Some churches dominate their environs, standing bold on a clifftop. Others sit in the middle of busy cities dwarfed by the buildings around them. Still others look out over high walls at the houses around them. Some are so anonymous that they might be a shop or sports centre apart from the sign out the front. It is not the architecture that makes a church a church but what happens inside.
Inside the door will normally be one or two members of the church given the task of greeting people and handing out various printed stuff, such as hymn books, service books, notice sheets, newsletters and Bibles. Some of the front few rows of pews or chairs may be reserved; other than that the visitor is likely to be free to sit anywhere.
The Communion Service
While they1 were eating, he2 took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it and gave it to them, and said, 'Take; this is my body.' Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, 'This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.'
- Mark 14:22-243
Holy Communion. Mass. Eucharist. The Lord's Supper. Whatever you call it, this is the one with the bread and wine4, but there's more to it than that. In many churches this service is highly structured: the congregation will confess how horribly sinful they are, be forgiven, listen to bible readings and a sermon, sing hymns and pass the Peace (see below).
Finally it's time to eat. In most churches there is an orderly procession to the front, where the people kneel in front of a rail while the priest and others move round behind it giving out little bready wafers and offering a chalice5 of wine to sip from. Taking a big swig, or downing all the wine is considered bad form.
But who gets to participate in this ritual? You need to be a member of a church, but you may have already joined in a ceremony known as Baptism (again, see below). Think back - you might have been very young when it happened. It probably won't matter if the church you were baptised into wasn't the same denomination as the one you are now at.
So you fulfil the membership requirements, should you take Communion? It's really up to you; do you feel Christian enough? If not there's a couple of options open to you. Either stay in your seat whilst others go forward 6, or go up to receive a blessing, which means the priest or minister puts a hand on your head and says a prayer. This is what children usually do, even if they've been baptised. You can show that you want a blessing by carrying a book with you7, or simply keeping your hands by your sides.
'So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister8 has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.'9
- Matthew 5:23-24
To make sure everyone's still friends the congregation shake hands and say something along the lines of 'Peace be with you,' to each other. Some may walk all round making sure they shake with everyone, while others stay relatively still and greet only their near neighbours. Depending on the fomality of proceedings, people might also:
- Wish each other happy birthday, merry christmas, happy anniversary or whatever's appropriate,
- Ask after each other's health
This is the one part of a service where it is just about impossible to sit quietly in the corner and not participate, as it is not done to refuse to greet someone, even if they're a despotic head of state and shaking hands might look bad in the press.
Praise him with trumpet sound;
praise him with the lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with clanging cymbals;
praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
- Psalm 150:3-5
To many people the singing of hymns is a vital part of any service. Often a hymn will come between different bits of the service, breaking it up into sections, in what is sometimes called a 'hymn sandwich'. Or there may be several hymns or songs10 sung together.
Many churches have an organ, traditionally with huge pipes making the noise but often an electric one. Many will have a music group playing instruments such as electic keyboards, guitar, drums, flute, violin or whatever a willing memeber is capable of playing. Typically organ music accompanies the older hymns, and the newer tunes are played by a music group. That said many old organ songs have been arranged for groups.