The problem with the Free Church is that people only ever see it from the outside. I don’t mean that those on the inside are blind, but there are certainly times when it seems as though we are mute. We stand by and let everyone else indulge us in the ‘giftie’ that Burns so earnestly wished for as he sat in church, contemplating the louse on a lady’s bonnet: ‘to see ourselves as others see us’.
How do others see us? The late Lewis poet Derick Thomson saw the Calvinist minister as a scarecrow, stealing the warmth from traditional Gaelic culture. His peers, Iain Crichton Smith and Donald MacAulay were no more complimentary about the influence of the Presbyterian Church on their native island and wrote frequently of its restrictive, life-denying effects. These men left Lewis in their youth to pursue careers in education and academia, but continued to perpetuate this view of the Free Church and its ilk for the rest of their lives.
In his millennial history of the Highlands and Islands, James Hunter gives two mentions to the Free Church. Here is a flavour of his thoughts on the subject: ‘while it is certainly hard to warm to the narrowly Sabbatarian, bitterly sectarian, faction-ridden and frequently reactionary Free Church of modern times, it is a mistake to assume that Highlands and Islands evangelicalism always exhibited only those traits.’ From this, I think we can take it that he believes ‘those traits’ were always present, but were, at one time tempered by something a bit finer. Note, of course, the use of the past tense.
Dr John MacInnes of the School of Scottish Studies describes our brand of Presbyterianism as, ‘a recluse religion, not only turning away from the seductions of this world, but actually seeking at the same time to dominate ordinary, open society’. Dominate. Not ‘influence’, not ‘inspire’, not even ‘teach’, but ‘dominate’. It’s not sounding good, is it?
And this, ‘ordinary, open society’, of which he speaks – what do they say? They say we’re stuck in the past, we’re a narrow-minded Taliban, we’re regressive Calvinists (they don’t say which denomination is the progressive one).The Free Church is still seen as that scarecrow, coming into the ceilidh-house and spoiling all the fun.
For myself, I cannot agree with this jaded view of the Free Church. My experience of it – that is, the Stornoway incarnation – has been uniformly warm, positive and loving. We share our worship and our fellowship (and a lot of tray bake) , and we laugh at times – even out loud – and occasionally in the presence of the minister. Since becoming a member of the church I have not changed my personality, or become a narrow-minded automaton: if that was what was required, no one told me and I can find no reference to it in the handbook. This church, a branch of the church of Christ, has held me up through a dark and difficult period in my life. At my husband’s funeral, one of the prayers petitioned God that the church would be a husband to me; it has been. I can pay it no greater tribute than that.
The incomparable Professor Donald Meek suggests that the Presbyterian denominations’ failure to reflect openly on their own practices has left a hiatus, which has been gleefully filled by the kind of critics I’ve already mentioned. Is it wise, though, to go on ONLY being seen as others see us? Isn’t it time we said something – even a little – about how we see ourselves in this broken society that needs us now more than ever?
Just this week, at the prayer meeting, I heard a story of an elderly minister whose habit it was, each night before retiring, to pray around his village. He brought each household to the throne of grace and thus, served the community better than the hardest-working councillor ever could. And I doubt if he thought, ‘I must pray for my people’. His heart was tethered to theirs and he held them up to his Father for safekeeping. He wasn’t seeking to dominate, or impose his view; it was a simple act of Christian love. Isn’t it time we talked about that?