How can we sing the Lord’s song is a strange land? (Ps 137v4)

A reflection from Gordon

Before moving to Dingwall, we lived in Assynt a little over a mile from where this classic view of Suilven was taken. During that time, I was a member of St Gilberts Episcopal Church which had a regular congregation of around 20-25 although in the summer numbers were boosted by holidaymakers and other visitors.

It was unlike any other church I had belonged to because services were only monthly (plus a few extra ones for some festivals) and we had no church buildings.  Over the years we used a variety of venues for services – the Fishermen’s Mission building (now a café and bunkhouse), Village Hall and Assynt Centre all in Lochinver, Stoer Hall and occasionally the redundant Old Church of Scotland Parish Kirk at Inchnadamph now owned by Historic Assynt, the local historical and archaeological society which I chaired for several years.

Using a range of buildings occasionally was something I had already experienced to a limited extent.  The theological training course I worked with on a part time basis worshipped in university lecture rooms, conference and retreat centres and sometimes outdoors and I’d taken part in a range of other events with worship in locations never designed for that kind of occasion. But they were always exceptional occasions, not the norm.  But adjusting to that aspect of the St Gilbert’s experience proved relatively easy for me.  But not having services every Sunday, and at least some weekdays, as well as the full round of extra services for Advent, Christmas, Lent, Holy Week and Easter, I found much more difficult.  In the first year I drove all over the highlands to attend Holy Week services in other places.  But that proved tiring and expensive and soon I found I was adjusting to once a month. 

In time I came to value a number of aspects of both of these novel aspects of St Gilberts.  

Less frequent worship made it a little more special and a little less routine. The members made a real effort to be there every month in a way that doesn’t always happen if services are more frequent.   

Not having church buildings meant that no one had to spend time worrying about repairs and maintenance, remodelling schemes, ever increasing maintenance costs, meetings with architects and engineers and difficult church council and congregational meetings to discuss what to do about the buildings. 

But it was not all positive and there were also some distinct disadvantages.

Finding a really good alternative building for worship can be difficult and some of the places we used were inconvenient, awkward and full of the clutter of other user groups.  Everything required for a service had to be kept in members’ homes, packed into cars and then set up in the temporary worship space only to be cleared away and taken back to be stored again afterwards, whereas a purpose-built church building with all the furnishings and fittings provides a home for the congregation and it provides clear focus for the wider community.

St Gilberts Lochinver shared one priest, supposedly part time with other small congregations scattered along 100miles of the NW coast in Ullapool, Achiltibuie, Kinlochbervie and Tonque.  Opportunities for those other important aspects of active church life like prayer or study groups, social events and the sorts of round of policy meetings than can give a church a focus for its work and engagement with others were all limited.

But the St Gilbert’s experience reminded me that there is no one way to be church, that church buildings, weekly worship and established patterns of being the church are not essential. We can change and adjust and find different ways than those we are used to.  And the lockdown and continued restrictions associated with Coronavirus has only served to reinforces everything I learned there. 

Interestingly Jesus said virtually nothing about the practical patterns of church life let alone church buildings – which only emerge hundreds of years later.  Jesus’s dominant images of the church are much more open-ended and fluid.  The church, the fellowship of those who claim to be his followers, are to be disciples, in other words students and learners, called to become salt and yeast and light in the world.  

An interesting collection of images.

  • Disciples are those who learn and discover.
  • Salt and yeast work away largely unnoticed and unremarked but can have a big effect.
  • Light shines out but is of most value in gloom and darkness. 

That’s as near to a blueprint as we get from Jesus, and what has perhaps become the most frequently used image of the church – the body of Christ – doesn’t come from Jesus but St Paul who used it specifically to counter competing factions in Corinth who claimed that their spiritual qualities were better than those of others!

When some of the leaders of the ancient Israelites were dragged off to exile in Babylon they wondered ‘how can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’.  For us the question is how can we continue to be church (disciples who are salt, yeast and light in the wider community) in an emerging, but still unknown, new post-coronavirus normal, whilst also honouring what is good and of value from the old normal?

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