Mystery Worshipper: Seoirse
Church: Gilmore Place Free Presbyterian
Location: Edinburgh, Scotland
Date of visit: Thursday, 15 July 2021, 7:30pm
A former United Presbyterian church, it was bought by the Free Presbyterian congregation in 1921. Large and quite imposing on the outside, plain and austere on the inside.
The congregation was formed in 1893 but suffered an immediate split when it was decided to hold services both in English and Gaelic. The present congregation consists of a large mix of ages. There are morning and evening Sabbath services, with another service on Thursday evenings. Communion services are held on the third Sabbath in May and fourth Sabbath in October.
They are located just outside the centre of Edinburgh's Old Town, with a lot of bed and breakfasts in the surrounding roads.
The minister led and preached the sermon. Several members of the congregation led prayers and psalm-singing.
What was the name of the service?Thursday Prayer Meeting.
How full was the building?
Around 30 people in a building that could seat around 150 on the ground floor and another 50 or so in the balcony.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
An usher handed me a Bible, explained that the psalms we would be singing were in the back, and showed me to a seat on the back row of the church.
Was your pew comfortable?
Hard wood with a thin cushion on the seat. Not the most comfortable, but definitely not the worst I've ever parked my bum on.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Apart from people in the lobby saying hello, total silence.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Let us praise God with the words of Psalm 35.’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Holy Bible, King James Version, with metrical psalms printed in the back. Some people had their own psalm books.
What musical instruments were played?
The music was a cappella traditional Scottish psalm-singing.
Did anything distract you?
It was a close summer night in Edinburgh – I had to take off my suit jacket and roll my sleeves up, while everyone else seemed to be managing in long cardigans and even big coats. An old lady next to me alternated between falling asleep and furiously scribbling notes during the sermon, but the distraction was welcome. There was one chatty baby who was taken into the back of the church as soon as the service started and could be heard fussing next door throughout the service.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Extremely austere, very traditional Presbyterian. A cappella psalm-singing. One man was told by the minister to lead. The minister then read the passage we were to sing, then the man chosen would stand. With the rest of us sitting, he would begin singing each verse and the congregation would join in. It was very slow, not especially melodic, but in its own way rather beautiful. This was interspersed with long, meandering, muttered, extemporaneous prayers from members of the congregation. Then Psalm 20 (‘The Lord hear thee in the day of trouble …’) was read. The sermon followed, then a final prayer, then more singing, and a final benediction, before we all shuffled out into the street.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 — There is a Presbyterian cadence that I'm sure many readers will be familiar with. This minister used it. I almost fell asleep, and, as mentioned above, the lady next to me actually did. He seemed to be preaching extemporaneously or with the minimum of notes. He meandered, repeated himself, muttered, and generally seemed to be doing all he could to lose our attention. Or perhaps I've been spoilt by flashy Catholic priests and their ten-minute wham-bam homilies.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The minister discussed Psalm 20:7 (‘Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the Lord our God.’) ‘Human resources’ will fade away; only God will be left to trust in. Those who put their trust in man will come to ruin.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The psalm-singing was moving, in its way. Not something I would listen to recreationally, but quite beautiful, and very peaceful. Certainly makes a change from loud Baroque anthems.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Where to begin? The long, meandering prayers; the long, meandering sermon; the atmosphere of absolute misery; the fact that only men spoke. Women covered their heads. And the stuffy air – could have done with a couple of desk fans at the very least!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We all filed out row by row. Everyone gathered in the street next to the church and seemed to be chatting away. One man caught my eye and we had a brief, awkward conversation. I asked him about his religious background and he seemed uncomfortable answering – or maybe I'm reading too much into it.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None was served, but I imagine this is due at least in part to covid restrictions that we're still under in Scotland.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 — Though there's no doubting the devotion of people who will put up with a sermon that bad on a Thursday evening rather than watching Inspector Morse on the telly.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Can't say it made me glad to be a Christian – but it certainly made me more grateful for my home congregation.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The psalm-singing. It's the first time I've heard it in public and in English (rather than Gaelic).