Facebook pushes the memory – Consecration Service in Perth sixteen years ago today with Alison, Simon, Mark and Anna.
It was a moment of transition – unexpected and unlooked-for. Yet it felt right. I’m sure some of the people who took the risk of electing me wondered if it would be ‘all right’. And I certainly did. Great trust was placed in me. We never intended to leave Ireland – yet it became clear that people like me who had made a commitment to work for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland were gradually leaving and finding new challenges in new places. The phase of the conflict which was ‘our time’ was over.
I knew so little at that point. Very little about Scotland and the SEC. Very little about the geography – I had to buy maps to find my way around. So it was a steep learning curve – just over four years later I found myself elected as Primus of the SEC.
I remember that I enlisted all sorts of people in my learning process and I certainly underestimated how different Scotland is. Ireland is steeped in religion – much of it linked to historic conflict. Scotland by contrast is secular, shaped by the Scottish Enlightenment. It took me a while to work all that out – indeed I’m still working on it.
This was the beginning of an extraordinary period in our lives. It brought great opportunities, great challenges and great fulfilment. We travelled extensively and met all kinds of remarkable people.
I remember that people often asked questions because they wondered if we were ‘just visiting’ and would return to Ireland when I retired. But I sensed from the beginning that this was a one way journey and so it proved to be. We are happily retired just outside Edinburgh within reach of Anna, Simon and Mark and our four grandchildren. Of course we keep close links in Ireland – long friendships and our cottage in Donegal which we hope to be able to visit some time this year. But Scotland is home now.
This last year of lockdowns has been challenging for everyone. And we have certainly found it so. If it wasn’t for a regular commitment to caring for our grandchildren, we would have lost touch of what day it is.
During the twelve years when I was working in Scotland, I wrote over 1600 blog posts. I wouldn’t have time to do that now – that’s retirement for you. It was a big commitment but there were a couple of reasons why I did it. Partly as a diary – partly because when I came to Scotland I was relatively unknown to the people I was working with and it gave them access to what I was thinking and doing – partly because it was a way of climbing over the church wall and engaging with wider Scottish society or as we sometimes say being in the ‘public square’. It was also a kind of running commentary on the life of the church and the nature of leadership at that time.
I’ve been contentedly retired now for three and a half years. So I’m not the same person as I was when I retired in 2017. I have more time to read and longer to think. Some of what I write will come from that
And now is utterly different. I think Covid has changed almost everything – touched everything in ways that we could not have anticipated. It’s unsettled us and infused a tinge of fear – even as it locked us down and kept us apart from family and friends. It has closed churches so we can’t ‘do what we do’ – the long term impact of that is unknowable. Covid has also made an unholy alliance with Brexit to give a good shaking to what we call in ecumenical circles the ‘four nations’ of the British Isles and what politicians in London like to call ‘the nation’. But we need to begin thinking about how it will be ‘after Covid’.
There are many other issues to address and I am looking forward to exploring them. One of the benefits of being retired is that I have more time – time to read and explore in ways which would have been impossible before.
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Time to read the papers here in Donegal. The Irish Times is full of government papers made public under the 30 year rule.
Something poignant – that, five years before he was murdered on his boat off Mullaghmore, Earl Mountbatten offered his house, Classiebawn, to the Irish state. The offer was politely refused because the government did not feel that the state could make adequate use of it. Something hopeful – that the short-lived power-sharing Executive of 1974 actively considered a form of integrated education. Something depressing – Ian Paisley was accusing the government of selling out to the IRA. Consistency is not always a virtue.
So much of ministry is about making connections ..
The Clergy Conference was great. I can say that we a clear conscience since I had very little to do with the organisation! Stuart Muir continued to offer us wonderful, bright and diverse music worship for the enlivening of. Emsley Nimmo invited us into SEC history – in the case of the SEC in particular, it seems particularly difficult to do the present if you don’t know something about the past. And Martyn Percy offered us all sorts of things as part of his ministry as described by one of his children – ‘going around the country and cheering people up.’
We were sharing the hotel with a group of curlers. Delightful people but a little unsettling. They seemed to take themselves rather more seriously than we did ourselves – I loved their brushes all impressively labelled ‘Power Brushes’
Meanwhile tomorrow is the day of the Passat’s MOT – 11 years and 205000 miles. It’s going well and stopping well so I’m hopeful. The heater isn’t great but that’s no concern of the MOT. It’s the hidden stuff, of course, that you need to worry about. Sermon in there, methinks.
Yet more snow – Blogstead residents emerged this morning blinking in the white light. A mere couple of inches – barely worth thinking about.
Meanwhile we plough on. Work continues on the Whole Church Mission and Ministry Policy – which is an elegant way of recognising that the SEC, in common with most other churches, protects itself from change by making sure that it takes several keys to open the locks and that many people hold them! But we’re doing better than I expected – and I think that the fact that we are trying to define our mission is another signal that we are moving into the mainstream.
This week sees our Clergy Conference in Kinross. We’re looking forward to having Canon Professor Martyn Percy of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, with us. Apart from his ability to develop what is obviously a remarkable training institution – very different from the year I spent there just as Ripon Hall and Cuddesdon College merged in 1975 – Martyn manages to be ‘ahead of the curve’ in his much of his writing. I’m looking forward to it and we’re honoured to have him with us.
But Monday starts with a critical meeting about the future of Scottish Churches House .. and the diary is inexorably moving towards the Primates’ Meeting in Dublin at the end of the month.
This seems to have gone on for ever and I won’t be allowed to slip back into my workaholic tendencies until Wednesday.
I’ve had one or two ‘projects’ to keep me going – including collating a first draft of our attempt to write a Mission and Ministry Policy for the SEC. I woke up on New Year’s Day with absolute clarity about it. I felt like Beethoven having been handed his 5th Symphony. I rushed to write it down before it slipped away. Some stayed with me but inexorably it moved out of reach. Finished today and sent to other members of the group who will wonder where it came from.
I’ve been kept in touch with reality by the Channel 4 Father Ted evening – which contained all my favourite lines. We also enjoyed the DVD of Barchester Towers – took a look at Plumstead Episcopi and my hero Archdeacon Grantley. I just thought that Slope. the Bishop and Mrs Proudie were wonderful. Such fantasy! So uncomfortable!
More like the St Lawrence than the Tay – but this was Perth this morning. We’ve sort of got used to living with this level of cold and with the icy roads. It’s fine so long as you don’t actually want to do anything very much. But of course you don’t have that choice.
At this time of year, I often make a point of going to churches where for one reason or another there isn’t a Rector. So I headed for Lochgelly this morning – a round trip of about 75 miles in the snow. It’s old mining country in Fife – a place that, like the Welsh valleys, is still trying to find a new future.
As I travelled, I listened to sage, sensible and prudent advice – to travel in such conditions was like going up a mountain in tee shirt and shorts. But this was not recreation and I had taken precautions – left the Passat at home because, to be honest, its heater doesn’t work well. I had my alb, hat and stick, the Sally Magnusson snow scoop [purchased to dig myself out of a snowdrift in Dunblane after being interviewed by Sally – well actually I was in the snowdrift and she was in a warm studio in Glasgow], my wellies, coffee, water, biscuits, blanket, laptop more for recharging the phone than for doing my e mail.
There were six of us. And I was glad I had gone. I think that the church at its absolute best is found with small groups of people to whom it would not occur to do other than sustain it against all the odds. Harry read and served; another Harry played the new organ; Edith prayed and I was glad to be with them.
Then they headed for the hot toast and I took my Captain Oates departure. It did indeed take me some time.
Well it’s gone cold again. But the energy levels are returning to something like normal. So what have I been doing?
Well, amazingly, for somebody in my position, I’ve been working on mission and letting the lead valleys look after themselves for a bit. And if they are in any state like the Blogstead roof, they will need a bit of looking after.
First of all, we’re doing a bit of between-tides maintenance on Casting the Net. You learn by doing – and we’ve been learning from our experience and from others like the Diocese of Glasgow and Galloway who are shaping their own diocesan mission strategy. So, like Goldilocks, we realise that some of the mesh is too big and some is too small – and we’re searching for what is ‘just right’ That means some new defining of what we are trying to do and a look at the structures. More than ever, we recognise that ‘us trying to do things’ is not quite the same thing as spirit-shaped cultural change. So we’re taking a look at what that might mean.
Meanwhile I’ve also been part of a group working on what the Provincial Mission and Ministry Board has been calling a ‘Whole Church Mission and Ministry Policy.’ And this isn’t easy either. Sometimes it’s about asking what mission means in 2011 – sometimes it’s more functional – do we have a reason for what we do and is there a reason for doing something different? The ‘whole church’ tag interests me for this reason. I’ve learnt over the years that the church is expert at deflecting attempts to engender change. On a personal level, it exhausts you or it marginalises you or it makes you a bishop – the result is pretty much the same. But its best tactic is to make sure that everything is scattered about the church in such a way that there is no single place to which you can go and push. It’s like putting the treasures in a safe and handing the key to somebody who thinks it’s the key to something completely different.
Be that as it may, it seems to me that one of the real advantages about being a relatively small church like the SEC is that it is possible to shape a policy and hope that it might mean something. Others who are attempting to steer super tankers don’t have that excitement.
I think I just got tired of the snow in the end. It seemed extraordinarily enervating – just the struggle to do anything and get anywhere. Anyway, I got myself to St Andrews on Sunday to preach at St Salvators, which is the medieval church at the heart of the life of the University. I quite like preaching in places within the Presybterian tradition – it’s an invitation to step out of your own tradition. So this is some of what I said.
We marked the end of the snow – and the collapse of most of the gutters – with the Blogstead Christmas party and mistletoe-fest. The driver of the snowplough was of course still with us – tho’ about to return to his family. As we sang our Carols – special dispensation for Advent – his voice rang out as he sang, ‘deep and crisp and even’