On Sunday 23rd of July 1637 in St Giles Cathedral, one act of one working class woman created a disturbance which eventually led to the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, the English Civil War and eventually the beheading of Charles the 1st. When the Dean of Edinburgh began to read the Anglican book of Common Prayer, Jenny Geddes, a street seller, picked up her stool and threw it at him shouting ““De’il gie you colic, the wame o’ ye, fause thief; daur ye say Mass in my lug?” meaning
“Devil cause you colic in your stomach, false thief: dare you say the Mass in my ear?”.
On Wednesday May the 11th 2016 in St Giles Cathedral I was invited to attend (but not take part in) the ‘Kirking of the Parliament’. As I sat yesterday at the back of St Giles in Edinburgh, facing Prince Charles, I could not but reflect on that incident and its connection with today. For all you plebes who were not invited I thought I would give you a description of this service, and the reception afterwards.
What happened? It was an incredible service; the cathedral was packed with ordinary folk, as well as the great and the good. The praise was heartfelt; there was a sense of worship, awe and genuine thankfulness to God. Those who were not Christians were warmly welcomed but it was made clear that this was a Christian worship service in praise of the Triune God. The sermon was fearless, biblical, passionate and challenging. Some cried ‘amen’, some just cried, and a few got up and walked out. The call to repentance for the whole nation echoed throughout the vast building and the people bowed in awe and wonder. I was profoundly moved and deeply thankful. In my dreams. And then I woke up.
In reality what happened was the following:
I entered the cathedral from the East side, sat at the very back and observed the great and the good coming in. I had an interesting conversation with a guest who was surprised that the Free Church was growing and wanted to know why. I had a great view down the aisle and could see Prince Charles on one side, and the colourful trio of Trish Marwick (orange), Nicola Sturgeon (blue) and Ruth Davidson (pink), on the other. Kezia Dugdale (flowery pink dress) and Willie Rennie (traditional suit with pink tie) were also present.
We began with the National Anthem and a call to worship from the new minister of St Giles – who I noted was the Rev Calum I Macleod from Lewis. For a fleeting moment I dared to hope that one of our own Free Kirk boys had been suddenly ‘promoted’, but that too was a dream! As we sang ‘God save the Queen’ my eyes caught Nicola and I thought of the National election day photo and wondered who we were singing about!
Then the strains of Ps 100 rang out throughout the cathedral – St Giles is an excellent setting for its magnificent Reiger organ, although as a matter of personal preference I think the psalm would have sounded so much better sung unaccompanied.
There was a prayer which I could not really hear (the acoustics and sound system in St Giles are dreadful!) and then the reading of Ps 67 by Sir Paul Grice (the Chief Executive of the Scottish Parliament). The choir then beautifully sang a rendition of Ps 100 by Benjamin Britten. This was followed by the retiring presiding office of the Parliament, Trish Marwick reading Mark 12:13-17.
Then came the ‘Interfaith blessings on the Parliament’, from the Baha’i, Buddhist, Hindu, Humanist, Muslim, Jewish and Sikh communities. This was interspersed by a somewhat lengthy clarsach and fiddle duo – nice but pointless and did not really fit with the service.
We went on to sing ‘Behold the Mountain of the Lord’ to the tune Glasgow.
Dr Angus Morrison, the Moderator of the Church of Scotland gave his sermon. He began and ended in Gaelic and spoke on Mark 2 – Giving to Caesar what is Caesars and to God’s what is Gods. It was appropriate, well delivered and did not hesitate to mention Christ. The real bonus for me was the bold and biblical statement
“some authority belongs to government, all authority belongs to God”.
Angus comes across very well – humane and humorous – his best one liner? “God always trumps Caesar…. you’ll forgive the unfortunate adverb”!
The choir of St Giles (who were excellent throughout) then sang a beautiful version of ‘Let all the World in Every Corner Sing’. Then Angus Morrison, David Chillingworth (the Most Reverend David Chillingworth of the Anglicans), Philip Tartaglia (RC Archbishop of Glasgow) gave three ‘acts of commendation’. (I wonder if I get to be called the ‘Most Reverend’ and what it actually means…more holy that thou peasants or lesser clergy?!)
We finished by singing “Immortal, Invisible” and then the benediction from the Minister of St Giles which appeared to be some kind of native Indian blessing.
We all left to Parliament hall where there was a reception.
So there we have it. A grand occasion, dignified, beautiful, with something for everyone. Some Christians I spoke to thought it was great. Doubtless most people would say that in public, whatever they thought in private. Here are my honest reflections in no particular order. The positives I have mentioned above, I won’t repeat, but there were some other things that caused me to question.
Interfaith – I thought the interfaith stuff was largely meaningless, hypocritical and self-contradictory. Of course everyone is into ‘love, peace and justice’, but what does that actually mean? The representatives of the various religions sang ‘they hang the trumpet in the hall, and study war no more’ – knowing that religion (including theirs) is at least partially responsible for many wars and much violence throughout the world. Christianity is not exempt from this charge and we need to face up to it.
The humanist involvement was meaningless and hypocritical. Are the humanists a faith? We were there to worship a God they mock. They regard the whole thing as a charade, and yet they took part in it. They of course argued that they were representing a significant section of Scotland’s population – although their membership is 4,000. It was a service of worship, not a humanist ceremony. In this regard I have to admire Patrick Harvie, who as a republican and an atheist, was not there. I may not agree with many of his views but I admire and respect his consistency.
The Muslim and Hindu involvement did not make sense. We had an invocation of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which the Muslims regard as blasphemous. The thought struck me, is there a mosque anywhere in the world where a Christian would be allowed to invoke the Trinity? The Muslim teaching about Christ is blasphemous to Christians so why were they taking part in a service of Christian worship? And if it was not a service of Christian worship, then what were Christians doing taking part in it? Our faith specifically forbids us from acknowledging any other Lord but Christ. Our forefathers died (note died, not killed) for that belief. The Church is pathetically weak, we just simply go along with whatever our secular liberal elites state. For me personally I was there as an observer not a worshipper because I regarded the Hindu incantation and Muslim reading from the Koran as something that no Christian could share in. There is an hypocrisy in having a memorial to Jenny Geddes in the Cathedral when, if she had been present yesterday, she would have been arrested and imprisoned for her actions that would undoubtedly have followed!
Speaking of which, why were the Baha’is, (400 people in Scotland), Sikhs (9,000) etc. bringing ‘interfaith blessings’? Why were the Jehovah’s Witnesses (20,000) and Mormons (27,000) not included? In terms of Christian groups why are the Anglicans represented and not the Baptists or even the Free Church, both of who have more Scots attending their churches than the Anglicans? In other words the interfaith aspect is somewhat interesting and arbitrary.
The Poor and Marginalised – Several times it was mentioned that we were there for the poor and marginalized. But I found that as contradictory as the interfaith aspect. Where were the poor and marginalized? This was a gathering of the Establishment; the rich and the powerful. I have noticed how easy it is for the Establishment, in both church and state, to speak on behalf of the people, (the Moderator stated that he wanted to be a ‘voice for the voiceless, poor, lonely and homeless), even to speak to the people, but not to let the people speak – at least not without them being previously vetted, trained and tamed. There is an Establishment view and you only get to speak to the Establishment if you already accept their values and views. I don’t want tokenism, but it would be really nice if the ‘peoples parliament’ had a people’s service and ordinary people were welcomed and given their own voice, not having someone else speak for them.
The Sermon – I’ve already mentioned the things that I appreciated about the sermon above. But there were difficulties that for me made it a lost opportunity. Firstly I was concerned that Angus said he was there to speak on behalf of the Church of Scotland, other Christians, people of other faiths and people of no faith. No he wasn’t. It was not meant to be a political rally. It was a service of worship and he is a Christian preacher there to preach on behalf of God to all of us, not on behalf of the people to the politicians. I elect politicians to speak on my behalf about politics. I want a preacher to tell me what God says.
Secondly there were a lot of clichés and truisms which people could interpret as they like. A good line was ‘the image of power is on the face of money, the image of God is on us all’. But what does that mean? Or ‘Bad religion is the problem, but good religion is the solution”. But what is good religion? From my point of view religion overall is the problem. The Bible is far more concerned about idolatry (false religion) than it is about atheism (no religion). Without definition and application such phrases are trite soundbites at best.
Angus spoke of the “vigorous pursuit of a politics of love” – again what does that mean? Likewise
“the love of power should be replaced by the power of love”.
Is this the radical love of Christ or the warm fuzzy ‘all you need is love’? Does it include the cross? Does it recognize that the love of Jesus brings division? That if we follow Christ we will be hated?
Then there was: “the churches must speak to issues of poverty, homelessness and loneliness” – that’s the kind of motherhood and apple pie statement that no-one is going to disagree with. But what about other issues? Like the causes of these things such as family breakdown, greed, human sinfulness? Where is the prophetic voice? When John the Baptist appeared before King Herod he lost his head (literally) because he challenged the Kings immoral behaviour. There were politicians who had voted to deny and despise the Bibles teaching on marriage, something that has done a great deal of harm in our society. Where was the challenge? We need to speak truth into power, not truisms.
Overall this was the kind of service that, if I were not a Christian, would turn me into an atheist. It lacked depth, reality, power and meaning. It was a performance, designed to offend no one. Well performed, but nonetheless a performance. I really wander what the point is of having such a service. Personally I think that in the Brave New Scotland desired by many of our liberals this service is nearing the end of its useful life. I really don’t see the point of having a Christian service if the nation has rejected Christianity, and as a Christian I won’t take part in a service which involves bowing before other Gods. In Christ alone my hope is found. And I won’t pretend.
But let me not leave on such a sad note. It was so encouraging to be at the reception afterwards and meet newly elected MSPs who are Christians. They were so encouraging in every way – and it was also good to speak to some other political leaders that I know, who are not unsympathetic to the Church (from all parts of the political spectrum). I was especially glad as the Moderator of the Free Church to meet Katie Forbes, a Free Church member, the new MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch. She is exactly what the SNP and the Scottish government need; young, intelligent, talented, gracious, female and Christian. May the Lord richly bless her and all our MSPs. May my dream of a Scotland of justice, peace and love be fulfilled. And to avoid being accused of being a hypocrite and using the kind of soundbite that all the religious leaders used, let me add that I mean the justice, peace and love that is spoken of and defined in the Word of God. If our politicians are not aware of what that is, I would be more than happy to preach at the next ‘Kirking of the Parliament’!