Sunday, February 24, 2013

St John's Anglican Church

I wanted to go to a Greek Orthodox church this week. I'd caught a cab home on Thursday after dinner with a friend, and the cabbie was telling us about his heritage.

Are you Greek Orthodox? I spat at him excitedly.

Yes I am.

Is it true you're allowed to drink at your church?

This is my previous knowledge of Greek Orthodox - a relaxed bunch who don't mind a drink or two. I asked the cabbie if I could go to his church and he said sure, but not to expect him there - it wasn't Christmas.

Turns out, it isn't that easy to go along to a Greek Orthodox church. They've got a website that lists locations, but not mass times. I contacted the Reverend but he didn't get back to me. I drove by the church on Saturday and there was no sign out the front.

I had two options; get there at 6:30am and hang around until something happened, or go to the Anglican church down the road.

I made the right choice.

St John's was warm and inviting. Although I slipped past the welcome team, the layout of the church itself was so open and light that it made me feel totally comfortable heading in and grabbing a seat. I'd been there about thirty seconds when an older member of the congregation, Marion, came over and asked me if I'd been given a "Gratis". She told me she was going to "sack those girls" out the front for not doing their job. I laughed (because she was clearly joking) and said it was fine; they were having a nice chat amongst themselves.

"They're not supposed to do that," she grumbled and I smiled. She was at ease with me - it was refreshing. She asked me where I was from and if I would like to sit with her and her friends. I declined, because I wanted to be able to make my notes and not bother anyone, but it struck me it was the first time in this quest of mine that anyone has invited me to sit with them. I hope she knows how much it meant to me that she offered - even though I declined.

After the announcements made by the Reverend, a young man presumably in his early thirties, we stood and sang a song together. It was a five verse hymn, and it felt like we were singing a Christmas carol. We were accompanied by an acoustic guitar, electric bass and a piano. These musicians weren't trying to be rockstars, they were very comfortable taking a back seat to the congregation. I could hear the Reverend singing along in the front row. He sang with enthusiasm and a genuine heart of praise. I liked him.

We then prayed together from a prayer on the screen. It was explained that we read along to the text in bold. It was these little hints that made me more comfortable than I had been in any other church so far. It didn't matter if you didn't know what to do - they'd help you out.

There were several bible readings throughout the service, read by different members of the congregation. I was thinking about these readings, and how they really stand out from my previous experience of church.

In my old church, sure we read the bible - we loved the bible. But we'd probably look at one or two verses, and they'd be discussed in detail, offering an interpretation of its meaning, and a "real life" application. The opposite of that, is to read a large portion of scripture, and then just sit back down.

I'm seeing pros and cons of each method. Taking a scripture out of context can be risky - you can probably swing it to whatever meaning you want it to have. You can provide a false interpretation, which is damaging to your congregation. But without being able to apply the "Word of God" to your life, it's just words surely. We might know that Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, but unless we understand what he was trying to achieve here, our real life application is to go out and offer foot baths to strangers.

The sermon delivered by Rev. Phillip was an interpretation of the Beatitudes and how they can be applied for "living a heavenly life on earth". I felt like he was reaching a nice compromise between over interpreting the bible, while still helping his congregants use the scripture in a practical way. Although at some points, I must admit I did think he was using the scripture to make his point, not making his point with scripture - if you can pick up on the subtle difference.

Regardless, I thought the Reverend's passion, and his big smile, were infectious.

There were probably about fifty people in St John's church, but when they were invited to "share peace" around, they all got out of their seats and walked around the hall, shaking hands, smiling and saying "peace be with you" to any one they could find. At least ten people came up to me, with such grace and sincerity. I couldn't help but smile and say "peace be with you" back. I wondered why every denomination doesn't do this. It is just the best. If you're not Christian, even if you don't believe in God, what a wonderful exercise to shake the hand of a stranger and wish them peace. Marion, of course, made a B line for me and gave me a lovely hand shake and introduced me to the people near by.

Communion was issued to the congregation by their coming to the front of the room and kneeling at the altar. If I was looking for a modern act of humility, this could well be it. For communion the adults were offered a gluten-free wafer and drank from the cup of wine and the children were given a sticker - too cute. I enjoyed watching the two littlies in front of me proudly show off their stickers to each other.

After the service I was greeted by Lisa, the Reverend's wife. Lisa introduced me to a a few other congregants who again seemed comfortable to be talking to a visitor and genuinely interested in who I was. I was able to tell them that I planned on writing about my time at their church, and they were all interested to read it. I had a nice chat to Reverend Phillip himself about how my journey had led me to them on this hot, summers morning.

It was so liberating to be able to talk freely to a group of people I had known for such a little time, but the people I met at St John's were kind and warm. And I assured them I'd definitely come back and visit again.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

St Francis' Catholic Church

When I get up on a Sunday morning to go to church I think about two things. 
#1 I'm really impressed by people who do this every week. Don't they know they could be going out for breakfast?
#2 I did this every week for ten years. 

It's pretty easy to fall out of the habit of going to church. It's pretty easy to make Sunday you're laziest day of the week. It's pretty easy to sleep in, eat hash browns and walk the dog.  Going to church is a commitment. It's a discipline. And you have to respect anyone who does it - for those reasons alone. 

When I decided I would go to a Catholic church this week, because I don't personally know any Catholics here in Melbourne, I took to Google. I quickly found the website for St Francis', Victoria's oldest Catholic church. I learned the 11am mass had a choir, and their address. That was enough info for me. What I didn't notice in the finer print, was that St Francis' is "is the busiest church in Australia, with forty-three masses and over 10,000 visiting worshippers each week."

I arrived at 10:55am. People were rushing inside the church as the 10am congregants were rushing out. It was the most bustling, alive church I'd ever seen. I got handed an order of service, but without eye contact or a "Good morning". There were simply too many bodies to move quickly for any dillydallying. People know their way around here, and they assume you do too. Actually, they don't even notice you to see if you may need help. They just don't have time too. 

I'd been in the door twenty seconds when I realised how out of place I was. People were taking water to their heads from bowls or dishes. They were bowing and kneeling and crossing their chests as they entered the hall. I became very nervous that my ignorance may result in offense I didn't want to do anything wrong, but I couldn't pretend I knew what I was supposed to be doing. And there was certainly nobody I could ask. 

I sat towards the back, not wanting to be in the way, but I was forced to squeeze over three times to make room for more people. The church filled up fast. People stood in the isles. Nobody engaged with anyone. I got the sense quite quickly these people know what they came for, and that's what they were doing. 

A brass band warmed up and I could smell burning. My TV knowledge of the Catholic church assured me not to worry, it was unlikely anything was on fire that wasn't supposed to be, but because the hall was so full I could hardly see what was happening. An announcement was made that the procession was about to commence and for all congregants to keep their personal items with them at all times. This warning made me feel sad, as surely this was a consequence of being a large church in the centre of the city. Not all your visitors had pure intentions.

As the choir and several other people entered the church, I began to feel like I was having the most religious experience of my life. A massive organ filled the hall with sound. The timpani were banging and the choir were belting out in worship. It felt epic.

To give you a sense of how out of place and ignorant I was feeling at this stage, I recognised one of the hymns from an episode of Mr Bean. People kept coming, and coming. Where were they all parked? They hadn't been on my tram. I knew now, this was the biggest church I'd ever been in. I was beginning to wish for some personal space, especially as the young girl next to me kept reading my notes over my shoulder. In her defence -I was the only person there with a notebook. 

While the choir performed I took in my surrounds. The paintings of Jesus threw me. He didn't look like a saviour, like the hero they were singing about. He looked defeated. He looked afraid.

We were read to from the gospel of Luke, 5:1-11. Reverend Dr Pat Negri then took to the pulpit to deliver a short message, but the most shocking I've ever heard. I was so excited to be in the congregation for this moment. 

The Reverend Dr spoke of how Simon Peter trusted Jesus more than his own experience. Simon was a fisherman, and knew it was hopeless to cast his net during the day. But he did what Jesus told him to do and they caught so many fish their nets began to break. Simon Peter was a humble man, an honest man, and he fell at Jesus' knees acknowledging his own sinfulness and begging Jesus leave him. Jesus had no intention of leaving Simon Peter - he doesn't mind having a sinner for a companion. 

Reverend Dr Negri then turned his attention to the scandal of the Catholic church. They have been too slow to admit their guilt, but should follow the example set by Simon Peter. He said that while the church felt deep sorrow over the harm done to the small children, they never displayed this grief in public. And that was wrong. 

He said the public expect the church be perfect, a sinless bride of Christ. That the clergymen stand on pedestals, displaying no signs of weakness. But how far this was from reality.

He called the church to a time for renewal and integrity. For without the forgiveness of Christ, they were nothing. 

I felt sad for the Reverend Dr and for his congregants. How much guilt they must feel for decisions that were not their own. How they must stand loyally to an institution which has not acted loyally to others. I thought he spoke with sincerity and grace and felt honoured to be in his church while he spoke so humbly on matters so shameful. 

After the Reverend Dr spoke, the offering was collected. The message was a simple appreciation of people's generosity. I did notice that the congregants collecting the offering didn't pass the bags, they held on tight. Again I wondered what had happened here to make this church be so protective. 

As the church was called to pray, I awkwardly realised my foot rest was in fact a kneeling pad. I made the uncomfortable decision not to kneel, as I decided that while I wanted to be respectful, I also had to be honest with myself. I was secretly relieved however, when I looked around and noticed I wasn't the only person remaining in my seat. This does feel like a place where you can decide for yourself your level of involvement, and I was grateful for that. 

After the Lord's Prayer, there was a "sign of peace" which was my favourite part of the service. All the people sitting around me extended their hand to mine and said "peace be with you". It was the exact opposite of being welcomed by Planetshakers congregants three weeks earlier. It was incredibly genuine, and warm. 

I enjoyed watching the communion processional and again felt overwhelmed by the religious experience I was a part of. I realised however, there is a huge difference between a religious experience and a spiritual experience, and, without any disrespect to the lovely mass I was part of at St Francis' - this also may have been the least spiritual experience of my life. 

After mass, we were invited to leave. I suppose they have to say this, because of the thousand people waiting outside for the next mass, but I was sad that the experience was over for me here. I had so many questions about the church, but no one to ask. 

I'm pretty sure I know enough about Catholicism to know it will never be the religion for me, but I was pleasantly surprised by the mass I attended. Catholics may have a reputation for being judgemental, but in a hall that big, I was as welcome as everyone else. There was no show put on, no attempt to win me. They just did what they do, because that's who they are. I didn't find it cold, I found it refreshing. 

I can understand why this is Australia's busiest church. St Francis' doesn't feel like a club or a cult. It feels like somewhere you'd grow up, and you'd just stay. You don't need to aspire to be a clergyman, or the next Pope. You don't need to be more than you are. You can come late, or leave early. You can come once a week, a month, or to all forty-three masses. 

And I think I'm curious enough to go again.