Modern Scotland usually has little interest in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. This year promises to be different. The Report on the ordination of homosexuals promises the media a heady mix of sex and splits, while evangelicals wait anxiously, wondering what kind of church will be left by the time the Assembly has done its business.
Meanwhile a mere hundred yards away the Free Church holds its own Assembly, and we have problems enough of our own. The most obvious is the recurring financial deficit. The Board of Trustees are quite rightly insisting that this cannot go on. The Church must match its expenditure to its income.
The Cambridge Companion to the Trinity, ed. Peter C. Phan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. xiv + 417pp. hb. £55).
This volume brought out the hidden statistician in me, and I found myself counting the proportions. Of the twenty-one contributors only one, Karen Kilby from the University of Nottingham, was working, at the time of writing, in the UK: a sombre reflection, surely, on the state of Systematic Theology in Britain. The provenance of the writers is not always clear, but at least fourteen are from the US. Three are from Korea; and the editor, Peter Phan, is originally from Vietnam, though now living in America.
Equally interesting is the denominational distribution. Nine appear to be Roman Catholic, with one each from the Lutheran, Greek Orthodox and Romanian Orthodox traditions, and another from the ‘Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)’. The stimulus given to Roman Catholic trinitarianism by the work of Karl Rahner has clearly not been matched by a corresponding stimulus to Protestant theology from the work of Barth and Moltmann. But then, the volume ignores both the late T. F. Torrance and the late Colin Gunton.
The Theological Commission appointed by the Church of Scotland in 2011 to examine issues relating to the ordination of those living in openly homosexual relationships has now prepared its report, and one thing is sure: very few of those attending the forthcoming General Assembly are going to have the stamina to read it. Ninety-four pages long, in double column, it takes almost as long to get to get to the point as it took the children of Israel to get to the Promised Land; and if it can’t quite be said that the commissioners spent all their time in the wilderness it can certainly be said that they spent most of it in unnecessary preliminaries and in irrelevant discussions of such matters as the Kirk’s place in the ‘holy, catholic church’.
It’s probably a disgrace, but I’ve already forgotten the date of that referendum on Scottish independence. This cannot be attributed entirely to senility. I still know who I am, the date of Christmas, and the difference between infralapsarianism and supralapsarianism. These, after all, are important things, and one might feel honoured to announce them. But it’s hard to enter into the mind of someone like Alex Salmond who, last week, pronounced himself ‘honoured’ to announce a referendum on something so negative as the break-up of the United Kingdom.
Most 20th century Highlanders view Christianity very much as Pontius Pilate viewed it: a load of rubbish, and sinister to boot. If asked why, you’d expect them to draw themselves up to their full intellectual height and tell you that modern science has put an end to that sort of nonsense. But what’s been interesting since Richard Dawkins’s ‘Tour of the Hebrides’ has been the number of voices offering a different argument, and telling us that they reject Christianity not because Darwin eliminated the Creator, but because the gospels are no more than a collection of ancient myths and fables.
It’s long been typical of Gaidheals that they lack pride in themselves, and particularly in their own language. Quite why this should be so is far from clear. Why should someone who spoke two languages feel inferior to one who spoke only one? Perhaps it was because the monoglot was the factor, the bailiff or at least someone with a white-collar job and ‘minister’s hands’. Gaelic betrayed you as uneducated, unqualified and poorly connected. All things considered, then, it was best to lose it once you were upwardly mobile; even better to pretend you never had it.
This might be a great help when it came to social networking, but it carried its own risks. Those who knew you when you were running about barefoot, and living, like themselves, on potatoes and herring, might take it ill when you returned home, pretended you hadn’t a word of Gaelic in your head, and dripped such posh words as ‘shall’ and ‘actually’: words never heard in Garyvard.
This particular kind of Gaidheal is now extinct. Indeed the wheel has come full circle. Edinburgh’s professional elite now prize Gaelic-medium education, and instead of Lewismen haughtily denying that they have Gaelic, you have Morningsiders proudly telling you that they’re learning the language; and not only do they tell you, but they look you in the eye and challenge you to conduct a conversation without using a single word of English. They don’t seem to understand how difficult it is for a Stornoway cove to speak Gaelic without words like ‘wonderful’ and ‘beautiful’ escaping his lips at regular intervals.
But the latest ecclesiastical news suggests that the misplaced sense of embarrassment which once crippled the Gaidheal has now been transferred to the church; or least to the Free Church, which is showing increasing signs of being ashamed of its own theology, history and traditions, and wishing it were somebody else. Local congregations want to drop the name ‘Free Church’ from their notice-boards and give themselves some other handle. They’re clearly scared that if their real identity comes out, ‘normal’, ‘contemporary’ human beings will run a mile.
It would be interesting to know what Dr. Peter Kearney’s employers really think of his recent outburst about sectarianism in Scotland . Dr Kearney is Director of the Scottish Catholic Media Office, but no one seems to have told him that the messenger must never become the message; which is exactly what he became last week with his ridiculous comparison of the plight of Scottish Catholics to that of American blacks in the worst days of segregation.
Many minds boggled besides mine, and there’s no need for me to add further words to the chorus of disbelief. The position of American blacks before the Civil Rights Movement was most famously expressed in Billie Holiday’s song, ‘Strange Fruit’:
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
The church is always in crisis. If you don’t believe it, just read any preacher from one of her Golden Ages. All of them, from Augustine to John Kennedy, thought they were living in ‘cloudy and dark days’.
The 21st century is no exception. True or not, the perception is that the church is in deep, deep trouble. On this at least, believers and non-believers are agreed. For the one, it’s time for a ‘ho-ro gheallaidh’; for the other, for lamentation, and with the lamentation comes panic: a panic which is equally pronounced among Anglicans, Catholics, Baptists and Presbyterians. We have put ourselves in a dilemma.
It’s quite simple. We either keep our identity, and become irrelevant; or we become relevant, and lose our identity.
Last week’s decision of the Church of England not to allow women bishops will have little immediate impact here in the Highlands. We do, of course, have our own form of Anglicanism, Eaglais Easbaigeach na h-Alba, but neither the Archbishop of Canterbury nor the General Synod has any authority over Scottish Episcopalians. They already have women priests, including the Reverend Shona Boardman in Stornoway, but no women bishops, though that is certain to change when (and it’s when, not if) the Church of England finally mitres women.
It’s not my job to sell tickets for Stornoway’s Lanntair Gallery, and so I kept mum about Richard Dawkins’s recent visit to the scenes of my childhood. I would still be mum were it not that the coverage of the event in the local press was the most prejudiced piece of news coverage that ever had the honour to catch my eye. Professor Dawkins so mesmerised the reporters that spelling and syntax went out the window; and objectivity had not even been allowed in. The previous evening, the ‘case’ for God had been put by ‘Rev Robertson’ (neither what he was christened nor how he should be styled), but the report could hardly get him out of the way quickly enough, contenting itself with noting that he is a good orator, afraid of flying, and was challenged by Dr. Dawkins.