Sunday 27th March 2016
Of all the essential items we thought to pack before embarking on a year’s travelling around Australia, an outfit for church somehow didn’t make it onto our list. So we both cobbled together our “Sunday Best”.
Jakkie, in her womanly way, pulled off the transition from camp dweller to church goer with greater style than I could ever hope to manage. My outfit comprised a pair of £5 Oxfam jeans and a purple spider patterned shirt that I bought for Australia. Then I had to choose between the really scruffy sandals that smell OK, or the really smelly sandals that look OK. In the end I favoured visual affect over olfactory impact and we headed for church.
The first thing I noticed when we arrived, was a bulbous man sitting near the organ in a sandals-shorts-and-sports-shirt combination, that clearly wasn’t making its first outing. I instantly relaxed, confident that I wasn’t going to be the worst-dressed man in church.
By contrast, the small couple behind us looked like they’d been freshly starched into their Sunday best (the beige version) and proudly sported official church name badges, which announced their importance.
Churches are naturally hierarchical beasts, starting with God and Jesus up in heaven, closely followed by figureheads like the Pope and the Queen on earth and then working their way down through layers and bishops and arch-bishops until you arrive at the man or woman in a dog collar leading the Sunday service.
But the great thing about local churches is that they have very little sense of being run from on high. They are too far removed from the church hierarchy for it to have any major influence on the community.
Even the vicars, priests and ministers who are closest to the hierarchy can come and go. So the people who shape the culture around the church and maintain the traditions of any church community are the members of the congregation who provide a constancy and presence that not only lasts a lifetime, but is often passed down for generations through the same family.
Jakkie’s grandfather, for example, died on Easter Sunday in the early 1990s and Joy (her mum) has been decorating their church with lilies in his memory, every Easter since then. There were lilies on display in this church too, a simple touch that was particularly poignant for Jakkie.
No Giggling In Church
Church services are often like amateur theatre productions. The work of dozens of people, like Joy, goes into each ‘show’ and a willingness to contribute can be more important than an ability to perform the role you take on. The result can be comical at times, but there is beauty in a church community coming together to create a weekly gathering of Christian devotion, that is far greater than the brilliance (or otherwise) of the individual parts.
It’s hard not to giggle when 50 older and elderly people start mumbling the lyrics of a modern hymn that are projected on a screen by the altar, while a lone trumpet, blown by the bulbous man, attempts to resuscitate the melody that the congregation are slowly murdering. It’s much more fun to join the congregation in killing the hymn, one long verse at a time, helping them to lift their disharmonious voices to a higher volume than the bulbous trumpeter can reach.
So this is what we did, particularly when half a dozen Sunday School kids, whose levels of enthusiasm were inversely proportionate to their age, were wheeled out to lead us in singing a classic modern Australian hymn, “Super Saviour to the rescue”, complete with actions:
“Super saviour to the rescue,” we all sang, lifting our arms up like Superman flying through the sky; “look, look, there goes Jesus,” we chimed as we cupped our hands over our eyes to protect them from the glare of his imaginary halo, as we gazed towards the heavens; “up, up, out of the grave,” we marvelled, raising our arms up at the sides to form a sea of levitating human crosses.
We couldn’t believe our luck. If our childhood churches could have had made love and spawned a little illegitimate baby church, this is how it would have turned out. There was the Anglican formality from my side, the ministerial warmth and openness from Jakkie’s church and the sing-along-a-hymns (complete with hand actions) that we both love. There was even a guitar solo where we were invited to play air guitar.
I was still bobbing with excitement from singing seventeen choruses of “Super Saviour To The Rescue” when I felt an urgent tapping on my shoulder. I turned to find a firm hand thrust into my palm and a beaming face looming towards me with no sign of stopping anytime soon.
It was the tidy woman behind us whose badge, I now realised, was a special pass permitting her to invade the personal space of anyone who entered the building.
“Welcome to our Church,” she insisted. “You’re welcome, to our church. This is OUR church, you’re very welcome to it. WELCOME!”
It was the part of the service where the congregation bless and greet each other. We mostly spoke to a lone man on the front pew, a Catholic interloper whose loyalty to this Anglican church was such that he’d “already booked it for my funeral”.
I wanted to ask how he knew which date to book, but he was busy telling us how pleased he was that the rail in front of the altar, where the faithful kneel to take communion, had been reinstated. And you could sense, in that simple statement, that the question of the handrail had almost torn the parish apart.
Time For Tea
At the end of the service, badge lady’s iron finger began tapping on shoulders again. “You’re welcome to join us for tea, in the church hall, in our church hall, for tea, you’re very welcome. COME AND JOIN US!”
“I was saying to these two,” interjected the Catholic man with the funeral plan, “it’s much better now that they’ve reinstated the handrail” and we were whisked away for tea before that old wound could be re-opened, in front of strangers, on Easter Sunday.