Knox casts a shadow…

We spent today over in Haddington with my brother Steve and his wife Kate. It was a really lovely time, spent walking around the old market town and visiting one of the lovely beaches that are all over the coast thereabouts.

Haddington is a quiet market town these days, but this was not always the case. It was at one time the fourth biggest city in Scotland, after Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Roxburgh.

As we walked back to Steve and Kate’s house, I noticed a little set of stone stairs, all overgrown and boundaried by old railings. It seemed to lead up to a platform under an old tree. Further investigation revealed a stone monument…

It was hard to read, but basically it commemorated the birthplace of John Knox, protestant reformer, scourge of the unrighteous, whose memory is marked by a far more visible column that towers over the city of Glasgow;


Knox lived a long and colourful life. His reforming zeal burst into a political/religious powder keg and led to armed revolution and murder. Ends justified the means. The Prince of Peace required the intervention of armed mobs.

And it all started in Haddington, when Knox was born a farmer’s son, and lost his mother early. Perhaps in a different place, with a happier childhood…

Today it all seemed to me to be sad, and a little absurd. I found myself asking again what good came out of all this religious warfare. Was any of it necessary? Is there anything that we can still be proud of with the benefit of hindsight?

Knox himself seems to scowl out at us from the pages of history. What kind of splenetic wrath would he subject us to if he could but see the outcome of his reformation?

Meanwhile the sea rolls over the beach and grains grow finer. And I seem to have fewer answers.

And that is OK.

The shadow of John Knox…

We tried to visit Glasgow Cathedral again today. The last time we were turned away as the Cathedral was ‘about to close’. Today we were turned away again as there was a service ‘about to start’ (the service was due to start in an hour.) It is not really fair to generalise from this limited experience, but we certainly did not feel welcome.

Perhaps we look like heretics?

Above the Cathedral, on the top of the hill that is Glasgow Necropolis, stands the John Knox monument- a reproachful finger wagging against the sky.

The Cathedral only just survived John Knox’s reformation. Stripped of all it’s ancient finery- its statues and pictures, along with all objects associated with ‘Popery’, but still the mob tried to burn it down- held back only by the Guilds men.

So was unleashed a time of repression in the name of freedom and violence in the name of peace. Driven by fervency and ‘truth’- religion used as a political meat tenderiser.

Did anything good come out of reformation? Was it necessary? Was it inspired of God- commanded by his angels and energised by his Spirit? My current answers to these questions are- Yes. Not sure. Don’t think so.

We used to talk of reformation being constant- it was not a one off event following which we had achieved Christian nirvana, but was rather a process of constant engagement with the refiners fire. This always seemed to be an aspirational thing for the most part however- that moralistic therapeutic Deism thing again.

My ambivalence about the Reformation is more in relation to my hope for a new kind of gentle reformation- a change again in emphasis, away from right belief and correct religious practise, towards the…. other. A kind of faith that inspires us to be agents of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness. And none of these things should be subordinate to pious correctness.

John will turn in his grave.

Or perhaps he will look at the course of his own reformation, and agree with me.