I have a friend who does not come from a Free Church background. Actually, I have many such friends. In fact, a lot of the people I grew up with have little or no church experience and absolutely no truck with Christianity. Many of them fall into what I think of as the Iain Crichton Smith category – having a pretty tired and hackneyed view of Hebridean Calvinism which is largely based on stereotypes that are no longer true (if they ever were). These stereotypes wear black hats and sombre faces; they shake their heads at mirth and sigh in response to vain worldliness. And they live in the imagination of people who ought to know better.
However, this friend has no such prejudices. She wandered into my life in a haphazard, vaguely work-related way. We hit it off over coffee (me – after all, I’m a neurosis-ridden Wee Free) and herbal tea (her – a bit fancy like that, what with being ‘from away’). One Sunday, I took her to a Gaelic service in the Seminary in Stornoway, which is nothing to do with training priests, despite the name.
And then she came along to some English services too. I was impressed at her tenacity because, the previous summer, on a reconnaissance visit to Lewis, she had been to such a service. The children’s address, about the irrepressible manse dog, had appealed to her, but the content of the sermon had not. She was discomfited, I gather. Now I can’t remember if I explained to her that this would usually be viewed as a good sign in the Free Church. Wallowing in comfort and self-satisfied complacency is not how a spiritually healthy clientele should be. The hard pews, the hard truth, the hard stare from the pulpit: they are all part of the strategy.
Some weeks ago, she and I met up with another friend of mine for dinner on a Wednesday evening. Yorkshire Lass asked Island Girl (yes, I’m aware that they sound like runners in the 3:15 at Aintree) whether she would be coming with us afterwards to the prayer meeting. Island Girl laughed in a mildly hysterical way, ‘On a Wednesday!? No way!’ And so I had to explain why Wednesday was a ‘thing’, whilst simultaneously reprimanding Island Girl for allowing her daft Leodhasach hang-ups to emerge in front of a visitor from the Real World.
Yorkshire Lass has experienced much of what Free Church life has to offer. She has heard fine preaching, beautiful psalm singing, shared in prayer meetings and witnessed the Lord’s Supper being dispensed. This month, she was astounded by the groaning food table at our congregational fellowship. We have experienced the Harris conference together, and the WFM annual dinner. I know she has made lasting friendships besides my own.
Just before our recent ‘off-peak’ communion, she asked whether it would be ok if she attended the Saturday preparatory meeting. When I answered in the affirmative, she said, ‘what do people do who don’t have a you to ask these things?’, as if I’m some kind of Wee Free Siri. A faulty one, at any rate, but perhaps more reliable than Wikipedia.
The fact of the matter is that most people here in Lewis do have plenty people they can ask. They won’t, though, because they’ve already had their heads filled with daft rules. Wednesday night meetings are for communicants only, preparatory services are likewise for the converted . . . the list goes on. Worse, though, is the idea that you may not be welcome, or that people might judge you if you haven’t been to church for a while. They picture it being like the saloon bar in a John Wayne film where the stranger enters and many hostile eyes turn to stare. Wee Frees are gloom merchants and their churches oppressive places. Probably the minister will thump the pulpit, shout a lot about hell and maybe even castigate the newcomer for their sinful lifestyle and lax conduct.
Yorkshire Lass had no such preconceived notions. She came with an open mind and an open heart, but with no very positive formative experience of Christianity. Here in Lewis, she has met Christians whose faith is not about a series of formal steps, but is a living reality. They are far from perfect, but they are authentic. Christ is the centre of their lives. I see my brothers and sisters now through her eyes, as well as my own.
For me, meeting her has been a gift. She may do funny things with nettles, but she has given me the ability to see the Christian heritage of Lewis as something precious. We so often have to defend it against prejudice from within our own community. People get hung-up on the ouward badges and rituals of church life. In her, coming with the heart of a child, to ask questions in good faith, I see Him. I always believed that He had brought her to Lewis so that she might be among some of His believing people. In my blindness, I failed to realise just how much of a blessing her presence might be to us. To me, anyway, because in answering some of her questions, I am answering my own.
When you remove all the inside track stuff that needs explaining – who is allowed to go where, when do we stand and when do we sit – there is only one truth anyway. Christ reigns over all, and His people have been released from bondage.
There is also only one church after all: His, and it is most entirely free.