition that the salient points could probably have been delivered in around fifteen minutes if he’d been more concise about it – or indeed in a little over 100 words, as above. Nevertheless, I got the impression that the capacity a) to deliver and b) to endure a long sermon might be considered a virtue for preacher and congregants respectively.
I took a lot of notes, but no one else moved a muscle, except to slump involuntarily into slumber, and I found myself waiting for something conclusive, convincing, persuasive … whatever is supposed to seal the deal and send you home thinking about what you’ve heard and what it means for your life and your relationship with the Almighty. But that moment never came. Maybe I should have surrendered to the general tone of droning portentousness and allowed all that muted indignation to wash over me like whale song, because by analysing what was actually said I realised I’d pricked the balloon … and after he’d spent so long filling it with hot air too.
And then suddenly, in the final thirty seconds of his sermon, Hutton changed tack and issued a bizarre non-sequitur of a coda, as follows: “How sad it is that someone brought up in a Free Presbyterian manse should support the position of the present government, which would legislate to permit a gross immorality that is an abomination to God the creator.” That’s verbatim, by the way.
Clearly this was a reference to the legalisation of gay marriage, but who was the individual in question? I haven’t followed enough of the debate to know which son or daughter of the manse has been thus estranged from the church whose unforgiving code of ethics he/she had no doubt been expected to adopt, and cursory Googling has found no more than an FP petition to the Scottish Government on the subject with no names named. The congregation, one presumes, knew exactly who he was talking about.
And then it was all over. A final short prayer, a few notices about service times, the communion in Dingwall and a forthcoming sermon on “the history and destiny of the Jews according to scripture” (I’d like to have heard that, actually), and everyone left the church. They couldn’t have vacated the place faster if there had been a fire drill, and hardly anyone spoke … not to one another, and certainly not to me. No handshakes on the way out, no valediction, no eye contact, no acknowledgement of my presence. That’s their prerogative, of course. It’s their church and their faith and I don’t claim to be worth noticing, but I wonder if they ought to amend their signage so that it reads “Visitors Admitted” or something of that ilk, something that promises less than “Visitors Welcome”.
“Visitors not actually turned away” might do the trick. It occurred to me I could have turned up hatless and betrousered just to see what they’d have done. I wouldn’t, of course. I’m not setting out to shock or insult anyone, or to draw attention to myself, but I left with what are no doubt diabolically inspired feelings of cheerlessness and disappointment.
Chilled by the cold wind as much as by the FP experience, I headed along the road to Costa Coffee. The young man behind the counter smiled at me and I could have hugged him; I was among human beings once again. It was a simple transaction. All he was selling me was a latte, but he did it with good grace. The message the FPs are selling – that Christ has bought sinners their salvation through his death and resurrection – is infinitely more significant, though the sales technique is unlikely to win many loyal customers. But that seems to be just how they like it.