Matt's blog

The story of me, an American in Edinburgh, Scotland finding my place as a musician, a husband, a father and a Christian.

Church Shopping

WARNING Extremely long post ahead! If you just stopped by to goof off at work you might want to wait until you get home to read this. If you are procrastinating studying for finals, carry on.

I think the advice Miranda gave in her comment on the last post, "pick a place and plant yourselves there no matter what (unless their theology is beyond wretched,)" is generally good advice and it was the attitude I had when we first came over here to Edinburgh. I really wanted to get involved somewhere quick and start making it our community. The church has always been home to me, especially First Pres Granada Hills where I spent the first 20-odd years of my life. Hence, I was (and am) looking for more than just a place to go to on Sunday morning. Anyway, here's a brief history of our church shopping experience here in Edinburgh.

When we first got here Jeni and I were both in a pretty bad place. We felt like we were run to the end of our ropes and like we'd made a horrible decision. We wondered if our marriage would survive Jeni's first year of vet school. You pretty much know this story already so I won't rehash it here. (If you don't know the story, see this post at the Scotvet.) We stopped by a few churches during this time, but didn't get involved in any of them. We felt like people treated us like outsiders. People would say things like, "Oh, you're Americans, you should meet these other Americans, but they're not here ok I'm done talking to you now." Perhaps you can't expect much more when you're just getting to know new people in a new culture, but when you're feeling as destroyed inside as we were then, you don't give people the benefit of the doubt. I know this was a failing on our part, but I also know why it happened and I think I just need to accept it and move on.

The first church we attended semi-regularly was a Free Church of Scotland congregation. If you've been paying attention here and on then you know that some of our best friends here are our former upstairs neighbors and now just down the street neighbors the Burnses. They got plugged into the Free Church right away on the recommendation of friends who had been there before. They also had a motivating factor in getting plugged into a church quick: Emma was just about to have a baby and they needed what ever help they could get. Since they lived right upstairs from us, we went along with them to church. I liked the idea of sharing worship with the people we shared living space with. The Free Church of Scotland is very much like the PCA in the states. It is more conservative then the Church of Scotland in roughly the same way that the PCA is more conservative than the PCUSA. Also, the Free Church of Scotland uses no instruments in their sung worship and sings only metrical psalms, no songs or hymns.

Let me insert a short aside about theology here, since Miranda brought it up. I doubt anyone could ever find a church which as an institution believes and acts out exactly what they themselves believe, unless they actively conform their beliefs to those of the institution. I am ready to accept this, and have accepted it for years. More than that, I think it's healthy for an individual's beliefs to be in places discordant with the beliefs of the institution they are a part of. As an example, it seems like the prevailing attitude regarding the Lord's Supper over here is that it is purely a memorial, a remembrance acted out by the congregation to show our allegiance to God. I've heard pastors here quote Jesus as saying, "this bread means my body, this cupmeans my blood." I have a somewhat higher view of the sacrament than this and believe that it is not something which we simply do but in which God takes an active role. However, I'm not going to let that quibbling keep me from celebrating communion here. If a church is confessing Christ as God and Savior and acting out that confession in a consistent way, my theological criterion has been met.

The hitch at the Free Church then wasn't theological, but was as you might be able to guess, musical. Well, that's also not entirely true. Jeni and I got to thinking that we want to be in a church which holds some of our same values. Not all, but at least enough to list off on one hand to be able to say, "Along with brotherhood in Christ, this is why I identify with this congregation rather than the one down the street." We found we weren't able to do that at the Free Church. First of all, we still felt like outsiders. We knew Rob and Emma but not really anyone else and even though we were there every Sunday, we had no idea how else we could be involved in the church. Second, they don't accept women in leadership, which is something Jeni and I both value. Third was the music. Jeni didn't like it and felt unnatural singing it. I came to realize that their use of only unaccompanied psalms in worship conveys that the institution doesn't value artistic involvement and expression in worship, which is really important to me. I realized that being there I was associating myself with an institution that devalued me and how I desire to worship God. This realization combined with Jeni's discomfort was enough to lead us to move on.

We went to another church, this time a Church of Scotland congregation. It was here that we first met people who genuinely welcomed us. However, the sermons were horrible. As Jeni likes to say, "Extended-forest-animals-analogy horrible." We came to dread going to services. There was a Tuesday night bible study with many of the people who were so welcoming to us, but with Jeni's school schedule we usually couldn't go, plus for some reason she didn't feel comfortable at those meetings. Here was a situation where parhaps if it was just Jeni or Just me one of us could have worked it out and found a home there, but as a couple we couldn't make this place our home.

That last example showed the difficulties of church shopping for two. How about for three? At this point we found out we were expecting and began to look for a church that would be a good place for our child to spend the first three years of his or her life in. The church we'd been attending up until a few weeks ago was very much in the American Evangelical vein. Not really the background that Jeni and I have, but they had a lot of young families. As they were a non-denominational independent church, there was much less of an institution to look at to gauge belifs and values. However, after a few weeks I became very interested in the head pastor and what he had to say. He spoke biblically and gracefully on the interplay between God's sovereignty and human responsibility without coming down hard on one side and denying the other. However, the other pastors did not speak with the same sort of grace and tended to embody more of what I disagree with in American Evangelicalism. It also became obvious that I was not going to be able to be involved in music in any significant way at this church.

Now we're almost caught up to today. I had decided to despair of my hope of being involved in church music here in Scotland. That is actually what made me decide to write more worship songs like I mentioned in the last post. Jeni and I said to ourselves, "Whatever. We don't really like it here but we'll stay because we're sick of bouncing from one church to another." At the same time I started thinking more about my place in the church. I'm not sure if I'd mentioned it here or on the Scotvet, but I'm thinking very seriously about going to seminary when we return to the States to be ordained as a pastor. I would be willing to work in almost any Reformed denomination, or even in a non-denominational setting, but I think I want to work in the PCUSA because of my history there. I started thinking that denominational ties may mean more to me than I thought they did in a cultural way. I got to thinking that maybe we should be in the Presbyterian church, the Church of Scotland, during our time here.

With these thoughts rattling around in my head Andrej and Sarah came for their visit. Andrej told me the name of a church someone said he should check out, a Church of Scotland congregation. Andrej and Sarah weren't able to go since they went out to the country for the only weekend they were here, but Jeni and I thought, "Why not?" and forsook the church we had been going to to go check it out. They were the most actively welcoming of any of the churches we'd been to here, and I met the music director who seemed to think I could get involved with music there.

Who knows what's going to happen here? I sure hope this is the church that becomes our home and I get to do music there and our child will grow up firm in his or her faith and all will be right with the world. I really hope so. I guess we'll all just have to pray about it and I'll keep you posted.

Odds and ends that didn't really fit in anywhere and weren't really pertinent to the story:

Spent a week or two at a quasi-charismatic church complete with flag twirling dancers. Just not our place.

We've also attended several times at St. Giles Cathedral, the church where Presbyterianism started. It is pretty highly liturgical and the pastor's sermons are short, more like Catholic homilies, and really good. Jeni likes the liturgical aspect of the church, it reminds her of synagogue. However, after the service you are just booted out into a central square in the middle of town and people all go off their separate ways. Not really a community kind of place.

7 Responses to “Church Shopping”

  1. # Blogger Andrew Seely

    there is a place for flag twirling anytime...
    come on...  

  2. # Anonymous Anonymous

    oooh flag twirling....bad.  

  3. # Blogger Jenevieve

    Also factoring into this expedition was the fact that I am, in general, in a spiritually bad place right now, where the act of being in any church is pretty painful to me. Enough so that I deprioritised it, which made it harder for Matt to feel committed to a congregation.  

  4. # Blogger Nelle


    Just for clarity, if it was JUST a church of flag twirling I really wouldn't stay there. ;) I can do without flags.

    However the sum total of CCE IS the church my home-church-of-20-years was always TRYING to be but never really became before dying it's gory death. No, that story is not as interesting as it sounds.

    No, I'm not studying. Yes, I should be studying. Shut up. As Jeni would say, "I almost just gave you the finger."  

  5. # Blogger Matt

    Geez, I didn't think the 'flag-twirling' line would be the one to draw out the most conversation. I didn't mean to offend Nelle, but I can see that my comment was offensive and kind of shallow. That was during the time when Jeni and I really weren't doing to well, and so I doubt we gave the church a fair shake. Just thinking back 9 months or so the only thing that sticks in my head about the experience of going there was the flag twirling.

    Thinking about it again now the thing that actually turned me off to that congregation was the lack of liturgical structure to the service. Now that's probably not a fair judgement to make from only attending 2 or 3 times. I guess I just have to say again, "That experience is in the past, I didn't do to well on my part in it and now I just have to move on from where I am."  

  6. # Blogger Miranda

    I too have come to value denominational structures more, not in a 'this is the right way' way, but in a 'this church emphasizes aspects of theology and liturgy that are conducive to my spiritual growth' way. Hence, I prefer the Methodist Church. Although out here anything other than organs and old hymns is hard to come by. I love them, but I also love the guitar and newer stuff.
    I hope that the church you visited can become a home for you and that it will be a good steward of your gifts.  

  7. # Blogger Nelle

    Rest assured when Teh Nelle is offended you will be the FIRST to know it. ;)

    As I was telling Jeni, I'm far from it.

    Liturgy does nothing for me. (Probably because I've never heard it done right.) So it looks like we won't be sharing a hymnal anytime soon. Sad really. However, if you start a liturgical small group I'll come and bring brownies. O:)  

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