Mystery Worshipper: Queenie
Church: St John's
Location: Cairns, Queensland, Australia
Date of visit: Sunday, 20 September 2009, 9:00am
The most striking thing about the church was, for me, its openness. There are large shutters down each side of the building that open to let the breeze through. This is a very effective way of cooling the building in the tropical climate of northern Queensland. As we sat in church, we could look outside to the lush gardens and hear the birds.
Their many activities are set out in detail on their website. There is a large indigenous population in Cairns, which is represented within the congregation. About a third of the congregation were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people. Cairns is also a popular tourist destination, and about a quarter of the congregation this day were tourists from all corners of the globe. There are two services each Sunday, the schedule being expanded somewhat on the fourth Sunday of each month. On weekdays there are services at the church as well as at a local retirement home, and prayer and Bible study groups in people's homes.
Cairns is the capital of the tropical north. It is a base for tourists who want to see the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest. There are myriad opportunities for adventurous activities and extreme sports, but also for the increasingly popular eco-tourist. As such, the place teems with tourists, many of whom have made Cairns the first stop on a tour of Australia (or at least of the east coast, as far south as Sydney).
The Revd Stephen Tabo, associate priest, celebrated the eucharist. He was assisted by the Revd Elisabeth Daniels, associate priest, and the Revd John Simons, rector. Mr David Curtis, who may have been a churchwarden, preached.
What was the name of the service?Family Service with Joyful Worship (boy, were they right about this!).
How full was the building?
It was less than half full. Having said that, I sat about a third of the way from the front. There were not many people in front of me. The back half of the church was not quite as sparse. There were about 50 adults and 20 children (babies through to teenagers) in all.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
This was done particularly well, and at several levels. First, we were met at the door by a lady who introduced herself, asked our names and if we were visitors, and where we were from. She explained the books to us and told us that the service would be on the screen. In addition to this, during the five minutes prior to the service starting, the rector walked up and down the pews personally welcoming people. He explained that, unlike the earlier service, this one would be more upbeat and would reflect the indigenous nature of congregation. Then, at the beginning of the service, he welcomed all the visitors (and there were quite a few) by name, saying where they were from, each introduction being received with applause from the congregation. This was one of the more extraordinary welcomes I've had in a church! People continued this friendliness during the exchange of peace and into morning tea afterwards. Very impressive.
Was your pew comfortable?
Well, you know, they were wooden pews. As far as wooden pews go, they were no more uncomfortable than any others – except that we sat on them for a long time.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Prior to the service, people sat in the pews praying or chatting quietly or reading their bulletins. Since the fellowship area was immediately adjacent to the church, and since the shuttered windows were wide open, we could hear the friendly conversation of the people enjoying a cuppa after the previous service. A couple of people worked with the projector. The lady on the electronic keyboard played some nice ethereal music for five to ten minutes before the service started. And then the rector started welcoming people individually in their pews. (Still impressed by that...)
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, friends!" to which we responded with a hearty "Good morning!" The rector continued, "The Lord is here!" There was some confusion about what the correct response to this should be, so he told us that we should say, "His Spirit is with us," and we tried that part again.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
We were given a copy of Complete Anglican Hymns Old and New and a Bible. In addition to these and the bulletin, we received a welcome pack to tell us about the parish.
What musical instruments were played?
There was the electronic keyboard accompanying some of the songs with a nice new age-type sound. In addition to this, there was a small group of Torres Strait Islanders who played instruments (two guitars and a bongo-type drum) and led us in the singing of some of their traditional Christian songs.
Did anything distract you?
There were two things. The first was that the lessons were read from A4 sheets of paper rather than from the Bible. This is one of my pet peeves, as it gives the Word of God an air of impermanence. (I'm refraining from launching into a sermon here.) The second distraction was this: During the great thanksgiving, the rector continued to stand at the lectern but held his hands up in much the same manner as the celebrant did. It was as if he could not fully let go of this part of the service, or as if he believed that it would not be legitimate without his participation and blessing. It would have been more gracious (and less distracting) if he had quietly stood to one side, or even sat down in the presider's chair, and trusted God to work through the hands of the priest saying the prayers.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was happy clappy, but I can honestly say I have never enjoyed happy clappy more than I did this day. The Islander people led us in the singing of some of their own Christian songs. The women sang beautiful descants above the congregation, who followed in the actions and dance moves in a natural and joyful way. It was hard not to get caught up in the spirit and the joy of a people who still find their spirituality in their land, and who sing and dance in celebration of creation and life. Early in the service, the children were dismissed for Sunday school amidst a sea of hands raised in blessing upon them. When the children returned to the church from Sunday school, they were so mixed in with their friends – Anglo, Hispanic, Indian, Indigenous, Asian – that I was unable to tell which children belonged to which adults!
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The preaching was not the style I usually prefer. The sermon was one of a series of sermons about "Becoming a Christian Giver." It had more of a Bible study style, where passages were pulled out of the Bible to illustrate the point the preacher was making.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
There were four main points, and these were listed (with space for notes) in the bulletin. A generous Christian giver will recognise (1) the need for sacrifice, as did the widow who offered her only coins (Luke 21:1-4). This foreshadowed Christ's own sacrifice. (2) God's abundant blessing and his promise to reward those who give (Malachi 3:6-10). (3) The need for faith. We must not just talk about our faith, but be compelled to do something (James 2:18-26). We must be prepared to take risks and be vulnerable (2 Kings 4:1-7). Finally, a generous Christian giver will recognise (4) God's real priority. The story of the rich young man (Mark 10:17-22) is not about money. It was about the fact that the man's wealth and status did not fulfill him. He still did not know how to get eternal life. But because he had so much, and could not give it all away, he was going to miss out on the one thing he most wanted.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The singing and dancing that was led by the Torres Strait Islanders. One of their songs went as follows: "I'm gonna walk, walk with my Lord. I'm gonna talk about my God. I'm gonna sing and praise Jesus' name, yeah yeah, until he comes back for me one day." You can easily imagine the actions and steps that accompanied these words.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The service went for two hours, which was too long in a tropical climate. The theology of the preaching, and even of the intercessions, was not my cup of tea. I did not appreciate a prayer to the effect that "Our love is measured by the amount of money we put in the plate." There was an altar call. However, when no one came forward during the singing, the rector said that we'd sing it again; and when still no one felt moved to come out for prayer the second time, the rector himself went out to be prayed for. That all felt a little bit forced.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The fellowship after the service was wonderful. People remembered that I was visiting. All the visitors, from abroad as well as from other parts of Australia, stayed for morning tea, and each was engaged in conversation by a member of the congregation. We were introduced to each other, and had some wonderful conversations.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I don't believe there was coffee on offer – just as well, as I don't drink it! However, there was tea and (more importantly in this climate) cold water and orange juice. There was also a wonderful spread of biscuits and dip, cupcakes, sweet biscuits and sandwiches. It was most hospitable.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – This is not easy to answer. For the indigenous flavour and energy of the worship, I'd go back in a heartbeat. Ditto the welcome and hospitality. But my first impression is that the theology would not be to my liking. Admittedly, I did not hear the rector preach, but this small taste did not tempt me to try more.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Very much so. I was moved almost to tears to see the joy and respect with which the Torres Strait Islanders were welcomed into the community without a second thought. I realise that this is probably not even worth commenting upon within the congregation, but my experience of Anglicanism has generally looked more like middle-class England. I was also delighted with the genuine welcome extended to visitors from all corners of the globe. It was truly an uplifting experience.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The ministry to the children. It was a joy to behold, and a true picture of the Kingdom of God.