North Leith Parish, Edinburgh, Scotland

North Leith Parish, Edinburgh, Scotland


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Mystery Worshipper: OneTwoOne
Church: North Leith Parish
Location: Edinburgh, Scotland
Date of visit: Sunday, 27 July 2008, 11:00am

The building

The church is a fairly imposing Georgian building that was completed in 1816. Its columns and tall steeple mean it dominates the surrounding area. Leith was historically a shipping community and so many of the graves in the churchyard are of sailors. Inside it is light and spacious; the windows above the gallery have clear glass rather than the stained glass of the ground floor. It is also tastefully decorated. However, there was something I found a little cold about it. Partly I think this was to do with the massive pulpit, which was about 10 feet tall but had a huge canopy over it too, probably doubling the height. Fortunately the minister chose not to use it. I also found it slightly unsettling that you enter at the front of the church (being late would be very uncomfortable because everybody can see you come in) but perhaps that's just me.

The church

They are a member of the Leith Council of Churches and the Leith Churches Forum. They conduct a morning and evening service each Sunday. Several youth groups and adult social and religious groups meet during the week either at the church or in people's homes.

The neighborhood

The church is in Leith, which has quite a strong identity as a place separate from Edinburgh even though it technically is part of the city. In the past, Leith has had a reputation as being a bit rough round the edges because it's an old port town. But the congregation seemed more of an Edinburgh New Town type – educated, comfortably off, establishment types. In recent years a lot of money and effort have gone into regenerating Leith and other nearby areas, and it shows. Many old buildings have been converted into houses and there are a lot of good restaurants and bars there. The area round the church itself is mainly residential and well kept. It is a quiet area, not on a main road.

The cast

The service was led by the Revd Ken Smyth Baird, church minister. The names of those who played the organ and did the readings were not given.

What was the name of the service?

Morning Worship.

How full was the building?

There were about 70 people on the ground floor and only the choir in the gallery, but it's a big building, so it was mostly empty. There was a bit of an age mix – certainly a few people in their 20s though more in their 60s. The minister mentioned at the start that the young people were "next door" but they never made an appearance, which was a shame. I kept expecting them to.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes, there were a few welcomes. A couple of people said hello at the door but didn't give me any further directions. The guy handing out the hymnbooks was friendly and one or two members of the congregation also greeted me. In fact, one lady said hello so forcefully I felt like I was always there.

Was your pew comfortable?

It was a bog-standard wooden pew with a bit of carpet-type material on it. Not luxury, but my bottom wasn't sore.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The church was pretty quiet. People weren't particularly chatting, or if they were the church was too big for it to make much of an impact. I didn't get the impression that they were praying instead, though. I don't think anybody came in late, which is quite unusual (probably because the position of the doors means everybody can see you come in).

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning and welcome to worship at North Leith Parish Church."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The pew Bible was the New International version and I think the readings were also from it. One hymn was on the order of service and the others were from the Church of Scotland's Fourth Hymnary (CH4). This is the most recent edition, published about four years ago, so whether a church uses it or not can be a sign of its general outlook.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ all the way. In fact, there were two organs and two organists – one in the gallery and one just in front of the chancel.

Did anything distract you?

The huge pulpit, which was very off-putting even though the minister wasn't using it. Also there was a sort of rushing air sound which I think had something to do with the sound system. When I got bored I started trying to pick the paint off the pew.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

It was a fairly standard Church of Scotland service – that is, four or five hymns, a few prayers, a sermon, the offering and the intimations mixed in. It was led almost exclusively by the minister, although the readings were done by a member of the congregation. It had a very definite structure, but the minister also tried to be a little informal. He didn't use the pulpit, for example, and also mentioned that he'd chosen the tune for one of the hymns because it was named after the wife of the organist in the gallery and today was their wedding anniversary. But the only instrument was the organ; there was no expectation of clapping or, for example, of discussion in the congregation.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

27 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

6 – It's been said that no sinner was saved after the first 15 minutes of a sermon, and whilst I think that's a bit harsh, I did find the sermon a tad on the long side. Once he got into the real meat of the sermon (which was making the readings relevant to today) it was good, but there was too much build-up for my taste. It's a tough line though, because he was trying to provide an historical context. Although it was not directly topical, I did feel that it may have been addressed to some problems within the congregation.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The sermon focused on Romans 14 (do not judge others, and do not cause your brother to stumble) and I got the impression that they'd been going through the whole of Romans in previous weeks. Basically, Paul sees that there are matters that are essential to salvation (and on which there can be no disagreement) and matters that are not. If dealt with inappropriately, however, these matters can cause serious divisions and so we must be careful to respect each others' viewpoints.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

I have been attending a church that does not have an organ, so hearing the organ played loudly and well was a real treat. The hymns were also well chosen, I thought, and I especially liked the touch about the tune named the same as the organist's wife.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Despite myself, I was fidgeting during the sermon. There was also something wrong with the sound system. When nobody was speaking there was a weird whooshing sound, and when they were it was rather unclear. If I'd been an old biddy with a hearing aid, I'm not sure how much I would have made out. But probably the worst thing was an uncomfortable moment when the minister thanked the youth leader (whose last day it was) for his work. It didn't seem like it had been an easy relationship between him and the church, and for some reason the young people under his charge weren't invited in to make a presentation or anything.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

Er, nothing happened. I hung about a bit – nothing. I even asked somebody where the toilet was but they just told me and didn't add anything else. The tea and coffee were actually in the hall next door, so I had to leave the church to get there. This meant I had to shake hands with the minister. He also didn't mention the tea and coffee. In fact, he seemed to think he should already know me, because he heartily asked how I was. In the end I felt like an idiot and left.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I honestly couldn't bring myself to go for tea, even once I'd figured out where it was.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

5 – It was all right, but I spent the whole service feeling like I was among a collection of people rather than a congregation. Partly I think it was the effect of the building, but partly not.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Not particularly. People were friendly when I went in and the organ was good, but I didn't feel very enlightened or uplifted at the end. Actually I feel bad about saying that because I'm sure all the people were lovely, but it's true.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The twin mysteries of the two organists and the vanished youth. If you have young people in your church, show them off!

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