I went to church, again, this morning. So far the church of my choice is St Barnabas, Red Hill, a delightful old wooden sweetheart, lovingly carved out of the suburbs.
It even has its own secret-squirrel side road entry, slipping alongside busy Waterworks Road; a diversion from the real world and its worries. St Barnabas Place leads the car to the corner church, and the congregation sit already pewed, waiting for the Service to begin. It’s early, nearly 8am but they are there, waiting, willing, wanting to sing and celebrate each others company.
An old woman beautifully dressed in pearls and coiffured hair sits like a question mark, an enormous dowagers hump protruding from her back. She can barely raise her face from her navel, but makes the time and effort to look and dress elegantly.
Today the Bishop is coming to celebrate Mass, so my timing is perfect, I hope to swell the numbers and show Fr Tom I wasn’t just a one-off customer. Old David meets me again and hands me the Prayer Book and Hymn book.
“Was I the woman that wanted a Bible” he asks?
Uh, no. He has forgotten me in the past 5 weeks, but that's ok, I remember him.
Fr Tom spies me from the vestry, and comes rushing over, his hand extended to shake. It's only because he remembers and knows my dad, they shared a 2-week army chaplaincy together, and the last (and first) time I visited this church, he preached the sermon on my father. *pulled THAT one out of his arse, lol, seeing he didn't know I was coming. It's actually an enormous tribute and sign of respect for dad, and I appreciate it.)
He greets me warmly with a kissed cheek and a hug. No wonder I like coming to church, lol. He introduces me to Kerry, the Bishops very patient wife, then I make my way back to the pew and find the hymns to sing.
The organist looks at me and giggles. Her hair is pulled back in a thick ponytail and she reminds me of a young schoolgirl. She keeps glancing over to me and overacts with exaggerated gestures, that she doesn’t know the songs either.
She hunches her shoulders in a mock shrug and giggles again. I’d bet that she would be one of those types that get the guffaws and can’t stop. I make a note not to catch her eye again as I too, am one of those people who once I start to giggle and laugh, can’t stop. We smirk at each other anyway, and another woman in front of me joins in, also holding her hands up in surprise at the choice of songs. Oh well, we shall just have to struggle through the best we can.
Finally the procession is ready, and so it begins, the rituals, the creed, the chanting, the shared psalms, words that have been repeated for 2000 years every Sunday, every day, every waking hour.
We sing the best we can, and the tune is easily picked up. The pony tailed organist accompanies the prayers and responses, losing her place when a peg securing the pages together, fails to be removed in time, and we sing the response a cappella style as she frantically unpegs the sheets, tearing a page in her hurry. I stifle an urge to laugh; I will save it for later and have a chuckle in the car driving home.
“Peace be with you” blesses the Bishop, and now the fun begins. In the old days when dad was a priest, we simply shook the hands of the row in front and behind. Now you don’t dare go back to your seat until every hand has been shaken.
Peace be with you, I pump a fat mans fat hand, it’s like a brick, immovable. I move on to Question mark woman, and as she obviously has osteoporosis, I am careful not to hurt her. Surprisingly, her hand is slim and strong, and she squeezes my hand in the mutual recognition of women.
People wander in and around the pews, noting with each person a happy raised eyebrow, a handshake, and a joyful exclaim. If only we could wander with a glass in my hand I ponder, and I soon go back to my pew; third from the front, on the right, near the organ.
Two more members of the congregation come over to shake my hand, and then we are all done, and the priests pick up the pace and get us focused back to the Service, now in full swing. They have started the next hymn without us, but we soon catch up. I find myself swaying gently in time to the music, cradled in the rhythm.
The Bishop’s sermon is on the word remembrance, it means to bring the past to the present, and he gives us an example of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
DA DA DAA DOMMM, he gestures with his fingers, conducting an imaginary orchestra.
If we follow the original score, as it was written 200 years ago, we will truthfully reproduce the music as it was intended, and so it is with Communion.
DA DA DAA DOMMM he conducts once more, for effect.
The stain glass windows are real stained glass, gloriously imperfect, each colour hand cut and coloured and leaded into place. Love it! I daydream and the next thing John; my elderly companion I am sharing the pew with, nudges me with the Offery collection plate and I rush to my purse in horror to grab my money. Ekk! It's so obvious I am new, everyone else's offering is in a white envilope. Mine sits there glowing like a beacon.
It’s a simple church, a wooden church, with no pretensions but a loving tended and cherished manner you so often find with the older buildings. A patina of generations and weddings and funerals and Communion and singing and children crying with boredom and restless feet shuffling along the prayer bars. Some caring person also fills the church with fresh flowers each week, I know it’s tough in these times of drought, but I appreciate the thought and effort in each vase. As we sing, a pink petal falls soundlessly to the floor. Well, they were fresh at some stage!
Then it’s Communion: my favourite part “Do this in remembrance of me”.
The small girl behind me - a newly created older sister to the 7 week baby her mother now cradles, begins to cry. One of the servers now comes to the front of the organ and begins to sing, solo.
This is a first, I think. I put my hymn book down and sit, entranced.
His fine tenor voice sings and soars, it’s a beautiful experience.
The little girl cries harder, but he is unfazed, shielded in his own world on notes and music and harmonies and phrasing. It’s amazing how loud a small child can be, and I narrow my eyes to focus on his lips - I am struggling to hear. His face is peaceful and relaxed, his eyes closing as he reaches particular notes, lost within the beauty of his own voice.
It’s so entrancing we all clap when he concludes, before blushing at each other, remembering we are in church, and in church, you don’t clap.
Well, not that I ever remember anyway, but we clapped him, and rightfully so; and he remains standing there near the organ, as chuffed as.
The Bishop also smiles, noting our enthusiasm. He’s tall, and as he readies to depart, places his Mitre hat on his head. Now he is even taller!
We are on the last hymn now, a beautiful repeating chorus, and the priests are good to go, readying themselves to leave and proceed down the aisle again. They all turn in unison and bow deeply, and the image prickles my eyes with tears. Unable to sing the next two lines, I mange to find my voice, now higher and thinner than before, and finish strongly.
I Bless myself, spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch, then sit for a few minutes as the elderly congregation gather themselves up to exit the church.