Sunday, 14 May 2017

A Church Visit

I made a decision that from May this year I would be free-floating in terms of religious activity. This couples with the decision to withdraw from all local Unitarian religious activity. It means I have gone from attending every week to attending no weeks on a Sunday. I still go on a Friday for social connections, to maintain a basic contact for the time being, although this is reviewable. If it proves difficult to maintain a basic contact, then I will stop it.

I have not made any commitments to keep silent about local matters, but I am not out to cause difficulty (despite an apparent reputation otherwise); the best thing would be a possible return in some years time to see a restored, healthy congregation, even if my leaving was at a time when others still there would have hung on and hung on. However, sometimes in talking about somewhere else, there are implications in the negative. I know that, and I don't know how to get around that other than to say it doesn't always follow that a positive in one place implies a negative in another. But if you want to read between the lines, do so - just remember, this is all you are doing.

The danger though is that there is something you can write and publish, and then things you can't or don't want to write in public, the result being that you say them in private; and when you say things in private one to one you know the gossip machine is then active. You then see the implication of sticking plaster all over orifices that can speak and hear and chains where you can write.

These restrictions are too great. So the only option is to try and go along a narrow, delicate line, because there are points I want to make and, frankly, with as much respect as possible I am going to make them. So here goes.

After a gap of two weeks going nowhere I went somewhere. I won't say where but anyone in the know will soon guess.

This was to an independent church. Indeed, I asked about this, and the chap I asked said there is an informal link with a church in Lincoln, but at a time when both churches had similar problems Lincoln had enough on its plate and did not want to help. So it really is independent.

Three people at the Unitarian end of things have a link with this church. One is a member and one name was quoted to me there, who is actually a Unitarian member. The other is attached to one of them, and that is probably the extent of involvement.

So what is this church? It has long been on a site of churches, and there was a Lutheran church in situ. Now it is a modern building, with an upstairs, but the main hall is a full height atrium that doubles up as a sports hall. That doubling up is in keeping with its provision as a place of practical community offerings and not just religion as a speciality. Indeed I was told how the hall was arranged for BBC Question Time held there on one occasion when it came to Hull.

Not only is the building fit for purpose, but so is the audio visual set up. So let's describe it. One the corner of two roads, the seating faces the shopping street. In front are these almost full height long windows divided into square tiles. The surrounds are coloured but the glass is not, the effect being a rainbow arc. The windows colouring is made by the large tree close outside, the sky and buildings. Above these long windows is long across windowing in the shape of an arc. So there is light in the place. It was the local authority who demanded the long windows. Only once did the screen projection look a little washed out. The rest of the time it was fine.

The attendance went over sixty as the service started, and late comers and others put the number to 70. It was not full. Three times as many with extra seats could have attended comfortably. There are no hymn books, and only 'Red Letter Day' papers like envelope size with pens to write after the sermon how God had helped you at some time. They had been left under the seats.

Facing the windows, then, was a stage on which the "MC", one of the four leaders (two married couples) stood. Either side of him were speakers, and at the far edges two hefty speakers. The screen was high up with a fixed projector on a long pole. The projection was accurate.

To my left (I was by a centre aisle) at the front row was about four people with one directly working the visual display. This included relevant pictures, biblical quotes and the song/ hymn lyrics that were repetitive and even banal. The only theology in them was a Jesus-unitarianism in the face of human sin. No Charles Wesley equivalent at all! To my left as well was a band that involved one of the four leaders: he led most of the worship from there with his guitar. His wife did the sermon. Everyone was very informally dressed. I'd say they were in their forties. They are all included in the seventy number. So was the chap behind me in a kind of reception area. When I dropped these red papers, he jumped in to pick them up.

The ethnic mix was good: Black African and Caribbean, South East Asian, and quite a few children about. There may have been others elsewhere - if so, that's on top of the seventy.

Now to me the audio-visual fundamentals were in place, and it did make me a bit annoyed. This was smooth and supporting, and the volume level was never loud despite power. I once set up an audio system with the same result, although mine was stereo from the back as well as front.

The MC said the service would start in two minutes, and it started with notices repeated on the screen. He asked who were exiles into Hull (a good minority) and made loose references to ransomware (he was wrong: it was not an attack on the NHS), mental health and then mentioned Jesus as the light of the world. The worship leader then came in with quiet guitar merging into a song and then his brief talk how God helped him and then another - Amazing Grace with additions.

Then there were three testimonies, including a chap know to get things going, and a recovering alcoholic. This was followed by an unintended song, but found to go on screen.

The collection was followed by a sermon given by one of the women of the four. She spoke of her own doubts and faith, once reading a book that gave logical atheism and this took a long time to shake off. Her faith was restored by a retreat at Whitby. Three years she's been leading. She used C S Lewis to talk about the practice of faith to result in the habit of faith. She mentioned people who think Jesus didn't exist and was only myth and legend. Never 100% convinced, the church aimed to be practical and direct, not theological, and make outsiders welcome. Referring to the 'Dark night of the soul' often experienced by the long-term believer, she moved on to Hebrews 10:32-36 and asked people to fill in Red Letter Day slips that stated how God had helped them, some of which were put on the wall by their writers. She also wondered how she had become a leader, with her husband, having never been to "Bible College" (I said later I noticed she said this, and not theological college or seminary) and she told me she's not going either.

After that came a song and end prayer, and it all lasted about an hour and a quarter. This was followed by chat with tea and coffee and water from thermos flask type distributors (there is a cafe or seating area: I was surprised people didn't move over there).

So a chap described me as "a theological Jeremy Corbyn" so I asked if the words were not "Theological Theresa May". When he said he admired Calvin and Luther, I said I don't and that they were "thugs" - Calvin a killer and Luther an antisemite. He said yes the people you uphold as saints are mixed. I said Servetus, who was killed by Calvin, was an idiot and full of his own ego. He was more an off-beam trinitarian than unitarian, I said. To someone else I was misinterpreted as wanting to join a home group, and I think it was deliberate misinterpretation. I said how I could not join in with the words as they were not my theology, despite the informality and practicality. The first chap said they are biblical even after he said they were "liberal". He meant liberal in a social sense, and practical. (I do not know if they are inclusive in the more contentious areas: I rather doubt it, but there is a strong sense of interfaith co-operation).

Although I did fill in a contact card - see, they are on the ball - the fact is that the church is not there for people like me. It is there for the ordinary folk around the city, not theological anoraks. Although not dogmatic - and no Lord's Prayer, no statements of doctrine, and brief if more meaningful prayers for believers - the songs were down a narrow line that did encourage a few to put their hands up in the air.

As well as giving contact advice, I was via misinterpretation given a card for when house groups meet, and there is one for newcomers meeting one time. I know someone who called it "Bible Class" and indeed I was told this morning this is the basis of the home groups. Nevertheless home groups are the method of integrating people into churches. Thus church also has an 'urban retreat' for contemplative prayer and it has help for the unemployed, debt advice and similar urban life difficulties. It has kids and youth club.

It is not the place for me, but it does things well. It has them sorted out, it seems to me, and the basics are working foundations. This means, principally, an audio-visual system, good light and space, disabled simply included, people on the look out, smooth presentation even when informal, coherence, and cards. The cards cover the basic service, home groups, next step home group (singular) (presumably for newbies), the urban retreat, and the various age-group gatherings and when. Plus there is the contact form to fill in on paper. Every church should have these, regardless. To me, the cards and the audio-visual are priorities, and so is professional and smooth delivery. You do not need orders of service or even announcing all the way along: just do it and have the preplanning that everyone presenting knows what is coming along.

This church is near one also in a student area that I would not touch with a bargepole. It is Reform Anglican Evangelical, and is fighting an internal holy war within Anglicanism via its obnoxious ethics. So that one is not on my list, but there was much positive in my visit to this independent church, independent in a contemporary sense and not historical. But it is Reformation.

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