Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Personal Journey 12: North to Scotland

The weather is supposed to be about to drop quite a bit here. That means to about 15C. It used to be this in the summer in Banchory - one of the many things I still miss about the place! Today is about my first visit there.

Personal Journey 12: North to Scotland

As I approached the end of my third contract, though, I felt that the time had come to move on from Bedford. Bedford again wanted me to stay, but I did feel that not having served as a Vicar of a parish was probably a deficiency in my experience and what is more I felt that coming up for 9 years was enough in the College. It had not been a bad experience for me to have had the chance to minister outside the normal structures of the Church, but I did not want to stay outside them for ever.

Let me say this though. The people I worked with in Bedford lived complicated, messy, and difficult lives. Often they were lives of pain, sacrifice, and hardship. Many had suffered abuse and were very alone in life, doing their best in challenging circumstances. But they showed to me kindness, compassion, understanding, support, and laughter that is rare in most churches. Before we consign non-Christians to hell, we need to see, as our Lord saw, that many are just lost sheep without a shepherd to whom we should more than anything else feel love. And we need to feel it, not love of the sentimental watered down type, admittedly, but love all the same. Some time later, I felt that Nick Hornby and Tony Parsons in their writings captured something of the spirit of the culture I worked in at the time.

I am a priest in the Church of God and have felt called to serve him in it, as I have tried to explain, for many years. I was, however, heartily fed up with the way I felt the Church of England went about doing things. I had promised myself that I would try only to go for jobs that were publicly advertised and in which there was an open approach to selection. One week, in the Church Times, I saw a post advertised in the north-east of Scotland for someone to serve as Rector of two churches within the Scottish Episcopal Church. I loved Scotland as a place and this post sounded interesting. I decided to apply.

Perhaps I should explain for those not familiar with the workings of Anglicanism and the Church in the UK, that while the Church of England is the main church in England, and is established as the Church of the land, it is different in Scotland. In Scotland, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland is the national church, and is normally known simply as the Church of Scotland. The Anglican or Episcopal Church of Scotland is a small minority church. It maintains strong connections, however, with its bigger sister church in England.

I drove up to Banchory from Bedford, a long journey necessitating an overnight stop on the way if I was to be in time for my interview the next day. Most of the journey was one I was familiar with having done it many times to go on holiday. I was not, however, prepared for Banchory itself. I had expected a quiet village in the north-east of Scotland. What I found was a lively, thriving, cosmopolitan small town.

As a result of the discovery of North Sea oil, Aberdeen had become the centre of the oil industry, not only in the UK, but also in Europe. Banchory, some 20 miles from Aberdeen on Deeside, was a popular place for people who had moved up to Abereeen to live. It was a lovely town, and it was no wonder that it was so popular. People from London used to have to be dragged up screaming to Aberdeen, thinking they were leaving life behind. Once there, you couldn’t get them to leave. The population wasn’t just incomers, though, many locals in Banchory had grown up and lived there all their lives. They remembered when it was, indeed, a small village in the north-east of Scotland. But while the locals would tease and banter with the English, most did not resent their presence. In fact, the incomers had brought a big boost to the local economy. Many locals had become relatively well-off on the money of the incoming oil workers.

The other church was in a village called Kincardine O’Neil. This was much smaller and further down the Dee Valley to Banchory. It was still mainly agricultural in character. The church attracted people who had English connections although they had come from local families. They were mainly estate owners. ‘Estate, that is, as in hunting, shooting, and fishing estate!’

The main church was St Ternan’s in Banchory. Christ Church in Kincardine O’Neil had a small congregation of around 15. There was one service on Sunday. At interview most of the attention was centred on Banchory. I spent a couple of days there staying with one of the congregation overnight. Everyone was very kind and it was clear that they loved their church. What was also clear, however, was that many did not want any change at all. The church existed in a time warp. It was like going back to an English village church in the 1950s. The services were all conducted in prayer book language; Mattins was still one of the main services. The social life revolved around jumble sales and coffee mornings, and there was no impression being made on the significant numbers of people who had moved into the town, most of whom were young couples with families. The church was almost a child free zone, which was incredible given the number of children in the town itself.

Now all this need not necessarily have been a problem if the church had wanted to change and reach out to the local community. There was no sign, however, that anyone did. Quite the reverse. One of the main worries seemed to be that any rector would want to do precisely that. The contrast with the work I was doing was stark and it was unlike any church I had been involved with before. I left Banchory feeling that it was not for me. However, the Bishop had asked that I would visit him on the way home.

Bishop Bruce had just been appointed Bishop of Aberdeen and Orkney. He had been consecrated Bishop, but had not yet moved to Aberdeen from Perth where he had been the Rector of the Church. I was to visit him in Perth.

Perth had always had a special affection for me. Whenever I went on holiday I would visit Perth not least because it was the gateway to the places I liked to go to in Scotland. It was impossible not to like Bruce. He was a person of obvious integrity, warmth, and sincerity. He was honest, open, and willing to listen. I expressed my doubts about going to Banchory and my fears of what the problems would be. I also stressed that for me mission would have to be paramount and that I could not see the Church liking that. As it happens Bishop Bruce was thoroughly committed to mission himself, and shared the same concerns as I had. But I did not know that at the time.

Bishop Bruce promised to be in touch after consulting with the two churches. I left thinking that it was academic anyway as I would not accept the appointment even if they offered it. I remember sitting in a lay-by just outside of Perth eating a Marks and Spencer roast beef sandwich and drinking a glass of claret thinking how sad it was that I wouldn’t be coming to Scotland after all.

Funny, isn’t it, how things turn out!

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