Striking the right notes

By Ian Murdoch and Pat Hunter St John’s URC, Wideopen

‘I am playing all the right notes, not necessarily in the right order’.

We can never forget Eric Morecambe’s famous sketch with André Preview (neé Previn). We were reminded of this when we found ourselves worshipping at the Reform Synagogue with other Christians. We at St John’s would recognise all the elements of the service, but with a different emphasis and in a different language, but the adoration, devotion, Holy Scripture reading, concern for others, subjects of prayers, and in worship singing all resonated with us as we shared their worship.

Andy Lie, the Northern Synod Ecumenical and Inter-Faith Officer arranged the visit. On Saturday, 22nd June, a group of 16 Christians from the United Reformed, Roman Catholic, Methodist and Anglican churches visited the Reform Synagogue in Kenton, Newcastle for a morning service on the Jewish Holy Day – Shabbat. This Holy Day begins at dusk on the Friday – when, among other things, it is impossible to distinguish the redness in threads. It ends at dusk on the Saturday.

The Service was led by visiting Rabbi, Amanda Golby and began with Mah Tovu (How good) – an adoration: ‘How good are your tents O Jacob’. It moved on with readings in preparation to encounter God. We then sung some hymns, which we recognised because they were Psalms which are very familiar to us. They included Psalm 121 – ‘I lift up mine eyes …’

The Shema Prayer, focusing on the oneness of God, followed. We were then invited to engage in a quiet personal prayer and reflection.

We had been given a service book in which all the aspects of worship had been laid out. It was printed in original Hebrew Script, with an English translation alongside and underneath, a transliterate rendering of Hebrew in English script. Once you had got used to the fact that the book read in the opposite direction to other books, it was possible to follow the Hebrew passages, and so understand more of the service than you might have thought possible.

Readings were now made from the scrolls. The retrieval of the Torah from its cupboard, representing the Ark, was accompanied by much ceremony and they were treated with great honour and respect. Members of the Jewish community, who had special celebrations, read particular prayers in Hebrew prior to the reading from the Torah. It was interesting to see how the Torah was presented in a scroll form. The readings were familiar as we recognised our Biblical Old Testament. The Rabbi first read from the Book of Numbers in the Torah, and then a member of the congregation read from the book of Joshua from The Prophets.

This was the story of how Joshua sent out spies into Jericho after having taken up the leadership of the Israelites following the death of Moses. Using this text, Rabbi Amanda delivered her sermon. She made the connection between Joshua becoming the leader of the Israelite nation with the difficulties and tensions arising from the election of our new Prime Minister. She described the difficulties and constant complaints that Moses had endured whilst leading the Jewish people out of Egypt and the anticipated difficulties that Joshua would encounter as leader. This, she suggested is the situation faced by any person who would take on the responsibility and mantle of national leadership. Thus the Government were in need of prayers from all sections of society, all faiths and communities. She outlined the increasing integration of Jewish people into Britain from the middle of the 16th century, under various regimes, specifically under the Puritans and Oliver Cromwell and then under Charles II and the Restoration Government who were intolerant of any challenge to their Divine Right to rule and made life difficult for the Jewish (and indeed any other non-conformist to the Established Church).

She led us with prayers for our Queen and her Government, Israel, the well being of others and finally for the congregation. She finished with a few words about current events in our country, and a prayer for resolution and reconciliation.

Although sometimes we were a bit unsure of what was going on, or what was coming next, we, as Christians, recognised much of the service and the content.

After the service concluded we were invited to a repast. We had a short ritualistic service with wine and bread, called the Kiddush (sanctification): a blessing recited over wine or grape juice to sanctify the Shabbat, and before the repast which had been prepared for us all to share.

Afterwards, some members of the Synagogue were only too happy to show us round the Synagogue and explain various aspects, including the memorial to the Holocaust and the various symbols and their meaning. Again, like St John’s there are memorials to the deceased, and celebrations for the newborn.

We think that the members of St John’s who went would agree that it was an illuminating experience, and that we were made most welcome by the congregation of the Synagogue. All the right notes were struck that day. It also helped to bring our two different religions together; knowledge and understanding help build trust, respect and tolerance. We would thoroughly recommend to members of Northern Synod and of other churches to visit at the next opportunity.

Many thanks to Andy Lie for arranging the visit, and to the members of the Synagogue for their hospitality.

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