In which Ruth ponders why congregations don’t like new hymns

Two complaints came to my ears this week. The first was that we didn’t know the last hymn. Indeed, when I announced said hymn I did ask Mad Margaret, our deliciously eccentric organist, if it was a new one as I didn’t recognise the first line. Half the congregation shouted NO and the other half shouted YES, so just so be on the safe side MM played it through first. Indeed we did know it, except, it would seem, the person who complained. And her friend.

This is an ongoing problem. New hymns. And I wonder why it is that so many people don’t like them. If I thought it was because they like to sing everything with gusto and not hesitation then I wouldn’t mind. But it is rare that a congregation really lets rip with joy and abundance when singing. (Easter and Christmas being the exception and strangely enough we only sing those hymns once a year.) We like familiarity in Church. We like things to be the same. We like the same liturgy, the same pew, and it would appear, the same hymns. Nothing to disturb us. Nothing to upset us. Tosh!

hildegard-musicI mean, if we never learned any new hymns we’d still be singing some Gregorian Chant with a bit of Hildegard of Bingen for the girls. And I have one person who can’t stand the modern Iona hymns set to well-known tunes. ‘Hymns should never be set to folk tunes,’ they say. Like Vaughan Williams never did it! Ha!

Then there’s the words, the content. Some of the modern hymns (and I don’t mean those banal choruses) are really powerful and far more relevant to some of us. But its like the bible, isn’t it? Some still prefer the King James version to the NRSV – until you ask them to read it aloud, that is. We want to encourage new folk into church but we also want them to sing ‘consubstantial co-eternal’ and understand what its all about. 

Of course not all congregations are like this about new hymns. Actually, that’s not true. They are all like this. But teaching organist with fagthem takes great skill. Now, I don’t sing. Actually, that’s not strictly true – I do sing, perfectly in my head. It just doesn’t always come out the way I’d hoped. So my method for teaching new hymns has always been to get the organist to play it through first and then we all have a bash. It works. Not always well, but in time we all catch on. And often some people do know the hymns anyway. I hate it when organists or choir leaders say ‘Oh we don’t know that one’ as if they speak for everyone. They may never have sung it in that church before but people do visit other churches and places and do pick up different hymns. (I’m starting to get really angry now – teeth clenched etc.)

In Christ Church they only teach new hymns if the choir can sing it first, perhaps a few times, before the congregation is ‘allowed’ to join in. Now the choir sing/lead one hymn and that’s just after communion. And frankly, not all hymns are suitable for the post-communion slot. When I first came here I was told that nobody knew Sweet Sacrament Divine and the choir would have to sing it a few times first. How smug was I when everyone joined in? (Yes, that was considered one of the ‘new’ hymns a few years ago.) A friend was visiting a church in Fife a few weeks ago and told me, in shocked tones, that the Rector had taught them three new hymns in one service. Three! I ask you! How brave is that man?

Anyway, back to the other complaint… that the hymns were too long. This poor person was exhausted by the end of it. Really? For those of you who don’t do liturgy or choose hymns to go with it, let me give you a few hints:

  1. The Introit hymn (entrance) should be jolly and majestic, suitable for a procession, long enough to get the altar party down the aisle and to their places. Sometimes, if there is incense, it needs to be a little longer to allow the Celebrant to cense the altar too and find their seat which make time with all that smoke about. 
  2. The Gradual hymn (just before the Gospel) can be short and snappy and preferably the words should suit the reading of Scripture or fit the theme of the readings. This is not always possible but the Lord knows we try.
  3. The Offertory hymn (when the bread and wine is brought and the collection taken) should be long enough to allow all this to happen. In some churches it involves more incense and there might even be two hymns (eg St Michael & All Saints). Bonus points are given if it also fits the theme of the service.
  4. The Communion hymn(s) are just as people are coming for communion or going back to their seats. The choir may do a beautiful piece as a solo, or in our case the congregation can join in if they have got back to their hymn books. The second one is usually when everyone is back in their place and is slow and reflective and usually sacramental in nature. It may have to be long to allow the priest to also get out to those in wheelchairs and unable to get up for communion. (Unless you have an organist who can ‘twiddle’.)
  5. The Recessional hymn is the one the altar party march out to and might have ‘sending out’ words to encourage us. It should be a bit like the coming in one – fast and uplifting. You Shall Go Out With Joy is a good and bad example of this. Good because of the words, bad because it is only one verse and you’d have to make it a sprint which is never dignified. (Yes, we sometimes play it three times.)

In my defence, the hymns last Sunday had (1) Jesus is Lord! (3 verses with chorus); (2) God of mercy, God of grace (3 verses); (3) All hail the power of Jesus’ name (6 verses with chorus – but the verses had 3 lines); (4) Such love (3 verses) and then O God who at thy Eucharist dids’t pray (4 verses) and still not long enough; (5) O Lord all the world belongs to you (5 verses). Well I managed them and I have COPD and Asthma! 

So there we have it. Rant over. Want to share your love of new hymns? Any suggestions on how to share your enthusiasm?

PS MM is a lovely organist and is extremely obliging and willing to have a go at anything. Anything.

In which Ruth ponders going home

St Michael and All Saints will always be home for me. It was my first church, the church where I grew up, the church where I grew in God. It was the church where I was confirmed at Candlemas, where I sank into my first Holy Week, where I climbed the mountain to all the great Feasts of the Church. It was the church where I was one of the first women to serve at the altar and what a privilege that was, and still is. It was the church where I learned to laugh at religion, and laugh and laugh. It was the church where I first made my Confession and was forgiven and laughed and cried.

Whenever I go back it is like going home. The pews may be hard but they are just the right height for me to sit comfortably. On a good day I can even kneel which I can’t do anywhere else these days. But there is something about the smell of Spiky Mike’s that gets me every time. It is the smell of stones soaked in incense and candles and prayer. And as I dip my fingers in that little glass bowl at the door to make the sign of the cross, I know I’ve come home. I’ve come home and it will be easy to get into that place where you can worship God in comfort and ease. I won’t need to sit and check everything out. I won’t be surprised by anything: be it sudden prayer or unusual hymns. I know how the service will go and it does. I know the Easter hymns will be the same Easter hymns we had when I was there fifteen years ago. I can relax and let go and let God.

On Sunday I was on holiday for my post-Easter breakdown. I’d had a week of reading and relaxing and tidying and pottering. All week I had been wondering where I’d go to church. Go home. Go home. But its a fifty mile round trip. Go home. So I did. And they were all there, those familiar faces, older now with more grey hair. And new ones too, people I didn’t know. People doing the jobs I used to do. I used to read, and do the intercessions and serve at that altar, you know. I’ve preached from that pulpit, you know, and some left and sat outside because I am a woman. I’ve celebrated the mass at that altar, you know. And some stayed away and the thunder cracked and we laughed nervously and I looked out at all those affirming faces and knew it was going to be all right. This is home for me. It is not perfect. It sometimes makes me angry. Sometimes I wish it would modernise a little. Just a little. But home is like that. Home isn’t always perfect.

Spiky Mike’s are getting a new priest soon. Fr Martin will learn to love the sights, and smells and the people just as I do. They were all talking about him on Sunday. What will he be like? Will he want to make changes? Will he love us? And then the conversation quickly changed to the Bishop’s throne and who will climb up to dress it for Fr Martin’s Institution because that’s what Spiky Mike’s think they do best. They make liturgy happen and they want it to be the best for God. (The Bishop’s throne came from a skip outside the King’s Theatre, by the way!)

So I went home. And it is good that home is there for me. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’d change a few things if I could. But maybe its just as well I can’t.

StM high altar

Visiting in Church

Today was a day of visitors. At our early service there was a young man. The fact that we was young made him stand out for this is our early, traditional-language service and the majority of folk are of an age where they can get a free bus to church, if you get what I mean. (Actually we do have a father who regularly brings his three boys all aged under 10 to this service so that they can go and do sport or whatever families do on Sundays.) But this young man was unfamiliar with our service and our church. I did go to welcome him and asked the usual questions: are you visiting? are you from Falkirk? but he was rather non-committal and clearly didn’t want to talk.

When you have visitors in church you want everything to go well. It is a bit like a school inspection, I guess, and you want to show yourselves off in the best light possible. You never know – they might be sussing you out, looking for a new church. Now, its not that we’re desperate or anything but if I tell you that I’ve done more funerals in Christ Church than baptisms then you’ll know where I’m coming from. They say success in church is not measured by bums on pews but frankly I get to differ. The more we have in our little flock, the better, I say. Of course they will become much more than a bum in the pew as we get to know and love them, but its like any family – we want to share our love with them and just hope they will love us back. That’s why we want everything to go well.

It never does, of course. Something always happens to make me realise that God doesn’t need perfect. God just loves a trier. And the Lord knows I’m trying!  So when the sound system decides to make a noise like a jumbo jet taking off and scares the living daylights out of those sitting quietly in prayer just before the service then you know it is going to go downhill from then on. I still don’t know what was wrong with the system and the fail-safe method of switching it off and back on again did nothing to help my own microphone which gave up the ghost. From then on I projected my voice (and I can!) and continued to put my hand to my pocket to stitch the redundant mike off and on when I would  normally do so. Funny that.

Before the second service one of my lovely servers managed to re-tune my mike to the correct frequency and all was well. I am still left wondering who on earth removed it from the correct frequency but sometimes its best not to ask. We had more visitors at that service and as a result the readings on the service sheet didn’t quite match up with the ones we heard. This is always good for unsettling people. We had a new hymn which we forgot to announce so didn’t get a play-through first. Mumbling our way through three verses brought us to a rousing rendition by the last verse. (That is about the average for learning a new tune, I’ve learned.) I’d decided to try something which I do about once a year, and go for an imaginative approach to the sermon. You know, a sort of Ignation, imagining-yourself-into-the-story kind of thing. The sort of sermon you definitely wouldn’t preach if you knew you were going to have visitors that day.

Heigh ho. I love having visitors in church and I pray they will find a home with us. I want to say it isn’t always like today, but I fear it usually is. But remember, God loves a trier. And I’m praying none of them was the Mystery Worshipper.

Church visitors

In which Ruth ponders clergy stress

This week I was doing some work with one of my interregnum flocks about their Congregational Profile. They were telling me that in the town there was a very successful ‘Fraternal’. (Picture Ruth doing a silent scream at this point. I hate the continued use of the word ‘fraternal’ for clergy gatherings especially when there are women in them and nobody things this is ironic.) I suggested they put this on the Profile (not the ‘fraternal’ bit!) as any form of clergy support is important and this led on to a conversation about where clergy get their support and supervision from.

“So who checks up that clergy are doing okay?”

“Who do clergy speak to about their problems if they are single and have no partner to yell at?”

“Who provides line management and supervision?”

And it does seem incredible to tell people that once you are ordained and in your first parish it is quite normal to work for three years without anyone asking if you are okay, if things are good, if you are overworking, feeling confident, managing all right. And that is when things are going well. Far worse if things are not going well, and this is where we get to the touchy subject of clergy bullying. Who heals the healer?

One of my colleagues, Malcom Round at Balerno, wrote a blog about this a while ago. it was a very honest, moving and to be honest, shocking article. (I just wish Malcolm allowed comments on his blog so we could dialogue about it.) I mentioned it on Facebook some time ago and now his blog has been seen by thousands and everyone is talking about it. Kelvin mentioned it this morning too over on his blog.

Malcolm wrote:

Many congregations have broken potentially gifted pastors by their attitudes and actions.  Sadly the Christian church is littered with good people who have left the ministry because of the pain, the criticism, and the lack of support they’ve got from congregations.  Some Christians assume they can behave in a church setting in a way they’ve never be allowed to in a work setting.  Minister abuse is much more common than is talked about”.

Isn’t this a shocking thing to read? Unfortunately clergy are not shocked by this statement because we see and hear of it regularly. We all know colleagues who feel unsupported and criticised by their congregations. We know many who have left the church and gone into teaching, chaplaincy, the voluntary sector and that is a horrible waste of good priests. Yes, of course the opposite can be true too – there are abusive clergy out there and we know the stories but mostly they come from an earlier era. But Malcolm reckons that far more common is the broken minister or pastor.

It particularly happens in small churches where the minister is alone and so vulnerable, especially in churches where there is a lot of congregational power, either in the church  business meetings, or in individuals who have held power and influence over many years.

It is most likely to erupt when the minister suggests any change at all.  Even moving the piano 6 inches, or buying new carpets can create rebellion, let alone removing the pews, or changing the worship style.  All change is perceived as bad and hurts our cherished values.

It also occurs when people feel their position of influences is being threatened by the minister or even new people are joining the church changing the dynamics. Often it is a battle for leadership and influence or personality clashes.

We’ve all met those matriarchal and patriarchal figures in church and we may even have smiled at their outbursts when we suggest the flowers are best on the window sill and not in the font. We may even have had run-ins with groups of them at the door who are not happy about the order in which the candles have been extinguished after Mass. (Truly I have seen a young server bullied for such a thing.) We’ve seen them gathering in corners whispering behind their hands, looking over to the victim of their next campaign and it can be amusing at first. But week after week, month after month, year after year, when you know they will never leave although they hate you (yes, ‘hate’ – these Christians can hate just like everyone else) can wear you down. “Clergy come and go, but this is MY church and I’m not leaving.”  And when you know their plot is paid for in the church graveyard you know they are serious. What else can you do but leave? And pass on the problem to the next Rector.

I might add that I have been very fortunate and have managed to deal with any bad behaviour that came my way. When you are an extrovert you know you are not going to be everyone’s cup of tea and I find it best to acknowledge that aloud as quickly as possible. I’ve also never been afraid to say sorry if I think I have done something wrong. But I also know that there have been folk who have strongly disliked me and have spread the hate around the little flock. You only have to hope that there are enough friends who will support you in those cases. I’m not aware of any nasty letters to the Bishop, although who knows? Perhaps I just haven’t been told.

But Malcolm’s next paragraph was the one that made me gasp out loud:

Such treatment sadly has become normative in the ordained church life.  Which is one of the reasons I personally will virtually never support anybody going into full-time ‘ordained’ parish ministry.  They really do not know what they’re letting themselves, and more importantly their wives and husbands, and especially their children into.  I just don’t want to be pastorally responsible for the ruined health and damaged families and the loss of faith that inevitably occurs.  Is there any wonder why so many minister’s children become prodigals, when they see the damage that the church has done to their parents?

“I will virtually never support anybody going into full-time ‘ordained’ parish ministry.” Oh my goodness! That is a shocking thing to say and I immediately understood why Malcolm was saying it. I have seen friends leave the church. I’ve heard friends cry, I’ve held them as they wept and I don’t know how many priests are on anti-depressants but I bet its not an inconsiderable amount.

I am also aware of another kind of bullying and bad behaviour going on too and that is with retired clergy, lay readers, non-stipendiary clergy who reside in a parish and are not always supportive towards new clergy. In fact sometimes they can be downright obstructive. But who’s going to believe you if you tell them that lovely old white-haired so-and-so hasn’t told you about the house communion with six members of the congregation he does every Friday morning because he’s frightened you’ll take it away from him? Or that he forgot to tell you about the meeting in town because he wanted to go and was scared you wouldn’t want him? Or doesn’t pass on the news that someone is ill, in hospital, etc etc because they are his friend…

So my foster-flock asked who supported me. My clergy friends are probably first call. They are the ones who get the late night rant and who listen and understand and put their own last-minute sermon on hold to empathise. I also have had good Rector’s Wardens who have kept an eye on me and who listen when necessary. (My current one was my Practice Nurse for a while so even keeps an eye on my physical health too and can tell me when my asthma needs checking! Now that’s good service.) I’ve tried talking to my children on occasions but that doesn’t work. They are not church goers and find the whole system unbelievably bad and uncharitable and at times against the law. Yes, against the law, but of course the Church is exempt from some employment law. My children get angry that ‘so-called Christians’ can behave in such a way and threaten to come and punch their lights out. That never works. Really, darling, that is not going to happen. Mental note = don’t tell children again when you are hurt. So yes, you stop telling your children after a while and I imagine that is true of married clergy too. In time you just stop telling your partner and keep it to yourself.

Malcolm suggests some things you can do if you are a church member and are shocked at this article. You can check that their accommodation is good, are paid well and taking time off. In my first charge I worked at least 12 hours a day for a couple of years before my health really started to suffer and I just couldn’t continue. When I dropped to a more ‘normal’ working day it probably looked as if I was doing next to nothing in comparison.  Offer to babysit for married couples, and Malcolm even suggests paying for them to go on holiday but I’ve never been in a congregation where that was a likelihood! However, I have known some deliciously kind clergy who have helped me in that way and for them I give continued thanks and prayers. (I also know some clergy who have two homes and have offered breaks in their holiday homes.)

Be a supporter, advocate, guardian, watch their backs and bless their families. What lovely advice! Speak up positively when others are being critical and I know that can be hard to do but I’ve done it about others, and I’ve done it about Bishops and I’ve never regretted it. If your priest or bishop has been good to you then please say so. Be courageous. Pray for the strength to speak out if you really are shy and frightened. And express your love for your minister, Malcolm says. Write a wee note, give a smile and a wee hug when they’ve said something you needed to hear. We write magazine articles, we preach sermons and sometimes it feels as if nobody out there hears a single word. It can be like preaching into a void. We don’t need big strokes every day but a kind word now and again goes a long way to helping us feel that somebody out there loves us!  And that one word of love goes a long way to overcome the criticism we’ve just overheard. How can we possibly improve or correct things if we are off the mark if we don’t know? But tell us those things gently please. We may seem confident because we can speak in public but underneath some of us are fragile flowers.

Malcolm finishes with Scripture:

Hebrews 13:17

 The Message (MSG)17 Be responsive to your pastoral leaders. Listen to their counsel. They are alert to the condition of your lives and work under the strict supervision of God. Contribute to the joy of their leadership, not its drudgery. Why would you want to make things harder for them?


NIV 17 Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.

Amen, I say. Amen.



Query Corner

You’ll remember that I have been going through the archives at Christ Church. In the magazines there are editions of The Sign which appears to be a publication from Mowbray which churches could add in to their own magazine. It is full of stories, articles about the Anglican church and Our Query Corner: Hints for some of our Correspondents.  Here are some of my recent favourites.

Need one go the Church when it is really very dull, except for Holy Communion?

You are no doubt aware of the obvious dangers of that neglect of the ‘assembling together’ which is the special temptation of the educated in all ages. It was the case with those to whom the Epistle to the Hebrews was written. Our attendance at the normal services is for corporate duty, and to help us not to forget the common good. We can put a good deal into our public worship, and use it for social needs, intercessions, organised worship and work, and the like. It is possible to become too selfish.

(oooh! Take that!)

Should one sit for the Epistle when others do not?

If you seat yourself quietly when the Epistle is read, it is right, and others will join you soon.

(You reckon?)

Why do strange clergy come instead of the vicar at special times?

One reason often is that a fresh voice in a pulpit may reach dull ears, or that a stranger may speak plain truths without being thought to know what has occurred in particular individuals and families to call for it. A stranger sometimes stirs up people not reached before.

(I’ve seen some strange clergy in my time, right enough.)

Mr X says women should not go to funerals; is there any rule against it?

If women want to go to funerals, why should they not go?  Though it should be remembered that in days when certain classes of women made “scenes” there was a wide-spread opinion against the practise. It is, as you may know, the growing custom for the bodies of children and adult communicants to be taken into the church (over night if there is to be a celebration of Holy Communion), and in such cases only intimate friends and relatives as a rule attend the conclusion of the service at the graveside.

(Now, don’t you want to know what those certain classes of women were and how the “scenes” manifested itself?)

Should one make a deep reverence to the Cross?

The deep reverence or bow is reserved for our worship. One does not worship a cross, but one may salute it. A man salutes it by a slight bow, and a woman by a slight curtsey. When going up to communion we ignore the cross, but we make a deeper reverence in honour of the Presence of our Lord in the Sacrament. On coming back we may ignore (or many people do) all signs and symbols, going straight back without a reverence to the place where we kneel down to speak to our Lord Himself. We hope that these suggestions may be helpful to you. They are not rules, but pious customs of some reverent-minded folk.

(Better get practising my curtseys.)

Could one tell a preacher that one thought he was wrong?  preaching

One would scarcely go up to a man directly he had finished preaching and tell him that one did not agree with him, and local circumstances and social opportunities might never make the conversation possible or desirable. We suppose one could consider for oneself the points as to whether one was free and able to go elsewhere; whether one only personally differed from the vicar’s temperamental point of view (as may most easily happen in this world of opinions) or, whether on one side or the other, one really did not consider his views were within the wide limits of the Church of England. “For every evil neath the sun, there is a cure or there is none.” One thing is, if you can’t find the cure, try to possess your soul in such patience that your devotions are not spoilt.

(I dare you. Really, I dare you…)

Single Supper

If you live in Scotland what do the words Single Supper mean to you? Exactly. They mean you want your fish or pie or deep-fried pizza on its own without chips. That’s what a Single Supper is in our chip shops. But we at Christ Church are going to start something entirely new (for us) which hopefully will not involve a fish with no chips.

You see, it is all about single people. I remember being told by a single woman in a previous parish that she found it hard being single in church. I’ve always been single in church and never had a problem and indeed, was quite surprised at her comments. But then, I am an extrovert who doesn’t mind going to things alone. But she felt that most of church was geared towards families and couples and that it really was quite hard to turn up on your own to things.

Last week someone in Christ Church brought up the subject again. She is a recent widow and feels that she’d like to try out new restaurants or go to a movie and wondered if anyone else in church is on their own and would like to go too. A few of us singles had a blether and agreed that we would like to go to the new restaurant at Beancross so we’re going on Wednesday. Of course the person who suggested it doesn’t really want to organise it!! And someone else had to make the booking, but it is a start.

Now we need a name. We can find plenty events and eating places to try. But what shall we call ourselves? The Single Supper Club? But we might not always go for supper… Any suggestions? We want it to say what it does on the tin, ie that it is for singles. But not in a dating kind of way, if you know what I mean. The Singles Club seems just a bit desperate if you know what I mean.

Of course now I feel that we are excluding all those married people who’d love to join us… You can’t win.


It’s time

A few weeks ago a member of my little flock said to me:

“But why do they want marriage? They have civil partnerships. Is that not enough?”

“Where did you get married?” I asked.

“We got married in St ********”

“Why did you choose to get married there?”

“Because we were members there. That’s the church we went to… Oh.   I see.”

And that is why we are holding an evening to discuss such matters on Wednesday 17 July at 7.30pm at Christ Church. One of the things we might do is watch the new video by the Equality Network which was launched last night.  You can link there or here below.

You will see lots of famous Scottish faces. And you might see some not-so-famous too. You may even see some clergy and that was what made my heart soar. Clergy with dog collars saying “It’s Time.” Not clergy ranting and pointing at some verses in Leviticus. Clergy with a positive message instead of an exclusive one.

And haven’t they got good teeth?

Quaking with the Quakers

So you have a Sunday off and where do you go to church? Always a tricky one for clergy. You want to go. You want to receive the Sacrament, if possible. You want to check out what your sisters and brothers are doing out there in the vineyard. One of the difficulties I have here is that I am next door to two parishes where I used to be Rector and it is rather frowned upon to ‘go back’. Especially as they have a new Rector this year. I used to go back to my home parish in Edinburgh but things change and at some point it doesn’t really feel like home again. And if I was a bit braver with driving then I would venture west and try out a certain cathedral there, but that day hasn’t come yet.

quaker-peace-gardenTo digress a moment, one of my little flock has just left us to go to the Quakers. She has always wanted to be a Quaker since she was a teenager and as she is now retired she feels that she can finally do that. (There were a host of other reasons why she couldn’t do it sooner.) We have given her our blessing and she returns once a month when she is on the coffee rota and keeps in touch with old friends. Over a coffee she was explaining to me the preparation process and I heard myself saying, “Can I come with you on Sunday then?” (Well that’s receiving the Sacrament done for, I thought.)

I should perhaps say at this point, that I have worked in the past with many Quakers. When I worked for the Rock Trust with young homeless people we always had a Quaker on our Management Team and they were great contributors. Renowned for their interest in Justice and Peace, I met many in the Voluntary Sector and always had great respect for them. I always intended going to a meeting one Sunday but it just never happened. (Of course, I do know that they do silence rather well and I am not exactly renowned for it.)

And off we set on Sunday morning to the local Quaker Meeting House, which happens to be in a local community centre. As it was the first Sunday in the month my friend told me that the meeting would be slightly different. There would be silence but there would also be a discussion after so there would be an opportunity to talk. However as the group gathered a young woman arrived with two very young children and announced that she was meant to be doing the discussion but hadn’t been able to get anything together so there wouldn’t be one. It was all very relaxed. (How different in our church, I thought. Imagine if I turned up at 10.30am and said I hadn’t had time to do the sermon… Round of applause, perhaps?) There was a low coffee table around which the chairs were set. On the table there were some books about Quakers or Quaker sayings which I was invited to read if the silence got too much. There was also a plant which I took to be the equivalent of an icon or cross – it was our focus for the meeting. We numbered about 9 plus the kids.

The meeting began with no announcement so I nearly missed it (and spoiled it because I was going to ask where the loo was) and suddenly Quakers praywe just lapsed into silence. I was kind of hoping that the Holy Spirit might encourage somebody to ‘witness’ or ‘minister’ or whatever it is they do but sadly She was very quiet herself that day. Some sat with eyes closes, some with eyes open. One man read almost everything on the table. Another woman clutched a small piece of paper with something written on it. The rest of us sat and tried to avoid eye contact. The elderly woman next to me got very quiet and then did some gentle snuffly snoring before going completely silent. So silent, in fact, that I took to checking she was still breathing. The others took it in turns to go and look after the children in the room next door. Near the end the new Evangelical church which also uses the community centre struck up with High Five for Jesus, or at least it sounded like that. It was very jolly. And loud.

An hour later, during which I may have dozed off myself and dreamt or was visited by the Holy Spirit who showed me some birds of prey (? I know, go figure) a woman shook hands with the person next to her and we all joined in and that was it over. (You only shake hands with the person next to you, not like the Peace and go trying it with folk opposite. Oh no.) A wee bit of an anti-climax, I have to say. And then it was coffee time. I expected lots of conversation and interest as to why I was visiting but no. Not one person spoke to me other than to offer me coffee (no decaff available. Who ever heard of Quakers with no decaff?). Now, as you know, I am used to being the centre of attention so it did not sit well with me to be so completely ignored. Perhaps it is not part of their ethos to welcome the stranger. Maybe they don’t do Mission. (How refreshing, not to have to worry about Mission… ) Anyhow, they chatted among themselves about Quakery things and local concerts and Christian Aid. And then we left.

Now one must not make generalisations after only one visit and with only one group… you sense a BUT here, don’t you? No, I shall resist. But I will say that I was surprised that the hour passed quicker than I thought. I did manage some prayer. My observations lead me to believe that most, if not all, Quakers are probably introverts. I missed all the trappings of church to look at : icons, statues, smell of incense, pictures, etc. I missed the liturgy. But I’m glad there are Quaker Meeting Houses for quiet people to go to. Unfortunately I didn’t get to ask lots of questions, like Do you still quake before God or are you more on speaking terms now? Why is nobody wearing a stove-top hat? Why no sacraments? You could do them in silence, if you wanted. Why was your bible the Good News version and have you ever tried something better? (oooh, get her! I’d make a dreadful Quaker.) What’s with the silence anyway? Is it for prayer? Dialogue? Listening? Waiting? How often does the Holy Spirit lead you to speak up?

If you know the answers, please do comment below. I have bought a copy of Quaker Faith and Practice so one day I may get around to reading it myself.

1 star from this mystery worshipper. (If you’d spoken to me you’d have got a whole lot more.)

Leaving Church

When I was first ordained someone gave me a book of Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermons. I put them aside on a bookshelf meaning to read them some time but those early days of new ministry were awfully busy. Reading was way down on my list of priorities. I had had years of reading at University and Theological College… I wanted to be DOING.

Perhaps a couple of years later I heard someone raving about Barbara Brown Taylor, so I dug out the book and had a wee glimpse. Oh what a treat. What joys lay therein. These were sermons to dream over, to ponder, to come back to time and time again. And yes, I will confess to having pinched the odd idea from her.

A couple of years ago I heard that she had left the American Episcopal Church and my heart sank. What on earth had driven her to leave a successful ministry and go into teaching? She who was an icon for all women clergy in parish ministry. She whose preaching was so grounded in the people she served. She whose gift for storytelling and making connections was such an inspiration to the rest of us?

Leaving Church is the book that tells that story. I read it over two days with a pencil by my side marking phrases, paragraphs, whole pages to ponder again and share with my literary journal later. It is the book that you want all your busy, frazzled clergy friends to read before its too late. Passages like this:

I was not doing so well on the inside either.  In spite of my best intentions, I had dug myself back into the same hole that I had left All Saints’ to escape. My tiredness was so deep that it had seeped into my bones. I was out more nights than I was home. No matter how many new day planners I bought, none of them told when I had done enough. If I spent enough time at the nursing home then I neglected to return telephone calls, and if I put enough thought into the vestry meeting then I was less likely to catch mistakes in the Sunday bulletin.  As soon as I managed to convince myself that these were not cardinal sins, one of them would result in an oversight that caused a parishioner’s meltdown… (p98)

…Behind my heroic image of myself I saw my tiresome perfectionism, my resentment of those who did not try as hard as I did, and my huge appetite for approval. I saw the forgiving faces of my family, left behind every holiday for the past fifteen years, while I went to conduct services for other people and their families.  (p102)

In the end BBT ends up in a good place. She seems happy finding new ways of being creative with God teaching spirituality to young people.  Those of us who may not have such opportunities need to do something first before we end up disillusioned and very, very tired.

As my network of support seems to mainly come from social media like Facebook and Twitter these days, perhaps the church needs to look at ways of peer support in this area. As more clergy leave the church we need to ask why? BBT goes a long way to answering honestly some of those questions.

Leaving Church

Holiday reading and viewing

Well, it was a funny old holiday really. Not really a holiday at all. First there was the illness… the cough to end all coughs that has lasted longer than a cough ought to last and is so flipping tiring it is almost the cough that carries you off. So we spent day 1 of the holidays in the doctor’s surgery getting antibiotics and steroids (not the first for this cough, but don’t encourage me or we could be here all day).

Day 2 was spend doing the housework that had been severely neglected over the Advent/Christmas period. You know the sort of thing – rubber duck nativities scattered hither and thither, christmas lights to be untangled, cards to be taken down but only if you are willing to dust and I wasn’t quite at that stage, diary to be updated, etc etc.  Oh, and Rita kitten had just been ‘done’ so I had to spoil her ridiculously, although she didn’t seem in the slightest fazed by the whole drama, and carried on leaping about like a gazelle and cleverly removing her own stitches. (We always knew she’d go far, that one.)

And sleeping. Yes there was a lot of sleeping.

So I didn’t really get into reading mode until about Day 3 and I managed to get through Death comes to Pemberley by PD James. Now, I am a big fan of PD James. And I am not averse to a little Jane Austen either. So I thought that when PD James wrote a book in the style of Jane Austen, and cleverly following on from the tale of Pride and Prejudice, I thought: “What’s not to like?” But I really had to force myself to keep reading. It was okay. But I’m afraid I didn’t think it was a great PD James or a great Jane Austen. It was a 2 stars for me.

My next book was a Christmas pressie from Son #1 – The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling. I’m afraid this was a bit of a struggle too to keep at but the second half did improve things a bit. I just don’t think there were any likeable characters and so I didn’t really care what happened with any of them. Except for Krystal. I ended up caring about Krystal and she was the whore.  2 stars again.

I abandoned Shoot the Damn Dog by Sally Brampton which someone had recommended. It is a memoir of depression and perhaps is more interesting to people who have been through that or very close to someone who has. I don’t usually give up on a book although I have begun to come to the conclusion that life is too short to read bad books. But this one just didn’t seem to be good enough for holiday reading. Perhaps I’ll go back to it.

Then yesterday I went to see Les Miserables at the cinema. Now this gets a big 5 stars from me. For some reason, I’ve never seen the stage production although I did share a flat with an ordinand once from Gateshead who had a penchant for the soundtrack, in particular ‘The Sound of Angry Men’. I came to hate those angry men.  Nor did I know that it was an opera and that the whole thing was going to be sung and that took a wee while to get into. Especially as everyone sung so much higher than me – and that’s the men I’m talking about! But once I got past that, and the very obvious white teeth, it was absolutely riveting, moving, and rousing. I just adored it. And I’d go back tomorrow.

Last day of holiday and one has to find a church. Oh what a dilemma. I really must learn how to use a Sat Nav – and indeed buy an up-to-date one. But in the end I had to go and visit Papa and drop Son #1 off in Edinburgh so I ended up going ‘home’. Should have checked the website first! It was a Children’s Service! Woopee. You know, I think I’m just going to leave it there.

So it was a funny old holiday. It doesn’t really feel as if I’ve had a week off. The house is still not completely tidy and the back of my mind is still niggling with Lent courses. (Anyone recommend a good one?) The good thing, I suppose, is that the cough is nearly gone. Not quite but almost. I have caught up with sleep. And today I made my first ever Chicken Liver Pate. It remains to be seen if it tastes any good.

Oh and how is my New Year Resolution, I hear you cry? Well, not very well, thank you for asking. You may remember, dear Reader, that my resolution is to buy no more fiction this year. I have a bookcase and a Kindle full of unread books, not to mention all those books I’d love to read again. Someone asked me yesterday how it was going and I said ‘not too bad’. He then pointed out it was only 12 days. Blimey, it felt like I’d been at it for months. So far my Amazon wish-list has grown by 8 books. That’s not bad, is it?