Sunday, 19 May 2013

Greyfriars Tolbooth & Highland Kirk

Service for Pentecost, Sunday 19th May 2013, 11am
Minister: Rev Dr Richard Frazer

followed by

General Assembly Gaelic Service, 12.30pm
Preacher: Rev Donald A MacSween
Prayer leader: Rev Kenneth D Macleod
Precentors: Alasdair MacLeod & James Taylor
Moderator: Right Rev Lorna Hood

It’s a busy week for the Church of Scotland. The General Assembly began yesterday and they’re all set to tear lumps out of one another tomorrow over gay marriage. More of that anon.

But today was Pentecost, “the birthday of the church”, and Richard Frazer’s sermon kicked off with a frolicking leviathan – always a good start – and the sudden clarity of vision which inspired the psalmist the day he wrote Psalm 104. This same spirit was at work on the day of Pentecost, heralding an awakening and transfiguration, a moment of ecstatic realisation, when the ordinary becomes infused with the extraordinary.

Frazer referred to the holy spirit as “it”, then swiftly corrected this to “she”, which made me plumb the not very deep depths of Hebrew 101 to recall that yes, in fact, רוּחַ is feminine. Not noteworthy in itself, except that during the later Gaelic prayers the Rev Kenneth Macleod used the emphatic masculine pronoun “esan”. “Spiorad” is grammatically masculine, but the contrast seemed somehow more conspicuous than it needed to be. Of course, there’s no neuter gender in either Hebrew or Gaelic, but there is in English, and if Frazer had stuck with “it” and not drawn my attention to the matter in the first place, I probably wouldn’t be boring you with all this now.

So we’ve had a leviathan and a little grammatical detour. Now for Frazer’s stance on gay marriage. In the passage from Acts describing that first Pentecost, Peter is a witness to the new paradigm of the gospel of grace. The law was to be superseded, modified, renewed, revoked where no longer relevant – as, for instance, in the case of dietary restrictions – and remnants of the old Torah were to be replaced by the law of love. There should be no laws that hamper our true attainment of who we are as children of God, said Frazer, and that’s about as clear an endorsement of gay marriage as you’ll hear from a kirk pulpit.

It’s a far cry from the Free Presbyterians of Inverness, that’s for sure.

The music was reasonable. There’s a choir and an organ, but the usual reluctance among many of the congregation to open their mouths. It’s not as if the hymns are difficult. It would have been nice if the spirit had inspired a bit more singing, considering the occasion.

So then there was half an hour to kill while the church officers reset, and I went out for a little walk in the smirr and returned to find them all ready to start again. How many of the English congregation had stayed I couldn’t tell. There were about half as many people now, but many of them would have been newcomers who were attending the Gaelic service only.

The minister and the moderator, bless them, had to sit through an hour of what was no doubt Greek to them, unless by some precedented miracle they were granted the ability to hear what was being said each in his or her own tongue. But they were treated to the vocal delights of Lothian Gaelic Choir, who opened with O Rìgh nan Dùl and closed with O Thì as Àirde, and to the four metrical psalms (tunes: Moravia, Morven, Evan and Kilmarnock) chosen for the congregation to sing.

Now, as I’ve said before, I love a Gaelic psalm, and I love to sing. But I’d made the assumption that I could just sit anywhere and everyone would be joining in. Wrong! I didn’t realise that all the members of the regular Gaelic congregation were sitting in a clump up at the front, and the people around me were either non-Gaels or non-singers, because I heard not a cheep out of them. But that didn’t stop me, and the precentors did a smashing job between the two of them.

A copy of the sermon was provided, and Rev MacSween deviated not one iota from his script, other than to explain that despite his devotion to Ross County he would not be attending a match this afternoon. His theme was Christian unity and the great need for it at a time when the church faces decisions on potentially divisive matters, not least gay marriage, which he had rendered in Gaelic as “pòsadh feise”. This struck me as an odd turn of phrase, because really what it means isn’t “same-sex marriage”, but merely “sex marriage”.

MacSween, incidentally, is opposed to what others might with more political correctness call “pòsadh co-ionnan” (equal marriage). Still, we’ll let the lexicographers fight over that one.

He also mentioned a race that the ancient Greeks used to have in the Olympics, running with a lighted lantern. The winner was not the one who finished first, but the one who finished with his lantern still lit. We’ll see how much heat and light gets generated this week, and if anyone’s flame is still alight by the end of it or whether they've all blown themselves out.

The final word went to the moderator, attempting what we were told is the most daunting task of any moderator’s year in office, pronouncing the benediction in Gaelic. Agus is math a rinn i.

Today was also the day for Heart & Soul, the Church of Scotland’s open-air, multi-venue festival of faith, and Princess Street Gardens are but a stone's throw from Greyfriars. The avenues were indeed thronged with slow-moving folk who looked as if they might at any minute begin to enjoy themselves, but it was misty-moisty weather and not the best day to be watching mime artists on a bandstand. St Cuthbert’s church promised drier seating, if you could stand the soupy smell from the café and the over-ambitious rendition of Be Thou My Vision, but on the whole it was underwhelming. I didn’t tarry. I’d killed two birds with one stone at Greyfriars, and that was enough for one day.

Postscript (Monday 21st): Trust me to get it wrong. I've been conflating two debates on similar issues. Today the kirk voted on gay clergy. Meanwhile, the UK Parliament debated gay marriage. But everything else reported about yesterday's sermons still stands.

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