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Oak Methodist, Birmingham, England
Selly Oak Methodist,
Comment: We have received a comment on this report.
Church of Great Britain, Birmingham
A large grey structure resembling a 1960s aircraft hangar –
a pauper's Coventry Cathedral. One of a series of 1960s churches
intended, I guess, to break the mould of the post-war attempts
at modernist gothic. The liturgical renewal aims of the premises
are writ large: huge wide floor-to-ceiling block reredos; bare,
plain polished wood sheepfold-inspired pulpit; communion table
designed to resemble a workbench; and matching sanctuary furnishings.
In an attempt to look a little more contemporary, they have
installed an admirably large screen to one side of the very
wide sanctuary, with a projector not quite bright enough for
the size and light levels in the building.
They sponsor dozens of social, recreational and spiritual groups
all enumerated on their website. Of special note are their house
groups that meet on a regular basis for fellowship, Bible study,
discussion, talks and social events. This is the closest Methodist
church to the University of Birmingham, and historically the
congregation has had quite an "academic" reputation. There are
three worship services each Sunday, including an evening service.
Birmingham, in the West Midlands, is England's "second
city." Its importance during the Industrial Revolution
led to its being known as "the workshop of the world"
or the "city of a thousand trades." Today Birmingham
is an important commercial centre, especially for the banking
industry. A major transportation hub, it is also the site of
"Spaghetti Junction", a complex system of intertwined
loops and ramps joining several major motorways. The church
is adjacent to Selly Oak Colleges, a federation of once thriving
missionary training institutions whose demise reflects sadly
that of mainline British churches.
The Revd Doreen Hare, minister. The Revd Hare is also superintendent
minister of Birmingham Southwest Circuit. There were several
others taking part who were not named. A young junior school
aged girl read the gospel passage.
The date & time:
27 July 2008, 10.30am.
What was the name of the service?
Sunflower Sunday Morning Family Service – the minister explicitly
repeated the title several times.
How full was the building?
About half full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. The three people near the most obvious and open door (apparently
the "wrong" door) were too busy talking amongst themselves.
We Buntings had to collect hymn books for ourselves. No one
spoke to us before, during or after the service.
Was your pew comfortable?
As pews go, yes, it was OK for about 10 minutes.
How would you describe the pre-service
Idle chatter, with background organ music. Somehow it was neither
quiet, nor reverential, nor warm, nor friendly.
What were the exact opening words of the
"Good morning. As we light our candle, welcome to our Sunflower Sunday Morning Service" (italics indicate emphasis on words).
What books did the congregation use during the
Hymns and Psalms, the Methodist Church's 25 year-old
officially endorsed collection. No Bibles or service books were
visible. Some people had A4 notice sheets.
What musical instruments were played?
A large hidden pipe organ, played pretty well from a large, very visible architect-designed console.
Did anything distract you?
The minister's odd way of emphasising randomly chosen words
in almost every sentence, whilst being quite mono-tonal.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip,
happy clappy, or what?
An odd mixture. It was terribly respectable and humdrum in a
chirpy but undynamic way; I assume this was intended as an attempt
to be engaging and friendly, but it came over as self-consciously
"matey". A sustained, forced, hollow cheerfulness was evident
throughout, suggesting that if only we jolly everyone up enough,
they won't notice there's no content. It all felt very self-satisfied.
There was a call to worship, opening prayers, a baptism, intercessory
prayers, and a statement of faith. The sunflower theme was repeated
in every section. For example, we were all invited to have our
faces painted to look like sunflowers, and when no one did,
some pressure was put on old and young alike. A few children
finally resigned themselves to go out and get painted, and they
came back with very small sunflowers painted on their cheeks.
Somehow I expected their whole faces to be painted. This was
a motif for the whole service, really: publicly promising more
than it offered or achieved.
Exactly how long was the
35 seconds – see below.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
1 The Revd Hare commented on the reading in two sentences,
and then said, "I'm going tell another parable." Thus, I do
not consider what followed to be part of the sermon. She promptly
picked up a large A4 ring binder, sat down on the communion
area step (making her virtually invisible to almost everyone),
and invited all the children who could be cajoled into sitting
near her to do so. (They didn't look that keen and so this took
a while.) She then commented, "I haven't seen many people getting
their faces painted," and encouraged children and adults alike
to do so. When no one moved, she started badgering them. Finally
an elderly lady gave in, followed by about half the children.
The congregation applauded – whether in approval of their
getting painted or in admiration that they made good their escape,
I have no idea. The remaining children had become somewhat frisky
by this time, and they had to be gathered together again. Once
that was done, the Revd Hare launched into an indescribably
In a nutshell, what was the sermon
The reading was the parable of the mustard seed, Matthew 13:31-32.
She said something like, "This story talks about growth as seeds
become big plants. This is just like sunflower seeds do, helping
us to worship God's creation." Thus instructed, we were then
treated to her "other parable", a presumably fictional
tale of a couple who grew sunflowers in their pre-war terraced
house. The house was destroyed by bombing, and from the ruins
emerged only a single sunflower. But a gang of youths happened
upon that single flower and fought over it, crushing the plant
and scattering its seeds. At length from those scattered seeds
many sunflowers bloomed. The preacher then launched into a series
of interactive questions, to which the congregation obliged
with answers as best they could. But she kept on saying, "No,
that WAS the WRONG ANSWER" or "That WAS not WHAT I wanted."
I think her intention was to make the point that seeds sown
produce a harvest later, but, as all the Buntings noticed and
remarked to me afterwards, the real moral of the story seemed
to be that until you have a fight you only get one flower. (Oops!)
Which part of the service was like being in
The girl who read the gospel passage did so beautifully, clearly
And which part was like
being in... er... the other place?
Oh dear, where do I start and stop? Most of it, really. There
was a strange, slightly sub-Christian air and theology underlying
the whole service, presumably intentionally. The name of Jesus
was not mentioned even once by anyone, nor did it occur in any
of the hymns. (Well, maybe Jesus was mentioned just once, by
a member of the congregation in an intercessory prayer.) The
call to worship included a line that stated we worship "with
God." (Who or what does God worship – sunflowers, maybe?)
The opening prayers had to be explained and "practised"
before we actually prayed them. These were only possibly addressed
to God – they were certainly not trinitarian. The mercifully
anonymous baptismal hymn consisted of fragmented phrases, not
complete sentences, that neither scanned nor rhymed and certainly
made no sense – it seemed on the whole theistically humanistic
rather than Christian. The baptismal service had been shortened
and edited (which is OK in theory, as the official service is,
if anything, wordy) such that almost all hints of the work of
Jesus and the Holy Spirit had been eliminated. The parents of
the candidate were not asked, "What name have you given
this child?" but rather, "What name are you giving
your baby?" thus reducing the sacrament of baptism to a
post-modern naming ceremony. And the child was baptised "In
the name of God: Creator, Saviour and Spirit." We were told
not that baptism is a manifestation of the unearnable and unearned
love of God, but rather that it introduces us to God's creative
community. "Pelagian! Humanistic! Universalist! Deist!" I wanted
to cry out. Actually, by that time, I just wanted to cry.
What happened when you
hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing. We sat tight for several minutes but not a soul bothered
to speak to us.
How would you describe the after-service
Frankly, after the previous hour's experience, I had all I could
do to keep up with the other Buntings as they made their escape!
We briefly hesitated by the "correct" door, but decided
not to risk it for fear of having someone ask us brightly, "How
did you enjoy this morning?"
How would you feel about
making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 It was the kind of morning that would make me decide
to go or travel elsewhere. Mrs Bunting's comment sums it up
for all of us: "On the basis of this service, if this were
the only church in the area, it would still be the one I would
choose not to attend!"
Did the service make you
feel glad to be a Christian?
Sadly – and it hurts me to say this – not in the least. Tragically,
this was the singularly most abysmally dismal service I have
ever attended in a lifetime of churchgoing.
What one thing will you
remember about all this in seven days' time?
That the Revd Hare managed to get through the whole excruciating
53 minutes of the service without mentioning the name of Jesus.
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