Sunday, September 26, 2010

Cool St George's

As it's Sunday, and as it's a day when my own little church seemed the only place to be, with great singing, good silences and considerable warmth (and not just because we put the heating on for the first time in months!), I find myself reflecting on my church experience last week, in Barcelona. I feel a vivid present coming on ...

The taxi drivers have been really challenged by our need to find the Anglican church in Barcelona. Indeed, some of us might have plumped for the Cathedral, but mindful of the sense of duty of at least one of our number we've gone ex-pat English and find ourselves ploughing up a hill in the Bearsden of Barcelona, surrounded by pretty houses and walled gardens. A sign, in English, reassures us that we are indeed in the right neck of the woods for St George's, and, only slightly late, we abandon our church-free comrade and head into the white, shade-surrounded building from which the sound of singing and guitar can already be heard. We find a pew at the rear, occupied by only one person, and slide in. Four of us. Note this: we are not invisible. The service hasn't really begun - they're just singing. The words, along with pretty slides, are projected on the white wall, but we know none of the songs and remain silent.

The chaplain is wearing an ordinary blue striped shirt with a dog collar. He is playing a guitar, which he puts down in between the (frequent) singing breaks. He opens the service, and we find our way to the correct bit in the laminated sheet. The liturgy is at once familiar and strange. Big chunks of what I am accustomed to appear to be missing, including a bit of the Consecration Prayer. It is all very evangelical - and yet, when we come to the Peace, no-one so much as acknowledges that we're strangers. The Intercessions are of the kind I use for my spoof worksheets on "Not the Intercessions" - I could make up a whole new lesson based on this example. The lady in question obviously doesn't know that God is omniscient. She also takes the chance to read a big chunk of the Bible in mid-intercession. I take to reading the pew leaflet. We are encouraged to indicate whether we'd prefer wine or non-alcoholic, wafer or bread. But there is no indication of how to achieve this, so we line up for communion in hope that the handsomely ancient-looking chalices hold the real stuff. The bread is a dire warning - a small fragment of pitta bread clings forlornly to the palate. The chalice holds something with ... bubbles. It tastes like Ribena. We sit down again.

By the time the Sunday School have sung a song to demonstrate how they spent their time, and two notices have taken ten minutes and have included, somehow, a puff for a travel guide, we have had enough. We have someone waiting outside and we've been here for almost 90 minutes. We know they will sing again. It is time to go. On the way out, we avail ourselves of their pristine facilities and reflect that whatever we think about the service this church, unlike ours, has a loo.

In short, it was a dire experience. The prayers - implying the Godlessness of Barcelona - made us think that if you weren't 'wanny us' you were doomed. It was Little England, with a touch of the USA abroad. One woman followed us out as we left - "will you not be coming for coffee?" We pointed out that it was rather a long service, and were told that it was because they loved being together. We smiled, nicely, and said it was rather longer than we were used to and we had obligations elsewhere. But this was the first smile, the first acknowledgement of our presence in this church - four of us, mind.

I suspect I sound like a girn. But if this was my first experience of church, of Christianity, it would also be my last. How many people have such an experience? Let's make sure that they never, ever, have it anywhere we worship in. And let's make sure that the stranger in our midst is welcomed, warmly and genuinely.

Even if she does arrive late.


  1. Gotta be honest and admit that my ver similar experience of ex-pat Anglican worship in Tenerife and Cyprus put me off it entirely. If away I go RC unless there is a local indigenious Anglican Church.

  2. Sounds awful, but in my experience ex-pat congregations tend to be 40yrs behind the mother church in any denomination. Hope you have recovered.

  3. 'an horrible dread hath overwhelmed me'

    When I was a little boy in bleakly low church Armagh the drab formal services did at least hint at what the cathedral notice board promised - 'Divine Worship'.

    The Pope has a point - we now enact in our liturgies a closed circle - we look at ourselves

  4. I took the liberty of linking this post to Facebook and much appreciative comment followed. I hope it also gains a wider readership for this thoughtful and beautifully written Blog

  5. Nebuly, I appreciate your comment! Thanks for the shout-out!