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  1356: St George's West, Edinburgh, Scotland

St George's West, Edinburgh, Scotland

Mystery Worshipper: OneTwoOne.
The church: St George's West, Edinburgh, Scotland.
Denomination: Church of Scotland.
The building: A grand Georgian building dating from 1869, unusually situated on a corner so that the steeple is also at the corner of the whole building. Graceful on the outside. Lovely inside too, especially the vaulted ceiling. Several alterations were made over the years. In 1897 the windows on either side of the apse were removed and chambers built to house the organ pipes. In 1976 the back part of the church was partitioned off with sliding doors to form a hall. And in 2001 the pews were rearranged around a central space so that the worshippers could see each other as well as the "action."
The church: It's in Edinburgh city centre, so it doesn't have the traditional congregation of people living round about. There are also more students and tourists than at most churches. There are morning and evening services every Sunday and a prayer service each day of the week. And it hosts a number of other organisations such as Creative Space, which offers people opportunities to explore their creative fancies; a clothing store for the homeless; a refugee centre for asylum seekers in need of social services; and Hadeel, a fair trade shop for craftspeople. They also maintain a restaurant, the Olive Tree Cafe.
The neighbourhood: Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, is a city rich in both history and culture. It is sometimes fondly referred to as "Auld Reekie," a reference to coal and wood smoke spewing from chimneys in days gone by, as well as to the less than sanitary living conditions that prevailed in those days. The area around St George's is popular with tourists – not far away is Edinburgh Castle, "the big castle on the rock." The Bank of Scotland, several public houses and inns, Boots the Chemist and other retail establishments are all nearby.
The cast: The Rev. Peter MacDonald.
The date & time: Sunday, 15 October 2006, 7.00pm.

What was the name of the service?
Evening Service.

How full was the building?
There were 16 people there, including the minister, the organist, and me. The building could hold several hundred.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, I was made very welcome. The lady in charge of the service sheets even promised me a personal organ recital (because I was early). The minister introduced himself, and the man sitting next to me chatted quite pleasantly too.

Was your pew comfortable?
Pretty comfortable. It had a pew cushion, which is standard in the Church of Scotland. And the pews were arranged in a cosy horseshoe type shape.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was quite busy, despite the small number of people, but not in an annoying way. People were puttering about and chatting quietly until just before the service started.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Hello and welcome to this evening's service."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Good News Bible and the fourth edition of the Church Hymnary. The fourth edition is only about a year old, and so the use of it (or not) can illustrate how a church sees itself. That is, the logistics and expense of replacing an entire set of hymnbooks en masse may demonstrate that a church really wants to be modern.

What musical instruments were played?
Just the organ, but very well played.

Did anything distract you?
The occasional rumble of buses outside. There was one person who sat throughout most of the proceedings. And the ability of so small a congregation to carry off the hymns was somewhat less than a success.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was relatively informal. Although the organ was used and we stood to sing and so on, the minister didn't wear anything special. Being your average Church of Scotland, it wasn't clappy, but the people did seem happy.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
18 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Very warm and engaging speaker, although perhaps it's easy to be engaging when you're speaking to 15 people. Lots of anecdotes, which helped. No obvious eccentricities.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was called "Hijabs and Headscarves," so you can see it was pretty topical. But it connected the wearing of the hijab not only to the Bible (for example, Paul's teachings on women wearing head coverings) but also to the way women in church even less than 100 years ago would never consider being hatless, and the way religions use symbols (such as Christianity with the cross) to identify themselves. Basically it was about trying to be sensitive and understanding about cultural differences whilst realising how important our own symbols are.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The lovely atmosphere and the spirit of tolerance.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The singing! Well, maybe that's unfair, since the only person I could hear was the minister and he was making a valiant attempt. There just weren't enough people.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Had no time to hang about looking lost – the man next to me immediately invited me for a cup of tea. A woman joined us, and I spent the next few minutes in interesting conversation with both of them. Not typical small talk, either – we were discussing the merits of various Shakespeare productions. Well, they were. I was trying to look like I might know who Shakespeare was.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
As mentioned, I took tea (although I think coffee was available) in a polystyrene cup with one of those little plastic holders. It was fine – hot and tasty. Some biscuits were also on offer.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – I'd like to go back during a morning service and experience the singing and so on with more people. But from the point of view of the welcome, the atmosphere and the message, I'd be happy to go there regularly.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. Warmth, love and tolerance.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The welcome.
 
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