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Wesley Memorial Church

Wesley Memorial Church

Oxford, England

July 7, 2002

 

             I have seen the future, and it’s not too bad!

            On a college reunion trip to the seat of the British brain trust we went Sunday morning to a Methodist Church situated on a back street just off the commercial avenue where students shop, eat, and drink cappuccino.  I went expecting very little, having previously experienced my denomination’s offerings in founder John Wesley’s home territory.  The preaching I have heard has been stiff and proper, without the ceremonial splendor of the Church of England.

            But Barbara and I and another couple, Methodists from Houston TX, were happily surprised by the ingenuity, intelligence, and warmth of the service.  If the bishop had relented on my mandatory retirement, I would have taken back to the local church a couple of ideas to be implemented this fall:

            1. The use of PowerPoint for the projection of hymns and illustrations.  The fellow next to me in the bench behaved the way a 70 year old isn’t supposed to if he’s afraid the authorities will commit him: he fiddled with a plastic bag containing his earthly possessions, and squirmed restlessly in his seat while mumbling inaudibly.  I repeatedly had to find for him the right page in the Bible or the hymn book.  He also needed a bath.  But he sang like an angel, if a little off-key, when the words appeared, thanks to the woman with a lap top and PowerPoint, on a screen near the front wall.  I found myself singing the words without looking at the text in the book in front of me.  Previously I have likened the use of such devices in worship to the old movie short interlude of “following the bouncing ball.” 

    But, as previously learned when I have pooh-poohed popular innovations as passing fancies, PowerPoint has its significant uses for the worship of the faithful.  I was especially taken with the succession of illustrations projected for the morning’s reading from the “Christian Scriptures,” The Parable of the Good Samaritan.  I could quarrel with the illustrations themselves, that they were too small, with insufficient contrasts in color, and too clearly an attempt to depict 1st century attire and beards.  But the idea has much merit, provided, of course, a church has a skilled and speedily productive an artist in residence, someone like Betsy Carnes.

     2. A dramatization of the Parable from the point of view of the innkeeper’s wife, two weeks after the mugging, when the wounded wayfarer tries to pay the hotel bill.  She reminds him of the dire condition in which he arrived, complete with a rundown on the cost of cleaning up the blood he spilled on carpet and stairs.  He is aghast at what the charge must be.  But the lady, all the while filing her nails, just tells him how lucky he is, because he has a friend.  The skit was performed by the couple who sat in front of us with their two little children.  It was done with humor and flair, and it alone was worth the price of admission.  In fact, I upped the amount originally intended as a contribution by 10 pounds, because I was so impressed with the dramatization… and the actors’ children who waved red, white and blue streamers during the singing of the hymns.

 

Here’s a rundown on the other aspects of the hour of worship:

Building: it was a meeting house, not a sanctuary, by which I mean the building itself did not inspire awe and reverence so much as it made it apparent the worshiper was there to meet God and other believers in a special time attending to the Bible.  One would never go to such a place, as we did everywhere else in England, Windsor, Cottswold, and Oxford, to trace the history of English culture.  It was no museum, but the factory of a living faith. 

Music: a pianist/organist and a woman’s chorus accompanied the leading of the hymns, the selection of which betrayed a mind bent on internationalism: Korean, American (“Let Us Break Bread Together”), and English, with a closing hymn, very appealing, from the Iona Community (Scotland), “Teach Me to Dance.”  The emphasis was audience participation.

Bible: the readings sounded like the New Revised Version, but might have been the New English Bible.  There were no obvious Englishisms in the text, and it certainly wasn’t King James Elizabethan English.

Sermon: for the second week in a row the order of worship called the sermon something else, this time “Talk.”  Well, the Word of God is hardly ever that, talk, but I assume the concern was not to scare away those of fragile faith and modern sensitivities.  Besides, the service was labeled “All-age Communion,” which meant, I found out later, the children would remain for the entire hour and not be dismissed for Sunday School.  The preacher did get right down to it, and was quite local and explicit in explaining what it means to be a neighbor in the footsteps of Jesus (and the Good Samaritan).  He was a little too English for my taste, which means slightly halting and reserved in the gestures which illuminate words.  But his material was excellent.

Children: the service on this morning was clearly designed to include children.  In fact, one of the worshipers with whom I spoke at length during coffee, tea, and “squash” (!) (squeezed fruit juices), a graduate student in primatology, from Holland, reported the service was a one-time thing, an experiment, and she wasn’t sure she liked it very much because the children, so very quiet and well-behaved by American standards, were a trifle noisy.  I told anyone who would listen that they should do the same kind of service every Sunday.  A children’s corner was available in the same room as the worship, complete with stuffed animals, quiet toys, and its own Mary Poppins.

Welcome: several people sought us out, correctly assumed we were visitors, but were reluctant to place us as Americans, lest we be Canadians.  Oxford, of course, is filled with people from all around the world: one would expect an open and cosmopolitan spirit to prevail, and it did. 

Communion: in true Methodist fashion it was open and at the rail, with all ages participating.  Grape juice, as in the States, not wine, as I would have assumed, filled the individual cups served from a slotted wooden tray, the likes of which I had never before seen. Ushers assisted us to and from the three-sided worship center, to receive the bread (a single loaf broken into pieces by the presiding pastor, and distributed by lay stewards) and the cup.

Rating: four halos, definitely worth a special trip if in the area, provided this anomalous service becomes the norm.


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