Sunday, 4 June 2017

Church Tourism 4: the URC

The one place I wanted to visit now that I have started my 'church tourism' was the URC church at Chanterlands Avenue in Hull.

The delay has been because of perceived inaccessibility (parking on Chanterlands Avenue is limited and over a bicycle lane: I ended up at the end of Victoria Avenue and walked down St. Ninian's Walk (after whom the church is partly named) and because it is so early at 9:30 am, a characteristic of shared ministry.

This minister is soon retiring and it won't be in the mode of Frank Sinatra. He made a joke in the service about being overruled regarding a difficult hymn tune and said it was time he retired.

A website (not theirs) claimed an attendance of 56 and 118 with children. I thought to myself, if this is so it will be remarkable. Of course it was not. I was the nineteenth person there. There were 7 men among us (I'm also including the minister) and no children. There is an associated scout group.

I shall go again next week, all being well, because it is a Fresh Expressions type service: Cafe Church. And it is at 11 am and with the other minister. It is also in a gathering area, not in the main church.

The church can seat 140 (I counted, roughly) on comfy enough chairs but with nineteen people the hall looks fairly empty. But also the roof is reflective and the hymn singing got absorbed into the echo. The organ has to be loud to overcome these acoustics.

The other surprise was poor light. There are plenty of windows but they are not getting the light to come in. The situation is helped by the whitewash throughout but the internal ceiling lights were needed.

Now I am 58 and was probably the youngest there. I thought the minister might be younger but he is retiring. His sermon reflected Pentecost and was fairly standard regarding the biblical account and its intention. The sermon included a dig at those who call themselves 'Bible-based Christians' when, he said, all are Bible-based. I prefer and even need to sit through hymns and did, but I stood at the first when requested and the Bible was brought in. I'd rather not stand to the Bible!

The service had its opening and a hymn, to then went to the notices (read by an elder?) plus collection, and the sermon came before a hymn and an intercession that merged into the Eucharist preparation. Interestingly the wafers were brought by the woman (elder?) mentioned and another woman to the people in the seats, and everyone then ate at the same time, and the same happened with the little glasses of wine. I did not partake.

To me the notices should be at the beginning or the end. However, I always disliked the collection following a sermon, because it appears like a payment for the effort or even agreement.

Some features were familiar with the Unitarians at Park Street! I'm talking here ten years ago and previously. Obviously the hymn sandwich was familiar. But a surprise was the sung Lord's Prayer to exactly the same tune as at Park Street. Also 'Come Down O Love Divine' was often sung at Park Street, this time for Pentecost.

It's always a bit of fun to turn up somewhere unknown. People think it could be someone new, for me then to declare it's church tourism. It was also odd perhaps that I knew their history rather well, able to refer to Dagger Lane restart origins and that their Cottingham church gets money from the same source as the Unitarians [Leonard Chamberlain as a Presbyterian]. I also said how the reconstituted Presbyterians moved to Spring Bank (suburbs then) in 1875 and Unitarians to Park Street in 1881, that the Presbyterians moved outward again but the Unitarians did not.

But I was also able to praise the place, in conversation with the minister, for its pro-LGBT stance - "Oh yes," he affirmed, and said I nearly attended when Jeremy Pemberton came and gave a talk. I don't think the minister recalled who he is. I said I am not gay myself but I just think it is the obvious right thing to do.

Now the obvious point is that ten years from now this place will be struggling to stay alive. I note that since the joint ministry started, Holderness Road URC closed in 2014. The other URC church in East Hull has stayed out on its own; I noted with the minister that the URC is necessarily loose since the 1972 merger.

The problem is I just see no future in that standard Protestant service. I'll see if the discussion/ activity service next week is an alternative. However, a church member keen to see me go admitted that it is the people who already attend who keep the Fresh Expressions going. The sermon referred to "our growth" in the context of Pentecost, but growth is not the reality.

In some ways the nineteen is better than might be expected. After all, it is better than the Quakers and better than the Unitarians. And the URC does have a church in Cottingham and in Swanland, both of which should be larger. However, when you think of the population of these areas (it seems most at Chanterlands Avenue church are relatively local folk), nineteen (however many are missing) is a pathetic number, as is the number attending all the other churches I have visited so far. In terms of the population and interest, these churches are already dead.

At least, though, the United Reformed Church realises its condition and is discussing what the future holds. And although its churches may seem to be fragile, the fact is that, say, a Methodist church just as top heavy goes down at the same rate. If people really believe in an active Holy Spirit (I doubt it; people don't think like this habitually any more: I definitely do not) then the real question would be why such an active Holy Spirit is breathing its effort into reducing and closing churches.

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