So tonight was the night of the eagerly awaited alternative christmas service at Morningside Baptist Church. You know that ‘root of all evil?’ documentary where Richard Dawkins comments that the New Life Church is a bit like a rock concert? It reminded me of that quite a lot. This sounds stupid, but it was weird being in a round church. Every other church I’ve been in was cross-shaped. And there was a big screen at the front with images projected on it, and there was a very enthusiastic pastor (can’t remember his name). He actually seemed nice though, I don’t think he’ll go like Ted Haggard…
So I noticed there wasn’t a lot of religion involved at first. We walked in to Christmas songs played by the brass band, and then the pastor spoke about the “Just Christmas” thing, a kind of campaign where they want people to spend half as much on Christmas as the normally would, and donate the other half to the church which will send it off to a good cause. Last year they raised £60,000 and built a school for children in the Dalit (or untouchable) caste in India, the pastor said the money would be being sent out to ‘those guys’, so I presume it’s the same cause this year. All the way through there were a group of people at the back of the stage painting a canvass of a landscape, which they then covered up in adverts to show how humans had ‘ruined it’. When the congregation Then he invited his friend Howard onto the stage who did a standup routine! There was a bit more music by Hannah, the President of the CU (this particular church seems popular amongst CU members), a cake baked by the pastor and his wife got auctioned off for the charity (£250, seemingly quite a well-off congregation – I’ve also just realised that it sounds like his wife got auctioned off but she didn’t, it was just the cake), and there was a bit of an interval, complete with a snow machine spraying fake snow on everyone from the balcony above! Not a whole lot of God going on, I was impressed!
The second half was much more godly, Howard came back on and did some more comedy from Joseph’s perspective which was funny, but ended on the rather sober point that Jesus wouldn’t grow up to be a carpenter because he was destined to die to save humankind from sin. Then there was a mini dance-drama put on by the children where they used no props except for some identical sticks and no costumes, just identical teeshirts, but tried to show the Christmas and Easter story from the perspective of Mary, with the recurring message that Jesus was still her little child right through his crucifixion (that was surprisingly creative and well-coordinated, actually).
Then a woman came on stage and gave a really enthusiastic sermon/diatribe on the true meaning of the virgin birth with really dodgy theological statements such as (paraphrasing) “so a man called John was sent to show the way to the life-light which was Jesus, and so he’d come before Jesus, but really Jesus was before him because he was there from day one”, with noone pointing out how absurd what she was saying was. She also claimed (and it was later repeated by the pastor) that noone had ever caught even a glimpse of God before, noone knew at all what he was like, and Jesus was putting God right in front of everyone in plain sight. I felt like pointing out that actually Moses saw God face to face, but I didn’t really want to make a scene. We sang some carols (O Come All Ye Faithful and Hark the Herald, so nothing too offensive, at least not of Onward Christian Soldiers proportions), and we went through into the back (the building was deceivingly large) where there were refreshments and everyone could chat more informally.
It was great, I thoroughly enjoyed it (thanks for inviting me, Ruth) and only a couple of times did I cringe (such as when the pastor reflected on us having a relationship with God – I hate that expression, and when some people started singing really enthusiastically, eyes closed with one palm high in the air like you’d expect at an American church, that was quite… unexpected). It was totally unlike any service I’ve ever been to in the past, in a good way, although my Catholic friend Womble would refer to it as ‘happy-clappy’ (as did the pastor at one point). I suspect that, had I gone to a church like that in my youth, I’d still be a Christian.
It also reminded me of something I miss quite a lot about being an active member of my parish, and that’s the sense of community. At several points we were encouraged to talk to the people around us, and I got the distinct impression that most of the congregation knew each other. Humanism is nothing like that; other than sharing a worldview, we have very little in common. Humanist organisations are also fairly poor bases off which to do charitable work and I think there is considerably less opportunity to get involved in charity outside a congregation than within one. I know at school and church I was always involved in some kind of fundraising or something else, but since leaving I haven’t, really. It’s partly to do with time, partly to do with lack of motivation, but I think most of it is lack of accessibility. Don’t worry, these aren’t the kinds of things that would turn me back to Christianity, but I’m increasingly starting to think that the view of humanism as ‘all the goodness, none of the bullshit’ isn’t strictly accurate.
Sorry this was a bit long, hope it wasn’t boring.