A House Divided

There is an amusing scene in the Scottish film, ‘The Bridal Path’, when the naive protagonist goes to withdraw some money from his bank account, and is asked ‘what denomination’? He replies – of course – ‘Church of Scotland’.

In my own part of Scotland, denomination has been all too important, time out of mind. I wonder how many of us feel that we belong to the Church of Scotland, or the Free Church, or the Free Presbyterian Church before we belong to the church of Christ. And I equally wonder how Christ, the head of the one church there is, feels about denomination. 

How have we come, in a town like Stornoway, for example, to have two Free Church congregations, three Churches of Scotland, a Free Presbyterian Church, a Free Church (Continuing), an Associated Presbyterian Church, a Reformed Presbyterian Church, and sundry other congregations?  It would be nice if the answer to that was that no one building could contain all the worshippers. That, after all, is the only acceptable justification to have the saints of God distributed across a multitude of churches.

I know this is an awkward topic, and some people don’t approve of it being aired – but we are bound to review our own conduct in light of God’s presence. And like the adulterous woman at the well, we don’t need to hear any accusing words from Him to be convicted of this sin.

Because that’s what this is. It’s pride. Resentfulness. Self-righteousness. It’s putting ourselves and our traditions first. 

Now, I’m as guilty of this as the next person. I like the plain worship style of the island Free Churches, with no accompaniment to our Psalms-only liturgy. Heck, I even like the pews. But, if the necessity and blessing of online church has taught us anything (as I believe it was meant to), it’s that the building isn’t the church. And if the building isn’t the church, the denomination with all its committees and rules and manmade fol-de-rols sure as fate is not the church either.

Yet, we cling to these divisions as though they might be important or worthy. With no outward embarrassment, with no attempt at unity of even the most superficial kind, we have our own separate rule books, our own General Assemblies, our own identities.

As if the identity conferred by belonging to God is somehow less than that of some combination of the words ‘church’, ‘Presbyterian’, ‘Reformed’ and ‘Free’. We declare ourselves freed in Christ – free indeed – and yet, still, we entrench ourselves, not for Him, but invariably for some ‘principle’ that has us standing on our dignity. And while we bicker amongst ourselves (the children of God, mind you) about how to worship, He not only goes unworshipped, but the banner of His beautiful cause sags into the mud. The unsaved watch, open-mouthed, as those of us who profess Christ act like we have never even heard His name.

You think I exaggerate, perhaps – that I’m being harsh and judgemental?

There are four seats on Comhairle nan Eilean Sitar’s Education Committee, which are allocated to faith representatives. One, by statute, is occupied by the Church of Scotland and two, by custom, by the Roman Catholic and Free Churches as being together representative of the islands’ faith profile. The fourth has in the past been filled by the Free Presbyterian Church, but the Chief Executive of the council this week told members that he’d had representations from another denomination, suggesting that they should provide the fourth representative instead because – and I quote – they have a larger membership. 

Let that sink in: Christians – Reformed Evangelicals between whose confessional positions you could not slide one page of the KJV – trying to best one another for a seat on the Education Committee. 

Thanks to their unlovely one-upmanship, it looks like that seat will be shared with other faith groups, including some that are non-Christian.

That, folks, is an object lesson in what denominations do for the cause. The sad truth is that we show no intention of dwelling together in unity, and actually pour more energy into preserving superficial difference than pursuing the one thing needful: togetherness in the Church of Christ.

What a witness we are for the Saviour; what an example to the unsaved. My advice to the council would be not to let any of us near an Education Committee until we grow up.

Does My Ego Look Big In This?

Humility isn’t in fashion at the minute. Ditto submission. But like my human parents did in the eighties with some Danger Mouse wellies, and that orange jacket, my Heavenly Father has imposed these unwanted accessories on me, very much against my will. 

‘Cuir ort iad’, the good Lord commands, giving me no say. I can peel them off and chuck them in a corner, but he will simply dust them down again, remind me – as my mother used to – that they’re perfectly serviceable and I will grow into them one day, and stand by while I sulkily don the hated garments. Humility suits me, he seems to think, and it goes SO well with submission. 

And I hate this stupid uniform so much sometimes I could spit. I ask, him why I always need to wear them. He says nothing. And I’m learning what his silence means. It’s his gentle way of saying, ‘look inwards; you know why’.

I do, of course. Submitting to the will of God is a position of strength – but one I’m more likely to assume when he brings me low. While I don’t know why it was necessary this time, I do know it must have been, because God doesn’t arbitrarily wound us. He just doesn’t.

A few months ago, I began praying for guidance. It had been laid on my heart to think about standing for council. But I wasn’t getting a clear answer from God: was I being flattered into it, I asked him; was this my ego telling me I should? He didn’t answer. Although he didn’t say ‘no’, he wasn’t exactly yelling ‘go for it’ either. Someone suggested that perhaps my burden was a sign that this was the right thing to do. So, I changed my prayer. I stopped asking for an answer to whether or not I should do this and begged, instead, that he not let me have victory against his will. When you have looked at life from both sides, as I have, you would never choose to be at odds with your Lord, no matter the prize.

The answer I got on the sixth of May was that my first instincts had been right: this was not the path laid out for me. Yes, I’d have been a good councillor; I know that, even if I couldn’t convince the already content people of Loch a Tuath. I’d have cared about them and fought for them, and never been afraid to speak the truth. But it is not where God wants me.

People have been very kind and sometimes overly solicitous since the election. I am not heartbroken at being passed over in favour of the incumbents. The odds were never much in my favour – and not at all,indeed, now that I know it wasn’t God’s will for me. But I don’t think I have been disobedient, because I now believe he wanted me to stand. Just not to be elected.

‘Why’? you might well ask. ‘Did he wish to humble you’?

Very possibly. But if he did, I needed it. Perhaps I was overdue a reminder that the house will not stand except the Lord builds it. 

Another reason has come to light too, which has nothing whatever to do with me and my ego. So many people have been in touch to say my experience has helped them. Some heard the radio programme about my campaign and responded to what I had to say about widowhood – an audience I could never have hoped to reach had Radio 4 not followed my bid for the Comhairle. Others read my response to electoral defeat and saw submission to God’s will as a possibility for themselves.

I am an odd choice of person to make that point, but that’s what the Lord does, isn’t it: he uses the foolish to confound the wise. In the process of renewing my humble acceptance of his lordship over me, and of requiring that I submit to his will, God has helped others to see the beauty in such a path. He did it as elegantly as you’d expect, using what could have become vehicles for my ego, to broadcast his own name and his own perfect sufficiency to people who needed that message, just as I did.

As I left the count, someone said to me, ‘it would have been good to get another Christian in there’. He didn’t mean it – or, at least, he didn’t mean me. It was the only thing he could think of to say without actually lying or giving offence. Like so many others, that’s what he thinks I have to offer – that I sail under ‘church’ as a flag of convenience, brandishing Jesus like an ‘access all areas’ pass.

Being a Christian councillor, though, is like being an Independent one: your allegiance isn’t what you say, or what others think – but how you act. And maybe God knew that my witness for him would take a back seat if he permitted me this win. I would rather face any amount of other people’ schadenfraude than be guilty of that for a second.

Victory – in him – does not always take the shape we expect or want. Yet, it is victory, nonetheless.