Monday, 1 October 2012

Worshippers Part 3: Visit to First Church of Christ, Scientist, Richmond-upon-Thames

In early September I visited the Christian Science church in Richmond for one of its Sunday services.  Initial impressions were firstly, what an incredible architectural structure & location - classical and very close to the centre of town; secondly, it was warm and welcoming – I was escorted to a place in the pews; and thirdly, how few people made up the congregation – I counted about 25.

The interior of FCCS Richmond is quite beautiful: simple, elegant white walls with two enormous paned windows, two columns of pews and two lecterns & a potted plant on an altar-like raised platform.  And that was it: no statues, no paintings, no stained glass, no decorative adornments of any kind.  And no crosses.  However there were two large inscriptions on each of the walls under the windows, one a verse from Christian scripture and one a quote from the religion’s founder, Mary Baker Eddy.

The service included some hymns, notices, a solo, and the Lesson-Sermon, including passages from what they call the Golden Text (the Christian Bible).  The Lesson-Sermon was a series of recitations from scripture and the Christian Science’s ‘holy’ book, Science and Health.  These readings were given by a man and woman who stood behind each of two lecterns.  The woman read a passage from the NIV, then the man would read Mary Baker Eddy’s corresponding interpretation. 

What seemed to be happening was that the second reader, the man reading passages from Science and Health, was taking the Christian verses of scripture and rewording or reworking them to fit into the Christian Science doctrine.  It was like a point, counter-point presentation.  It called to mind Deepak Chopra’s The Third Jesus and A Course in Miracles, both of which use Christian language, passages and stories from scripture, but reinterpret them from a monistic perspective, as if to say, "you may think that the Bible says this, but what it really means is this other thing.”  Which also made me think of the veritable library of books I’ve acquired over the course of the past decade which I’d thought were about Christianity.  I'd collected these books after my short New Age/self-help reading stint.  But over time, I’ve found that I’ve had to move a great many of what I thought were Christian books to the New Age shelf.  I don’t read many ‘Christian’ books anymore.  

My impression of Science and Health is that it's remarkably similar to A Course in Miracles; the following are some verses from the sermon: “Man is spiritual and perfect. The eternal truth is that there is no separation between man and God.  Man is the expression of God’s being, eternal with God.  Man reflects infinity and the true nature of God.  Mortality is an illusion. The body reflects what governs it: either truth or error.  Every function of the body is governed by the divine mind.  All that exists is divine mind. Man suffers because he believes in sickness which can be overcome by becoming conscious. The correct view of man is that he is pure and holy.”  I’d say pretty much everything I heard was in contradiction to Christian scripture.  Their Scientific Statement of Being provides a good summary of the Christian Science doctrine:

There is no life, truth, intelligence, nor substance in matter.  All is infinite Mind and its infinite manifestation, for God is All-in-all.  Spirit is immortal Truth; matter is mortal error.  Spirit is the real and eternal; matter is the unreal and temporal.  Spirit is God, and man is His image and likeness.  Therefore man is not material; he is spiritual.[1]

After the service a very nice woman come up to me and introduced herself.  I told her about my project and asked her whether Christian Science had any meditation, mysticism, contemplative prayer or any sort of altered state of consciousness associated with its spiritual practices.  She resolutely said that these weren’t connected to the Christian Science faith in any way.  This I find very interesting and a little surprising.  So far, the first religion I’ve encountered with no mystical side.

[1] Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, p.468:9.

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