According to reliable sources there are 1,372 coffee shops in Leamington. I may be exaggerating, of course, but if there’s a town to rival Leamington when it comes to places to get your daily caffeine fix, I’ve not been there. Among the dozens of possibilities are the big high-street chain names plus a huge range of independents offering different themes, varying ambiences, contrasting furnishings and so on. And all claiming to offer the best coffee around.
Of course a coffee is a coffee is a coffee... At the risk of outraging the true connoisseur, the range of drinks is more or less the same wherever you go and the price won’t change by that much from shop to shop. So you have to wonder what makes people loyal enough to go back to the same one time and again.
My morning tea (somehow the over-brewed syrup which passes for coffee these days never sits well with me) is taken at the same place every day. I go there for a combination of reasons, the quality of the teabag tea not being among them. I like the comfy chairs, I appreciate the light classical music they play and I enjoy the fact that they recognise me and always welcome me. It’s also pretty much the closest to where I work and opens early enough for me to get an hour’s worth of reading done.
Coffee shops are in my thoughts today because I’m wondering if there’s a similar selection and loyalty process at work with churches. This morning I’m at Leamington Baptist Church and, although there’s plenty to explore on my first ever visit, I’m tempted to wonder what’s different, what could you find here that you wouldn’t find somewhere else.
This church is modern and very large. Its rather forbidding brick mass hides a very light, very high central space which is currently painted the kind of orange that marks out the brave when it comes to choosing paint. It’s not an overwhelming turnout this morning given that it’s Pentecost and that’s a key date for the Baptists. But there’s a splendid range of music on offer.
The church has a splendid looking organ in an alcove and we start with a 19th century hymn suited to its chapel sound. The church also boasts a splendid band and we turn to them for three modern songs. Perhaps it’s an indication of the age of the congregation but the hymn is sung with considerably more volume.
Then it’s time for the talk, and it’s here, for me, that the morning’s spiritual beverage begins to taste a little bitter.
Disjointed and bereft of clear purpose, the presentation leads us through a clutch of bible verses read out on the spot by people directed from the front. There’s a Powerpoint backing on the big screen - images and phrases not fully-connected to the message that’s coming across and, as is so often the case with these things, utterly disrupting whatever flow the speaker intends to achieve. There’s an unease to all of this.
It seems as if the speaker’s experience the previous evening of getting up before an open mic poetry evening is a challenge to be passed on to the rest of us whether we like it or not.
In this spirit we are then urged to turn to the complete stranger next to us and share a moment from our youth or childhood when we experienced some kind of trauma. I’ve had more than my fair share of this cod trust-therapy over the years. My drama years have been full of it. I still have no idea what makes some people believe that their bald, untutored instruction to ‘lose all your inhibitions’ will succeed where countless professionals have failed. I have no firm reason to trust or not trust people I meet in a church, nor they me. But I would no more expect the person next to me to open up about some ghastly formative episode than I would expect them to trust me to give financial advice or a haircut.
Nevertheless, the brave soul who comes to sit next to me attempts to relate a story about worry and uncertainty in younger years and for a moment I’m genuinely concerned I may be about to become party to an awful secret I shall have to take to the authorities. I’d like to think that, as far as my family and friends are concerned, I’m a decent listener and someone who might offer reasonably sound advice. But I’m nobody’s instant confessional and I’m inwardly thankful that the speaker’s unstoppable desire to make the point she’s been leading up to, cuts across any chance my confessor has to conclude her tale.
Left feeling uneasy and distrustful at all this, I take the only course of action I can really take. I quietly leave.
In the end where and how you choose to perform whatever worship you wish to perform is all down to personal preference. A more enjoyable style of music here, a charismatic leader there and so on. Proximity and convenience play a huge part too, as does habit. As does trust.
Ultimately my less-than-satisfactory experience this morning doesn’t matter a jot. I shall simply move on to the next coffee shop, and I shall take with me the thought that your favourite is often arrived at simply by it NOT being that place you swear you’ll never go again.