I find myself in Faringdon, Oxfordshire, a handsome little town, with a collection of old coaching inns clustered around a market square. Outside All Saints Church is a sign: ‘Theories keep changing, God does not. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and for ever’. After my reading of the Koran, I’m unimpressed by anything that’s claimed never to change. Despite the blithe assurances, ‘for ever’ is a mighty long time. Change is good!
At least half a dozen people asked me what I was doing - surely a redundant question when I’m looking through the viewfinder of a camera. One of them told me there’s a bit of a cannon-ball inside the church, fired at the building by Cromwell’s troops during the Civil War. “Better be quick if you want to see it”, he said, “because the service starts in a few minutes”. Well, I did something I’ve never done - by choice - in my entire life: I sat through a church service (though I picked a pew near the door in case I needed to escape).
One hymn I already knew. Technology helped with the others, in the form of a screen which displayed each verse in turn. There were prayers, some ‘call and response’ routines and a couple of Bible readings. The vicar took the second reading - about Jesus healing lepers - as the theme for his blessedly short sermon. I guess the days are gone when the vicar could terrify his congregation with a few home truths - leaving women weeping, men ashen-faced, children traumatised and damp.
The vicar sounded (a bit) like the Rev Lovejoy in the Simpsons (and that’s not a favourable comparison). He put in a bit of a performance, hand gestures and all; it just didn’t sound totally sincere. I wondered if he really believed everything he was saying. Those ten lepers went from ‘unclean’ to ‘cured’ with a few words from Jesus, though only one of them came back to thank Jesus for what he’d done. He was a leper and a Samaritan and, therefore, in the eyes of his Jewish neighbours, an outcast twice over. Cue some timely thoughts from the vicar about our need to give thanks for God’s bounty.
The sermon provided the only original ideas (though, who knows, there may be some online service which, for a fee, provides busy churchmen with sermons ‘by the yard’). Everything else was either chanted by heart - the Lord’s prayer, for example - or printed in the order of service. I wondered about the fate of all the other lepers living at the time of Jesus who were unable to hail him as he walked along the road to Jerusalem. If he could heal one, or ten, then why not all lepers? In fact, why have leprosy at all? The answer, when these questions get difficult, is to say “Well, God has a plan. We just don’t know what it is”, which is just a religious version of the ‘Get out of jail free’ card in a game of Monopoly.
A few people shook my hand (but not just mine) at the end of the service, and suggested I might like to stay for a cup of coffee. I didn’t want to push my luck, and say something I might regret, so I shook a few more hands… and left.
As someone who usually see churches only when they’re empty, I was impressed by the size of the congregation. There must have been more than 130 people in the church, plus organists, a choir and a small group: piano, guitar, cello and voices. Everyone was ‘miked up’, and the service went like clockwork. If the object of the exercise is to get ‘bums on seats’ I can only applaud the team who puts on the show every Sunday. If the object is to discover what’s true - and it is - then the service represented 75 minutes of well-choreographed self-delusion…