Note: this is part of an ongoing series. Mystery Worship One is here; Mystery Worship Two is here; Mystery Worship Three is here. Four is here. Five is here. Six is here. Seven is here. Eight is here.
With a generous invitation from my nephew, who has also moved to the UK, to spend several days in the gorgeous Cotswolds village of Burford (about 23 miles east of Oxford), I was delighted on my first view of High Street to see a Methodist Church–and immediately chose it for Mystery Worship Nine.
The building, baroque style of Cotswold stone, had been built around 1715 as a private house, and was converted in 1879 to a Wesleyan Chapel.
Accompanied by my nephew’s wife and their five year old daughter, I arrived early and we took seats in a high-ceilinged, plain room with wooden floors, comfortably padded chairs, and room for 96 people. Sixteen attended worship.
Everyone was elderly. Even I felt like a youngster. After we sat down, another woman greeted us and noted a small table with coloring books and crayons. She said they “never have children in worship,” but put it there just in case.
The hymnal was Hymns and Songs, put out by the Methodist Publishing House. It contained words only to the hymns, no music scores. There was no bulletin, but the message board at the side displayed the hymn numbers.
The greeter went to the pulpit at 11:00 and offered a “Good Morning,” welcome to visitors, several announcements and the information that their current minister was being moved to another circuit. There was absolutely no reaction to this statement.
A young man, wired with a lapel mic, stepped up and offered a prayer. Never introduced himself.
We then began the first hymn, “All Creatures of our God and King.” Everyone seemed to know to stand on the last line of the introduction as the music became louder.
We sang all seven verses. Slowly, sloggily, poorly, and, near the end, somewhat exhaustedly as 13 very elderly people continued to stand, and a five year old wanted to sit.
After some very long prayers, the hymn, “For the Beauty of the Earth,” followed. We labored bravely through it, again catching the cue to stand from the increasing volume of the introduction.
We were not invited to stand for the Gospel reading on the story of the mustard seed (Mark 4)–probably just as well for the already exhausted congregation.
After the Gospel reading, the young man came up and passed into the hands of each person two or three very small seeds. He stated clearly that they were not mustard seeds but did not identify them otherwise, and went into a nice analogy about the potential of the seeds. He noted that most seeds don’t actually reach that potential, but that nature tolerates all that loss just for the possibility that it might produce.
Another hymn, another long, preachy prayer and it was time for the offering and then final hymn.
It was “Praise God for Harvest of Farm and Field.” The preacher/prayer mentioned that he chose it because it fit with the Gospel lesson and message. He didn’t consider one thing: no one in this congregation, including him, had ever heard or sung this hymn before.
We all tried–really, we all did. But by the middle of the third stanza, we just gave up and let it play itself out, all the way through five interminable verses. That’s when I wrote the word “TORTURE!” in my notebook.
Afterward, we all gratefully sat down for the postlude and I sent the very patient five year old to the coloring table for the coffee and conversation time.
I learned then that the preacher/prayer is a lay speaker from a nearby larger town. This church is part of a circuit of 17 churches, who, until now, have been served by four different clergy people. Now they are down to three, so lay speakers take up the slack since, on most Sundays, few churches will see an ordained clergyperson.
This was a peek at the future for many of our churches in the US today.
Of all the worship services I’ve attended since starting this Sabbatical, this was the most painful and most discouraging. From what the lay speaker said, normal attendance at the Burford Methodist Church is eight to ten. Burford is a decent sized town–not all that much smaller than Krum, where I live and where there are several thriving churches. It also attracts many tourists in the summer–the area is beyond words beautiful and there are some lovely arts and crafts shops there.
This is anything but a dying community. From what little I could gather, the even more ancient Anglican church, located off high street, so not as easily seen, is intentionally reinventing itself to serve the growing number of families in the area. I was not able to find any information about the Baptist church, so I don’t know how it is doing.
I do know this: doing four awful hymns (and I think they must use a digital hymnal–I saw no evidence of an organ), long, preachy prayers, and no real pastoral presence is a recipe for telling people, “Don’t come back here. We’ve got nothing to offer you, no Gospel, no hope, no life.”
What will happen when they dwindle to two or three? Those sweet elderly people, who have served the church faithfully, do deserve a place to gather and worship. But don’t they deserve more than this as well? Worship, the act of adoring the Holy Other, should be transformational at any age. And this was anything but.
This church needs to be offered a gentle death. Hopefully, after its death, there can be yet another resurrection.