West End Uniting Church Review
If you are unfamiliar with the area, West End is a sanctuary for hippies, the homeless and more recently hipsters.
It’s a place where you can enjoy a cold craft beer from a rotating tap, safely express your borderline socialist political views, sign a petition to protect the local wildlife, all while munching on your organic, vegan, gluten and GMO free meal from Govinda’s.
It is Brisbane’s answer to Sydney’s Newtown.
So it’s unsurprising that West End Uniting Church is known as a progressive, inclusive congregation. This is confirmed by an initial look at their website which speaks of inclusiveness, an acknowledgement of traditional owners, and social justice. And no sign of any Comic Sans headings – a good start.
There is even a Progressive Christian meeting at 6:30pm on Sundays, called “West End Explorers”. For now I’m just attending the morning service. I’ll definitely have to come back and trying the evening service another time.
I’m expecting a congregation of mixed backgrounds and ages, with perhaps a more contemplative approach to the service. Not expecting any flashy music and light shows!
I’m walking into this service 10 minutes before it starts and already I need to pee. This is thanks to the iced coffee with coconut ice cream I couldn’t resist at a local cafe on the way in.
My introverted and anxious nature prevents me from wandering around to find a bathroom, so let’s hope this is a short service.
The general atmosphere before the service starts is pleasant. People are not silently sitting in their seats ignoring each other, rather they are wandering around chatting, laughing and catching up. They are obviously familiar and comfortable with one another. There are around 35 people present with a fairly good spread of ages: about a third are elderly, a third are middle aged and there are around 7 children. There are not many people my age though.
At first glance, the brick building with spires looks fairly traditional, perhaps even a little intimidating from the outside: I feel like I’m entering a prison. But the inside has a remarkably different feel to it. There are the normal wooden pews, with organ pipes and cross at the front. But the walls are decorated with hand cut, colourfully decorated cardboard butterflies and footprints. There’s a large, rustic wooden cross adorned in colourful ribbons resting against the pulpit – a leftover prop from Easter no doubt.
A friendly regular introduces himself as I wait for the service to start.
Children are running around laughing and continue to do so when the service commences. Children are not segregated into a quarantine zone. There’s a small play area to one side of the church, set up in an empty space next to the pews. This is not a ‘speak only when spoken to’ congregation – for either the children or the adults.
The service starts with a song: Lord of the Dance (TIS 242). It’s not a new song (written in 1915) but it’s energetic and uplifting. The music is generally contemporary (if defined as worship songs from 1960s to 2000s), with songs including: Power of Your Love, Let us Break Bread together with the Lord. There is one lady who switches between playing the organ and the piano. From the handout I received I can see they have a roster for this role. There are no backup singers or band. The lyrics are displayed on the projector at the front and the minister is the only person using a microphone – lucky she can sing!
The readings are delivered by a member of the congregation: the focus for this week’s sermon is John 20: 19-31, the story of Doubting Thomas.
The way a minister approaches the issue of doubt and Christians who question their faith says a lot about their theology. Do we pity Thomas for not being able to believe without seeing? Or even worse, do we scold him and therefore anyone else who will not believe? Do we recognise that doubt is human nature, but declare that we must rise above this and just ‘have faith’?
Or do we do as Rev. Dr Wendi Sargeant says this morning, and recognise that “faith includes doubt”.
Rev. Wendi applauds Thomas’ questioning spirit in both the children’s address and sermon. She speaks of faith as evolutionary: that it changes every day based on the books we read, the people we meet and the conversations we have. After all, she says, “that’s what resurrection is all about – not staying the same”.
It’s a call to reason and an understanding that what we understand about the world changes every day. Although the sermon doesn’t lay down any personal challenge explicitly (unless that happened during the 2 minutes my mind wandered off…), it is nevertheless thought provoking.
The sermon is short (approximately 10 minutes), delivered using plain language and engaging.
During the Passing of the Peace (an odd but friendly tradition if you aren’t used to it), I am invited to morning tea after the service by several people who are plainly happy to see a new face.
At the end, I follow the congregation towards the front of the church, thank the minister and finally find a bathroom! I walk through the morning tea service area, and like most people on their first visit to a church I feel slightly intimidated and sneak out the side door.
After all… it’s 11am and this is West End. I’m off to find myself an organic, gluten free breakfast, a pint of craft beer and enjoy a gloriously sunny Sunday morning!