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Breaking Up Is Easy To Do – Scottish Review of Books
by Harry Reid

Breaking Up Is Easy To Do

September 14, 2009 | by Harry Reid

Breaking Up Is Easy To Do – Harry Reid


MAINLAND SCOTLAND, often encouraged by its indigenous media, has been too keen to sneer at the spiritual life of the inhabitants of the Long Island (Lewis and Harris) and in particular their efforts to protect the Sabbath. Demonstrations against Sunday ferries, or attempts to prevent supermarkets opening on Sundays, have been glibly derided.

John MacLeod’s account of religious life on this very large island is feisty and fascinating, and the tone is for the most part winsome. But in his concluding chapter he becomes angry. While he writes with sympathy about islanders who found they had to compromise – for example adherents of the Free Church employed by Caledonian MacBrayne – he expresses real anger about incomers, southerners who settled there but showed scant sensitivity when it came to local spiritual concerns and aspirations.

He writes that “an alarming number” of such people “made no secret of their contempt” for highland religion.” He quotes with disdain from the puffed-up rantings of illiterate incoming e-petitioners in 2008, petulantly complaining about being dictated to by a minority, and expressing peevish insistence on their “human rights” which seem mainly concerned with Sun-day drinking, Sunday shopping and Sun-day sport.

MacLeod thunders against their “unfathomable colonial arrogance” and he is justified in doing so. His indignation is certainly valid on social and cultural grounds. But, paradoxically, it must be asked if it is justified on spiritual grounds. Surely numinous people like MacLeod, who cherish the religious inheritance of the Long Island, should be seeking to evangelise such incomers, crass and consumerist as they may be?

In the same chapter MacLeod quotes a Free Church minister wondering whether his church is able to bring the Gospel to twenty-first century urban Scotland, which presumably in this context includes Stornoway, a town of around eight or nine thousand souls. The point here is that too much of the history of religious life on the island has been both introverted and fissile. MacLeod emphasises its evangelical nature, but here we are in our aggressively secular times having to accept that a strong redoubt of old-style Protestantism seems unable to evangelise effectively.

I doubt if the problem is rooted in the irrelevance of Protestantism – for plenty of people in Scotland still regard it as very relevant indeed. The national church has around five hundred thousand members and while many of these may not be particularly active it has about 40,000 elders, ordained people who are by definition highly committed Christians. As I have pointed out elsewhere, any Scottish political party would give anything for such strong membership figures. So I don’t think Protestantism has lost relevance. The problem is rather that there are so many separate Protestant churches.

It all goes back to Martin Luther, the great begetter of the Reformation. Luther wanted to give the Bible back to the people, and did so triumphantly. During the long and grim medieval centuries, the Bible had been, in the words of one historian, the church’s best kept secret. Luther wanted people to be able to read it for themselves, to think about it and discuss it. Aided by his own superb translation of the Bible into vernacular German, and the new technology of printing, Luther helped to end the dark ages of the mind. His work gave a huge impetus to literacy. Education was one of the great gifts of the Reformation (though Luther himself had been very well educated by the old church).

At the heart of Luther’s thinking was the notion of the priesthood of all believers; at first it almost seemed as if the German revolutionary was intent on making the very idea of a structured church, and indeed an organised ministry, redundant. People could find God and interpret the Bible for themselves. Luther drew back from the implications of his own thought, and after his tempestuous life it was to be left to others – such as Calvin and Knox – to turn his revolution into something that had shape and structure. But the movement he started had a chronic, in-built fissile tendency. Division and squabbling, breakaways and disputes, were there from the start, and indeed they have ravaged Protestantism over the past 500 years or so.

When I was researching my book on the Church of Scotland, Outside Verdict, I travelled round Scotland, sampling services and talking to a variety of church folk. I did not get out to the Long Island; I did however spend some time in a parish in the Western Highlands, Gairloch and Dundonnell. In Aultbea I heard an excellent minister, Derek Morrison, preach on a cold September evening what was, if not the best sermon I heard, certainly the most powerful and the most detailed.

Morrison represented something of the seriousness of the traditions Macleod venerates; his address was based on an intensive reading of the Bible, and during the 35 minutes it lasted all the congregation – a large one – had their Bibles in their hands, following the appropriate texts. This service was utterly unlike any other I attended, and I attended quite a few. It was apparent that worship in the far north-west of Scot-land could be very different indeed from worship elsewhere. Later Derek Morrison told me that his sermon had taken eight hours to prepare. It was the third he had delivered that day, and each of the three was entirely different. He had taken morning service in Gairloch itself, and had moved on to a lunchtime service at Bad-caul, before driving up to Aultbea in the evening.

All this was truly impressive. But what appalled me was the fact that in this one – admittedly vast – parish there were no fewer than five separate active Presbyterian denominations. To add to the mix, on that particular Sunday services were also being held in the parish by both the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Roman Catholic Church.

At the beginning of MacLeod’s book there is a map of Harris and Lewis indicating the sites of the various contemporary congregations on the island. Beside the map is a list, showing the division of Christian religion with explicitly clarity. There are 15 Free Church congregations, twelve Church of Scotland congregations, eight Free Presbyterian congregations, and six Free Church Continuing congregations. In addition there are three Scottish Episcopal Church congregations, two Associated Presbyterian Church congregations and a solitary Roman Catholic congregation. Under the heading “Other Christian”, Baptist, Salvation Army, Pentecostal and Baptist “groups” in Stornoway are mentioned. Finally, under “cults”, we have Mormon and Jehovah’s Witness “groups” in Stornoway.

So many splits, such unfortunate plurality. This cannot but mean that Christianity on the island is grievously divided, and these corroding divisions can hardly assist the cause of Christian evangelism. What divides people, sadly but truly, often matters much more than what unites them.

So while MacLeod legitimately and eloquently celebrates evangelism, and claims that the islanders have been “resistant to schism”, it seems to me that something has gone terribly wrong with the evangelical impulse if such chronic divisions continue and, indeed, fester. At one point MacLeod claims that evangelism could transcend even very difficult divisions. I hope he’s right, but I doubt it.

In his fiery final chapter he mentions “only two” of many useful and conscientious ministers hounded by their colleagues. At another point he refers to people who recalled better days, “to say nothing of what is still notionally a Christian country with a national church and a sworn, Protestant queen”.

Ah yes, but that national church is the Church of Scotland, which is not the major religious force on the Long Island, or indeed the major force in this book. Anything but. To return to that list at the start of the book, this national church has fewer churches and congregations in it than the Free Church of Scotland. Admittedly the national church‘s strength is centred on Stornoway, where it has three congregations (reasonably well supported congregations, too, according to the latest information I have from the Kirk, with a total of 547 communicants, and 242 young people involved).

Meanwhile those such as myself, who regard the Reformation – for all its faults – as an essentially benign and progressive revolution, should not get over-indignant about divisions. For the Reformation was about division, and it has been thus – and how – for almost 500 years. For example, the key moment in Scotland’s nineteenth-century religious history, the Disruption of 1843, was all about division in the national church. MacLeod teases out the Disruption’s essential nobility. He rightly points out that the evangelicals were not motivated by a desire to split the Church. Rather they wanted to take the Church away from the overweening power of the state.

But when the split duly occurred – over a matter of high principle – the effect was devastating. In Lewis the national church was reduced to a shard, a splinter. Only about 460 of the 23,000 population remained in the Kirk. Over Scotland as a whole, between a third and half of the entire ministry quit the national church.

And the hundreds of ministers who left did so at great potential cost to themselves. They were giving up their homes, their status and their livings. The adherents of the new Free Church were zealous and generous, and they embarked on a remarkable programme of building and succour for their ministry. Yet, as MacLeod notes, the “an inevitable consequence of the Disruption was abiding, competitive denominationalism.”

Eventually there was a reunion but the fissile tendency was no by any means vanquished, as the chart at the beginning of this book so starkly shows. The seeds of all this debilitating division were there right at the beginning, in the Scottish Reformation, which MacLeod treats rather lightly. In the early years the Kirk could not decide whether it wanted bishops or not. It was only in the second phase of the Scottish Reformation, led by the great Andrew Melville, that the national church became aggressively Pres-byterian.

MacLeod’s chapter on the Reformation is written with his usual gusto, but Luther and Calvin and Melville are only briefly mentioned, and there is not that much more about Knox. Yet the Reformation was, in time, to prove absolutely crucial to the religious life of the Long Island.

Of course the Scottish Reformation was very much an east coast movement, one that had little immediate impact on the far north west. The three really significant

Scottish Protestant martyrdoms – those of the Patrick Hamilton, George Wishart and the 82- year- old Walter Myln – all took place in St Andrews. The early Lutheran stirrings took place up and down the east coast. And although the first important Scots reformers soon veered away from this nascent Lutheranism , the greatest figures – Knox and Melville – were very much east coast men, though Melville for a time did excellent work at Glasgow University.

Here is a problem for the chronicler of religion on the Long Island; the Reformation was pivotal, yet for most of the reformers, the island, and indeed the whole of the far north west, was a faraway afterthought, if it was thought of at all.

One the early Kirk’s failures – which MacLeod is right to emphasise – was its inability to provide sufficient ministers. In this respect the far Highlands and Islands suffered more than elsewhere. MacLeod notes that it took a long time for the new national Kirk to impose itself on the distant Hebrides in any meaningful way. The Long Island is physically large, but overall it has not played a particularly large part in the religious life of the wider Scottish nation. Its own religious life has been intense, fractious, and distinctive. MacLeod is an enthusiastic chronicler of this complex, if not always edifying, story.

Banner in the West: A Spiritual History of Lewis and Harris
By John MacLeod
pp 398. ISBN: 978184587424


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