Thursday, 31 May 2012

'Scotland' by Alastair Reid

Came to mind as I looked out the window this morning:


It was a day peculiar to this piece of the planet,
when larks rose on long thin strings of singing
and the air shifted with the shimmer of actual angels.
Greenness entered the body. The grasses
shivered with presences, and sunlight
stayed like a halo on hair and heather and hills.
Walking into town, I saw, in a radiant raincoat,
the woman from the fish-shop. 'What a day it is!'
cried I, like a sunstruck madman.
And what did she have to say for it?
Her brow grew bleak, her ancestors raged in their graves
as she spoke with their ancient misery:
 'We'll pay for it, we'll pay for it, we'll pay for it!'

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

The Wound And The Gift.

Some books just kind of take you over and this was the case with this one.  Totally captivated, I eventually emerged refreshed and challenged.
I started reading George Mackay Brown when I was a student.  I was immediately impressed with the way he used simple language to convey the deepest truths.  The words just seemed to glow as if they had a connection with another world.  It was disappointing, though, to see how negative he was was about Presbyterianism or rather his idea of Presbyterianism.  And I have to confess I did not recognise his over-idealised projection of Roman Catholicism.  But I kept going back for more because the artistic achievement was beyond doubt.
Ron Ferguson has done a great job in seeking to gain a hold on a very complex man and his spiritual journey and in the process conveys something of his own.  He is critical of GMB’s almost willful distortion of Presbyterianism but he understands why he was attracted to the Roman Catholic faith and appreciates why it became such an important resource in the writing.  Ferguson is impressively even-handed in his assessment of both Christian traditions highlighting strengths and weaknesses.
One of the most moving passages in the book describes the funeral service for GMB which was held in St. Magnus’ Cathedral in Orkney where Ferguson was minister.  This would only be the second time a Roman Catholic mass would be celebrated in the Cathedral since the Reformation.  Despite granting permission for this to take place Ferguson is told by Bishop Mario Conti, albeit apologetically, that he will not be offered communion.  The author understands why this must be but writes:
‘Nevertheless, it is hurtful to be excluded from participation in the Eucharist in the cathedral of which I am minister, especially at a service celebrating the life of a friend whose Catholicism was so inclusive.’  
At the service itself Ferguson sees only the Roman Catholics leaving their seats to receive  communion ‘while those who worship each week in St Magnus Cathedral are onlookers.’  He goes on: ‘The pain at the heart of the fractured Christian community is palpable.’  
Throughout the book the author speaks to those who were closest to GMB and allows them to tell their stories but I think what will remain with me is the way the author’s story unfolds.  He has a distinctive voice which comes through and we learn much about his searching and, indeed, yearning.  

Monday, 28 May 2012


I am sure that one of the things which will always be remembered about Albert Bogle’s time as Moderator is the way he conducted worship at the beginning of each day's business. His enthusiasm for the Gospel and his gifts of music and communication meant that we went into the business refreshed in Spirit and focused on the work of Christ's Kingdom.

Every day Albert made the point that devotions were not the 'bookends' of the business but a living thread that was woven into everything that was discussed and decided. As another colleague said: 'He made the whole of the Assembly a worship time’.  

At the beginning of one day’s business Albert expressed disappointment that the press did not attend the Assembly worship.  Quick to focus on dissension and disturbance, the press were not present when the Church was together honouring her Saviour.  It is that togetherness under Christ which will be an emphasis for Albert in the year ahead and we are never more together than when we are at worship.

That was a theme taken up by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, when he addressed the Assembly.  In an impressive address he challenged us with these words:

‘When the Church is at worship does it look as if it is listening to and for a call from elsewhere?  Does it look as though it is itself looking through an open door, the open door in heaven of Revelation 4?‘    

That is a vision for worship that was dear to the heart of the Apostle Paul.  He wanted the stranger who wanders in off the street to be so impressed by the worship that he himself falls down and worships exclaiming: ‘God is really among you!’  (1 Corinthians 14: 25). 

It is encouraging when people come to St Paul’s and remark on the building, the attendance and the friendliness but more than anything else we need to be a people who are ‘listening to and for a call from elsewhere’,  a people whose hearts are orientated to the eternal, a people who believe that the God we praise is pleased to be present with His people.   Martyn Lloyd-Jones once wrote:

‎'I can forgive the preacher almost anything if he gives me a sense of God, if he gives me something for my soul, if he gives me a sense that, though he is inadequate himself, he is handling something that is very great and very glorious, if he gives me some dim glimpse of the majesty and the glory of God, the love of Christ my Saviour, and the magnificence of the gospel.'

It’s not all down to preachers of course!  In worship we are called to be a people who give ‘a sense of God.’  This is where our witness begins.

Monday, 14 May 2012

General Assembly 2012

I will be heading for Edinburgh at the end of this week for the General Assembly.  I am looking forward to it mainly because the new Moderator, Albert Bogle, was a contemporary of mine at University.  I am sure that his natural ebullience and infectious enthusiasm will make this an Assembly to remember, not to mention the year of duties which lie ahead of him.
My first General Assembly was in 1984 when my predecessor at St Paul’s, John Patterson, was Moderator.  It must have been a challenging experience for him since it was one of the most controversial Assemblies for many years.  Two men who had served prison sentences, one for murder and the other for embezzlement, were both petitioning the Assembly to have their candidature for the Ministry upheld.  There were also impressive debates on the Westminster Confession of Faith and a document put forward by  the Woman’s Guild on the ‘Motherhood of God’.  
In a sense it is a pity that was my first Assembly since none I have attended since has come close to the drama and impassioned rhetoric that was on display.  The lowest point for me was 1994 when some procedural sleight of hand instigated by a former Moderator ensured that two important reports on human sexuality were not voted on.  Instead standing orders were suspended and the Assembly went into discussion mode when nothing was decided.  This, I believe, was without precedent and has not happened since.  
It was disappointing since there was expectation among many members of the Church that the traditional values relating to human sexuality would be reaffirmed.  Instead the Assembly was committed to a continuing ‘conversation’.  
From time to time eminent people are asked to address the Assembly.  I will always remember Terry Waite who spoke apparently off the cuff and captivated everyone.  The standing ovation for him went on for some time.  Then there was Billy Graham who was in Scotland for a series of Evangelistic meetings in 1991.  In thanking him the Moderator, Bill Macmillan, said he had heard Billy when he visited Scotland in the 1950s.  He said: ‘I don’t remember what you said but I will never forget the way you said it.’  
It was Bill Macmillan who delivered the one Communion address that I can actually remember.  He took the word ‘remember’ as the opposite of ‘dismember’.  When we dismember we take apart; when we remember we bring together.  At the Lord’s Table we bring together all that Jesus is and all that He has done for us.  Simple but very effective.  
At the moment I still have some work to do on the ‘Blue Book‘ which contains all the General Assembly reports.  It can often be quite a slog but if you are to make any meaningful contribution to the proceedings you have to get your head around as much as possible.  Which is what I should be doing now . . .  

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Surprised By A Funeral!

I have been thinking a lot about a conversation I had with a gentleman after a funeral service I conducted recently.   It went like this:
He: ‘I was really surprised by that service.’
Me (fearing the worst): Oh, why?’
He: ‘Well, there was nothing I could disagree with.  It was just like listening to a priest.’  
It turned out, as you might have gathered,  that he was a Roman Catholic.  We spoke on  and I valued the opportunity to put a few things straight but I couldn’t help wondering how he had gathered this impression of Church of Scotland ministers.  To some extent it is understandable.  Taken as a whole we do not always seem to be singing from the same hymn-sheet, not to mention preaching from the same Bible.  But perhaps instead of making assumptions about the beliefs of Christians from other traditions we should be more inclined to ask and to listen. 
For years I regarded the Roman Catholic teaching on birth control to be decidedly eccentric.  I still do not agree with it but having read on the subject and heard it explained I understand it better and therefore can respect it.  
The important thing for me, however, is that the Roman Catholic Church has never denied the Gospel.  When I meet a priest I am dealing with a man who believes in the divinity of Jesus, His work for us on the Cross, His Resurrection and His promise to come again to finish the work of the Kingdom.  There are, of course, areas of conflict but while those core beliefs remain there is a bond of fellowship which we can build upon.