Pilgrim Path

past the water channel
that marks the boundary
of the arrow-grass salt marsh
we finally step out onto mudflats
then awkwardly hop about
as we remove clumsy boots
tie  laces together
and hang them from our packs
then roll our trousers above the knee
in preparation for the traverse
cautiously we move
trying to avoid the glasswort
in case it is slippery seaweed
towards where the poles
point heavenwards
in an otherwise horizontal world
the left behind causeway becomes
just a distant murmur of traffic
drowned by the keening of seals
hidden in the light’s vastness.

sanderlings flicker-feed beside us
a heron languidly flaps by
black-backed gulls speed overhead
between blueness of sky
and its browned reflection in the sand
we walk between masts that mark
the safe route across this unveiled
sea-wilderness that stretches
the horizon

broken shells sharp against our feet
seagrassed mud-mires grasp our legs
firm bottom runnels cool our calves
soft sands ooze between our toes
each step a different experience
each step a repeat of all others
a pole in front
one behind
mesmerised
there is no map
or sense of distance covered
only the journey

yet this too is finite
eventually we come
to the point
where marram grass rises
above sand-dune
and we reach landfall

You May be United Reformed If

  • You think the right colour to paint a church is blue
  • Your Church sells Marmalade to raise money
  • Your Church has a walking group
  • On receiving an important document you first proof read it
  • You regularly make soup in large quantities
  • Psalm 23 is ok but nothing compared with the Scottish Psalters version of Psalm 24 or Isaac Watts version of Psalm 122 it really is just another psalm
  • The right tune to any hymn is that which is sung by your own congregation
  • You put your hymnbook down to sing “When I survey..”
  • Having candles in church is heatedly debated on the grounds of fire risk

I will add as I think of fresh ones

The Reformed Look

This church should feel very familiar to many people in the URC; the plain wood, the clear glass the white washed walls, and the communion table at the centre in the front with a pulpit above and the Bible open. If it was not for the red carpet you’d almost be sure you were in a URC.

However look closer and you see the heating systems a bit different to what we are used and there is writing on the wall which is not in English. You are actually looking at a Waldensian Church in the Alps in Italy. If you click on the link it should take you to a webpage that tells you more about the Waldensians. However it is enough to say they are the Italian branch of the Reformed family of churches.
 
Some of the more ornate traditions within the faith look at us and see cheapness, they are of course wrong. The chairs and furnishings may be plain wood but they high quality oak, the windows may let through plenty of light but if you look carefully you see they are not plain glass, the drape across the door may not be spectacularly embroidered but is of heaviest quality velvet. This is not cheapness but a deliberate aesthetic and the quality of the goods use belies their plainness.

I have heard a number of theories, some suggest it is iconoclasm, if that is the case it is to Zwingli in Zurich it comes from not Calvin in Geneva, for whom candles and such were irrelevancy. It might have been a reaction against those who would enforce ritual upon us that we chose to be plain just to contrary, or perhaps as in many places the early churches were barns we have chosen to remember those times by keeping as similar sort of aesthetic. I suspect it is kept today largely because to us it feels right.

In what is often a light calm space comes a specific arrangement of items. At the focus is the communion table and not the cross (empty or otherwise) which puts our action in the context of a God who choose to connect with us. In quite a few churches although the communion table is the focal point the congregation is arranged so that we see each other emphasising the communal nature of worship. The lectern and pulpit are also prominent at the front, sometimes above the communion table, sometimes to the side to remind us visually of the importance of the Word. The lack of paintings and other artwork has not made the space lacking symbols but one where distractions are eliminated to allow the central symbols a more clear space in which to speak. It encourages us to pay attention to these things.

A Restless People

Firstly I have reached a bit of an impasse. I seem to be totally confused about what has been put into my local congregations Newsletter. So what I am going to do is keep posting them to the editor when finished and putting up Monthly one here, but the order will not be the same as in the Magazine. Now onto this month’s piece

It is one of the oft forgotten things that John Calvin was a refugee in Geneva to the day he died, he never took Genevan citizenship. In fact Geneva at the time had a large émigré population of Protestants from France, as well as attracting others from as far away as Scotland.  It was also a faction ridden city, not really a comfortable place to settle. John Calvin is therefore unique amongst the Reformers in not serving within his own homeland but always as an alien.

This odd coincidence has become a repeated pattern of travel and dislocation within the Reformed tradition.  There are the Pilgrim Fathers, who travelled from North East Lincolnshire to Holland, then back to the UK and onto found Plymouth Colony in what is now the United States. Gainsborough URC claims direct descent from the congregation that they belonged to. The Waldensians travelled from their valleys in Northern Italy to Geneva to escape persecution in the seventeenth century. The five mile act making people walk five miles from their homes to worship. John Bunyan’s work, Pilgrim’s Progress was very much a creation of those days. More recently, the continual moving across the Scottish border of more fervent Presbyterians, which supported the former Presbyterian churches in what is now Northern Synod and then the Industrial revolution pulling Scots south into England to provide the management for the factories. The burning bush is the start of the story of the Exodus. Reformed Christians seem to be on the move whether voluntarily, force  or in the imagination.

This seems to have entered our psyche in the URC we even imagine our buildings as connected with travel. Some think of the church building as a meeting tent that moves with the congregation; if the congregation moves, then you need a new building where they now are. Or perhaps it is a caravanserai, a place where people who are travelling, could come together from their wanderings, a place of relative safety and companionship with other travellers.  It is hardly surprising we often struggle with being a local church, somehow we are never quite at home rather we echo the writer to the Hebrews:

For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. 
(Hebrews 13:14)

Responding through the tradition

The coupling of powerful ideas
with each able to stir the imagination
that pull against the other
falling into no easy rest
a turbulent route that
has dangerous falls on one side
a whirlpool that will suck us in
there is no quiet water between
the only way to move forward
is to use the force of one
to balance the other.

Is it surprising that
those who will navigate
these waters
speak in measured tone
the risk of a missed balanced
is not the slight wobble
but an infatuation
that sends you spiralling
into the whirlpool of
a God so loving that
we can not conceive him
of him judging anyone
is beyond him
or head towards the falls
of a God who is so holy
that we are so base material
that we are destroyed
by the temerity even to approach.

However there is a third monster
that travels with the careful
tried and tested navigator
that captures the unwary sailors heart
by saying there are no monsters glories
and with careful line of thought
final safety may be assured
thus giving us deadly words
that do not speak to the heart
which sucked many careful people
dry of the blood of passion
for we have lost more to it
than too the others.

Walking

DSCF0001As I write this I am about to go on holiday (yes it was written well in advance) and amongst my plans are to do a few walks, not particularly difficult walks, maybe one out to take photos of a lighthouse, a walk around a RSPB site I have not visited before, a couple of afternoons Geocaching with my Goddaughters, that sort of thing, dry weather would be nice.

This has got me back pondering the restless nature of the Reformed, but particularly our attraction to walking. St Andrew’s has its own walking group. In that it is not unusual for a URC, the majority of those I have been in do. Indeed up until fairly recently I just assumed that having a walking group was something churches tended to do. Then for some reason I checked it out. Other traditions just don’t do it in the same way.

However by the mid-nineteenth Century many Non-Conformist churches had walking groups. These were aimed a people in the towns to provide an alternative to more hedonistic attractions for their spare time. The idea was closely linked in with the work of Wordsworth and Ruskin and seeing in nature a more spiritual connectedness than there was pleasure attractions. One Sunday in 1891 T A Leonard at the time a Congregational Minister in Colne in Lancashire got up preach a sermon extolling the advantages of a walking holiday when compared with more commercial pleasures of Blackpool. It was a sermon that was to change a life and that life was his.

The church meeting took him at his word, and he ended up leading a holiday for young men. It got heard about by a prominent Congregationalist minister and Social Reformer, John Brown Paton, who was looking for a way to keep the Book Clubs he’d set up going over the summer. The result was he approached T A Leonard about running holidays connected with the book clubs and thus the Cooperative Holiday Association (1894). T A Leonard went on to form the Holiday Fellowship (1913) and Glasgow HF Outdoor Club (1917, while serving as a minister in Glasgow) among other things. He is also credited with being one of the founders of the Ramblers Association and influential on the Youth Hostelling Association. Walking was chosen not simply because it washealthy exercise, but because the pace of it allowed a person to connect more deeply with the countryside around. It was therefore not simply a physical exercise but a spiritual one as well, and I pretty sure that the fact that they were walking together meant an emphasis on the communal and the enjoyment of being with each other. Indeed now I can say why the chores on Iona are so reminiscent of Youth Hostelling holidays in my youth, the same Reformed piety of all sharing in the work and keeping down the cost was behind both.

Journey

This month I am doing something different as no article appeared in my congregations magazine. Back in the summer I attended a conference on Reformed Spirituality. Two meditative pieces of writing came out of the conference. I have chosen the one that picks up journey as there is something very restless about Reformed spirituality. However there is another reason for this, in writing this I started to find ways of speaking from the tradition that seemed to capture the multiplicity of its threads. These meditations look as if they flow tidily through and yet with careful reading of this one you will find that in actual fact there are jumps and incongruities that slightly jar with each other:

Journey
 
“O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory”*

Its a long way back
along the river where perch rise
beside the trolley from last week’s shopping
past the barges named Jerusalem and Salome
the path-dirt dusts our feet
as we step between the thin bank grass
we pass youths gathered under
the generous shade of a horse chestnut
to share the dregs in a lager can
their dog barks at our imprudent approach
but is distracted by a passing cox’s yell
Still there is far to go
Past the fun fair stalls on the edge of town
selling bows for babies and lurid coloured clothes
our feet twist on the bicycle rutted path
until they hit unyielding concrete of slabs
bordered by a high walls
a heavy church door clunks closed
and coffee drinkers stare out of cafe window
while their iphones recharge in front of them
a bible carrying nun greets us
as she mounts her bicycle and rides away.
Still there is farther to go
the bridge rises to another road
that leads us by garden fence and hedges
until they are replaced by stone topped walls
a gate opens leading to a rising path which leads
across bog cotton where dark earth crumbles
as our too heavy feet make uncertain progress
and sheep drinking from peat-orange stream
are all who observe our progress.
Still we must go on.

*Psalm 63:1-2 English Standard Version

The debate over the colour of church padlocks

This is a story I have told before and no doubt will tell again elsewhere but it shows the way something trivial can have layers of meaning.

Many, moons ago, I was sitting in a classroom in Westminster college when the tutor (not a member of Westminster staff) opinined that the reason we got heated debates over the colour of church padlocks is that people felt that they were qualified to have an opinion about that.

I came back and happened to recount the story to my minister. She then recalled a heated church meeting of several years ago where one senior member got up to complain that the guttering was not painted Presbyterian Blue any more. In other words the choice of colour of padlock on the church gate might well be a sign of identity.

However what colour was Presbyterian blue, well as far as I can tell it is a light shade of Royal Blue. Well it is a highly political statement

The blue and buff of the whigs of the present day probably derive their origin from the Presbtyerian blue and orange favours, which were worn at the time of the Revolution to commemorate the deliverance by the wisdom and valour of the Prince of Orange

This is a foot note from Hudibras: a poem, Volume 2 By Samuel Butler, Zachary Grey, John Heaviside Clar.

Now lets start un picking that. Presbyterian blue symbolises both loyalty to the Protestant monarchy or maybe both monarchist and protestant.If we take the Whig reference, where they seem to have stuck with the orange or buff with their golden bird (hang on is that background Presbyterian Blue?) yet non-conformity particularly Presbyterianism and Congregationalism have stuck with the blue.

In a very short while I have taken you a long way from the debate over padlocks. Does the colour matter? If so what level of symbolism matters?