Churches, and the last few days

Let me tell you about two churches that I visited on Sunday, the 5th of January. Both were quite close to where I stayed, both called themselves Anglican, but each was very different from the other.

The previous night, I had searched for churches near where I was staying, figuring I would find one close by; and sure enough, there was one just up the road, called St. Phillip’s. The website looked good; nice and friendly and a little informal, so it was there that I went first thing on Sunday morning. It was a small congregation, and it soon became apparent that what I had taken to be informal community church in fact conducted itself in the manner of a very formal Anglican church – two reverends in ceremonial robes and sashes; high vaulted ceilings; an ornate Catholic-looking altarpiece off to one side (that is not to be offensive, it just reminded me strongly of the 15th-century counterparts that I had spent a long time looking through at the National Gallery and Victoria and Albert Museum over the preceding two days); and strangest of all to my Baptist heritage, a program that showed every word that was to be spoken through the service, with call-and-responses, group prayers, sit down and stand up points and the full lyrics to every hymn. Working through it all was a very interesting experience, but I got the impression through it not that it was a chore that had to be done, or that it was a tradition that was kept up for traditions sake, but that the people there really embraced tradition and fully held that they had value. And soon enough, I began to likewise enjoy this different, more reverent and more communal style of communing with God. Kneeling to pray, expressly confessing sins together, and saying prayers together made me feel part of the community as well as an individual, which is a balance I have rarely seen struck as suitably as here.

It was the week on the liturgical calendar (another tradition I was not familiar with) where the church would celebrate the wise men coming to Jesus, so they had a little ceremony where kids came up to the front and presented the nativity scene at the front with gold, frankincense and myrrh, delivering a prayer appropriate to each one. It seemed to me that following this pattern may be a good thing for churches to do: it covers a good proportion of everything in the Bible over the year and grounds the discussion and reflection in particular events, rather than ephemeral spiritual and theological concepts that can sometimes become nitpicking or go over people’s heads. While I’m not sure it would be a good thing to stick to forever, it would certainly be a good thing to try as a church for a year.

Predictably, the sermon that followed was on the theme of the gifts to Jesus. However, what was actually said was far from predictable. The reverend went through the three gifts a number of different times, talking through the different levels of meaning that they held. She argued that the gifts represented costly presents, a prophecy about Jesus’ life (gold for a king, incense for someone who is to be worshipped, myrrh for someone who is to die), and a way of teaching some of the main ways that we should be living as people (gold for helping those in financial trouble, myrrh for helping those who are sick and dying, and frankincense for honouring God). She then went a little further with frankincense and suggested that it also represented the visceral, sensory kind of ceremony (bells and smells, as it was referred to) that was shunned by the Anglican church for centuries after breaking with the Catholic Church; and that maybe it was something of a baby thrown out with the bathwater of medieval Catholic indulgences, corruption and greed. To illustrate this, she’d put out some frankincense and myrrh for everyone to smell and try this different style. I found the talk engaging, challenging and intelligent; and I was suitably impressed.

After the service finished, I went into another room for morning tea, where pretty much immediately a local named Leslie came up and introduced herself, welcomed me to the church, and got us both a cup of tea. For the next 30 minutes Leslie introduced me to several other people, and I chatted with everyone – talking about where I was from, what I was doing in the UK, and about what they all did as well. They all made me feel very welcome (and not in a culty way, either, just by being friendly and interested :P). People gradually drifted away, and soon, it was time for Leslie to go too. I told her how great it was that everyone was so friendly, and that I had enjoyed visiting. She said that I should feel free to come back any time I’m nearby. And you know what? I think I will.

After that I walked through Hyde Park and had some squirrels almost climb on me and then saw some eating walnuts which was amazing; I visited some galleries that are in there, and a little Italian garden with fountains and urns and things that Prince Albert had made for Queen Victoria. I snooped around a winter festival/fair thing, which was significantly classier than the Melbourne show and free to get into (I think what did it for me was that they didn’t use the big white tents but had it all set up with uniform stands with wood-panelling like a bavarian beer house), lost my gloves and found them again. On the way back I snooped around some fancy clothing stores, which are all on sale at the moment; and Harrods, but I didn’t stay long because they were all closing.

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But! Getting to the point, I realised that I was possibly near Brompton (I was on Old Brompton Road, but it was dangerous to assume, because we all know that Old Dandenong Road and Hawthorn Road are both not very close to the eponymous suburbs) and sure enough, the next building I came across was Holy Trinity Brompton’s office (famous as the originators of the Alpha course)! It took me a little while to find it (including asking for directions inside a massive catholic church that turned out to be just in front of HTB) but I got there. It was on my arrival half-way through church, so I stayed for the subsequent full service at 7. Their program was pretty much the complete opposite of St Phillips – 90% megachurch (large numbers of people, professional band on a stage, many many different ‘teams’ for all different things, video news not really saying anything) with 10% Anglican (communal prayers of confession, queuing up for a communion with wine and wafers), but I still got the vibe that they kept the Anglican things because they were good. Their music was good, with lots of songs I hadn’t heard before and hastily noted down to look up when I got home; but I kind of found it less friendly, more anonymous and more stratified or organized, in terms of having prayer teams and communion teams and ministry teams and all the teams, even though the service would have been considered quite informal. The talk was on beginning the New Year and starting afresh, and was exciting but I couldn’t tell you any more than that, even half an hour later.

So the deal is this: I would probably still go back to both, but I wouldn’t time my trip to visit HTB like I would for St. Phillips. It may be that I am a cynical person when it comes to the big-church vibe, and have a natural predilection for community friendliness and a bit of old-fashioned tradition and reverence; but I felt not only that St Phillips represented something new and interesting to me (both in terms of the content and the very British congregation and cup of tea), but that it was a friendlier place and more authentic community. Comment below if you agree, or if you disagree!

Quick précis of the following three days as well, so that everyone is up to speed; feel free to enquire of me directly if you’re interested in knowing more about anything.

Monday: After sampling a traditional full English breakfast, I spent most of the day trudging around feeling grumpy after London’s bike hire system had a big error on me while trying to get to Greenwich, and they couldn’t fix it for eight hours; but I eventually enjoyed walking along the Thames, and got in through the serious security (worse than an airport, including full-body – full-body – frisk, and having everything from my padlocks to my books confiscated) to watch the House of Commons talk about the widespread flooding across the UK. On my walk home through Westminster, I happened on a pub doing half-price food on Mondays, so I had a very enjoyable and large meal for about $10.

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Tuesday: Visited the Tower of London, which I was extremely excited about; it turned out to be excellent, and I highly recommend every guided tour and the Torture at the Tower re-enactment (not suitable for small children, as my mum would say). Crown jewels spectacular, White Tower greatly stirring the history nerd within, great views of Tower Bridge and of London’s CBD, and the classiest gift shop I have ever seen (real helmets and shields for sale!!). Met up with several McCoys at the Tower, and had a jolly old time (despite losing each other in various configurations throughout the day with no method of contact). Just next to the Tower, almost overlooked: the oldest church in London (AD675), which has an amazing crypt museum underground, including a 2nd-century Roman floor (which I enjoyed especially because it was in the floor), 10th-century Saxon stonework, a memorial to William Penn (founder of Pennsylvania) who grew up there, and (a highlight) an altar stolen from Jerusalem in the First Crusade by none other than the Templars! Upon my return, the guys from my hostel room all decided that we would head down to the pub together, I had a pint and a half of English cider and for the first time felt a bit tipsy, and we all enjoyed ourselves immensely. Upon my return, and possibly still a little under the influence, I decided to remove my beard. I regret nothing.

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Wednesday: Woke up early, very carefully planned out to catch the coach up to Edinburgh, which of course I arrived perfectly on time to be half an hour late due to misreading the ticket. National Express was extremely good about it, and got me onto a connection via Birmingham, which then ‘called at’ (as they say instead of ‘stopped at’) Glasgow as well as a small number of other places. After a mad dash back to the ticket counter because I realized I had dropped my passport and all important documents folder, I was safely installed on the lengthy bus ride up. It was remarkably comfortable, which I enhanced by spending the whole time plugged into the provided power point and watching thirteen episodes of Community (I also looked out the window and enjoyed the scenery, but it was wet and grey so there wasn’t much to see, and anyway it was dark by 4pm). At my arrival, Jane and Grant Gebbie were waiting for me, and all very glad to see each other. Since then, I have been made extremely comfortable at their flat (with a wonderful view of the monumental Arthur’s Seat out the window), experienced my first dram of Scottish whisky (from Scotland’s smallest distillery, no less – the indiest of all the whiskies), and enjoyed a semi-traditional Grant-style Scottish breakfast (semi-traditional because the large bowl of overnight-soaked, salted porridge had no milk but did include a banana). Now I sit in a comfy chair, looking out on the dawn turning Arthur’s seat into a golden mountain.

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For those who’ve made it this far: congratulations! There will be more to come in future days, so stay tuned as I get out into Edinburgh 🙂

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