In which an ardent atheist goes church-hopping... (long and rambling OP.)

I have self-identified as an Atheist for more than thirty years, dating from sometime in late high school/early university days. I just don’t believe the universe has any need of a god or gods to explain its existence.

So why do I find myself church-hopping with my daughter this year?

The thing is, I grew up in a fairly strict Presbyterian family - my parents were elders in the church and took religious matters quite seriously. (Sorry - all denominations given by their Canadian names; I realize that US and UK terminologies differ, but I don’t really know what they are…) And the churches that they attended, in Melfort, SK and Brandon, MB, had very strong choirs that their congregations were extremely proud of. Growing up in this church, I went from Junior Choir to Intermediate Choir to Senior Choir in rapid succession. Also, all the kids in the church were encouraged to share their musical skills - when the choir director found out I played tuba, we started using brass in some of the music. When I took up guitar, I found myself playing guitar for services within a couple of months. When the church got a set of handbells - well, you see where this is going.

It is primarily this musical heritage that made me think that my daughter was missing out on something valuable. You’re not going to hear much organ music anywhere but church and you’re not going to encounter any of the beautiful religious choral music anywhere but the church - in fact, even in church it is in danger of being eliminated because it is ‘irrelevant’.

With that in mind, we’ve found ourselves at one of the High Anglican churches and two of the United churches in town over the course of September. Our only real criterion is that the music has to be good - I’m treating this as a pay-what-you-can concert.

The High Anglican church was particularly interesting - I’d mis-read the sign, and so we were late for the ‘contemporary’ service when I had thought we were going to be early for the ‘serious’ service, which turned out to be at 11 and not 10:30. The hymns were played on organ with a pair of violinists, one of whom was playing with a modern bow and the other of whom was playing an older instrument with a baroque bow, and the offertory was a violin duo with piano accompaniment. This was my daughter’s first church service, so when it was done we walked home rather than stay for the next one. We both had a laugh as I explained that that service had been their idea of ‘casual’. Her reaction? ‘Someone should explain to them that baroque violins aren’t very casual’.

Next was a United church in a very wealthy neighbourhood. We happened to be there on a day when they were welcoming a new minister, so the music was spectacular, with Mendelssohn sonatas and one of the hymns being the Beethoven ‘Ode to Joy’ with the descant. One of the other things that caught our eyes was one of the stained glass windows, which depicted Jesus teaching at Bethany. As far as I could tell, the iconography was all correct, but the artist had added a chocolate Labrador (which looked like a straight-haired version of our chocolate Labradoodle) asleep at the side of Jesus’ chair. For the rest of the service, we kept imagining Jesus saying important things that would be written down in red ink while the dog chewed a squeaky toy, or a bone. After the apostles took the bone away, we thought about the dog sighing loudly, going to sleep and alternating between snoring and farting. "And it was then that Andrew said unto Peter “Jeez, what did you feed that dog yesterday?”.

Last Sunday was a different United church which was where I had once been the paid soloist for the choir 24 years ago - the last time I had taken such work. The choir director still writes her own music for all the anthems, introits and offertories. Here, an interesting touch - they project the texts of hymns, psalms and other responsories on the walls and on a large screen. The minister is also something of an art historian, showing various artists’ representations of Moses during a reading. The music also featured an oboe sonata, as this one musician happened to be home for a while before heading back to his orchestra gig in Regina. You don’t get to hear much solo oboe music, and it was beautifully played.

And this coming Sunday? Who knows - one of my great pleasures in doing this is the very fact that we are not tied down to any one church. All of my friends who have church gigs can only really tell you about what’s going on in their church - they’re all working at exactly the same time. I’m having a great time getting a balloonist’s view of the whole thing.

So far, la petite ministrelle is cool with the whole thing as well; a good thing, because this all depends on her sustained interest. I’ll just have to see how it all works out, whether she becomes intrigued enough to want to join one of the choirs we’ve heard or whether she decides she’d rather stay home and read. In the meantime, I’ve actually been enjoying myself…

Good for you–I’ll admit it, I’m a Christian, and a singer ( of the low-key variety) and a handbell ringer. And so of course, those things color my reactions, but I’ve discarded churches from consideration before more quickly on the grounds of obnoxiously slow and wimpy hymn playing rather than based on anything said from the pulpit.

But I’ve also got an anecdote for you. This summer, while our church choir was taking a break from singing every Sunday, we prepared a concert of Southern Gospel music. And to increase audience participation, we threw in some songs which got left out of the latest United Methodist Hymnal, mostly old favorites. We had a fiddle, and a banjo, and some other instrumentalists.

And then we reprised a few of the concert songs in church the next day.

The following Sunday, the choir sung an Amazingly Abridged version of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Complete with “Elvis”.

Fun, but, well, rather different.

Someone in our choir met someone whose first exposure to our church was on the Southern Gospel Sunday, and he’d loved it because that was the music he grew up with. He was back the next week, (Oh, No!, said the choir), and was enjoying the minister enough to give us another chance. I don’t know if he’s still checking us out, or if he’s gone on to somewhere else.

Enjoy yourself. The amount of planning and negotiating which goes into any special music is absurd sometimes, and I have to tell you–I’ve attended a number of churches who project the words to songs on the screen/wall. The idea is good, the execution lacks more often than seems reasonable.

hint for whoever designs the stuff to be projected–the words and the background need to be different colors. No, really, more different. And skip the fancy fonts (not usually a problem, but backgrounds and words that don’t blend together–way too often a problem).

When I lived in Washington, DC, I’d sometimes go to church at the National Shrine (Roman Catholic), and the organist there had scheduled improvisational performances. They were…intense. I don’t know what was going on in that man’s heart, but his improvisations usually sounded like we should be preparing for Armageddon. Gorgeous and terrifying – just the way I like it. :slight_smile:

If you ever happen to be visiting DC during the summertime, the Shrine puts on a free organ recital every Sunday – well worth attending. Here are the specs on their organs, if you’re curious.

The singing during the RC services of my childhood did nothing for me. Maybe if they’d had better music, my username would’ve been different. Unlikely, but it would’ve been a lot more fun to sit through those sermons. If only we could’ve gone to a stereotypical southern black church!

You know, Unitarian Universalist churches dig music, a lot.

The only thing is, in their attempt to be “accepting”, they did some word changes in the hymns and left others out. I didn’t notice it, because I was raised unchurched, but when my mom visited with me, she kept twitching.

I’m not sure what the RC singing of your youth was - I happen to love many of the Medieval, Renaissance and early Baroque settings of the mass by such composers as Josquin, Dufay, Clemens non Papa and Palestrina among others, though I’d be the first to admit that it is not to everyone’s taste.

I have many RC friends who despair of ever hearing that music again, as much of it has been replaced by extremely bland pentatonic ramblings in the vernacular. My friend Jacques in Québec City founded the Five Hours of Mary choir (‘Saint Cœur de Marie’ actually means ‘Holy Heart of Mary’ but the French words are indistinguishable from ‘5 hours’, so that’s what lots of us have come to call it…) for the express purpose of reviving the neglected music that is now considered ‘too historical to be of any use in the Mass’.

It’s a very fun game here in Canada to play ‘spot the Casavant’. Casavant Frères have been building organs since 1879, and when the instruments have been well maintained, they can be spectacular. Interestingly, lots of these organs ended up in churches that weren’t necessarily built to be all that sumptuous. Rather like Heintzman pianos, which were built in Canada from the 1860s, they were homegrown gems - the instruments built up to the 1930s were absolutely first class. It’s quite fun to walk up to a 90 year old instrument, lift the fall board and discover the Heintzman mark - when they’ve been looked after, they’re gorgeous!

I dunno, I could barely hear the words. It was mostly like Eddie Izzard describes it.

“They’re the only group of people who can sing hallelujah without… feeling like it’s a hallelujah thing. Ha-le-luu-jah. Hal-le-lu-jah…”

If you go RC, the choice of songs tends to vary by which specific Order owns that church (many other things do, including the décor).

IME, Augustins’ stance on music is similar to their stance on images: don’t. Jesuits have heard of singing, but are a lot more likely to do it if the church is a school’s chapel than if it’s solely a parish. Franciscans love anything which makes noise, loud is good, they’re the ones most likely to include multiple instruments and a percussion section but also the ones least likely to sing the classics (except for some carols and Salve Regina). Secular priests (the ones which don’t belong to a specific order) share a lot of the song choices of the Franciscans but frown on “noise” (no tambourines for you! One guitar, tops).

We almost moved to Barcelona from Pamplona when I was little. On one hand, it might have meant much better educational opportunities - but damn, every time I’m in Mass in BCN I feel like the singmaster needs feeding, those people are related to BRBS-CS’s childhood church. We sing “looking for a fight”, they sing “somebody died”. Yo guys, it’s HOSSAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA-NA!, not hoooooo… saaaaaa… naaaah…

just a quick bit of fun advice for your next denomination-hopping:
don’t bother visiting an Orthodox Jewish synagogue :slight_smile:

why? because there ain’t no music, and there ain’t no choir. And the prayer service consists mostly of individuals mumbling to themselves in a whisper. For 3 hours. )