21 January 2022

With larger parishes, aging congregations and less contact with the wider parish, I wonder whether today’s parish ministry would have been able to respond so Sir John Sinclair’s questionnaire with so much knowledge, insight and erudition.

What became known as ‘The Old Statistical Account’ brought to birth the national census in the nineteenth century and many other nations of the world were inspired by this Scottish initiative to follow suit. But, as one commentator said, ‘few could match the disciplined and engaging clarity of Sir John and his army of ministers’.

The ministers were not afraid to speak out about matters which disturbed them. Several social concerns were addressed in the returns among them – criticism of the gentry for their failure to attend worship regularly, the impoverished conditions of the local schoolmasters, the oppressive leasing conditions imposed on farm workers.

The ministers appeared to be champions of innovative inoculation against smallpox. There was much fear abroad but several of the ministers inoculated their children, courageously breaking down barriers of ignorance and fear and thereby improving public health.

The state of church buildings was laid bare. Of one church, it was said, ‘As the roof is much decayed, as the windows are shattered, the walls rough from the hand of the mason, the seats crazy and irregular, its internal appearance is the very reverse of that simple elegance which befits a place of public worship.’1

And of the manse, ‘After a thaw or a smart of rain, the inside walls and timber exhibit a scene wonderfully striking. The pearly drops meet the eye from every point of view; so that, amid the rigours of winter, its inhabitants enjoy some of the pleasures of a May morning. The situation of the manse accounts for this. It lies in a swamp.’1

1As quoted in ’Parish Life in Eighteenth-Century Scotland’ by Maisie Steven

20 January 2022

When I studied mathematics at St. Andrews, we had to do a block of lectures on Statistics. Ever since then, I have enjoyed statistical information especially when it concerns the church, people’s values and sociological changes. Interestingly, the term ‘statistics’ has its origin in Scotland.

Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster was the first to use it in the twenty volumes of that extraordinary ‘Statistical Account of Scotland’ (1791-1799). ‘I thought a new word might attract more public attention, I resolved on adopting it, and I hope that it is now completely naturalised and incorporated into our language.’ he wrote in the twentieth volume.

His survey of all the parishes in Scotland was ‘for the purpose of ascertaining the quantum of happiness enjoyed by its inhabitants, and the means of its future improvement’. To that end, he sent a questionnaire comprising 160 questions to 938 parish ministers inviting them to complete it and return it to him.

Sinclair, who was an elder of the Kirk and a commissioner at the General Assembly, thought ministers well suited to the task. ‘In the first place, they all reside on the spot where their  livings are, and they necessarily cultivate an early and extensive acquaintance with their people.’ he wrote.

‘Second, as all of them are in part paid by grain of different kinds, they naturally make themselves acquainted with agriculture …’ But more details were required of them! Are there any remarkable seaweeds? How many artists, Jews, negroes, gypsies, foreigners? What fuel is used – coal, wood, heath, peat, furze or whins?

Some ministers were more diligent than others. The minister at Whittingehame submitted 19 pages with detailed notes. The minister next door at Stenton supplied two pages with minimal information! Some exercised humour. One minister added some verse:

This same statistical account
Is sent to please Sir John,
And if it be not elegant
Let critics throw  a stone.
We have not fine materials
And our account is plain,
Our lands and purling streams are good,
But we have too much rain …

19 January 2022

St. Paul talks about ‘faith, hope and love’. The writer to the Hebrews says that  ‘we have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor for the soul’. And the Psalmist asks, ‘And now, O Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in you.’  There are many more hopeful texts.

Hope is a significant characteristic of the Christian. Our hope is in God and, in particular, Christ. When we think about hope we naturally align our thinking to the Gospel. And so it was that when I read these words, ‘We need hope.’  fall from the mouth of Katherine Hayhoe, a climate scientist, I was intrigued to read more.

She was bewailing the fact that our discussion about climate change is framed in very negative terms. We read so much about the disasters befalling us now and the apocalyptic consequences of what is going to happen in the future.

It’s having a profound effect on people. 76% of the UK are worried about climate change and 84% of young people across ten different countries. In this environment, she wants to reframe the discussion and put it in more hopeful terms.

The kind of hope we need – rational, stubborn hope – isn’t about positive thinking, but  it doesn’t begin with imitating an ostrich, either.’ she writes. It starts by acknowledging the seriousness of the threat – the destruction of civilisation and recognising the fear that has the potential to paralyse us. Here we have a choice – hope or despair.

It is only our actions that offer a chance of a better future.’ she says. And these, of course, are small but have within them the power to change the world significantly. This is the hope of the gospel – the prophecy of little Bethlehem, the widow’s mite, the boy’s picnic of five loaves and two fishes and, of course, the tiny mustard seed.

18 January 2022

The state has already legitimised same-sex marriage and the General Assembly has agreed that ministers and deacons may solemnise same-sex marriages if a majority of our Presbyteries agree.

The Presbytery of Fife has agreed by a substantial majority. It is likely that this year’s General Assembly will enact legislation to make this possible within our parish churches albeit ministers have to opt in to do this.

When I was preparing for this debate, I read a book called ‘Covenant and Calling’ by Professor Robert Song. It is a theological exploration of same-sex marriage and was the foundation upon which the General Assembly built its case.

Half way through the book, the author writes, ‘The issue is not one’s physiology or the direction of one’s desires, but the willingness to commit to a particular person, with a view to faithfulness, permanence and fruitfulness.’

Immediately, my eyes were opened and I saw how beautiful these covenant relationships were because they brought two people together in freedom and in love to enjoy a rich and fulfilling life together.

There is so much loneliness in our world. Why would we want to inhibit the celebration of a love between two people which was enfolded in faithfulness and permanence and which brought stability and new life to our world?

17  January 2022

Elizabeth Jennings never stopped writing poetry until the day she died. She was an eccentric. ‘It was her habit in later years to wear plimsolls, socks, a woollen skirt, a knitted sweater and, in the street, a knitted hat.’  said a friend.

In 1992, she was awarded a CBE. Before she went to the palace, her friends urged her to dress appropriately. She assured them that she had bought new socks, a new skirt, a new jumper and also new plimsolls!

Through mental breakdown, grief, old age, she found consolation and inspiration in ‘enduring friendships, an art to practise and a zest that is leaping passion’. She praised God for her vocation and her faith.

It’s in the crucifixion that Jennings discovers the hidden glory of God and is inspired to look out beyond herself, striving to find new ways of living and loving.  ‘We must look out and Easter begs us to.’ she writes.

Yes, the Son
Of God brings Easter in
When blossom covers thorn, when sweet fresh air,
Smelling of buds and leaves, compels us to
Honour this world that’s not beyond repair.
Compassion is the only way to grow
And Christ is buried there.


16 January 2022

A friend sent me an article about Wendy Mitchell. She was an NHS Manager. When she was fifty-six, she was diagnosed with dementia. She has written an insightful book about it. She doesn’t want her daughters to care for her. She wants them to remain as her daughters so that she can enjoy being their mum.

Her day to day approach is based on outwitting dementia – finding new ways to do things which cannot be done as she had done them  before and thinking about her dementia as ‘a new way of living’.

Recently, she got permission from her GP to do a skydive. ‘Dementia or not, my quality of life is as important as the next person’s and I want mine filled with experience and adventure. Why wouldn’t I?’ she asked.

Recalling the freefall from 10,000 feet, she said, ‘I am smiling wider than I have ever smiled before… Up here , there is no dementia. Up here, my disease does not inhabit my brain. I am flying, free from all that binds me to the earth.’

The key insight here is that in recognising that her life was changing because of the dementia, she began to think about the disease as an opportunity to find a new way of living. Taking this approach enabled Wendy to see that her life hadn’t come to a premature end, it had just changed. These changes brought opportunities as well as challenges.

And for her, the challenges were the opportunities to find new ways of living. Her quality of life is characterised by two Biblical insights – a call to live life  in all its fullness and to live a life which is characterised by joy.

15 January 2022

In a recent issue of the Expository Times, there was an endpiece devoted to healing. It was written by Gregory Platten from Lichfield Cathedral. It began by focusing our attention on the cathedral’s memorial to Lady Mary Wortley Montague who successfully introduced the art of inoculating  smallpox.

He then went on to say that Lichfield Cathedral became a centre for Covid 19 vaccinations. This proved to be a popular venue.  Ten thousand people were vaccinated in this ancient foundation  dedicated to St. Chad whose Anglo-Saxon shrine had been  a focus for pilgrims seeking healing.

I discovered from Wikipedia that Lady Mary was married to the British Ambassador to Turkey and famously wrote a book of letters written from the British Embassy. She was interested in crossing boundaries and visited the Moslem and Hindu women in their segregated environments to learn all about  their customs.

One of these involved inoculating their children against smallpox. This interested Lady Mary. Her brother had died of smallpox and she survived with a disfigured face. Courageously, she adopted this primitive method of defence and inoculated her son. He survived.

When she returned to Britain, people were sceptical of this Turkish practice. It was only when she persuaded, Caroline, Princess of Wales, to inoculate her children that there was a breakthrough. When Lady Mary  died in 1762, Edward Jenner was only thirteen but it was his pioneering work with dairy maids and cowpox that led to vaccinations.

In 1979, the World Health Organisation declared that smallpox had been eradicated. It all began with Lady Mary Wortley Montague’s courage in breaking through the boundaries separating people of different nationality and religion and her curiosity in exploring their customs and valuing what experience had taught them about protecting their children. Her actions have the marks of Christ and his encounter with the Samarian woman at Jacob’s well!

14 January 2022

I remember conducting a funeral in which a member of the family was invited to participate. He was introduced to me as ‘a minister’. It turned out he was not an ordained minister but a person who had taken some courses at a Bible College. But he introduced himself to the congregation as ‘a trained minister’.

He wanted to read the Word and to say a few words about the deceased and the Scripture. I agreed. Instead of reading a passage from the Bible and letting it stand simpliciter, his contribution turned out to be a collage – a few verses from the Bible here, a few there, a little explanation here and a bit about the deceased there etc.

When I thought about it afterwards, I realised that for me the Word of God as per the Bible had been completely lost in this collage of his own reflections on the deceased and on the words of Scripture. Was that important? Why should it bother me?

The reading of the Word per se is the most important part of any Kirk service. It is not the sermon, it is not the prayers, it is not the hymns. It is the reading of the Word. As such, it should be read in such a way that it is untouched by the reader’s personality and opinions.

When a person reads the Word of God, they have become for that moment in time, the voice of God in our midst. And so it isn’t appropriate to distract the congregation with personal affectation drawing attention to self – offering greetings or trying to gain eye contact or  overlaying the text with personal reflection.

The Word should be read simpliciter as a proclamation from God. The Word should be free of all interference on our part so that it may do the work which God has planned for it to do. This is a powerful ministry. For God says, ‘My word shall not return to me empty but it shall accomplish that which I purpose and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.’

13 January 2022

Last Sunday, we considered the baptism of Jesus. Not only is the call of Jesus confirmed in his baptism but the nature of this calling is revealed by the voice which informs his inner life. ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

This Word of God is a composite of two Old Testament texts. The first comes from Psalm 2;7, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you.’ It is part of the proclamation of the newly anointed king who is going to reign with a rod of iron. This is celebrated in that wonderful tenor aria in Handel’s  Messiah:

You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them to pieces like a potter’s vessel.

The second comes from Isaiah 42 and the First Servant Song. The Lord’s anointed is not only a king but one whose kingship is characterised by a ministry of service. He is going to walk the Via Dolorosa!

His ministry is characterised in these memorable words, ‘A bruised reed he will not break and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.’ But it is a ministry which will ‘faithfully bring forth justice’.

This ministry is characterised by gentleness and patience. It is a ministry of encouragement. It’s all about valuing what is there albeit a bruised reed and a dimly burning wick and nurturing growth and new life. It is an encouraging insight  for the present state of the Kirk!

12 January 2022

The custom  of sending Christmas cards continues to keep people in touch with each other and to generate income for assorted charities. The sale of Christmas stamps increases the coffers of the Royal Mail although the number of post offices has reduced. We lost our local in the autumn.

I have always enjoyed buying, sending and receiving Christmas cards. This year, I was delighted to see that the gap between cards featuring sacred images and secular images  had increased to the benefit of the Christmas Gospel. 60% of our cards were religious.

Forty per cent of all the cards we received featured some aspect of the Nativity – the birth, the shepherds, the kings, the full nativity etc. Kings outnumbered shepherds by three to one! In addition, there were cards featuring the dove of peace and wintry cards with snow covered churches, mostly Anglican.

Once again, there was only one Easter image – a homemade card with a silver cross with light emanating from its centre like a star. It carried the legend, ‘Light of the World’. I value the  connections made between Christmas and Easter. We hide the uncomfortable truth of the cross, the stable, the persecution of Herod and the flight into Egypt.

40% of all the cards were secular. A quarter of all our cards celebrated a wintry landscape. A few featured snowmen, others the Preston Mill  but most focused our attention on wildlife. The polar bear and penguin were there as well as the hedgehog, the rabbit and the deer. There  were several robins.

The most highly celebrated Christmas customs were the gifts of the twelve days and Christmas trees. One couple sent us a beautiful family photograph of sons, daughters and grandchildren. It came from America. My favourite card was a painting of Madonna and Child celebrated in Mary Macdonald’s Gaelic lullaby:

Child in a manger,
infant of Mary;
outcast and stranger
Lord of all!