2015: Advent Religion: Anatomy

by on December 22, 2015

I keep saying we didn’t have a liturgy. What I mean by that is we didn’t have a consistent form of words to be used by the priest, or for the congregation to say in response. We did however have a consistent routine and pattern to our services, and in the more recent of my two churches of origin, it went like this:

10.00 People involved in running the service arrive. This pretty much always meant my dad, who was in the music group, and once I and later my sibling got too old for Sunday School, it meant us too. The church owned an electric piano and a drumset but other instruments – mainly guitars – were provided by the musicians, who therefore had to set them up before the service. We’d get everything plugged in, check the balance between instruments and voices, and go over the running order for the songs and any wrinkles like omitted verses. The church had choir pews in the standard sideways configuration up on the dais, but we didn’t use them. We set up in the space between the front pew and the edge of the dais and sat on the front couple of pews between songs. Generally there’d be three or four singers, the pianist, and the bass guitar; on good weeks we’d have a drummer and a lead guitarist as well.

Also arriving at this time are the ladies who make the cups of coffee, to do their prep and switch the urn on; the lady who does the flowers and generally makes the place nice, to make sure everything is in order; the Sunday school teachers and the person running the sound system, to do setup.

10.20 The congregation proper starts to trickle in. the doors have been open since 10.00 so this is a pretty informal and gradual process. They are handed the weekly newsletter on the way in, but not hymn books, bibles or service sheets.

10.30 Service starts with a greeting from the person leaving the service, who is usually but not always one of the pastors. The person leading the service does not have a title as such. They are known as the person leading the service, as in “John will be leading the service next week,” and when next week arrives he’s not “the leader,” you just call him John.

After the greeting and the announcements (as in, Mother and Baby Group is cancelled this week due to the holidays, youth group will be running as usual on Friday, Mrs Smith has been taken into hospital, a very warm welcome to any visitors and do join us for tea and coffee after the service), there is a worship song. It is chosen with the aim of being accessible to the children present and may involve actions. We stood up to sing and the lyrics were projected on the overhead projector from acetate sheets, when I started there, or from a laptop and projector using purpose-designed software, by the time I left.

Then there’s a prayer, not a very long one, for which we sat, and remained sitting for the first Bible reading and the children’s talk. In theory the children’s talk related in some way to what they were going to cover in Sunday School, but I recall it was often pretty self-contained. And also fairly patronising for those children more than, say, six years old, but in a spirit of forgiveness I acknowledge that giving a weekly talk to a mixed group of three to fourteen-year-olds and keeping them all interested and enlightened is, at best, challenging.

Then there was another child-friendly song, during which the collection was taken up, and the children were briefly prayed for and invited to leave for Sunday School, which happened in age-assigned groups in the church hall and a couple of smaller rooms for the very littles in creche and the secondary schoolers.

The rest of the congregation, immediately following the departure of the children, would be led in a much longer series of prayers from the lectern, often involving a couple of people coming up to pray about specific topics. Then we’d do three songs without interruption, which was the main worship time for thinking about God and getting your warm fuzzy spirituality flowing, or if you couldn’t manage warm fuzzies, at least going through the motions in the comforting knowledge that you do get points for worshipping even if you don’t feel much like it. Spontaneity and diversion from the planned and projected songs is not encouraged. It is highly permissible to hold your hands in the air and sway on the spot, but dancing is not the done thing and in any case you can’t dance between pews unless you have immaterial knees.

Then would come the second bible reading, immediately followed by a sermon of thirty to forty minutes duration. I had generally forgotten the topic and content of the sermon by the time we made it out for coffee and hence cannot relate to you how they generally proceeded, except that they made heavy use of the three- or five-points-on-a-theme style, with alliteration highly valued.

If we were having Communion, which was monthly, there would be a table already set up on the dais with the bread and wine draped in a tablecloth, and after the sermon the deacons would go up and sit behind it with the pastor. The tablecloth came off, the story of the Last Supper was recited in words which I think were very close to the Anglican services I’ve been to since, only condensed and without any audience participation. The deacons and sometimes their wives – who would wait in front of the dais, not sit at the table – would bring the baskets of bread down and pass them along the pews. You took your little cube of white bread and ate it immediately, then sat quietly with your head bowed trying to think holy thoughts until everyone had eaten and the deacons made it back to the front. Then they did the same thing with tiny individual glasses of wine – I keep saying wine, it was grape juice, for reasons of disagreement over the permissibility of alcohol – individual glasses of wine set into these sort of two-storey stacked trays with handles on the top and many many holes for the glasses to nestle into. They looked a bit like wide flat cakestands full of mini shot glasses. It was somewhat tricky to pass them hand-to-hand along the pews without spilling anything and while taking your own glass, especially if your wrists weren’t strong. Unlike the bread, the wine you were supposed to hang onto until everyone had one, and then the pastor would prompt you and you’d all drink together.

Then you realign with the non-Communion service structure and have a prayer, one last song, and the Benediction which, being informal, generally was along the lines of “thank you for coming and don’t forget to come through to the church hall for coffee”, because with any activity like this you’ve got to have some way to make everyone agree that the show is over and it’s time for lunch.

After fellowship time, that is.

One Response to “Anatomy”

  • redhillian says:

    I once took communion in a church that used grape juice shots, in tiny individually sealed plastic shot glasses, on a rack much like you used. There, one took, unsealed and drank individually rather than wait for the rest of the congregation, but the individual seals did at least reduce the “trying to not spill anything” aspect.

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