vestryview

A view backstage at Beverley Minster

The other side of the curtain

Neil Pickford pushes through the veil

T’other day I went to a church service. Blimey!

Now that news shouldn’t really come as a surprise, because you know where I work. That’s right: five days a week I’m normally responsible for the routine running of a flipping big active church, so the fact that I’m involved with services isn’t really news. In fact there isn’t a service that goes on during my days of duty which doesn’t involve me in some way.

However, I suddenly realised that it was several years since I’d sat in Beverley Minster as an ordinary member of the congregation (or ‘civilian’ as I sometimes refer to them).  Now I’m temporarily ‘on the sick’ I thought I’d see what it was like.

It’s a fact of life that, once you’ve been involved on the inside of any activity then it’s virtually impossible to view that ‘thing’ in the same innocent light again. In addition, because we virgers are actively involved with the services then we have to concentrate on what is coming next – and when we are supposed to do whatever it is we are supposed to be doing. And all the time we are keeping an eye out for anything that might be about to go wrong.

In theatrical terms we’re constantly working ‘backstage’ and it’s just not possible for us to experience the service as if we were innocent members of the congregation ‘front of house’, so to speak.

So it was a very strange feeling to go into a church service as a civilian, seeing the altar set up by someone else and with absolutely nothing demanded of me. If the microphone cut out it wasn’t my problem. If the lights all fused it wasn’t my fault. If the preacher had the wrong reading then I’d never know.

And it was quite interesting.

I expect there are many readers who endured church services in their youth but have avoided them like the plague ever since – and I’m not surprised. My own spotty recollections of Sunday mornings at church merge into a general, uninvolving lump of boredom. All I ever wanted to do was get outside and play football. I couldn’t understand why adults voluntarily dressed up and put themselves through such tedium; and it was very unfair that they forced me to go through the same process.

And don’t get me started about services where they tried to ‘connect with the youth’. ‘Kumbaya’ strummed on an acoustic guitar was as repellent to me as at an embarrassing uncle dancing at a wedding. Basically, church sucked.

Has anything changed? Well, yes, although I suspect that if you’re not already familiar with the ritual of a communion service then there’s a lot that might appear mystifying.  You may also fear you’ll end up a bit like a virger, worrying about what you’re supposed to do next: stand up, sit down, face front etcetera, rather than experiencing what’s happening now. But if the service is done properly then you’re guided through the process and can instead concentrate on the now.

There’s a rhythm and flow in the formally- structured services, a logic to the sequences that actually makes sense when you pay attention. Oh, it’s easy for a poor preacher to derail the process but, in the hands of a competent leader I found myself being mentally recharged; I left with a stronger understanding of how to live less selfishly and I wasn’t bored at all. Quite a lot of good things, actually and, rather unexpectedly, I felt great.

Hmmm – I might have to try it again some time.

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