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Rev. Christy Thomas: Tightly scripted worship leaves question lingering

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — “Matter is mortal error.” I’m seeking to understand this phrase after attending worship at First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Thousand Oaks, California.

I arrived early, accompanying the friend of a friend who serves as summer vocalist. I had the opportunity to observe the two lay readers, the organist and the vocalist, all female, put final touches on the 10 a.m. service.

I sat in the small, unadorned worship center, which would seat 100 comfortably, and thumbed through the hymnal, noting that two of the songs for the day were not in the hymnal. I saw no other songbook available. Although I was eventually greeted by an usher — the only person who spoke with me while I sat there — she did not offer a different hymn book or an order of service.

I finally went to the back of the worship area and found a hymnal supplement. I asked about an order of service and was handed a booklet called Christian Science Quarterly Bible Lessons but was given no other information. After quick investigation, I realized that the order of Sunday services, found on the inside cover, never varies.

I found the responsive reading for that day, along with these instructions: “The Bible and the Christian Science textbook [i.e., Mary Baker Eddy’s seminal work, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, published in 1875] are our only preachers. ... The canonical writings, together with the word of our textbook, corroborating and explaining the Bible texts in their spiritual import and application to all ages, past, present and future, constitute a sermon undivorced from truth, uncontaminated and unfettered by human hypotheses, and divinely authorized.”

In plain terms: Only words from the Bible (New King James Version) and from Mary Baker Eddy, follower of the late 19th-century metaphysical movement and founder of Christian Science, may be used in worship for only they are pure and untainted by human error.

Thus began the most tightly scripted and carefully read worship service I have experienced.

The first hymn was announced, one written by Eddy. The lay reader read it in its entirety before some invisible signal (at least to me) alerted people to stand and sing. The hymn was followed by three or four minutes of absolutely silent prayer, for spoken prayers other than the Lord’s Prayer are not permitted in the Christian Science tradition, as dictated in Eddy’s textbook.

The Lord’s Prayer itself was then prayed, very slowly, phrase by phrase, with Eddy’s spiritual interpretation of each phrase interspersed by the lay reader.

This was followed by brief announcements (“notices”) including an explanation that people ages 20 and under were being given instruction during this hour, so worship was only for those 21 and over.

After some responsive readings, the “lesson/sermon” began. At this point, there were two lay readers at the double-wide pulpit. The first read somewhere between two and five unrelated Scripture selections, and the other followed with two to five explanatory snippets from Science and Health. This cycle was repeated eight times.

Not a word was mispronounced nor was there a single stumble, as far as I could tell, during the 30 minutes of lesson/sermon. There were no personal reflections or explanations of the 25 passages from the Bible other than what was offered from Science and Health.

The congregation, numbering about 35 or 40 adults, sat in unmoving silence during the readings. The only sounds I heard were a couple of muted and quickly silenced coughs.

Following the readings came the offering (“collection”), and benediction: “There is no life, truth, intelligence, nor substance in matter. All is infinite Mind and its infinite manifestation, for God is All-in-all. Spirit is immortal Truth; matter is mortal error. Spirit is the real and eternal; matter is the unreal and temporal. Spirit is God, and man is His image and likeness. Therefore man is not material; he is spiritual.”

After the dismissal, I waited quietly in the aisle for the vocalist to join me. I was ignored by the rest of those in attendance. I did notice that all were well-dressed and looked slender and healthy.

The vocalist and I went outside to admire the lovely landscaping around the building. At that point, one woman did speak with me and asked if I was new. When I said I was just visiting, she said, “Oh,” and turned away from me.

I saw not one single child outside with the adults or anywhere inside the small building.

And so I left, pondering again, “matter is mortal error.” Matter, that which makes up the created world, our bodies, our brains, our ability to touch one another, to garden, paint and sing, is a mortal error, according to Christian Science principles. It makes no sense to me.