With a generous invitation from my nephew to spend several days in the gorgeous Cotswolds village of Burford (east of Oxford), I was delighted on my first view of High Street to see a Methodist church — and immediately chose it for Mystery Worship Nine.
The building, baroque style of Cotswold stone, had been built around 1715 as a private house and was converted in 1879 to a Wesleyan chapel.
Accompanied by my nephew’s wife and their five-year-old daughter, I arrived early and we took seats in a high-ceilinged, plain room with wooden floors, comfortably padded chairs and room for 96 people. Sixteen attended worship.
Everyone was elderly. Even I felt like a youngster. After we sat down, another woman greeted us and noted a small table with coloring books and crayons. She said they “never have children in worship,” but put it there just in case.
The hymnal was Hymns and Songs, put out by the Methodist Publishing House. The hymnal contained words only for the hymns, no music scores. There was no bulletin, but the message board at the side displayed the hymn numbers.
The greeter went to the pulpit at 11 a.m. and offered a “Good morning” welcome to visitors, several announcements and the information that their minister was being moved to another circuit. There was absolutely no reaction to this statement.
A young man, wired with a lapel mic, stepped up and offered a prayer. He never introduced himself.
We then began the first hymn, “All Creatures of our God and King.” Everyone seemed to know to stand on the last line of the introduction as the music became louder.
We sang all seven verses. Slowly, sloggily, poorly and, near the end, somewhat exhaustedly as 13 very elderly people continued to stand, and a five-year-old wanted to sit.
After some very long prayers, the hymn, “For the Beauty of the Earth,” followed. We labored bravely through it, again catching the cue to stand from the increasing volume of the introduction.
We were not invited to stand for the Gospel reading on the story of the mustard seed (Mark 4), probably just as well for the already exhausted congregation.
After the Gospel reading, the young man came up and passed into the hands of each person two or three very small seeds. He stated clearly that they were not mustard seeds but did not identify them otherwise, and went into a nice analogy about the potential of the seeds. He noted that most seeds don’t actually reach that potential, but that nature tolerates all that loss just for the possibility that it might produce.
Another hymn, another long, preachy prayer and it was time for the offering and then the final hymn.
It was “Praise God for Harvest of Farm and Field.” The preacher mentioned that he chose it because it fit with the Gospel lesson and message. He didn’t consider one thing: no one in this congregation, including him, had ever heard or sung this hymn before.
We all tried — really, we all did. But by the middle of the third stanza, we just gave up and let it play itself out, all the way through five interminable verses. That’s when I wrote the word “Torture!” in my notebook.
Afterward, we all gratefully sat down for the postlude and I sent the very patient five-year-old to the coloring table for the coffee and conversation time.
I learned then that the preacher is a lay speaker from a nearby larger town. This church is part of a circuit of 17 churches, who, until now, have been served by four clergy people. Now they are down to three, so lay speakers take up the slack since, on most Sundays, few churches will see an ordained clergyperson.
This was a tough peek at the future for many of our churches in the U.S. today.
THE REV. CHRISTY THOMAS is the pastor of First United Methodist Church of Krum. Reach her by calling 940-482-3482 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.