Sunday, 23 August 2009

What really happens - Baptism 23rd August

Clergy have many stories to tell, many of which cannot be repeated for reasons of personal privacy. A cartoon in Church Times last week suggested that the events in a vestry immediately before a church service resembles backstage just before a stage play. It's probably best that most people don't see that.

So, this morning, I bring you the 'warts and all' story of the baptism in a church ‘with a modern worship style’, which also means a ‘professional’ approach, but no processions, no choir, no organ, no hymn books, and with everything led from PowerPoint screens.

We start at 8.45am just as the early morning BCP communion finishes. I move to the main body of the church, plug in and switch on the laptop, connect the various comms cables, switch on the projector screens and the prompt screen on the lectern.

I download the 'revised-last-night-on-my-home-PC-after-a-couple-of-late-phone-calls' service slides - all 95 of them - and over-write the version on the laptop that I had prepared earlier. (Mistake number 1 - I had already corrected a couple of minor errors on the version I over-wrote...)

An additional notice has been negotiated into the schedule and the lady has brought a memory stick with 4 slides on it. I think to myself that if she can get through 4 slides in the ‘keep-it-under-three’ minutes I have allocated her I'll eat a baptismal candle (I didn't need to.)

During this someone asks me for my office keys in order to retrieve some documents. Send him off with the keys, hoping they will be returned.

I then move to the office to find that PC turned off - usually it is on. Never mind, it's only another 5 minutes to boot it up and download the service slides, the running order, the house group notes. For some reason the PC is running very slowly. Never mind, lots of time before the 10am start. It is only 9am.

Back in the church I see that although all the screens are working, the picture on the PC is not being displayed on the overhead screens. A quick lead-check shows everything looks OK, so I set the PC to reboot, grab the retreating 8am techies and ask them to fix it for me while I do the next thing. 5 minutes later they have - phew! The president of the 8am looks at the jumble of leads on the floor next to the lectern and pronounces it a 'death trap'. I agree, and tell him it's my fault because I pulled all the leads out during my check. (Mistake number 2 was not to put them back at that time - the next time I thought about it was during the service when I watched the person reading the lesson standing with her feet next to this Health-and-Safety hazard, and hoping she would make it back to her seat in safety.)

I’m asked for my keys again, this time for the vestry safe. The previous user has kindly tidied up and put everything away, locking up carefully as he left. The keys go off on another errand.
The service wardens want to know whether I want candles lit and where, we discuss the arrangement of flowers, offertory plate, candles etc on the table, and re-arrange things a few times until everyone is happy.

I want to know that a jug of warm water will be available to fill the bowl that lines the font – apparently the jug is being filled as we speak, so we have another discussion about how hot to allow for cooling during the service. I check I have a suitable cloth for drying a dripping baby and spare service sheets at the font in case someone forgets theirs.

Back to the office, print sets of running-order notes, during which one of the musicians comes in and wants to photocopy some pages of the song-book for their practice, just starting in the church. I send her out with her copies and the running-order for the musicians.
Load the photocopier with coloured paper, set the house group notes to print and go outside to greet more visitors.

Looking out of the window I can see that some members of the baptism party have arrived early and are standing outside in the sun. They are obviously visitors – smartly dressed, looking a bit lost, keeping together in a huddle away from everyone else.

I also see Mr H, 'the great Gardini', arriving with all his equipment for the talk - the first time he has done anything in a service in this church. Don’t go to say hello as he's better being left on his own to set-up.

Leave the technology to go outside to greet the visitors and let them know where to find things; they say they prefer to stay outside until the others arrive. I leave them to enjoy the sunshine.
Back in the church, the musicians are rehearsing. I sing along as I work, giving the service wardens the sheets for the parents and godparents. They ask how they will know who is in the baptismal party. I leave that one to their initiative.

By now sound balancing is taking place in the church and the sound-desk operator wants to talk to me about one of the microphones - just as the trumpeter decides to test his levels. I use sign-language to indicate that communication isn't happening and we move back into the lobby. The upshot is that one microphone lead is damaged so can leader and preacher share one lapel microphone, or use the hand-held or the lectern? Short answer is no, not for the whole service as it is a baptism and we won't be at the lectern for a lot of the time. Grab Mr as he walks past and tell him I'll give him my microphone before the sermon. Remind him that I need it back afterwards as I'll be moving to the font...

Back in the office, retrieve the notes from the out-tray, print outline handouts of the service slides for myself, write my name clearly across the top - then realise I have forgotten to replace the white paper... do that and then repeat the process for the PowerPoint operator and take the noes out to the church.

On my way out to the lobby I spot someone who looks under-occupied, and give her the house-group notes to fold and put in the leaflet rack. She asks if she can add a notice to the already-very-long list and then kindly agrees to wait until next week when the problem is explained. It is now 9.30am.

Notice that Mr is set-up and ready to go. There is a variety of interesting looking accessories spread out along the communion rail, including two puzzles, a length of rope, and a Scout Leader's 'wood badge'. Good.

Notice that he is now shuffling my service running order (the one with my name on) instead of the one I gave him that has his name on. Not good - they are different – mine has ALL the words. Take it back with the instruction ‘do not touch my stuff’ – hopefully he recognised the phrase from his own stage performances – hopefully :-)

Check that everyone has the correct running-order, that the service wardens have the baptism orders of service for the parents and godparents, more minor questions, saying hello to people, all my paperwork is in place, go to vestry to change - this is a sacrament so I am robed. It's now 10 minutes to 10. Go and fetch Mr and we retreat to the vestry for prayer.

Back out with 5 minutes to go, the music group have finished practicing and are now waiting for the service to start, people are still arriving, the chatter is very loud, both in the church and in the lobby. I put my microphone on, check it is switched on then wait. At 1 minute past 10, it seems that the last of the people from the lobby have come through to the church, so I nod to the service warden to close the doors, stand at the lectern and start speaking.

"It seems such a shame to interrupt this time of fellowship... "

The notices seem to go on for ever. I'm conscious of our visitors who may not be familiar with church services; it must be ten minutes before we even start the service, during which I mentally congratulate myself for deleting the 4 minute Alpha video clip from the service slides at 9pm last night.

As we move through the service I notice a couple of minor mistakes on slides that I had previously corrected - on the wrong version of the slides (and yes, I did used to do configuration management so I should have known better).

The reading is very well done - J is a superb reader, and always brings the words alive.
Mr does a good ‘magical’ presentation of the gospel, about keeping promises and passing it on, and the children are enthralled. The adults are also silent, and it is delightful to watch small children creeping closer to Mr as he talks. A spontaneous round of applause fills the silence when he finishes.

He forgets to give me back the microphone, so I announce a small costume adjustment while we fiddle with clips and buttons. Fortunately the congregation is in good humour and they laugh.

The baptism itself is without incident; my decision to ask the father to hold the 15month girl gives her confidence and she behaves perfectly. I struggle to read the text from the screen rather than my papers. (It seemed like a good idea in planning, but I'm definitely more comfortable with a sheet of paper in front of me.) Then I drop my papers in the water...

Using damp paperwork I finish the service without further incident until the final blessing when, for some reason, my brain switches off early and the words come out in the right order, but with meaningless emphasis. (Bleurgh).

As I return the clip microphone to a small boy to return to the sound desk I reflect that saying 'gotcha' to a small girl, who has moved her head just as she is signed with the cross, may not be an accepted part of the liturgy, but suited the occasion.

The congregation move out of the church for coffee and tea, and I shake lots of hands, chat to everyone, then as the hubbub dies down move back into the church to tidy up, put equipment away, thank the musicians, sound desk, PowerPoint operator, service wardens... find the Baptism book and make the entry (make a mistake ... noooooo... correct it), discover there are no baptism certificates in the drawer.

Back out for photos around the font (hope they send me one!), explain to the parents who are about to leave for their lunch that I'll send their certificates on later (I don't tell them why).
I return to the vestry to change. Eventually Mr brings a cup of coffee to me in the vestry, announces he's going home as we came in separate cars.

About quarter of an hour later I turn off the lights in the vestry and store-room, lock the doors with my keys which always re-appear in my bag after being borrowed, and leave for home. There are still groups of people washing up, and standing around chatting.

And that folks, is a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes reality of a multi-media church service. It couldn’t happen that way in a multi-parish benefice with 10 minutes between services in multiple different locations, and I’m very aware of how resource-rich we really are at Sunnyside.
Last week's service in the smaller church, with hymn books and service sheets was much simpler and easier, but the context in this church is different; one of the attractions of this church is the use of current technology, and the tight 'choreography' of each service.

Despite my deliberate informality in both churches, I hope that the underlying reverence and seriousness of the sacrament isn't lost in either case.


  1. Theres a lot to be said for the BCP. Original version, of course.

  2. Agreed. We have BCP (not original version) at 8am every Sunday, and once a month on Wednesday. One small book and everyone knows what to expect. Simple :-)