Stornoway Watchnight Service controversy
An ecumenical Watchnight service which is due for screening over Christmas has produced hard evidence that the world is shaking.
The Earth is moving
If there is any hard evidence to support the view that the world has shifted on its axis, one might be inclined to explore the impact of volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis.
However the tectonic plate-shifting of greatest magnitude is not around the geological fault-lines of the Pacific rim but rather in the Western Isles off the north-west coast of Scotland. In terms of 'climate change', it is not just the polar caps that seem to be disappearing – the thaw is showing signs of melting frozen relationships in the spiritual domain.
To touch briefly on the religious dimension of life in those Hebridean parts, it is very interesting to observe the ecclesiastical diversity which can be found across and within the small communities which are otherwise bound up in a common culture and (the Gaelic) language.
Travelling from the northern tip of Lewis to the southern isle of Barra exposes the traveller, in a relatively short distance, to a cameo of the historical 16th-century split between the Scottish reformers and the 'apostate' Church of Rome. (In fact Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Roman Catholic Pretender, made his escape to France in 1746 via a small island at the southern end of the archipelago: whereas the last signifcant Protestant revivals in the UK took place in the northernmost island of Lewis in the 1950s.)
To go for a walk on 'the Sabbath' in the presbyterian parishes verges on the unforgiveable sin whereas in the south, any Roman Catholic priest that is fit enough would be encouraged to join the local team at the Sunday football match – after the church service of course.
Daily life and relationships in the communities was and is as much governed by the daily routines and demands of crofting, fishing and (nowadays) tourism, as whether one's membership is of this church or that; or of the pub. [See earlier article for a fuller explanation of life in the Hebrides.]
In the pre-internet days the fashions, fads and trends of the rest of the world took a long time to wash up on the Atlantic shores of the Hebridean island chain. But not so now. The cultural 'transit time' from mainland/maintream to island life has been much reduced; and the erstwhile inhibitors to societal change are a shadow of their former selves. A manifestation of these changes has been the relatively-recent introduction of Sunday sailings across the Minch.
A Watchnight tremor
But to whatever degree change – even religious change – has moved on apace, the most recent, and quite spectacular manifestation of a profound shift in the prevailing attitudes has been the filming of an 'ecumentical Gaelic Watchnight Service' with ministers from both the Church of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland taking part along with a Roman Catholic priest. And reporting in the provincial media has sensationalised the event further.
In expressing its concern, the Free Church (Continuing) has likened the coming together of the aforementioned Protestant churches with the Church of Rome as a form of communing with a representative of the Anti-Christ.
Now while the secular media might stand accused of stoking up controversy in order to sell copy, there is valid justification for reporting on the conflict.
Presbyterian churches in Scotland and around the world subscribe to a 'subordinate standard' – a document entitled the Westminster Confession of Faith. The WCF states:
"There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ: nor can the Pope of Rome in any sense be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the Church against Christ, and all that is called God.' (Ch.25/5).
So for a Reformed church of any stripe to share in a service with the arch enemy of God is no trivial matter. In relation to the WCF it is a classic case of being 'hoist by ones own petard'.
And it is in this context that the Free Church (Continuing) which split away from the Free Church of Scotland in 2000 has now written to the latter taking their mother denomination to task regarding the Free Church's participation.
Bridge across the divide
It may be of course that the entente cordiale between the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches will dissipate once the season of goodwill is over; but a rapprochement of this nature, in this particular part of the world, ranks high on whichever scale of measure one chooses to employ.
The invitation to the churches in the area stated:
"The service is ecumenical. Rev. James MacIver (Free Church) will lead the service, with readings and prayers from Rev. Angus Morrison (Church of Scotland) and Father Roddy Johnston (Roman Catholic Church).
Soloists Mary Smith, Donnie Murdo Macleod and Isobel Ann Martin are accompanied by local musicians performing a medley of Christmas classics. Pupils from Laxdale Primary School, the Nicolson Institute, Back Gaelic Choir, and the Martin's Memorial congregation will join together to sing favourite Gaelic carols."
The Gaelic Watchnight Service is due to be broadcast on BBC Alba on Christmas Eve at 11.00pm and repeated on Christmas Day. The programme – entitled 'Noillage à Steòrnabhagh' (Christmas from Stornoway) – was recorded in Martin's Memorial Church of Scotland in Stornoway on 3 December 2011, and can also be listened to on Radio nan Gàidheal.