Church as museum…

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I love old church buildings, so what else would I do to fill my solitary evenings but to go and find one? I took a drive out over the Black Isle to Cromarty, a lovely old town overshadowed slightly by looming oil rigs being repaired out in the firth. There I discovered Cromarty East Church.

The East Church, the former Parish Church of Cromarty is a remarkable building of national importance, not only for its architecture but also for its representation of ecclesiastical and social change. The physical additions, alterations and remodellings carried out at the church bear witness to specific periods in the history of Cromarty and of Scotland with times of prosperity, rises in population, the influence of individuals and changes in liturgical practice.

It is principally the events of the 18th century that have given the East Church the outward appearance we see today. The survival of the interior in such an unaltered fashion has led to the East Church’s reputation as ‘unquestionably one of the finest 18th century parish churches in Scotland, the epitome of the development of Presbyterian worship during that century. There is something satisfying about its long, low form with its simple clear-glazed windows and its intimate interior, bringing preacher and congregation together in a very direct way.’ [John Hume, former Principal Inspector of Historic Buildings for Historic Scotland, describing the East Church in 1999.]

The origins of the church, however, are more ancient and complex than might at first be apparent and recent excavations have confirmed that it stands on the site of the medieval parish church. A large number of burials were uncovered beneath the floor of the church, together with a 15th century grave slab which had been re-used as a step or kerb within the pre-Reformation church to demarcate the approach to the altar. The post-Reformation church was significantly enlarged in 1739 when Alexander Mitchell and Donald Robson, masons, and David Sandieson and John Keith, wrights, added a north aisle to create a T-plan church. Further alterations followed in 1756 and 1798-9, the latter being carried out by Andrew Hossack who added porches to each of the three gable ends and the birdcage bellcote on the east gable.

The interior dates principally from the 18th century, with galleries or lofts added to the north (Poors Loft), west and east (Laird’s Loft) to accommodate the growing congregation. The most elaborate of these is the Laird’s Loft dating from1756 with its paired Ionic columns and Doric frieze. The loft also contains a fine funeral hatchment on the ceiling, painted with the arms of George Ross of Pitkerrie and Cromarty.

Also of note are a series of wooden panels, re-used and incorporated into a number of pews, most notably at the front of the north loft with a sunburst motif and Mackenzie coat of arms.

It is not a Church any more- it is redundant, but better preserved than many that are still in use as it has been restored by the Scottish Redundant Churches Trust. It stands as a museum to religious observance.

The early rituals of the mass, mixed in with the colour and patronage of the rich, which was then replaced by a focus on the pulpit. More pews and galleries were added in to accommodate the sinners now saved, before the numbers dwindled away again.

Along the way the walls took on monuments to men who died in distant colonial wars- Afghanistan, or at sea fighting the French. Their stone tablets sit at ease with those commemorating faithful long serving ministers of religion.

Faith is not contained by buildings, but they come to be like fossils of what once was. Beautiful fossils they are but new life takes on new shapes…

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Cover of new book…

Regular readers will know that I have been working on and off for most of this year to pull together a collection of new poetry. It has been a labour of love, but boy it has also been a labour. Hours and hours of reading, editing, formatting, communicating. In fact, I need to apologise to many of the poets as the communicating bit has not always been my strong point.

Anyway, the book is almost there- I received a copy of the cover today- designed by the wonderful Jon Birch (whom many of you will know from his Asbo Jesus cartoons and all sorts of other creativity).

Here it is;

 

 Print

Culloden…

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Culloden

Why did they die
-these northern lads
On Culloden field?
Fifteen hundred
Sets of bones
Embrace in a peat blanket
Mingled by moles
Stained brown by
Tartan water

Some say they died for noble things;
For freedom
Brotherhood
That they charged into bloody mist
To rid this hallowed soil
Of the English

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I say they died like all poor soldiers do;
To make rich men richer
They died at the string
Of some puppet king
Their blood was paid for power

Perhaps like ours,
Their culture held in high esteem
The glory of a killing
They like we thrilled to see
The gushing blood of the other

There will be more massed graves before we are through
More mixed clans to fill them

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Fatherhood; compassion and competition…

cricket bat, wallace monument

I played a cricket match yesterday- nothing unusual about that, I play a couple of matches most weeks at the moment. It keeps my aching bones lubricated and more importantly, allows me to spend some time playing sport with my son Will. I am acutely aware that there is a narrow window in which we will be able to do this as he is getting better and better, whereas my already limited abilities are being further eroded.

Until very recently, Will has been the rising star in most of the games he plays. Old men purr at his potential when they see a forward defensive stroke to a fast bowler, or in particular when this diminutive lad runs in and rips a leg spinner past a startled batsman. But despite his potential, until recently I usually did slightly better in the runs and wickets tally. This is changing however.

A case in point was yesterday. I went out to bat at number three and was run out without facing a ball (not my fault this time though- suicidal call from the club president!) I was not asked to bowl either, mostly because Will set about demolishing the opposition, who just scraped over the line to beat us after he had claimed 5 wickets for 49 off 13 overs. Half the balls he bowled beat the batsman who had no clue which way it was spinning.

Whether or not you understand what on earth I am talking about I am sure you get something of the way that this impacts on the relationship between father and son. Sport, as it often does, becomes a litmus paper for real life- it is hyper (un)reality in a world where everything else seems so darned complicated. It is also a way men and boys can express emotion which culture otherwise renders taboo. We are a family who try to transcend this taboo but still we are affected by it.

So, out on the field, between us there has been;

The Father who pushes, cajoles, encourages, who is a safe team member. The father who can hear all the lack of confidence, the upsets, the unjust umpiring stories etc…

The Father who is a role model, and against whom one measures performance. The Father who has to be defeated, overcome, surpassed…

The Father who is an embarrassment because he does awkward things, or because he shouts stuff that should be left unsaid, or because he is just there…

The Father who fades into the past, who watches from the outfield, from the pavilion, from the distance.

It is the natural order of things. It is as it should be. We have a journey yet to make, Will and I- but it will be no longer as immediate, no longer so dependent.

At least not today, tomorrow may well be different. That is the other thing about Fatherhood, it seems to change all the time. At one point we are on the verge of being adult companions, then we are back to adolescent discipline routines. One day I watch a carefully compiled innings, rich in ground strokes, then (as yesterday) I watch him run impetuously past a spinning ball to be stumped.

I think I have now flogged enough from this analogy, for today we play again- me with my sore ankle, dodgy back and strained thigh muscle. I will forget it all though in the curve of the ball and the joy of fatherhood.

Nowhere to lay his head…

Continuing in the way of photograph related meditation materials, here is a photo that combined two themes in my head.

The first one was the on-going debate in our lives around the place that houses have taken in our zeitgeist. Of course was all need a safe place to live and share lives- this is way up the list of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Without this we human beings start to come apart at the seams. However, we have elevated this need to something that can only be described as narcissistic obsession. You might even say addiction.

House prices continue to shy rocket, likely putting home ownership out of reach for most of the next generations. But our culture continues to sell us an idea of the perfect house, with the perfect garden, in the right location, near the right schools as the route to the ultimate happiness and fulfillment. It is not.

Happiness and fulfillment are held somewhere in the middle of a tension that include a life lived for something, in community with others, whilst feeling loved. Sadly, our house obsession, which is so me-first, in my bubble, behind my fences, seems to mitigate against this so often. We become people who have to work like dogs to afford the maximum mortgage we can scratch towards, and at the same time the scale of our possession seems to breed fear and suspicion, often between neighbours.

The other thing the photo takes me to are the words of Jesus, who as usual has things to say that directly challenge us in our soft underbelly. In Matthew’s gospel there are stories of how people would come to him, asking to become one of his close followers. They were used to a rabbinical system in which Rabbis chose their followers from the best of the best, and sought to school them in their teachings. Jesus seemed to choose the worst of the worst as his followers of course, but the way he sent some of the more eager high achievers on their way still brings us up short. It was another of those ways that he turned the understood order of things upside down. Here is the story;

18 When Jesus saw the crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake. 19 Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.”

20 Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

 

Matt 8, NIV

What is going on here?  A man asks for something, but Jesus answers him with something that appears unrelated to his request. The Message version of the bible paraphrases the same passage like this;

18-19 When Jesus saw that a curious crowd was growing by the minute, he told his disciples to get him out of there to the other side of the lake. As they left, a religion scholar asked if he could go along. “I’ll go with you, wherever,” he said.

20 Jesus was curt: “Are you ready to rough it? We’re not staying in the best inns, you know.”

His words seem harsh, but the message seems to be entirely in wider context. Do not store up comforts and treasures for yourself- this is the route to brokenness and separation. If you live like this, it will all go wrong. If you want to live like me, the road will be long and often uncomfortable, but you will be fully alive.

What does this mean for me as I put my house on the market? What next? What roads will open up and will I dare to walk them?

Here is the photo.

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A tale of two churches…

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I took two photo’s on holiday that reminded me of the changing nature of church.

Church at the heart of community, at the heart of governance, at the centre of society; once people could not imagine a time when this was not so. Church buildings were the largest and grandest in town and stood looking down on us, mostly benignly, but sometimes in condemnation. Church was constant, unchanging. Church knew best, and our role was not to question, not to think for ourselves, not to make our own faith journeys- these were already mapped for us.

Some people saw these churches as representing all that was wrong with faith. They had discovered the Bible, and wanted to interpret it for themselves. It was theological and political dynamite that split families and communities. Thousands of people died in the resulting truth wars.

The trouble was, each interpretation of the Bible came to be challenged by another, and another. New chief-interpreters rose, started movements, then faded away. The most lasting of these movement became denominations, inspiring and converting people to their cause, winning people to their Jesus’s.

But the new kids have run out of steam for the most part. Their club-ish brand of religion, characterised by hard unyeilding edges to every question, has left most people uninterested and unmoved.

Strangely most of the old church buildings are still there, still being used- albeit it sometimes feels like they operate as a museum for past faith, attended by a few who are historically minded.

The churches of the modern era have not always fared so well. They are now often made into carpet warehouses, restaurants, storage units, or perhaps they are converted into that most post modern icon- the posh house.

Here is one glimpsed on a Scarborough back street. The thanksgiving gates have been firmly closed;

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