Morningside Baptist Church

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.

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15 Responses to Morningside Baptist Church

  1. Rob says:

    “I felt like pointing out that actually Moses saw God face to face, but I didn’t really want to make a scene.”

    Correct me if I’m wrong but doesn’t Moses only see Gods back?

  2. Francis says:

    How interesting to see that these Baptists have finally awakened to the challenge of working to liberate the Dalits (untouchables). Apparently after centuries of Christian missionaries ignored the problem, they are finally joining the Humanists in taking steps to deal with it.

    So far it seems the Christian response is to throw money at the problem. Perhaps they will distribute Bibles to the Dalits; that will surely help a lot (sarcasm intended.) Meanwhile, for decades, the Humanists in India have not merely preached to the Dalits – they have MARRIED them. Deliberate wedding of Brahmins to Dalits is eroding the religiously-enforced caste system. Why didn’t the Baptist missionaries think of that?

    In India, the Humanists not only choose their own spouses from opposite castes – they provide legal weddings for inter-caste marriages and they recruit volunteer couples to get married without Hindu sanction.

    Girls rescued from the prostitute caste are taught to read and write, trained with a skill so they can support themselves, and given the means to live a dignified independent self-supporting life, mostly with sewing machines. Somehow i think a sewing machine is a gift more useful than a Bible to help set free a young Indian woman. If she wants to get married they help her find a husband.

    The Humanists’ liberating approach has the support of the Government of India. Its initiator, Sri Gora, was featured on a postage stamp, and Princess Anne of England paid them a visit when she visited India. Where were the Baptists? Prayin’ and praisin’ while the Humanists were WORKING for change?

  3. It definitely wasn’t boring!

    In fact it’s really interesting to see what MBC looks like to someone who’s never been before. I was really sorry not be at the ‘Alternative Christmas Service’ last night.

    You distinct impression was probably correct – we do lots of us know each other. I mean not everyone knows everyone (there are about 800+ people who are part of MBC). But I’ve got friends there who are more like family now.

    Anyway, hope you don’t mind me gatecrashing your blog!! (you can always delete my comment I guess) 🙂

  4. grammarking says:

    Rob, Numbers 12:8, (God has come to the tent as the pillar of cloud and says) “With him [Moses, as opposed to the other prophets] I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” – New International Version

    brunettekoala, thanks for dropping by. Remember, commenting is not gatecrashing! I only moderate my comments to prevent spam and hatemail, I don’t censor.

    Francis, noone is denying the massive contribution humanists have made in fighting the caste system. I would be the first to advocate practical help in the place of prayer and Bibles, but credit where it’s due. I don’t think it’s a good idea to be criticising someone after they’ve started helping. I would be interested in finding out exactly what the Baptists have been doing, though.

  5. peter says:

    interisting.
    2 points.

    1. the sermon thing the woman read/performed was a modern paraphrase of the first chapter of the gospel of saint john. see a regular bible for more info http://www.catholic.org/bible/book.php?id=50

    2. for more details on what the organisation mbc is supporting the dalits through see http://www.dalitnetwork.org

    thanks for your writings.
    peter

  6. Duncan says:

    Interesting post. I think on the “seeing God” point, I think the verse relied on there would imply that no one had seen the “Father” (John 6:46) but clearly, as you pointed out, it says in the bible that people have seen God – the consensus view on that is that it was in the person of Jesus. My favourite story is where Jacob wrestles with God.

    Anyway, I wasn’t there on Sunday so I can’t speak to that. I can speak to the Dalits though. mbc is partnering with OM and the work of the Dalit Freedom Network to 1) advocate the cause and try and influence for change 2) educating the children through providing medium level English language schools to give them an equal footing with higher caste systems 3) organising self help groups to help women to save 4) offering micro finance 5) funding start up companies. Yes, we clearly as a church have and will support churches and bibles and prayer. But we’re also very much involved in the practical day to day care. A group of us went out this summer to see how we can help more over the next few years. Hope that helps to clarify.

  7. Stuart Ritchie says:

    ‘Other than sharing a worldview, we have very little in common.’

    Ah, so other than the huge amount we have in common, we have very little in common. I see.

    ‘I’m increasingly starting to think that the view of humanism as “all the goodness, none of the bullshit” isn’t strictly accurate.’

    Humanism, my friend, is what you make of it. Some of us don’t need to be shepherded around by others and made to feel guilty in order to give to charity (or whatever), we just do it.

    Strange, just the other day I was reading about a scientific study which found that Evangelical sermons like the one you attended release higher amounts of endorphins in the brains of attendees than, say, Church of England ones. So no wonder you enjoyed it! But if you want endorphins, try going for a run or something next time. That’s genuinely all the goodness, none of the bullshit.

  8. Clare says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed the service. Maybe you could work on getting the Humanist Society more involved in charity and voluntary activities. I’m sure there are other societies and local organisations it could get involved with. We do need to work on building a welcoming and supportive humanist community. There’s also no reason why humanists shouldn’t work together with the faith societies to raise money for a common agreed cause. I’m sure that what would inspire you would inspire other humanists as well.

  9. Tim Maguire says:

    it’s a fair point, Mike and one that Julian Baggini made a few months ago when he wrote a piece in The Herald about the growth in popularity of humanist weddings in Scotland.

    He says, among other things, “The wedding statistics show the limitations as well as the strengths of humanism as an organised movement. The self-limiting paradox of humanism is that it is most popular when it does what religions would otherwise do; but it would not be humanism if it tried to do all that religions have done.”

    At the moment, secular humanism is quite a young and comparatively fragmented movement in the UK – the Humanist Society of Scotland doesn’t own its own office, there are no permanent meeting places and most humanists pursue their charitable and voluntary activities independently.

    That may change over time, but I’ve a feeling that many old-school humanists take a Groucho Marx attitude to joining clubs. Perhaps your generation can change that – i hope so!

  10. Jason says:

    Mike,

    The service you described is the kind of thing I experience weekly at my church. I sincerely wish it could be that way everywhere.

    Maybe, like you said, it’s an American thing. I’m aware that the history of the church in the UK is complicated, to say the least. I suppose that could explain a thing or two about the popularity of secular humanism over there, although I know it’s a strong movement on my side of the ocean, too. Much of it is a response to the Roman Catholic Church and the mass exodus they’re experiencing. Some of the former Catholics end up in Protestant churches, but I expect a greater percentage lose faith altogether.

    While you may be determined not to be “converted back” to Christianity by your faithful friends, I can tell that the Holy Spirit is at work in you. God has plans for you, brother.

    Jason in America

  11. grammarking says:

    Stuart, I was merely commenting upon the community aspect of religious groups which humanism doesn’t have. Religion does have some merits, even if they are outweighed by its downfalls.

    “other than the huge amount we have in common, we have very little in common. I see.”

    Well, no. On a practical, day to day level, the naturalistic wordview that humanists share has little to do with what we do each day, whereas a religious person would argue that it’s a factor in everything they do.

    Tim, I remember reading that article in the summer, I like the way it takes such an analytical approach, even when that doesn’t show humanism in an entirely positive light. And it’s a good point. Roger’s told me a few times about his dream of having a humanist building around which to build a community.

    Jason, I expect some of what I saw is very much an American thing but those aspects which I considered most American (which I noted, such as a closed-eyed, fingers-stretched singing) actually put me off.

    I wish people would stop telling me that one day I’ll find Jesus or I’ll turn back to the church. It implies that atheism is just some naive little phase that won’t last. It’s not. It’s not that I’m ‘determined’ not to be converted back. I would be perfectly happy to go back to Christianity (or believe in any deity, for that matter) if good evidence of its truth were found. So far, I’ve seen none, and I don’t anticipate that I will.

  12. Jason says:

    Mike,

    If you read carefully, I didn’t say that you were going to rediscover Jesus or convert back to the church. I merely said that the Holy Spirit is at work in you. Through my faith, I understand that God loves all of his creation, even those that don’t believe in him. He loves you even if you don’t love him. While you may not ever find yourself comfortable with organized religion again, I suspect that your investigations will eventually steer you back to “faith” of some sort. Many great secular minds go through the same struggle as they achieve “enlightenment”, only to end up in one of two scenarios. The first is that they come to believe in God, and the second is that they die feeling scared, confused, and alone.

    Jason

  13. grammarking says:

    So God has some plan that doesn’t involve me going back to Christianity? So he has a plan for me which involves me burning in hell? No thanks.

    Your false dichotomy of what happens to secular minds is just not true. Plenty of atheists (and I would argue more specifically humanists) live happily fulfilled lives.

  14. […] demonstrating under a humanist banner. I know that the Not-Quite-So-Friendly Humanist has written before about a lack of specifically humanist philanthropic charities, and the O Project aims to encourage […]

  15. Gordon says:

    MBC is Edinburghs wealthiest church. They turned over £1.2M last year.

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