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…