Mystery Worshipper: Benny Diction 2
Church: Corran Esplanade Church
Location: Oban, Argyll, Scotland
Date of visit: Sunday, 29 May 2011, 10:00am
The church was built in the late 1950s. The architect was Leslie Graham-MacDougall, the designer of many churches, banks, private homes and civic buildings throughout Scotland. The church is very incongruous in a Scottish town, as the building appears to be very Italianate from the outside, complete with a campanile that apparently houses no bells. Inside, the church is painted white and even on a gloomy day felt quite light and airy. The layout is fairly simple, with the apse incorporating a lovely stained glass window that depicts Jesus at various stages of his ministry, his resurrection and ascension. Somehow, though, the church felt back to front in that the entrance door was tucked away at the back of the church rather than facing on to the main road on which it stands. And given that the church looks out onto a constantly changing sea view, why doesn't it have clear windows?
We noticed that Corran is a member of Eco-Congregation, an ecumenical charity with programmes that help congregations understand environmental issues. They are also a fair trade church, with certificates and plaques to prove it! The parish includes two other nearby churches, and among them all there are a number of weekly activities such as men's prayer lunch, Beautiful Minds (a mental health support group) and Singing for the Brain (a singing group aimed at those with dementia and Alzheimer's disease). From the notice sheet we learned that in the next few weeks there would be a handbell concert and an American hoedown. An incredibly active parish!
Oban is a small fishing port situated on the west Coast of Scotland. Fishing is now only a small part of the town (although it is still the self-styled "seafood capital of Scotland"). Its principal seafaring related activity nowadays is to serve as the base for a number of ferries that service the islands of the Hebrides. The town also hosts visits from passing cruise ships and yachts and tourists in general. There is also a wonderful little distillery in Oban producing a lovely light malt whisky. It is worth taking the very interesting tour, and of course you get to taste the product at the end. (Oh well, if you insist!) For such a small town, Oban seems to have an abundance of churches: we counted two Church of Scotland, one Catholic, one Episcopalian (a cathedral no less), two Free Presbyterians, one Congregational and one Baptist. The church stands on the Corran Esplanade, a road that goes along the sea front.
The minister and preacher was the Revd Catherine ("Cat") Knott. The Bible reading was read by Mrs Frances Grant.
What was the name of the service?Morning Worship.
How full was the building?
The church probably seats about 150 and it was about half full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
We were greeted inside the door by a friendly chap wearing a smart linen summer suit. "Welcome to Oban in summer," he proclaimed. Ironic, we thought, as the day was raining, blowing a gale and chilly. We then were made to battle our way through a team of half a dozen people all handing out copies of the order of service.
Was your pew comfortable?
We sat on wooden chairs that were fairly comfortable for an hour long service, although I wouldn't have wanted to sit on them for any longer.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Noisy and chatty. Most of the congregation were locals and they all seemed to be catching up on the week's gossip, especially news of a new ferry boat that had been delivered amid much pomp and ceremony but had then broken down! There was no time to sit quietly and reflect. In fact, as I bowed my head for a brief prayer before service, the people in the same row said to us, "Welcome to Oban in summer." We were also greeted by people in the row in front and behind.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The Revd Cat's opening words were: "Good morning and welcome to Oban in summer." (At this stage we were beginning to wonder if "Welcome to Oban in summer" was some strange catch phrase.) She then went on to add some "intimations" (church notices to you and me) not covered in the order of service.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
We sang hymns from the Church Hymnary and there were copies of the New English Bible available.
What musical instruments were played?
Music was provided by a small pipe organ, an opus of JW Walker and Sons Ltd dating from 1956. It sounded very nice. There was also a choir who sang the introit.
Did anything distract you?
There were two things: how hot it was in the church and how poor the sound system was. I admit to being a bit deaf, but even Mrs Diction, who has very good hearing, said that she struggled to hear the preacher and the reader even though they were both miked up.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service could be termed a hymn sandwich: call to worship, hymn, prayers, readings, hymn, sermon, hymn, prayers of intercession, hymn, offertory hymn and blessing. I expect it was of a pattern familiar to many nonconformists. A gentleman in a splendid kilt (who we later learned is termed "the beadle") carried in the Bible as the service commenced.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
14 minutes though it seemed shorter.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The sermon content was very good, so I'm only marking the Revd Cat down because she could have done with projecting her voice more. Either that or getting the sound system sorted! She has an engaging American southern accent (she hails from North Carolina) that made her easy to listen to.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
She had been away at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland at the time the world was supposed to end on 21st May, so she referred back to that. She questioned why people sometimes seem so keen to be raptured. She said how she'd found examples of this phenomenon during times of war and economic crisis. So maybe people wanted the end of the world to come so that they would experience something better? Or maybe people feel they want to get God to take charge. But don't they realise God is sovereign? Using Acts 17:22-31 (Paul tells the people of Athens that God made all so that we would seek him, and he will come to judge us one day), she pointed out that God can be known through the Holy Spirit. God is not unknown or unknowable. But it it easy to make God unknown because we don't want to engage with him.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
As the offertory was brought forward, the whole congregation sang the doxology ("Praise God from whom all blessings flow"). I found this very touching and it actually brought a tear to my eye. And in a similar vein, after the benediction we all sang a choral amen. That, too, was very moving.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Actually this is tricky as on the whole this was a good service. However, I am going to have to settle on the heating. It was roasting. Yes, it was a blustery wet day, but it wasn't that cold outside. And yet the heating was on full. I felt the need to divest myself of my coat and jumper even though locals seemed to be content to sit there in coats and scarves. I found it ironic that given this is an Eco Congregation, the church was being overheated.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
As there is no church hall, coffee was served at the back of the church. No one actually invited us to stay, though. But as we stood around, a number of folk talked to us. Clearly this is a church used to receiving visitors during the tourist season.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
We had a cup of fair trade coffee and a biscuit. I was disappointed to find a lack of wonderful Scotland shortbread.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – Given the number of churches in Oban, were I living here I'd shop around. But if at the end Corran were the best, I'd be OK with that.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, it did. The sermon was good, the hymns tied in well with the Revd Cat's theme, and it felt as if we had truly worshipped God.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The singing of the doxology, which moved me to tears (but in a good way!).