Give a Blone a Bad Name?

A week is a long time in politics – even when your involvement is pretty low-level stuff. Speaking to a fellow Stornoway Trustee following our Monday evening meeting, he correctly identified me as being the ‘holy lady’ mentioned by a fellow columnist in the ‘Record’ this month. Ignoring the doubt in his tone as he verified this with me, I chose instead to be pleased that neither adjective had completely thrown him off the scent.

However, by Friday, I was being described in much less flattering terms for my involvement in the aforementioned organisation. Not only have I succumbed to the much talked about ‘culture of secrecy’, I was told, but apparently ‘everyone’ knows that there is cause to call my morals into question as well. No wonder people keep asking me how I
find time for ‘everything’. Perhaps if I’d realised what ‘everyone’ thinks ‘everything’ involves, I might not have been so blithe in replying that sleep is for wimps. And maybe I’d better stop winking
when I say that too . . .

There’s a serious point to this, though, and I’m afraid it’s one I make with no little disappointment. And it’s this: these things would not be said to or about me if I were a man. I very much doubt if any of my eight fellow trustees – all of whom are fellows – have been on the receiving end of these kinds of insinuations.

Right there, then, is one good reason why many women may feel they don’t want to put their name forward for elected office. When – for the sake of a seat on a community landlord’s board of trustees – your sexual morality and the death of your husband are considered fair game, who would hold these people back if there was something greater at stake?

I have learned over a long and sometimes challenging year not to pay reviling with reviling. There have been many times when the preaching I have sat under seemed tailor-made for my situation. It has reached out and strengthened me when I have faltered; it has rebuked me when I was tempted to try fixing things on my own. The prayers and the fellowship of God’s people have all upheld me when the going was far from smooth. But isn’t that why He has provided His people with a church – so that by attending the means of grace, we would be fortified against suffering of all kinds?

Except, I have come to believe that suffering is, itself, a means of grace. It teaches us to turn to Him in all things, because only His strength is adequate for every situation.

Hearing my own reputation casually sullied might, a year ago, have sent me after my accuser, fuming with rage. Or to my big sister, crying hot tears of hurt and indignation. But, this week, it caused me
to speak silently to God.

It occurred to me afterwards that this is proof of spiritual growth. I don’t boast for myself, because I didn’t actually do anything, but I DO boast of the sufficiency of Christ. He has picked me up from this
kind of situation so many times now that I no longer need to be taught that my first reaction should always be that of the injured child: hold up my arms to my loving Parent, and He will do the rest.

Small-minded gossip cannot harm the part of me that God prizes most – my immortal soul. But it can, of course, damage my good name. Many people better than me have been sunk under the weight of unfounded slander and rumour. It does not alter your stock with God one iota, but it may still harm your integrity in the eyes of your fellow human
beings.

That’s how fragile a thing your reputation is. All it takes, in a place like this, is for someone to say, ‘oh, yeah, Catriona Murray, she’s a  . . .” and whatever adjectives they insert miraculously take
on a life of their own.

So, the crucial thing for me is always to care more about how God sees me, than how I am viewed by other people. He looks at me and sees His Son’s perfection; He looks at my heart and He knows what is true, and what is not. As long as I keep my eye upon Him, going before me in
everything, what can anyone say to bring me down?

Outside of God, where there is no safety, though, these kinds of things are being said of others. Women are castigated simply for being women. Nudges and knowing looks can destroy their credibility in a moment. Don’t assume, either, that the people bringing women down are always men.

So, although I read about progress and liberal agendas, and even feminism, I don’t believe in them; they’re like creatures from folklore that may once have lived in Lewis, but are long since gone from our midst.

I am deemed an easy target for all the bile and vitriol because I am a woman who follows Christ. This makes me a cùis-mhagaidh and a hate figure by turns. The ‘progressives’ don’t want the likes of me
speaking for the likes of them. They are the enlightened ones – and they are prepared to use whatever mediaeval tool at their disposal to bring me down. Once it was the ducking stool; now it’s the internet.

But I am not the easy target they suppose. They cannot see the armour I wear, nor the encircling army that protects me. Nor indeed – most ironic of all – how they have trained me to look for strength in the one place it may be found.

And no one should underestimate a woman who likes to have the last word. With that one word, I dictate how yet another ‘progressive’ having a go makes me feel.

This week, thanks to God, that word is ‘seadh’.

Tilting at Windmills

Before my first meeting at the Stornoway Trust, I imagined a wood-panelled room, thick with pipe smoke and whisky fumes, where crotchety betweeded men would growl at me from behind broadsheet newspapers. Or, perhaps some kindly, avuncular figure might pour me a sherry and offer me the comfortable chair, while they and the other fellows got on with the important business of the day.

And, it seems that I’m not the only one who thought this was how it would be. I have actually lost count of the number of people who have asked me things like, ‘is it awkward being the only woman?’ The answer would really have to depend on what you mean by ‘awkward’. There was a meeting recently, which the Chairman rounded off with, ‘right, gents, I think that’s us’, whereupon they all left, while I sat politely, waiting to be dismissed. When the staff arrived the following morning to find me still sitting there, that was quite awkward . . . But it’s more than made up for by all the times we’re having sandwiches, and I get the only side-plate.

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It isn’t the awkwardness of my femininity that worries most onlookers, however, but the weakness of it. There are many, many people who tell me that I have quite obviously ‘had the injection’, ‘taken the pills’, or – most intriguingly hi-tech of all – ‘had the microchip implanted’. Clearly, I am incapable of reaching any sort of mature conclusion myself, without being somehow led by these overbearing fellows at the Trust.

While this is very insulting to the gentlemen in question, I know they are quite capable of defending themselves, given their years of practice at the faing. I take exception, however, to being painted as someone so weak-willed, so stupid, and so negligent of my responsibilities as to let others tell me what I believe.

But, the sad fact is that I do feel much more self-conscious about being a woman since joining the Trust. Its not just that I’m asked to leave the room whenever indelicate matters like drainage are discussed. Nor is it the fact that I’m the only one carrying a handbag to meetings. Indeed, it’s really nothing to do with what goes on in the boardroom at all.

No one around that table disagrees with my views simply because I’m a dame – they may disagree because I’m wrong, or because they’re wrong, or because our priorities differ. They may try to persuade me to change my mind, and they may bombard me with opposing views. But I have never felt bullied or dominated. And I’m not such a simpering half-wit that I feel the need to please them by sharing their every opinion. 

After all, I was married to a Tory for nearly twelve years, who stood quietly by, and watched while I campaigned for independence. It may have evaded Scotland, but I like to think something of it has rubbed off on me.

That’s why, if I thought larger-scale, developer-led windfarms were a bad idea for Lewis, I would bloomin’ well say so. I would say it to the other Trustees, I would say it in public, and – as my regular readers know – I would go on saying it until everyone took the complete buidheach. 

But, I’ve done that thing which some social media watchers seem to believe me incapable of: I’ve read, I’ve listened and I’ve learned- and come to my own  conclusion.

I would urge everyone else to do the same. Please don’t assume that, just because some voices are louder and more strident than others, that their confidence comes from being right. And don’t be fooled into thinking that repetition equates to truth.

The village I live in has a falling school roll. Our local shop has struggled for many years. We are home to an ageing population. For most of the eleven and a half years we were married, my late husband lived out of a suitcase – back and fore to his job at Dounreay because Lewis had no prospects to offer him.

Forgive me, then, if I am not overly moved by any argument which places environment above people. They are what makes a community – not bare moorland, not birds, not even tourists. 

I ran for election to the community landlord because I was tired of hearing this place being incessantly run into the ground. Of course, some people persist in the belief that I was pushed into it by those other overbearing men in my life: the Kirk Session. But the real truth is that I wanted to be part of something positive – something that would move us forward. 

And now, that’s exactly where I find myself.

We have a chance to create real economic and social opportunity in Lewis. I’m not talking about greed here either, or promises that Cromwell Street will be paved with gold. This is our first proper chance to create a sustainable future for our people, right here where they belong.

But don’t take my word for it. Do your own working out, and then decide: progress and a future here in Lewis; or more of the same – a suitcase that’s never unpacked.

My mind is made up. And yes, I did it all by myself.

(Was that alright? Okay, switch me to standby, boys).

 

 

The Wee Free Church of Weaker Vessels?

Some things don’t change. You no sooner write a blog about feminism in the Free Church than your whole congregation gets a loud reminder from the pulpit that women are the weaker vessels, and they really need to remember to address men as ‘sir’.

As if that wasn’t pointed enough, the minister threatened me afterwards not to go undoing his efforts with my renegade talk. I swear all the blood drained from his face when he saw me later, sitting at a table full of women in the church hall.

Isn’t it great how you can alter the whole meaning of something simply by taking it out of context? It’s a wee trick I’ve learned lately. You can make the very truth a lie if you are prepared to go far enough.

When I heard what the topic of the sermon was going to be, I’ll be honest, I was not looking forward to it. There are lots of things that can creep up and stab you in the heart in church, but the duties of husbands to wives, and vice-versa, is a guaranteed killer. It can bring on my ‘poor me’ complex with a vengeance, if it catches me in the wrong mood.

This didn’t, though. Actually, it caught me in more of a, ‘how the heck is he going to pull this off, then?’ frame of mind. A quick advance look at the passage confirmed my suspicion that this was, indeed, the one that talks about women being subject to their husbands, and husbands remembering that blones are the weaker vessels.

Oh well, I thought, this could very well be the first schism caused by ladies exiting en masse from a Presbyterian church. What WILL they call the new denomination?

But, then, that’s just the world’s way of looking at relationships, isn’t it? Everything is about power.

That’s how we got into this mess in the first place. We sought after a knowledge we couldn’t handle, because it came to us out of context; divorced from God’s wisdom as it was.

And because it was untempered by His wisdom, we allowed our knowledge to rule us, and we became drunk on it, until we finally forgot that the wine we were taking was fermented from fruit that was never meant for us at all.

We now think that if the Bible – the unerring word of God – says something we don’t like, then surely the Bible is wrong.

Breathtaking arrogance – and I am as guilty of it as anyone. I bristle at the idea of being subject, and more especially at the thought of being deemed ‘weak’. Although I do a very unbecoming line in self-pity, I certainly don’t want to be ‘poor Catriona’ in anyone else’s eyes.

Until Sunday night, though, I had been labouring under the misapprehension that weakness is . . . well, a weakness. A woman’s propensity to greater emotional sensitivity can, however, truly be a strength, while still making her vulnerable to hurt in ways her husband may never experience for himself. That is why he should exercise understanding towards his partner in life – because her womanness is a crucial element of their relationship in God’s eyes.

And, it made me think of that other amazing passage, where Paul glories in the thorn given to him by God, concluding, ‘for when I am weak, then am I strong’.

One of the great spiritual truths I have learned is that my own strength is a puny thing that would have sunk me in the Slough of Despond long since. Just as well I’m not relying on it. I wonder, in fact, after Sunday night, whether women have the advantage over men here. Not, of course that it’s any kind of competition . . .

But, if we are the weaker vessels, then surely it is easier for us to put our ‘amen’ to Paul’s great proclamation. The less we have of what the world is pleased to call strength, the more we will depend on His.

Being subject to your husband is an interesting one, in an age when many brides choose not to use the word ‘obey’ in their wedding vows. The feeling is that it compromises equality. But, actually, the only equality which really matters is that men and women are similarly precious in the sight of God. After all, it is He who weighs us all in the balance.

It was not God that introduced the tension between the genders over who gets to be in charge. A Godly man does not abuse or mistreat his wife; a Godly wife, likewise, honours her husband.

I am not a wife any longer, but I do live in the world, and must meet with the occasional man. Elsewhere, I have written of how I don’t see the brethren in my church as competition to be beaten, or the elders as having a status to aspire to. They are what they are, as God ordained; and I am, likewise, what I am.

Last night, however, the challenge of living as a Christian woman, while trying to make my way in this world was brought sharply into focus. At the end of a meeting, I instinctively gathered my own coffee cup and those nearest, and carried them through to the kitchen. The men mostly left theirs on the table.

Even as I did it, I thought, ‘don’t become the stereotype’. But this is the problem with the gender war that sin has created – if we all stand on our rights, who will serve? And how will we honour God?

 

Suffrage, Tippex, and the Feminist Free Kirk

As a noted local feminist, I was disappointed that my recent election to the Stornoway Trust failed to attract the expected plaudits from the sisterhood. They can’t have heard. It’s a pity, because I had hoped they would take heart, now we’ve seen that  women can be elected in Lewis after all. Should any of you see them, please mention it.

Maybe don’t mention my complications, though. I do stuff that they might think messes with my girl-power credentials. And I don’t just mean the fact that the last person to put screen wash in my car was the minister. Or that I have several men on speed-dial who tell me what to think about the complicated stuff (the Blue Book, the interconnector, the offside rule).

No, there’s that obedience thing as well: the Biblical authority, the Saviour ruling my life. The Free Church.

Somehow, the patriarchy that I am expected to rage against, they’re the same guys who put me on the Trust. According, that is, to a letter in the newspaper formerly known as the ‘Stornoway’ Gazette.

Do not adjust your screens – I am indeed talking about the same Free Kirk that’s been keeping women down for two centuries.

Elders took a few nights off from chaining swings and intimidating witnesses to go out bribing voters, and Tippexing any ballot papers that people had completed without their say-so. I am not exactly sure what their motive in getting a blone elected was, especially a daft airhead like myself who, apparently, needed the ‘big boys’ (whoever they may be) to explain wind turbines to her.

Actually, before the ballot, one of the patriarchy, who shall remain nameless, suggested that it would be a good thing if I were elected. I waited for him to say, ‘because it might get you off our case for a while’, or even, ‘you girls need a wee hobby to keep you out of mischief’. But no. He suggested that I might contribute something to the decision-making process (and not just fruit loaf either).

He meant it sincerely. Nor did he conclude by winking and adding, ‘Don’t you worry, we’ll make sure it happens, a ghràidh’. I think he’s probably more of a feminist than all the badge-wearing, card-carrying types who were casting around looking for an explanation for my election – and finally came up with the contemptible cop-out, ‘it was the church that rigged it’.

Feminism, however, for me, is the simple fact of women getting on with things, and rational folk of both genders accepting that they can.

I want to inhabit Biblical womanhood, because my first love and first loyalty belong to God. This is a colossal challenge, first and foremost because of my own nature. It is in me to think, ‘why shouldn’t I?’ And, although I’m not excusing myself, I feel bound to add that this instinct is probably exacerbated by being a woman on her own. Who deals with the frightening stuff – the spider in the bath, talking to mechanics – if not me?

So, then, it’s hard when you’re the sole breadwinner and householder, to still be the kind of woman God requires.

It is also a challenge because society tells you to assert yourself, not to allow others to trample over you, to know your rights. Society is about being confrontational: me before you; my wants over your needs; my opinion trumps yours.

The problem with society is it’s made up of people, and we are – all of us – fundamentally flawed, and broken in our own way. And we are shot-through with sin. So, what the world will tell you to be is very rarely in agreement with what God wants.

That, sisters, is where we have to rely on Him.

God has not said ‘subdue your femininity’ – He wants us to embrace it and inhabit it in all its fullness. That means not seeing myself in relation to men, not comparing myself to them in terms of what is permissible, but fitting myself to God’s template for my life. I don’t want to be anyone else, or do the things that other people do, of either gender.

My life is not what I planned. Mercifully. It’s easy to tug at your heartstrings and say I hadn’t planned to be a widow now. And, of course, that’s true. On the other hand, I had not planned to commit my life to Christ, to accept His free gift of salvation. Thankfully, you see, God had it all in hand. Submitting to Him is the wisest thing I ever did; and even that wasn’t me.

There are many examples, in His Word, of womanhood which I might try to follow. A friend recently mentioned  a sermon on Ruth, in which the question was posed, ‘where, in all of Moab, did Ruth come to know God’? And the only conclusion to which the preacher could come was this: it must surely have been through  Naomi’s dignity and faith in the midst of great grief.

This would certainly explain that famous and beautiful speech from Ruth to her mother in-law, and particularly, ‘your God shall be my God’.

Ruth must have seen a beauty in Him to desire, and that beauty was clearly revealed to her in Naomi’s steadfast devotion.

That, now,  is the sort of feminist I would like to be: loving God, and witnessing faithfully for Him, no matter where He leads, so that other women – and yes, even men – might see Him too, and be freed from ‘isms’ of every kind.

A Woman’s Place is Wherever God Wants Her

Ever since Coinneach Mòr reminded me that I’m a woman, I’ve been thinking about whether it matters very much. In past blogs I have made myself subject to misunderstanding because I have played down the importance of my gender, especially where my faith life is concerned. But I wouldn’t want anyone to run away with the idea that I don’t care about that category of things loosely termed ‘women’s issues’.

Nor, for the record, do I think we’re getting it absolutely right. If I said we were, people might suspect me of being manipulated by men . . .

There are two contexts here which must be considered – my relationship with God as an individual Christian, and my relationship with His church as part of the believing family.

My personal interactions with God consist of conventional prayer, continuous prayer, and the reading of His word. In all these cases, I come to Him as myself, whether I want to or not. He knows who and what I am, regardless of the veils I may – even unconsciously- assume. Part of that self surely consists of my womanhood: it is who He made me to be.

But I don’t believe that He hears me differently simply because I’m a woman; rather, he hears me differently because I am uniquely myself.

Christ,for example, did not favour Mary over Martha, or vice-versa, but He did take cognisance of their different personalities and respond to them accordingly.

He lets us be who we are; any obstacles in the way are of our own making.

Our relationship with the Lord is untrammelled by worries about gender. I do not doubt that He loves the supplication of women as much as the petitions of men. We are all His beloved children and the blood ransom He paid had the same value for every last one.

It is really only when you take that relationship into the church visible that problems arise. I have never gone to God in prayer and wondered whether what was on my heart was alright to mention, what with me being a woman. But I have been conscious of my gender in – amongst other things – writing this blog.

Let me be clear: no one from within the church has ever said to me that I should keep my opinions to myself. For all my joking, none of the men has yet suggested I stick to teaching Sunday school and leave the thinking to them. That is not the root of the problem.

I am the root of the problem.

In my own treacherous heart, there is a constant battle with doubt. Every time I go to publish an article, I worry that this will be the one where I really offend someone. Each new blog post fills me with trepidation that I have gone too far and will be castigated for a meddling ignoramus.

And underlying all these nagging fears is the sense that I am a woman in a man’s world. Who has told me this? Well, no one, but it has been the way things have happened over the years. Men are the office bearers, therefore you have to be a man to have a voice in the likes of the Free Church.

Is that true, though? No, I actually don’t think it is. Recently, I was talking to someone about it, and the notion that Free Church women are kept down. He made me laugh when he said, ‘I’d like to meet the man who could oppress _____________’ The lady he named is just one of legions of island women who could never be kept in their boxes by even the most determined misogynist. They have opinions and they have influence just as the men do.

These are praying women, women who have mentored younger Christians. They have participated fully in the spiritual life and nothing God intends for them can be denied by mere men.

But another recent conversation has forced me to think about the role of women in the church as an institution. We were discussing the way in which complementarianism has been interpreted by the Presbyterian churches in Scotland. My friend pointed out that there is a simple enough way to ensure that we are being Biblical in our division of duties. If a role requires spiritual authority then it should properly be restricted to men. Otherwise, it should be fulfilled by whoever is best suited to it.

This isn’t radical thinking. It isn’t even feminist thinking. What we’re called on to have as a church is a spirit of service, of corporate service. Our collective gifts should be deployed in order to maximise their potential to glorify God. That is what we’re about.

Those outside of our walls often speak about power- any objection to attacks on Christianity are countered with derisive yells of, ‘you just don’t want to lose control ’. The relationship between the church and the world is not about that, however, and neither should our relationships with one another be.

Properly speaking, I am a Christian before I am a woman. What gifts I have to offer in the service of Christ have nothing to do with my gender. He has not made women less gifted than their brothers.

However, I do believe that there is progress to be made in bringing those abilities to fruition in the church. Not, I hasten to add, because of some attempt to create equality between the genders; God has already done that.

Authority is His; spiritual authority He vests in men of His own choosing.

But the freedom to love Him through active service, exercising those gifts which He has bestowed   – that privilege belongs to every man and woman who loves the Lord.

 

 

 

Wee Free Woman Identifies as Herself

After finishing off writing the Sunday evening sermon, I checked my diary for the week ahead. Nothing too onerous. Gaelic department lunch on Tuesday, meeting a friend on Wednesday . . and then, I received an edict from Coinneach Mòr to record an interview for his Thursday morning radio show. Consummate professional that he is, he outlined some of the areas we would cover – blog (fine); monthly column (mmm hmm); how come a woman in the Free Church is being allowed to speak out so much on sometimes controversial issues? (ok . . . er, what!?)

I don’t like that question. Someone else asked me something similar recently and I must admit, it threw me a bit.

But it’s different with Coinneach. He may be, as I said, the consummate professional, but he is also the consummate Leòdhasach. His question was posed in very much the same spirit that I myself apply to writing the blog – mockery of the attitude which prevails outside the Free Church that women inside it are somehow subjugated and condemned to a life of baking scones. Coinneach, I think, understands that this is no longer the case, if indeed it ever was.

He understands, first and foremost, because he comes from within this culture. That is his – and my – privilege. The tragedy for some people is that because of an accident of birth, they can never know what it is to be a Leòdhasach. Some get as close as possible by moving here, and indeed, who can blame them? But there are a few things I would have them know.

First of all, native islanders are not necessarily fools. Some probably are, because there are fools everywhere. However, to suggest that because you hail from Lewis you are automatically (and this is by no means an exhaustive list of the accusations to which we are subject): small-minded, nosy, gullible, brainwashed, judgmental, unsophisticated, dogmatic . . . well, I think they call that racism in the big cities, now, don’t they?

Secondly, yes, there is an indigenous culture. You may shout that there isn’t and that we only say that to be exclusivist, but I’m afraid that’s just cultural imperialism talking. We are a Gaelic people. It is possible to learn the language and not be one of us, just as I can learn French but never be a Frenchwoman.
Thirdly, whether it suits you or not, the Free Church (other denominations are available – buy a book, learn the history of this place you’re calling ‘home’) has done much to shape and influence our culture. People of my generation well remember having to be home by midnight on Saturday, or not being allowed to make a noise in the garden on Sunday. Compliance came from respect for your parents and for the norms of your community. We weren’t quite so obsessed then with pleasing ourselves regardless of who it upset.

Yes, there were always those who didn’t appreciate the Lewis Sunday, but they were never so tormented by their own ego as to think everything should change for them.

It’s all about that – self. The issue of ‘being a woman in the church’ likewise. I clumsily told Coinneach that I don’t think of myself as a woman. Perhaps his journalistic nose twitched at the thought of such a story, ‘Free Church woman identifies as deacon’, but he merely raised his eyebrows quizzically.

And now I will explain: I try very hard not to think of myself at all.

That’s what we’re called on to do as Christians. I didn’t start this blog because I had a Free Church feminist agenda to push; I don’t. My stance is that gender doesn’t matter in the church and to say, ‘why can’t women . . ?’ is really tantamount to asking, ‘why can’t I?’ Don’t whine to your elders; go to God, and see what He says. He has a role for each of us – but it is according to our gifts, not according to our gender.

There have been many jokes about me ‘having my eye’ on the pulpit. The sermon I alluded to writing  at the beginning of this blog was not my own, however, but that of the minister of our congregation. I write summaries of them for the church social media account and help them reach a wider audience that way, hopefully. Those on the outside of the church might pity me these limitations, though, and be horrified at the jokes which are always predicated on the assumption that no woman will ever preach in the Free Church.

But I feel no self-pity. I am not a poor soul. Eldership is not a wee accolade for the person, it is a role endowed with the authority of Christ. Leading the congregation in prayer is not an ego-trip, nor are pastoring and evangelising; these are serious responsibilities which are the lot of those called to serve.

Instead of looking at others and wanting to be who they are, and have what we think they have, we must look upwards and ask God what he wants us to be. He intends each of us for service to His glory. I think we imbue the ‘patriarchy’ with more power than they possess if we honestly believe that they are preventing any of us from being what God intends.

The Isle of Lewis is what it is – James Shaw Grant said it best when he called it a, ‘loveable, irrational island’. It need not try to be like other places. For me, it’s lovely in its own way.

And likewise, being a woman in the Free Church is also lovely in its own way. It is where God has placed me. I don’t intend to limit myself or Him by looking longingly at the pulpit, or even the suidheachan mòr; I need to fall back on my faith, ask where He wants me, and say to Him, ‘Here am I, send me’.

Hats, hymns and the Holy Spirit

I got a bit of a shock last Sunday night. After the evening service, I met my mother. No, that’s not the shock – I’ve known her all my life. But something was different . . . It took a few minutes before I realised: she wasn’t wearing a hat! My first thought was, ‘I knew it – she’s gone back to the Church of Scotland.’ Subtly, I glanced to see if she was carrying a hymn book, and then it occurred to me that I didn’t know what one looked like anyway. Besides, surely I’d have heard if my own mother had absconded back from whence she came.

Actually, she had just got fed-up of hats and decided, at seventy-eight, that it was time to join the aotrom* throng of bare-headed Free Church women. She really does believe in doing things in her own time, and for that . . . well, I take my hat off to her.

The hat-wearing ladies have long since become a symbol of more so-called ‘hardline’ Presbyterian churches. Somehow, people got the idea that the hat symbolised male dominance and female subjugation. As if the Session appointed a committee to discuss such things. ‘What was in style ten years ago?’, the chairman might ask. After consulting a long out of date JD Williams catalogue, one of the elders would say, ‘pillboxes, with a small veil’. Two hours later, an edict would be issued to the local shops – ‘Stock only pillbox hats (with or without veils) and sell these to our women. No gaudy colours – they’re vain enough as it is.’

The hats are fewer and further between with each passing year. You will see more people (of both genders) wearing jeans to church, and fewer men are opting for the suit and tie look.

Last Sunday morning, the preacher mentioned that thousands of others had once occupied the pews in which we, the congregation, were sitting. In the more than 150 years since the church was built, successive generations have indeed sat under the Word there. Fashions changed many times over that period, and so many ministers have mounted the steps to preach in that very pulpit. Even the language of worship has changed. And the light-fitting, the Habitat-esque monstrosity which replaced – I am reliably informed – two perfectly charming pulpit lamps, was also a reflection of the (lack of) taste and mode of the time.

Were it possible for some of these Victorian worshippers to return to Kenneth Street now, they would undoubtedly be struck by some of the outward changes. They might be confused about standing to sing and sitting to pray, or the purpose of the camera, to say nothing of references to soup and pudding, Tweenies and newsletters. And I am certain that they would wonder why the whole affair was being lit by something resembling an oil drum.

But then, the reading from the Word would reassure them that all is still well with their old church. The preaching is as Bible-centred as it ever was, and the congregation hears the truth, however unpalatable that sometimes can be to us. There may not be much in the way of pulpit-thumping or histrionics from the minister, but the message remains the same. One and a half centuries on, the building still resounds with the Good News. People in varying states of grace are awakened, comforted, challenged and fed, depending on their spiritual need.

What you see may be quite different, but what you hear is the same: God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.

And what you don’t hear, or see? That would be the Spirit, abroad in our midst, opening ears and eyes, and changing hearts. He was there in the nineteenth century, and He is there in the twenty-first. The church he occupies isn’t, though, the lovely edifice on Kenneth Street but, as 1 Corinthians 3:16 puts it:
‘Do you not know that you are God’s temple, and that God’s spirit dwells in you?’

With heads covered, or without, in jeans, or suits, or Sunday best frocks, it doesn’t matter a bit. The world sees and laughs either way. The Holy Spirit is as out of style as the pillbox hat, but His work goes on regardless. And the world rejects the Holy Spirit because they cannot see Him. To them, it is all reminiscent of the Emperor whose new clothes were not merely invisible, but nonexistent.

Christians, nonetheless, are to clothe themselves in the Spirit. That garment supersedes trends or fads, and resists the restless human desire for novelty and innovation. Whichever church you go to which claims Christ as its head, this will be the dress code: come as you are, and He will do the rest.

 

Notes

* lit. Light, insubstantial – used colloquially to denote spiritual superficiality. 

 

False gods and Free Church outings

I hadn’t been on a Sunday School outing in quite some years, what with me being forty one. On a Saturday, a few weeks ago, however, I found myself boarding the bus for Ardroil in Uig, with thirty or so excited children from the Laxdale Sunday School, where I’ve been a teacher since last August. It was pouring with rain and, as I stuffed the luggage rack with wee fishing nets and plastic spades, I worried that there were going to be a lot of disappointed people heading home that afternoon.

It rained quite hard for the first hour. The kids ate their barbecued food on the bus, while we hardier oldies huddled near the flames and drank cup after cup of tea to keep warm. And then, quite miraculously, the sun came out and we had a magical afternoon down on the sand. Once everyone had eaten a second round of burgers, psalms were sung and the annual event that is the boys versus girls tug of war got underway. Things looked good for the ladies at first, until one of the elders on the boys’ team sat down, which goes to show that Free Church men really will do anything to keep the women subordinate!

When I was first asked to teach in Sunday school, it was by an elder who had run after me into the Seminary on a Wednesday evening. As he rushed up the aisle towards me, my first thought was, ‘what have I done?’ I imagined wildly that he had spotted the Matt Redman CD on the dashboard of my car, or found out about me laughing in the stairwell of the church. But, as he stood, anxiously twisting his hands, it occurred to me that perhaps he only wished to borrow money.

After accepting his suggestion that I might wish to teach in the Sunday school, I panicked. Quietly, obviously – it would be unseemly for a repressed Free Church lady to make a fuss. Ever since Rev.Macrae had made it his avowed intention to ‘give the swooners no latitude’ in the 1930s, fainting has been banned within the environs of Stornoway Free Church. So, I sat silently in my pew and worried. Surely it was too soon? What right had I to presume to teach anyone about Christ when I still had so much to learn myself? Might I inadvertently teach them heresy? And what would I do with all their questions? Despairing, I remembered my own teachers in the same Sunday school, many years before; they seemed so wise, so knowledgeable, so . . . holy.

But then the mists began to clear. People send their children to Sunday school and it is our privilege to share with them the message of salvation, as others shared it with us. What seemed like humility and lack of self-assurance on my part was actually a disgraceful want of faith. Of course I wasn’t going to be adequate to the task; not on my own. Which of us can claim that we are? That’s why Christ promised us a helper in the Holy Spirit. However, if you are called upon to do something for His cause, you do it, asking His aid. In my experience, I can truthfully say that He never fails me.

I cannot, however, say with any certainty whether the children benefit from my classes. Sometimes it’s a struggle to keep their attention. And, oh my word, the questions! ‘Will there be bingo halls in Heaven?’ probably qualifies as the most left-field. The truly challenging moment came, however, when we were discussing the Ten Commandments.

It was, unsurprisingly, idolatry which caused the problem. They struggled with the idea that Jesus must come first in our hearts, before any of their loved ones, or hobbies, or prized possessions. Yes, I had to say repeatedly, before mum and dad, before your kitten, before your mobile phone, before your signed football, or your iPad. I struggle with it too; don’t we all? But then, we got onto talking about other gods, and the worship of false gods. ‘Some people DO worship other gods, though’, one girl said, ‘and they have to be allowed to do that’.

Tolerance. They are taught this in school. All religions are equally valid. Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam – these are just different stories, and you choose which one you believe. Meanwhile, the same people in our community who howled with derision at the plans for a new church in Stornoway, rushed to publicly welcome the news that an Islamic place of worship was in the pipeline for the town. They were falling over one another in the rush to prove their tolerance of some – though not all – Abrahamic religions. It’s not tolerance, though, is it – it’s tokenism. After all, you cannot accept one faith as valid while defaming another, and say that you are accepting: that would be hypocrisy.

When a petition was launched against the planned building of a High Free Church in Stornoway, no one was terribly surprised. Those opposing it made all manner of justification, including that clearing the chosen site might make some rats homeless. However, one of the comments has stayed in my mind ever since because, for me, it represents that other great misunderstanding at the heart of so much anti-Christian prejudice: ‘they think they’re so perfect’.

So, the people driving the ‘tolerance’ agenda actually understand nothing about the Christianity they deride. If they think that Christianity is a choice, like which political creed to follow, or which shirt to wear today, they have a lot to learn; if they believe that Christians think themselves perfect, then they don’t even know the basics. Following Christ makes such demands on us that our sinful hearts would never opt for it of their own volition. We are drawn, irresistibly, towards Him because we are so very far from perfect.

I don’t mind what they say about me. Christians except to be mocked and criticised for their faith. But I do mind that, in their ignorance, they are depriving children of a proper understanding of what Christ’s message is. We surely cannot allow people who don’t even know what the central message of Christianity is, to dictate how it is taught to the next generation.

That is one reason why Sunday schools are important. Children deserve the truth. Plant the seed and someone else may water it, but God will make it grow. And no one, however tolerant, can stand in His way.

 

Safe Spaces and Dwelling Places

I went to a feminist event last night. It was that thing which we’ve heard there is so much need for in the Hebrides – a safe space for women to talk and exchange opinions. It was a real, face-to-face meeting of Hebridean ladies , sharing a meal and sharing conversation. Women of all ages came together from across the island, to talk, to listen, to laugh, to catch up with old friends and to meet new ones.

There was a guest speaker. She spoke movingly of her work with street children in Uganda. I don’t believe there was a heart in that room of almost 200 women unmoved by what she told us. Children, born to children, growing up without a home or a family. Without, in fact, a safe space.

These are children who don’t know what it is to have a parent’s unconditional love and protection. They are exposed to unthinkable danger every minute of every day. Many of them are on the streets, nonetheless, because that terror is marginally better than the one they faced at home. We all know how short a duration childhood is; in the blink of an eye, it’s past and, for these children, never really happens at all.

The speaker, Marsaili Campbell, is a paediatric nurse who has worked with these children for a long time through the Dwelling Places project. In addressing her audience, she excluded no one, and made no assumption that the room was filled with Christians.

I have already had fingers wagged at me by people who thought I was suggesting that charity is the exclusive preserve of Christianity. It isn’t. The gathering was Women for Mission, but the challenge is for all human beings. Could we not work together to make this world a little safer for everyone? Surely there are more important fights than the ones we are having with each other, and more important rights than that of swimming seven days a week, or keeping your child from hearing about Noah and the ark.

This meeting is an annual event organised by Women for Mission, a network of committees affiliated to the Free Church, and raising money to fund missionary work. It is the preserve of energetic, intelligent, motivated and compassionate women. If you are one of those, you could come to a WFM fundraiser, just to see what it’s about. You could support the work to help street children, to bring hope to the hopeless. These events, and the planning meetings which precede them, are safe spaces.

The women I met last night are authentic  feminists. True, they haven’t hung that label on themselves, but I think that’s because they are absolutely free, and don’t need to.

I was approached by a smiley, petite lady at the end of the evening, to tell me how much she was enjoying my column in the ‘Record’. That lady taught me – and countless others – to read and write during her 37 years in Laxdale School. Elsewhere in the room, I saw my former boss, a woman who stood up to men in suits in the 1970s to give Ness its Comunn Eachdraidh. That swiftly became a movement which has preserved and recorded our folk heritage up and down the islands and beyond.

The lady co-ordinating the evening is another example of feisty Free Church womanhood. I’ve come to dislike that word, ‘feisty’ because it’s so often applied to militant moaners. Not in this case. Think force of nature with a hundred watt smile. You do her bidding because she semi-charms and semi-terrifies you. And because everything that drives her is what drives each woman in that room: love for the Lord.

A room packed with women, all of one accord: it should terrify the men. Then again, there was one present – just one, mind you. He had a camera. Probably gathering evidence to take back to the Session. I’m fairly sure he caught the woman next to me laughing, so they’ll probably shut WFM down. Women laughing and planning things is surely the way sedition lies.

Actually, women, with their multi-faceted personalities, experience, and gifts, come together in groups like WFM. They work towards a common, humanitarian goal. In striving as one, they become one. There is real sisterhood because the bonds that exist between them are forged in the fire of love. It is that simple love which says that if a child is hungry, you should feed her, and if she hurts, you should comfort her.

That is what feminism looks like in the Free Church.  It is about looking outward and serving the Lord by serving the lowliest in our world.

At the end of the evening, the beauty of 200 women singing Psalm 40 in unison said something to me about real feminism. Each individual voice counts, yes, but how much more power is there when we come together as one?

 

Fake Feminism & the Wee Free Women

I don’t suppose you could really call Cailleach an Deacoin a feminist. Mind you, ‘she’ certainly harboured political ambition. For the uninitiated, the Cailleach was the persona assumed by Murdo Matheson of South Lochs, a female impersonator well before the time of Eddie Izzard, or Lily Savage. It was before my time too, but I have heard the recordings from his gigs in the ‘town haal’, where Cailleach an Deacoin roundly mocks the men in parliament and the church, to uproarious laughter from the audience.

Cailleach an Deacoin would certainly have something to say about the hubbub over an all-male Comhairle nan Eilean, following the recent local election. Of course, her intent was always firmly fixed on Westminster, but I’m quite sure that she would have encouraged less ambitious ladies to try for Sandwick Road first.

Feminism is the new secularism here in Lewis. That is to say, it is being hoisted as the latest flag of convenience over the leakiest vessel in the harbour: the good ship, ‘blame the church’. According to some local pundits, the failure to elect any female councillors can be laid squarely at the door of the Kirk session. Over the years, they have subjugated women, kept them in the kitchen, and out of any really important decision-making. Presbyterian women are submissive, pliable, dumb. I know, because I am one. If I had a brain in my be-hatted ceann, I might object to the picture that these feminists paint of me, but I leave all that confrontational stuff to the men. They’re much better at it than me.

Funnily enough, it was suggested by three different people that I should consider standing for the Comhairle. All three were men: two of them church elders, the other a communicant. I was about to use this as proof that the coves in the Free Church don’t see politics as a male preserve, but I’ve just had an epiphany (don’t tell, though, because I haven’t asked permission from the Presbytery). They probably only wanted me to stand in the first place because I’d be easy to manipulate, plus there would be someone to pour the tea at the members’ meetings. Luckily, I have no desire whatsoever to run for elected office anyway. That is the real reason why I – and probably many other women – did not stand for council.

It has nothing to do with the churches’ influence on the lives of women. That kind of suggestion is insulting to the countless articulate, capable and even feisty women who are also churchgoers in this island. Like so many other popular myths regarding religion here, it springs from a complete ignorance of what the church is to her people. Yes, ‘her’ people. And it is also born of that other insidious misconception, that Christianity must ape and conform to contemporary culture.

God created man and He created woman. Each have their own unique attributes and characteristics. These are to be applied in God’s service. He does not love men over women; He does not single one gender out for special treatment. His Son died for both genders, and people of both genders have followed Him and served Him faithfully. Jesus first revealed His divine nature to a woman, and it was to women he first appeared following the resurrection. Christianity does not discriminate because Christ does not discriminate.

The church, of which Christ is the head, tries its best to imitate Him. Recently, I heard a lecture in which the speaker properly described God as genderless. We think of God, traditionally, as a man because – amongst other reasons – to us, He is God the Father. However, in His perfection, God combines attributes which we think of as male, and those we would consider female. No single human being can hope to emulate that on their own.This being the case, the closest any church will get to imitation of God is one in which men and women work together, bringing their best gifts into the service of the church, and of the Lord.

Church isn’t a gender-based competition. Biblically-speaking, there are roles for both. Yet again, the world fails to understand that the church of Christ does not follow society’s norms and obsessions. Contemporary thinking tells you one minute that gender is a social construct, that it doesn’t matter; and then it tells women that they mustn’t let men push them around, and that they must assert themselves. If we follow every prevailing wind, we will be buffeted to and fro like fallen leaves.

There are indeed places in the world where it is considered normal for women to be subjugated and maltreated by men. The Isle of Lewis is not one of them. When my father died, one of the first things my sister said to me was, ‘he was a great father for girls’. And she was right – never once did he make either of us feel that we were less in his eyes than our brothers, or less capable of . . . well, anything. He loved Christ, he was a member of the Free Church, and he treated women as equals. I am offended on his behalf, and on behalf of the many gentlemen I am privileged to call my brothers in Christ, when I hear it said that they are misogynistic bullies. Equally, I don’t appreciate the inference that my sisters in Christ are biddable simpletons with nary a brain-cell to call their own.

Actually, it’s quite straightforward: there are two genders, each with its own attributes and divine calling, each called on to submit to  the other out of reverence for Christ. This is the blueprint laid down for us in Ephesians 5; wouldn’t it be something if the world tried to emulate that instead