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Our Father, reviewed be thy name Add to ...

As the choir began to sing at Toronto's Church of the Redeemer, Alan Hayes scribbled a note in his program: "9:36 a.m."

Throughout the Sunday morning Eucharist, as a minister preached repentance and toddlers fresh from Sunday school took their first sip of communion wine, the 60-year-old jotted down observations about the timing of the service and the demographics of those in attendance.

A professor of church history at the University of Toronto's Wycliffe College, Mr. Hayes is not just a believer; he's a reviewer.

"I was going to do it like Joanne Kates and put a big fedora over my face," he joked, likening his gig to that of The Globe and Mail's food critic. "But now I do tend to get recognized."

Over the past few years, critical appraisals of religious worship have begun to appear on personal blogs and websites such as churchrater.com and ship-of-fools.com, most written by anonymous members of faith communities.

But Mr. Hayes, who attends Anglican services in Ontario and around the world, is one of a small group of professional church reviewers, motivated by an academic respect for history and a personal desire to see each church improve its services by incorporating the lessons of another.

"People go to church all their lives and think the way they worship is the way everyone else worships," he said. "A lot of places aren't asking, 'Is this really what we want to say to ourselves, or to God or to the world?' "

To help raise those questions, Mr. Hayes writes reviews for two publications: a newsletter produced by the Anglican Diocese of Niagara, and a U.S. academic journal called Anglican and Episcopal History.

He discusses the religious message of each service, but also absorbs church like a performance -- from the minister's oratory style to the choice of readings and how the congregation responds, be it with yawns or "amens."

"What happens on Sunday morning, that's the big stuff," Mr. Hayes said. "It is almost theatrical."

His rave review of All Saints Margaret Street in London, England, reads in parts like that of a rock show, but one that ends with prayer instead of panty throwing.

"Abruptly, the lights in the nave are illuminated and the congregation breaks into a riot of celebration," he wrote after an Easter Sunday visit in 2003.

"For 45 seconds the organ booms, the presider and others ring bells, people cheer and acolytes light the candles on the altar and in the side chapels. It is an outburst of joyful energy in response to Christ's revealed glory."

The atmosphere at the Church of the Redeemer was a little less wild, leaving Mr. Hayes to chronicle the number of worshippers and the ratio of men to women, and to note his pew-mates' preference for casual clothing over Sunday best.

"The visitor, a member of the liberal white bourgeois intelligentsia, has the impression that the congregation as a whole closely resembles himself," Mr. Hayes wrote of the demographic makeup.

"I don't mind the hymns, I could just use a couple less verses," he observed as the congregation launched into another song.

J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Illinois, says church reviewers like Mr. Hayes are a throwback to the early 20th Century, when newspapers employed religious critics.

Primarily a device of the Christian churches, reviews have returned to favour because more people are sharing their opinions online and through a sense of communal responsibility among the faithful, Mr. Melton said.

"Problems in the congregation would prompt somebody to inform everybody else. There is an element of quality control."

For the past 10 years, the U.K.-based Christian website Ship of Fools has promoted this sort of vigilance by publishing reviews from anonymous "mystery worshippers."

"We want churches to be more aware of how they look to outsiders," editor Simon Jenkins said. "To have a mirror held up to them so we can see how they looked on a particular Sunday."

His site has reviewed various Canadian congregations, including the West Edmonton Christian Assembly, a mega-church described by one mystery worshipper as "ready to transport born-again souls into a world of Creation science, Bible-based certainty and a Bapticostal form of worship."

The review goes on: "Pastor Glenn Patrick led the service, ably assisted by a group of talented but unidentified musicians and singers dressed in uniform-like outfits that reflect the church's values: black and white."

While the Ship of Fools reviews rely on headings such as "the building," "the cast" and "the neighbourhood," Mr. Hayes writes long, thoughtful reflections that reference religious history and the cultural peculiarities of the time.

In 2003, as SARS swept across North America, he began chronicling the ways churches dealt with hygiene issues -- such as adding hand sanitizer liquid to the sacramental accessories.

He has spent Sundays in tiny rural churches that would be mistaken for barns if not for their stained glass windows, and once listened to a sermon at St. Margaret's Episcopal Church in Palm Desert, Calif., by the minister who would later preach at the funeral of former U.S. president Gerald Ford.

Size and celebrity congregants aside, the quality of the sermons plays the largest role in his final judgment, Mr. Hayes said.

"Some people are really boring. Some editorialize on the political problems of the day and some are doing expositions of scripture," he said.

"Sometimes I come out thinking, 'Boy, that's off the wall.'

"There is some weirdness."

During the Sunday service at the Church of the Redeemer, the priest made reference to the deaths of four RCMP officers and the film The Last King of Scotland.

"It's a little depressing," Mr. Hayes mused afterward.

"A year of that kind of tone would probably wear on me a bit."

Not all churches welcome Mr. Hayes's opinions with open arms.

Some clergy are defensive about being judged, however gently, while others are happy to see him, having felt ignored and unappreciated for years.

Mr. Hayes does not name the clergymen whose services he attends, but still receives letters from readers who dislike the notion of reviews in general.

"My answer to that is these are all public worship services; it's not like going into people's house and saying how they're praying," he said.

Dwindling church attendance may mean that some day, Mr. Hayes's reviews are among all that's left of modern day worship.

But he is confident in religion's ability to adapt, even under scrutiny.

"My hope," he said, "is that churches who haven't thought much about updating things will learn from reading about churches who have."

Follow on Twitter: @SiriAgrell

 

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