Mystery Worshipper: Jabez Bunting
Church: Selly Oak Methodist
Location: Birmingham, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 27 July 2008, 10:30am
A large grey structure resembling a 1960s aircraft hangar – a pauper's Coventry Cathedral. One of a series of 1960s churches intended, I guess, to break the mould of the post-war attempts at modernist gothic. The liturgical renewal aims of the premises are writ large: huge wide floor-to-ceiling block reredos; bare, plain polished wood sheepfold-inspired pulpit; communion table designed to resemble a workbench; and matching sanctuary furnishings. In an attempt to look a little more contemporary, they have installed an admirably large screen to one side of the very wide sanctuary, with a projector not quite bright enough for the size and light levels in the building.
They sponsor dozens of social, recreational and spiritual groups all enumerated on their website. Of special note are their house groups that meet on a regular basis for fellowship, Bible study, discussion, talks and social events. This is the closest Methodist church to the University of Birmingham, and historically the congregation has had quite an "academic" reputation. There are three worship services each Sunday, including an evening service.
Birmingham, in the West Midlands, is England's "second city." Its importance during the Industrial Revolution led to its being known as "the workshop of the world" or the "city of a thousand trades." Today Birmingham is an important commercial centre, especially for the banking industry. A major transportation hub, it is also the site of "Spaghetti Junction", a complex system of intertwined loops and ramps joining several major motorways. The church is adjacent to Selly Oak Colleges, a federation of once thriving missionary training institutions whose demise reflects sadly that of mainline British churches.
The Revd Doreen Hare, minister. The Revd Hare is also superintendent minister of Birmingham Southwest Circuit. There were several others taking part who were not named. A young junior school aged girl read the gospel passage.
What was the name of the service?Sunflower Sunday Morning Family Service – the minister explicitly repeated the title several times
How full was the building?
About half full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. The three people near the most obvious and open door (apparently the "wrong" door) were too busy talking amongst themselves. We Buntings had to collect hymn books for ourselves. No one spoke to us before, during or after the service.
Was your pew comfortable?
As pews go, yes, it was OK for about 10 minutes.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Idle chatter, with background organ music. Somehow it was neither quiet, nor reverential, nor warm, nor friendly.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning. As we light our candle, welcome to our Sunflower Sunday Morning Service."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Hymns and Psalms, the Methodist Church's 25 year-old officially endorsed collection. No Bibles or service books were visible. Some people had A4 notice sheets.
What musical instruments were played?
A large hidden pipe organ, played pretty well from a large, very visible architect-designed console.
Did anything distract you?
The minister's odd way of emphasising randomly chosen words in almost every sentence, whilst being quite mono-tonal.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
An odd mixture. It was terribly respectable and humdrum in a chirpy but undynamic way. I assume this was intended as an attempt to be engaging and friendly, but it came over as self-consciously "matey". A sustained, forced, hollow cheerfulness was evident throughout, suggesting that if only we jolly everyone up enough, they won't notice there's no content. It all felt very self-satisfied. There was a call to worship, opening prayers, a baptism, intercessory prayers, and a statement of faith. The sunflower theme was repeated in every section. For example, we were all invited to have our faces painted to look like sunflowers, and when no one did, some pressure was put on old and young alike. A few children finally resigned themselves to go out and get painted, and they came back with very small sunflowers painted on their cheeks. Somehow I expected their whole faces to be painted. This was a motif for the whole service, really: publicly promising more than it offered or achieved.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
35 seconds – see below.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
1 – The Revd Hare commented on the reading in two sentences, and then said, "I'm going tell another parable." Thus, I do not consider what followed to be part of the sermon. She promptly picked up a large A4 ring binder, sat down on the communion area step (making her virtually invisible to almost everyone), and invited all the children who could be cajoled into sitting near her to do so. (They didn't look that keen and so this took a while.) She then commented, "I haven't seen many people getting their faces painted," and encouraged children and adults alike to do so. When no one moved, she started badgering them. Finally an elderly lady gave in, followed by about half the children. The congregation applauded – whether in approval of their getting painted or in admiration that they made good their escape, I have no idea. The remaining children had become somewhat frisky by this time, and they had to be gathered together again. Once that was done, the Revd Hare launched into an indescribably dreary story.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The reading was the parable of the mustard seed, Matthew 13:31-32. She said something like, "This story talks about growth as seeds become big plants. This is just like sunflower seeds do, helping us to worship God's creation." Thus instructed, we were then treated to her "other parable", a presumably fictional tale of a couple who grew sunflowers in their pre-war terraced house. The house was destroyed by bombing, and from the ruins emerged only a single sunflower. But a gang of youths happened upon that single flower and fought over it, crushing the plant and scattering its seeds. At length from those scattered seeds many sunflowers bloomed. The preacher then launched into a series of interactive questions, to which the congregation obliged with answers as best they could. But she kept on saying, "No, that WAS the WRONG ANSWER" or "That WAS not WHAT I wanted." (Upper case indicates words that she emphasised.) I think her intention was to make the point that seeds sown produce a harvest later, but, as all the Buntings noticed and remarked to me afterwards, the real moral of the story seemed to be that until you have a fight you only get one flower. (Oops!)
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The girl who read the gospel passage did so beautifully, clearly and accurately.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Oh dear, where do I start and stop? Most of it, really. There was a strange, slightly sub-Christian air and theology underlying the whole service, presumably intentionally. The name of Jesus was not mentioned even once by anyone, nor did it occur in any of the hymns. (Well, maybe Jesus was mentioned just once, by a member of the congregation in an intercessory prayer.) The call to worship included a line that stated we worship "with God." (Who or what does God worship – sunflowers, maybe?) The opening prayers had to be explained and "practised" before we actually prayed them. These were only possibly addressed to God – they were certainly not trinitarian. The mercifully anonymous baptismal hymn consisted of fragmented phrases, not complete sentences, that neither scanned nor rhymed and certainly made no sense – it seemed on the whole theistically humanistic rather than Christian. The baptismal service had been shortened and edited (which is OK in theory, as the official service is, if anything, wordy) such that almost all hints of the work of Jesus and the Holy Spirit had been eliminated. The parents of the candidate were not asked, "What name have you given this child?" but rather, "What name are you giving your baby?" thus reducing the sacrament of baptism to a post-modern naming ceremony. And the child was baptised "In the name of God: Creator, Saviour and Spirit." We were told not that baptism is a manifestation of the unearnable and unearned love of God, but rather that it introduces us to God's creative community. "Pelagian! Humanistic! Universalist! Deist!" I wanted to cry out. Actually, by that time, I just wanted to cry.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing. We sat tight for several minutes but not a soul bothered to speak to us.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Frankly, after the previous hour's experience, I had all I could do to keep up with the other Buntings as they made their escape! We briefly hesitated by the "correct" door, but decided not to risk it for fear of having someone ask us brightly, "How did you enjoy this morning?"
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – It was the kind of morning that would make me decide to go or travel elsewhere. Mrs Bunting's comment sums it up for all of us: "On the basis of this service, if this were the only church in the area, it would still be the one I would choose not to attend!"
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Sadly – and it hurts me to say this – not in the least. Tragically, this was the singularly most abysmally dismal service I have ever attended in a lifetime of churchgoing.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
That the Revd Hare managed to get through the whole excruciating 53 minutes of the service without mentioning the name of Jesus.