Sunday, February 17, 2008

BBC Radio 4 Sunday Worship at St. Mary’s

Entry for 17 February 2008:

At 8:10 am every Sunday on BBC Radio 4, there is a broadcast church service from a different church in the UK. We listened to one of these programs in the radio in September 2006, shortly after we began going to St. Mary’s Scottish Episcopal Church in Glasgow, but we had never been to one.

According to Kelvin, our main priest (referred to as “provost” because it’s a cathedral church), the BBC 4 producers have decided that they like broadcasting from St. Mary’s, primarily because there is usually a good turn-out from the congregation, which means that the church doesn’t sound depressingly empty outwith the choir.

This time we were determined not to miss out, so this morning we got up at the crack of dawn in order to make it inside the doors by 7:45, the cut-off time. There was BBC white panel truck parked outside, and inside a bunch of microphones set up between the congregation and a huge choir of more than 30 people, including our new children’s choir in their cute red t-shirts, and 3 priests/ministers, rehearsing. A couple of the microphones were pointed menacingly at the congregation, and everyone was giving them a wide berth, sitting further back than usual. By the time people had finished arriving, there were a good 60 in the congregation, provide quite a satisfactory "lived-in" quality to the space.

Various contingency plans to cutting or filling out the time were reviewed, and we were briefly rehearsed on several potentially problematic points, including the tongue-twisting “shatter the shackles of slavery” in the opening responses. We were told to watch out for the green on-air light to come on… except that it malfunctioned, so that we had to be cued by Kelvin, who looked very technophile in his headphones and clerical attire.

In the event, the service was lovely, the music superb as always, and went off pretty much without a hitch. Diane had a coughing fit during the Old Testament lesson, but when we listened later on the Radio 4 archive, there were nary a sign of it on the recording (clever sound engineering I presume). The theme of the service was social justice, totally different form the regular service we later stayed on for. A visiting preacher name Bob Fyffe gave an excellent sermon on speaking out against injustice.

This may sound strange, but we were about 3/4 of the way through before it really hit me that there were actually people out there listening to us live. Up until that point I had been treating it live a live recording, without imagining an audience. I thought to myself, it’s 8am on a Sunday morning; no one listens to the radio that early on Sunday morning anymore! I figured there might a few thousand people out there, which would be nice but no more than that. My mom and grandmother used to watch televised church services on Sunday mornings when they couldn't get to church, but never as far I could remember listened to one on the radio.

Finally, about 8:50 we got to the end, finishing with a Messiaen organ piece in one of that composer’s famous bird song modes. I love these, but Diane hates them because they wander all over the place and don’t seem to go anywhere. I remembered the day that my mystical friend Margaret Stanberry had a vision of Olivier Messiaen over the altar at Trinity Episcopal in Toledo, and smiled to myself. Then Kelvin dropped his hand, the signal that we were off-air, and everyone heaved a sign of relief, and the organist stopped in the middle (which didn't really matter because it was a Messiaen bird piece). There was a moment, then a general stirring, and we all broke applause.

Afterwards, we chatted briefly with the producer, who was from BBC Scotland. She was talking to Kelvin; both were very pleased with how it had gone. I casually asked her about how many people might have been listening. It’s hard to tell, she said; it’s usually about 1 million people, give or take…

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