Mystery Worshipper: Jezebel's Cat
Church: St Margaret's
Location: Mooroolbark, Victoria, Australia
Date of visit: Sunday, 21 October 2007, 9:30am
Attached to an older cream brick chapel now used as a Sunday school room, the present day chapel is a mid-80s brick building. It has some small chunky abstract leadlight windows scattered randomly around the exterior walls.
St Margaret's shares their minister with Croydon North Uniting. The church celebrates the fact that their buildings are used by a wide variety of community groups. They've even put a sign about it at the car park entrance listing all the groups. They also run musical afternoons, regular church dinners, and music and movement classes for preschoolers. Other social and spiritual ministries and outreaches are listed on their website. They seem very much into helping the needy.
Mooroolbark is an outer eastern suburb of Melbourne built largely in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. It has about 20,000 people, a busy shopping strip and a railway station. Most people are of Anglo-European background and commute to work. For about 100 years prior to suburban development, Mooroolbark was a farming area. For tens of thousands of years prior to that, it was part of the traditional lands of the Wurundjeri people.
The Revd Jennie Gordon, minister. I couldn't hear the name of the lay woman who lead the service.
What was the name of the service?9.30 Worship.
How full was the building?
About 60 people, almost all of them over 60 years of age. The Australian Bureau of Statistics 2006 census states that over 5 per cent of the residents of Mooroolbark identify their denomination as Uniting Church – so that would be about 1,000 potential church members. Either the people of Mooroolbark misunderstood the question or 940 were absent.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I wandered in looking a little lost and out of place and was greeted warmly by a lady I assume was a church elder. She was friendly and informative. But as we stood and talked, other people sidled around us avoiding eye contact.
Was your pew comfortable?
Puce coloured carpeted benches – quite comfortable as long as you didn't have to look at them.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was rather quiet and orderly. A string band played modern hymns. Then just before the service began, a choral recording of "There is a balm in Gilead" was heard over the sound system. This served as a signal for people to take their seats.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Let's stand to sing the introit together."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. Everything we needed was printed on a folded green sheet of A4, including readings from The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version, and a prayer. The songs were projected overhead.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ, violin, cello, guitar. Percussion was ably supplied by the violinist's very small grandchild with his collection of rattles. The musicians managed to play their music seriously and with some reverence but without being too precious about it. Including and indulging the child seemed to matter more.
Did anything distract you?
Hmm, buzzing microphones they're a plague upon us. The children's talk was interrupted constantly by wild buzzing. The minister jumped up from her seat a couple of times to adjust them, which was distracting enough but paled by comparison to the microphones themselves.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Traditional service with progressive content – so we sang and stood and sat at the usual times but the words of the songs were chosen for their contemporary reflections on the Christian life rather than on traditional grounds. The minister wore a clerical gown (not all in the Uniting Church do) but with a stole brightly embroidered with images of children.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Content was creatively explored but not drawn together into one coherent argument (though maybe not having a singular perspective was part of the point). There was one idea in particular that grabbed my attention, which I'll mention at the end as being something I'll remember in seven days' time.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Pastor Jennie linked some disparate elements – the clash between aboriginal spirituality and colonial Christian missions, the morning's readings and the Uniting Church's Frontier Services, which supplies practical and spiritual help to remote Australian communities. Referring to the book The Lamb enters the Dreaming: Nathanael Pepper and the Ruptured World, by Robert Kenny, she related how early efforts at evangelism must have looked to aboriginal people the white man drove them from their land (The earth is the Lord's?) and introduced them to disease, then comforted them with stories of a suffering Saviour. A complex tale. She tied it all together at the end by saying that in Mooroolbark we are a long way from the wilderness of Australia's centre but that we are all one in Christ.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The singing (I surprise myself!). Mercifully free of song leaders, the congregation sang well-chosen modern hymns with thoughtful lyrics.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I hate to say this because I'm all for children participating in worship, but the children's segment was pretty bad. I also don't like to criticise the efforts of visibly nervous lay people: I know that letting go of your inhibitions enough to engage a group of small children in public is pretty challenging stuff. But from the kids' perspectives it must have been quite incomprehensible. The message went right over their heads literally – as it was delivered from standing height to children seated on the floor. And then there was the whole buzzing microphone thing.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
A few people smiled cautiously and there was a definite whiff of "Why are you here?" Two ladies approached and engaged in conversation. One of them summed things up well by telling me that it was mainly older people here and that my generation (I was easily 20 years younger than she) was poorly represented, though not at the Baptists up the road from all accounts. Perhaps she wondered why I hadn't gone there instead. Fair enough. Maybe I will next time.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The congregation made a post-service dash for the adjacent hall, where there was fairly traded tea and coffee in smoked glass mugs – 1980s style to match the architecture. Yellow cordial for the kids. Excellent selection of chocolate biscuits (presumably from unfairly traded cocoa but who likes to be picky about social justice when it tastes good), nut loaf, savoury biscuits, and cheese snacks. Generous amounts were available and it wasn't just cheap no-name brands, it was a good quality feed. And there were seats for the older oldies. No sponge cake but I'm giving it four stars all the same.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – It's not completely out of the question. The service spoke to the intellect as well as to the emotions, and it was short besides! They have a young minister who is able to speak compassionately and with broad intelligence about being Christian in our ancient land – the ability to retell the Christian story without recourse to dogma or cliche is a rare gift. But there were few children, teenagers or young parents. At the risk of sounding like a sales-person, this church would ideally suit over-50s with inquiring minds who like being on the roster a lot.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. But it's gladness tinged with sadness. I really liked the way the people there are engaging creatively with faith and culture. However, with the age balance so out of whack it's hard to feel hopeful about the future.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
I was quite taken by a point made in the sermon and derived from Robert Kenny's book: The white man came to the Australian wilderness with lambs to farm and eat and a religious message about the Good Shepherd and the Lamb of God. The aborigines responded to the dual threat of invasion and evangelism by slaughtering the white man's sheep and leaving the valuable meat uneaten. History explains it as an act of theft or guerilla war, but it was here reinterpreted as a ritual getting rid of invaders and their Lamb of God religion. I never thought of it like that before.