Last night I went to Vespers for the first time in a few months. Vespers at the Orthodox Community of St Andrew here in Edinburgh is always at 6:30. Last time I was there, it was winter. 6:30 in an Edinburgh winter is black, dark night. The chapel is lit by the oil lamps hanging in front of icons and a few lights behind the iconostasis as well as a lamp on the lectern.
Vespers in May in Scotland is bright, sunny. We are still tending towards sundown (wait six weeks for Vespers in broad daylight), but there is a nice, fiery, late evening glow to the light shining in through the windows and playing on the icons, the chandelier, the censer, Father Raphael’s gilt chasuble (not sure if that’s the right word).
Shafts of light from this late evening sun illuminate the clouds of incense.
It is fitting, in this Easter season, to sing and pray in the light, for Christ is the light of the world.
Last night, I was also appointed lector for about 5 minutes. I read out a Psalm and recited, ‘Lord, have mercy,’ several times during some of the prayers.
I think Alexander Schmemann said that it takes 46 books to do the whole cycle of Orthodox services. Father Raphael and I were having a bit of difficulty finding where we were meant to be — Feast of Mid-Pentecost along with St Simon the Zealot and Tuesday evening — but Father Avraamy arrived, saved the day and took over as reader.
There is a different comfort here from winter, a brighter invitation at the Feast of Mid-Pentecost than in the bleak mid-winter.
Up front: I am not a supporter of J.S. Spong, nor have I read his Why Christianity Must Change or Die. Nonetheless, it’s a catchy title for a blog post.
A few years ago, I wrote a post filled with images of local Edinburgh churches now abandoned or converted into cafés, flats, theatres, office space, events venues, etc. As most people in Scotland are aware, the statistics for the church in Scotland are not so hot — last year we learned that 52% of Scotland’s population in the ranks of the religious ‘nones’ and 66% almost never attend services. I do not have the numbers handy, but the latest census data showed Edinburgh (if I remember correctly) the most secular city in the nation.
Not that England and Wales are necessarily doing much better on this sceptred isle — 48.5% of them are religious ‘nones’. In January of last year, only 760,000 of England’s population were regular attendees of the Church of England. 53 million people live in England.
Now, I’ll admit that perhaps things aren’t so dire in the USA as we like to think, but they aren’t exactly a ‘Christian nation’, either — 51% go to church or another worship between once a month and multiple times per week. Given that the same study gives 49% as the statistic of those who never go, obviously the data include other religious groups, which is fine if ‘religiosity’ is what you’re gauging. According to a Pew survey of 2013, only 37% attend weekly or more. And, according to a study a friend referenced in a sermon a decade ago, average attendance in real, live numbers, was 80.
This figure of 80 has stuck in my mind, and came home to me this evening as I was reading some research a friend and colleague has done into Joel Osteen and the Lakewood Church. Setting aside any theological concerns, Osteen’s church has around 50,000 members, and his big, traditional evangelistic rallies have had about 2,000,000 people come through them. Many of them would have been Christians, of course, just like at the old Billy Graham Crusades, or in enrollment on the Alpha Course. This is not to mention the millions and potential billions who can encounter Pastor Osteen on the Internet; his is one of the most popular YouTube channels out there.
How does it work that so many people attend evangelistic events and listen to YouTube sermons, yet the numbers of professing Christians is decreasing across the Anglophone northern hemisphere? (I mean, I’ve not taken Ireland into account, but I doubt they’re much better.)
According to one of the many sites I’ve linked in the above, some people find it hard to get to church. Other people find the people at church or the preaching or the music or the décor distasteful, I’m pretty sure. I know I often do. But if we’re truly converted to Jesus Christ, shouldn’t we be seeking a community of people whom we can at least put up with and worship with and be encouraged by? Shouldn’t the Holy Spirit at work in us enable us to get over bad preaching, bad Bible translations, hymns with modified words, hymns with weird tunes, badly-tuned pianos, socially-awkward greeters at the door, socially-inept coffee hours? I mean, Jesus Christ is King of the Universe.
Being with people who also love Him should trump all the subjective realities of going to church.
And for a lot of us, it does.
On Sunday afternoon, my wife and I enjoyed the sun by the Union Canal and had our first barbecue of the season with a friend from church. She noted that here in the West, Christianity is dying. We live our comfortable lives, have good jobs, go to church, lead morally upright lives, own a lot of stuff, buy a lot of stuff, and die, comfortable with the knowledge that faith in Jesus means we are ‘saved’. But we are not making more Christians.
When I commented that it seems like the theologically conservative churches of Edinburgh are growing — Morningside Baptist (now called Central), Charlotte Chapel, Elim Church, our own St Columba’s and its two church plants, and more, she noted that the only ones that seem to grow through evangelism are the Pentecostals; the evangelicals (such as we Wee Frees) just have a lot of babies.
Fun fact: At St Columba’s Free Church of Scotland, when the time for the kids to leave occurs, about half the sanctuary is emptied, mostly by the kids plus a few volunteers.
She may be onto something.
I do not know what I think, though.
More zeal in more of us? Deeper spiritual lives along with more zeal? Training our whole congregations in the theology and practice of evangelism? Richer theology in our thought lives (this hasn’t helped the Anglo-Catholics)? A greater number of outreach events?
I really do not know. How do you reach a world that actually simply seems not to care anymore? And how do you equip and energise the saints in a culture that is so polite and careful and inward that talking ‘religion’ with friends, colleagues, and strangers is a social no-go?
Tomorrow, 16 November, is the feast of Queen St Margaret of Scotland (1045-1093). St Margaret is kind of a big deal around here. Edinburgh’s oldest building is a wee, 12th-century chapel dedicated to her up at Edinburgh Castle (when Thomas Randolph demolished the Castle in 1314, he left the chapel intact out of respect). Just to the West of the city is South Queensferry (named after Queen Margaret) — this takes you to North Queensferry in Fife. Edinburgh also has a Queen Margaret University. The Church of Scotland, the Scottish Episcopalians, and the Roman Catholics all have churches named for her. Dunfermline has the foundations of her old mediaeval shrine.
My first contact with Queen Margaret was her chapel up at the Castle — a lovely bit of Romanesque. I then encountered her at the Christian Heritage centre at the church I attend — she is remembered there for her piety and acts of charity towards the poor of Edinburgh. Indeed, her biographer, Bishop Turgot of St Andrew’s, was a big fan Queen Margaret’s acts of mercy.
Queen St Margaret is also one of the last Aethelings! This alone makes her pretty cool. She is a direct descendant of King Alfred the Great and granddaughter to Edmund Ironside. When the Danes made good their bid for the English throne, the Aethelings took refuge on the Continent. Margaret was born in Hungary. In 1057, however, Margaret was back on English soil. And when the Normans made good their bid for the English throne in 1066 (recorded by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as the French being God’s punishment on the English for their sins), Margaret’s young brother Edgar was, in fact, a source of resistance against the William the Bastard (to no avail, obviously).
Margaret wisely fled the Normans who weren’t overfond of English nobility, and the Aetheling ship landed in Fife on the Firth of Forth at St Margaret’s Hope (not its name at the time!), where they were met by King Malcolm III ‘Canmore’ (yes, from Shakespeare’s Scottish play). In 1070, Margaret and Malcolm were wed.
According to Turgot, Margaret wasn’t all that fussed about getting hitched and procreating and all that sort of thing. Nonetheless, she did her duty as a wife, but tried her best to spend more of her time praying and reading the Bible than being tied down by the worldly cares of her man. I sometimes wonder if this isn’t Turgot feeling awkward at the obvious sanctity of a non-virgin mother of several children who seemed to have a happy marriage — few mediaeval saints are married, after all, and virginity/celibacy was regarded as a higher way of life by many Christians since Late Antiquity. On the other hand, maybe these thoughts had infiltrated Margaret as well as Turgot, so she felt compelled to express her feminine piety in non-marriage-related ways, extolling the virtues of virginity? Who knows.
Anyway, Malcolm and Margaret seem to have ruled well together. Margaret did not convert the court into a semi-monastic world as some pious mediaeval monarchs seem to have attempted. Neither did she indulge in the sort of lavish lifestyle many a mediaeval aristocrat would have enjoyed. Since she believed in duty and decorum, for example, she made sure that the people at court were well decked out.
As mentioned above, Queen St Margaret is famous for her acts of mercy. She would wash the feet and feed the poor herself. She gave alms regularly and encourage Malcolm Canmore to do likewise. She established the ferry at Queensferry for the many pilgrims headed for St Andrews.
Her piety is also known from her love of books and of the Scriptures. She spent many hours reading, and we still have her own Gospel Book, now in the possession of the Bodleian Library. It is a fine specimen of eleventh-century English/Insular manuscript production.
When St Margaret was not engaged in acts of mercy or reading the Scriptures, she could often be found at prayer. In Lent she had a particularly rigorous personal round of prayers every morning. According to Turgot, she recited the entirety of the Psalter. Twice.
Really, this love of Scripture and Psalm-singing makes her sound quite Presbyterian. 😉
St Margaret’s personal piety also involved the visiting of hermits and other holy men throughout Scotland, whose wisdom and way of life she greatly admired. She sought the counsel of Turgot, both when he was in Dunfermline, and later as Bishop of St Andrew’s. She fasted and ate and drank with moderation, although this seems to have adversely affected her health.
As a monarch, Queen Margaret’s pious activity had much influence on the church of her day. She and Malcolm founded the Church of the Holy Trinity in Dunfermline where they had been married, now Dunfermline Abbey, with a palace nearby. She requested that Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury and her spiritual father, to send up Benedictines. Dunfermline Abbey thus became Scotland’s first Benedictine Abbey. The present building dates to David I (of course) and is a fine Romanesque structure:
Margaret also requested that Lanfranc send up some clerics from England who were well versed in the canons and ways of the Roman faith. Thus was hosted a synod where the Scottish church was regularised to be in greater conformity to existent Roman practice, such as starting Lent on Ash Wednesday instead of Clean Monday (because Sundays do not count to the forty days in western canonical practice, so four extra days are to be hunted down), receiving Holy Communion on Easter, and not working on Sundays.
There was also at this synod a move to regularise the celebration of the Eucharist in some parts of Scotland that was at the time being performed ‘according to some sort of strange rite, contrary to the usage of the whole Church.’ (Turgot, Life of St Margaret II.20) What this entails, we do not know. My little booklet from St Margaret’s chapel claims the use of Gaelic, but Turgot does not say that. It is some sort of rite, not the language thereof. In the notes to his translation, William Forbes-Leith says that this was probably the rite of the Cele De (those who have devoted themselves to the service of God), who seem to be a particular variety of secular canon that was established in the Scottish church in the ninth century, and the name sometimes refers to unmarried laymen who lived together in community. Their rite both before and after St Margaret differed from the general practice of the rest of the Scotland. Presumably it is something was developed for themselves by themselves much like the offices of the different religious orders in later centuries.
What I’m digging at, then, is not that there was some widespread, homegrown, anti-Rome ‘Celtic’ liturgy being practised everywhere before St Margaret and that it was in Gaelic. What I think is going is rather that certain groups in certain parts of Scotland had developed their own, homegrown, personal liturgies that had nothing to do with our romanticised conceptualisations of ‘Celtic’ and ‘Roman’ Christianity.
In all, St Margaret led a holy lifestyle in the midst of her worldly care. I have no doubt that it was probably easier for the nobility to spend so many hours in prayer than for the labouring class. Nonetheless, the evidence for what goes on throughout the mediaeval world is that few nobility seem to have used their freedom to be religiously disciplined. They used it instead for licence. Indeed, so do most of us when given our own time, forgetting the words of St Paul that we were bought at a price and our life is not our own. How many of us, given an extra half hour, pray or read the Scriptures instead of catching a show on Netflix?
This alone makes Queen Margaret, the pearl of Scotland, a cut above the rest.
And her acts of mercy are the evidence that such prayer and Scripture reading actually had an effect.
Queen Margaret died in 1093 and was buried with her husband in Dunfermline Abbey. You can still see the foundations of her shrine there today. Her head, which was placed in its own reliquary in the Middle Ages, was squirrelled away to France during the Reformation by pious Catholics. Her body and that of Malcolm reside in the Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo del Escorial, Spain — where I spent a week, unknowing of their royal presences! An opportunity lost.
In writing about Savonarola, I got to thinking about what a modern ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ would look like. What are the vanities we would come to throw into the flames and utterly destroy for all eternity?
Typically, useless luxuries are thrown into such bonfires. Who really needs fabulous works of Renaissance art, anyway? Right? But what is the traditional Christian concept that lies at the foot, that is the kindling, of bonfires of the vanities?
It is, and here I conjecture, most likely twofold. One — the things of this world are unnecessary. Thus, vain, as its Latin root vanus means. Empty. Needless. Who needs make up? Who needs hair product? Who needs to upgrade his’er iPad yesterday? Is not this stripping away of all wordly goods an abundant command in the Gospels? Luke 14:33 unsettles me on a regular basis:
In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple. (NIV)
The second is related. The great good in the universe is not in the universe. The summum bonum of our lives is not of our lives. God is paradoxically closer than our very breath yet as far above us as the heavens are from the earth. The Holy One is both immanent and transcendant. And the things of this world can get in the way. Our books, our art, our new clothes, or treasured possessions, our delicacies, our gadgets — these things can distract us from the great good found in God alone through grace alone.
So the mindset of the Bonfire of the Vanities is — throw away the distractions. Then turn your attention to God.
I am imagining this not in Florence but in Edinburgh. I’m imagining the square in front of St Giles although perhaps the National Gallery would be more appropriate. And there, beside the statue of some Duke of Buccleuch or other, in front the late Gothic facade (or is it a Victorian re-do?), there are the flames, reaching to the Duke of Buccleuch’s bronze head.
In procession along the Royal Mile and George IV Bridge, through the grey, cobbled streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town come the Edinburghers. In their jeans and skirts and sweat pants (aka ‘tracky bottoms’!!) with half their rear exposed. In their kilts and suits and hoodies and skin-tight leggings. They trudge, pale-skinned to the orange glow of the flames.
And there they throw in the vanities of this age: iPads, iPods, iPhones, iEverything, Swiss watches, jewellery, make up, hair gel, books, CDs, DVDs, external hard drives full of illegally downloaded films, sound systems, flat screen TVs, your mom, theatre tickets, musical instruments (even these could go at times!), fancy shoes, and on and on.
Edinburgh is auld reekie again. And not just in terms of smoke, but Standard English reeky. The stench of burning plastic and rubber fills the air as the penitents throw their worldly sources of distraction and affection and misplaced fulfilment and false self-worth onto the towering inferno, its column rising black and malodorous into the slate-grey Midlothian sky.
But somehow I doubt there will be a black-and-white-robed Dominican from St Albert’s chaplaincy standing there urging everyone on.
So a modern Bonfire of the Vanities.
We hope such excess is not necessary. But what is necessary to reach for the Invisible God, bound as we are to the physical realities all around us. We need to make daily space for being undistracted. We need to unclutter not just our homes but our schedules. Perhaps we need to engage in a bit of a metaphorical Bonfire of the Vanities ourselves.
It is Lent. The perfect excuse for a little spiritual discipline, yes?
One of the things I like about the church I currently attend is its tradition of Psalm-singing. A cappella Psalm-singing. I have long been appreciative of the use of Psalms in worship. Worshipping regularly with Anglicans for over 27 years, the Psalms have always had a place in the weekly liturgy, whether Morning/Evening Prayer or Eucharist, whether BCP or BAS. The Psalms were there. Being recited alternately between a leader and the congregation.
This tradition of Psalm-praying is good. Is, indeed, very good. But what the Free Church of Scotland gives us is, I believe, a different sort of engagement with the Psalms. On a retreat with some fellow Anglicans once, the theme was the Psalms. We were reminded that the Psalms are God’s Prayerbook. This is a very Anglican way of putting it. In fact, however, the Psalms are God’s hymn book.
The singing of Psalms is not unique to the Wee Frees and related Presbyterians. The Eastern Orthodox sing them. Anglo-Catholic choirs sing them to Renaissance settings. Some Anglicans sing or chant them together as a group (though most do not). St. Athanasius, in his ‘Letter to Marcellinus’ appended to the end of the SVS translation of On the Incarnation (until Fr. Behr’s supplants it, at least) recommends singing Psalms. So does the Anglican William Law in his Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.
Indeed, Law says that you should sing or chant them as part of your personal devotions every day. If no one can hear, it doesn’t matter. If someone can, good. Remind them of their own duty to pray. (That’s the sort of advice Law likes to give.)
Singing or chanting is not quite the same experience as simply speaking. Athanasius envisages the reader entering into the voice and persona of the Psalmist through singing the Psalms. In so doing, we take up these prayers as our own. The Psalms are not simply occasional poetry for a single person to pour out his heart to God. They are songs to be sung by us all, connecting the individual with the community, the living with the dead, humans with angels, Christians with Jews.
The Psalms are worth getting to know.
So I find it a most excellent thing to sing two or three Psalms a cappella each Sunday morning or evening (depends on the week). I like to belt songs out, so the fact that usually they are set to old hymn tunes works in my favour. Rather than passively receiving the words of Scripture or the prayers, I am putting myself into them, worshipping God in spirit indeed.
And when Colin R is behind me and a little to one side, I can sing the bass part (still no good at finding harmonies solo — one reason it was good to sit with Philip S at Little T!). The harmonies of a hundred or more voices lifted up in song with no organ, no piano, no guitar, nothing. It is a beautiful thing. When the church is packed to bursting at the joint services with Edinburgh’s other Free Churches — oh, the power and might of those voices lifted up in harmony with one accord! The beauty of it. This is a church against which the gates of Hades cannot prevail, indeed!
Because there is power in God’s word written. Power in faithful hearts joined together in worship. Power in the beauty of God’s presence whenever we come before Him.
Power in the simple beauty of human voices singing harmony.
This is a beauty I appreciate in Gregorian Chant or the wonderful concert of Byzantine Christmas Hymns I attended in December. There is a different beauty in Renaissance polyphony, in the Mass in 40 Parts by Striggio or in Mozart’s Requiem. I do not wish to play down that beauty. I enjoy it immensely and find the wonder and beauty of a well-rehearsed choir or organ as at St. Mary’s Cathedral or Old St. Paul’s can bring me well-nigh to ecstasy or that Buddhist ideal of being in the moment. When I first listened to Striggio’s forty-part Renaissance glory, I almost cried.
But this beauty of around 100 Wee Free voices on a Sunday is wonderful in its own right. The beauty of simplicity in an old-fashioned but moderately unadorned sanctuary as we join together in song, aided by nothing but what God has given us. Our naked voices approach the Almighty as our souls ought — no hiding, no vain pretense, no embellishment. Just the beauty of the wonderful gift already given.
So sing a Psalm this Sunday! (Even sing one right now!)
GRANT, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that like as we do believe thy only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens; so we may also in heart and mind thither ascend, and with him continually dwell, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.
When we first moved to the beautiful city of Edinburgh, one of the first churches we encountered was St. John’s “Tollbooth” Highland Kirk. Except, actually, we didn’t. Instead, we met the Hub, a cafe, art space, event venue, and headquarters for the Edinburgh Festival.
Since then, we have seen many “empty” churches. Some are actually empty, such as the Tron Kirk:
or that church on Lauriston Place:
Others have found second lives as nightclubs such as Sin:
or as theatres, such as the Bedlam Theatre:
or as street-health clinics:
or as the brass-rubbing centre:
or as beautiful venues, such as the Mansfield Traquair Centre:
St. John’s Highland Kirk is probably the highest spire in the city, in part due to its location on the same hill as the Castle — it’s the spire to the left of Edinburgh Castle if a friend ever sends you a postcard. Yet it and the Tron Church are not churches anymore, and they are two out of the three notable spires in this view:
The explanation for the abandonment of two of the Royal Mile’s churches is the fact that the Old Town of Edinburgh, which boasted 52 400 people in the late 1800’s has but 4000 residents today. Most of its space is shops, restaurants/bars, and offices with the odd tourist attraction thrown in for good measure.
Thus, St. Giles’ (the “crown spire” visible between St. John’s and the Tron Kirk) together with Carubber’s Church, Old St. Paul’s Scottish Episcopal, and Canongate Kirk along the Royal Mile are able to serve the Old Town, along with St. Columba’s Free Church and St. Columba’s by the Castle Scottish Episcopal on Johnson Terrace, St. Augustine’s United on George IV Bridge, and Greyfriars Kirk. There is also St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church down on Cowgate.
That’s a lot of churches for the Old Town.
Yet if you tally the worshippers on any given Sunday in the churches of Edinburgh’s Old Town, I doubt you will get anything near 4000 congregants assembled.
Charlotte Square, home of a beautiful old parish kirk that is now West Register Office, along with the rest of the New Town, has suffered a similar fate as the Old Town. People just don’t live there anymore. The churches have very few congregants, although Charlotte Baptist Chapel is able to pack ’em in like sardines.
Another cause of un-kirking in this city is the death or amalgamation of some denominations. This was the case for Mansfield Place Catholic Apostolic Church, now the Mansfield Traquair Centre. The Catholic Apostolics thought the Second Coming was due in the 1920’s, so they made no plans for succession for their Apostles. By the 1950’s, Mansfield Place Church was closed.
When the bulk of the Free Church of Scotland reunited with the Church of Scotland, the Free Church’s “High Kirk” become the library at New College, which means that students of New College get to study amidst some lovely stained glass!
However, when we recall my statement that even with so many churches in the Old Town, the 4000 inhabitants still don’t fill them, we return to the main cause of un-kirking, and it is that people are no longer warming or filling pews.
At a certain level, this makes Phoebe Traquair’s angel cry.
People’s butts keeping pews warm as they did ever since they put the first pews in European churches in the centuries following the Reformation is not really what Christianity is about. Getting lots of people into your church doesn’t mean a thing in some ways.
Yet those butts warming those pews are human butts. They are the butts of people who are beloved of God so much that He chose to become one of them. They are the butts of people who are beloved of God so much that He chose to die for them. They are the butts of people who need to hear and know the message of the greatness of the glory of God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
At least if they are at kirk each Sunday, they stand a chance of hearing this message and being transformed by it.
The un-kirking of Edinburgh and Europe is a phenomenon that, I understand, has been going on since at some point in the 1960’s. People just stopped going to church. Fewer and fewer people go to church every year. Even in the USA, which is imagined by many to be a “Christian” nation, the average Sunday attendance in 2005 was 80 persons — the megachurches are not offsetting the exodus.
My friend Rick, pastor of an international, multicultural, “evangelical” church in Cyprus, says that the European church has entered a phase of exile. Our mission and ministry have different needs than ministry in places where the church is exploding in size, as in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia.
Our churches are dwindling, and people need the Gospel.
Maybe we don’t need David Wilkersons per se in Europe. But we do need people who are willing to invest in these cities and the people who populate them. People willing to walk past the empty spires and remember the One Whose Cross is raised high above.
People who are willing to love their unkirked friends to the bitter end.
People who are willing to live across from drunks and junkies and love them ceaselessly and endlessly.
People who are willing to truly befriend atheists and agnostics and take them seriously as people, not projects, not simply arguments with bodies.
We need Columbas and Ninians. (Too many reservations to want another Knox, really.)