Earlier this year Iola and I drove to the Hebrides leaving Aberystwyth at 7.15 a.m. and driving north out of Wales to Chester and onto the motorway along the west coast to Carlisle, across the Scottish border at Gretna Green and on to Glasgow. Then driving on further north to Perth and across the empty centre of Scotland we arrived at Inverness, over 500 miles from Aberystwyth, at 5 pm. It was a magnificent journey through the winter landscape, utterly breathtaking at times, the trees looked unreally beautiful. Outside Inverness a lordly stag was eating heather near the roadside, not batting an eye at the occasional car zooming past. We pressed on to get as near as we could to the port of Ullapool and found a hotel in Dingwall where we spent the night.
The morning ferry left for Stornoway at 10.30. There were a few dozen passengers that Thursday morning and the Minch was as calm as a millpond. The voyage back on Monday was also tranquil but many more passengers on the 7.15 sailing to the mainland. The crossing takes about two hours and 45 minutes and half way across you can see the snow-covered mountains of the Highlands stretching north to south behind the boat while in front there is the long strip of the Hebrides. ‘Picturesque’ is a poor word for such a sight. We have never had a bad crossing; I have been to Lewis five times and this was my third communion season. I don’t think of Stornoway as a ‘pretty’ town. Few towns built around a ferry port are. Much of the island of Lewis is drab bog, fields of peat, brown in the winter and the landscape lacks trees. The beaches are grand, and the south of the island is mountainous and thus more attractive. But there are other delights to Stornoway which make it beautiful to the Christian visitor. Once one has been there one always returns with anticipation.
Our friends George Macaskill and Isobell were there to greet us at the harbour as was another minister awaiting a pastor from Scotland on a similar mission, taking the communion season at that church. The ‘season’ is the time, twice a year, February and August, when all seven or more Presbyterian churches in Stornoway hold their communion services. The services begin on Wednesday night with a Prayer Meeting and then there are seven preaching services which end on the final Monday. This ‘season’ in Harris is at a different time, and in Back at a different time and so on, so that hardly a month goes by without a communion season being held in some part of the Hebrides. The schools in Stornoway were closed for the Thursday, Friday and Monday of the communion season. There were in all some thousands of people attending all the services. The main Free Church has to hire the town hall for the overflow meeting on the Sunday night, and the church itself would hold 1400 I guess, and its adjacent hall would also be full. Maybe up to 2,000 people would attend that congregation that day, and there are only 22,000 inhabitants on the island. People who do not attend very regularly, or at all, will make every effort to be in ‘their congregation’ on the evening of the communion Sunday. It is also the time for new members to be welcomed in. The main Free Church received seven new members, and the other congregations heard the news and were glad of that number. Our own congregation received one lady.
There is a traditional pattern to the themes of the sermons on the five nights, humiliation, examination, preparation, commemoration and gratification, but that is no longer rigidly held in many of these churches, certainly not in the Associate Presbyterian Church where I was speaking. There is a general need for encouragement everywhere. The tide of apathy and indifferentism flows everywhere in Europe and it has reached the island of Lewis. However hallowed and useful traditions may be, and I acknowledge that I am a traditionalist, new pressures and needs need to be addressed at these times when so many people gather to hear the word.
The season is not all about preaching services, there is a massive amount of time spent sitting in homes, eating and talking together for lunch and also after the services in the evenings. We were blessed with sensible cut-off times of around 11 but these fellowship times have been known to go on way past midnight. But they are very edifying; the talk is all about the Bible, and Christian experience, and the work of grace in the life of the Christian and within the fellowship.
Certainly Scottish egalitarianism reigns in this politically radical island. It is a classless community. These are all working men and women, precariously hanging on in this economically unfavourable situation – an island to the far west of Europe. For example, the precentor of the psalms is a diver. He has been a deep sea diver in Saudi Arabia and the North Sea, but now he dives for crabs, shellfish and lobsters in 100 feet of water around the island. He stays down for about an hour, and this time of the year the water is freezing. We met him and a friend on the Monday crossing, a Bible on the table in the ship’s restaurant before them and Spurgon’s Morning by Morning. They were going for a week’s climbing around Fort William, planning to ascend Ben Nevis. He has climbed in the Alps and in Snowdonia. Who could not feel great about such manly Christianity? I told him that I would send him a photocopy of Dr. Machen’s “Mountains and Why we Love Them.”
There was a lady with Downs Syndrome in the congregation. I had not noticed her and when I fenced the table one point I made was that it did not require great theological understanding to qualify for communion. I mentioned our home for people with learning difficulties and that we had one member whom I had baptized who came to the Table who was Downs and with a speech impediment making it hard for us to understand him. Yet he had faith in Christ. This woman is like that, professing faith, but not coming to the table, though she would like this, and the elders are willing. My innocent reference to this caused warm enthusiasm in the congregation.
The elaborate structure to the morning service leading up to the distribution of the bread and wine needed a little preparation and thought. After the psalm that followed the sermon I needed to fence the table to clarify who might come. The people were already sitting in the front in the first pews which is an area which for that time is designated the ‘table.’ Then a few people came from the congregation and crèche and joined them. We sang Psalm 116. Then I announced that it was open communion, that it was the Lord’s Supper, not this particular congregation’s, and explained this. Then we heard I Corinthians 11 and I prayed. At this point I gave the Table Address – I chose to speak on Mrs. Alexander’s ‘Green hill far away.’ After the bread and common cup had been passed from one to another by the communicants themselves I gave the second table address on the closing verses of the Green Hill, regarding the three things we are urged to do, to love Him, to trust in his redeeming blood, and to do the works he did. I finally spoke from the pulpit after the last psalm, and decided to read the narrative of Mary and Jesus in the garden – “Mary!” “Rabboni!” It was a moving and blessed occasion.
We also visited some friends, Donna Macleod in Point and Iain D. Campbell in Back who had had a visit of a choir of 22 from a black church in Alabama. A number of them had gone to the USA singing Gaelic psalms in that unique way and this was the reciprocal visit. The black choir sang on Saturday night in the hall and their pastor spoke with his rich southern accent. They came to church on Sunday morning and enlivened the congregation with their, ‘that’s right!’ and ‘Amen!’ and ‘Hallelujah! And so on. It was a good experience for the Free Church of Scotland at Back and they were warmly welcomed there with many good memories. Though the link between the two ways of singing is tenuous (the theory is that the Scottish farmers who had gone to Alabama sang the Gaelic psalms and the slaves picked up the singing from them. It is unproven but fascinating).
We left on Monday with many a “Haste ye back” sounding in our ears. We spent Monday night in Edinburgh with Iain and Jean Murray and had a good journey back south to Wales arriving in time from the Prayer Meeting. Our town library has a fine collection of talking books on CD and cassette and we would not take a long journey such as this without one of these books to listen to. This has helped us immensely. So, back to my happy routine here, with my next duty as the chaplain of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers being my customary speech at their annual St. David’s Day dinner. It is the trickiest occasion of the year! I have fallen flat on my face at it more than once, and that is for my good. He that is down need fear no fall, Bunyan said