Footsteps of the past

All my life I have grown up with the knowledge that my grandfather was in Vancouver when I was born. The most significant aspect of that for me was that my admission to the covenant - my baptism, in other words - was delayed until he returned, but it was a decision in which I must have acquiesced at the time.

I know little about his trip except its purpose: he was taking his turn in ministering to the resident Free Church congregation in Vancouver at the time. Established by some of the emigrants from the Highlands and Islands who went to Western Canada in the unsettled years after the Great War, it was more than a place of worship for these displaced Scots: it was a link with home, a transplanting of something familiar in a place very strange.

The first generation of these worshippers in our Free Church congregations in Canada and the United States kept everything as they had left it: a very traditional form of worship, often in their native language. It would prove impossible, of course, to indigenise a Gaelic-speaking culture of worship in such a context; now there is nothing left of the Free Church in Vancouver, and next to nothing in other parts of the new world where it once flourished.

There may be a parable in the fact that the building where once the Free Church congregation worshipped in Vancouver is now a synagogue. At least the Word of God is still being read in it, and, interestingly, it is still being used as a place of worship by representatives of a different diaspora.

But the phemenon of cultural and religious displacement is not new. We resonate with the sentiments of the Psalm in which the Jewish captives in Babylon reminisce about the Jerusalem Temple. It was difficult then to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land; and it belongs to the nature of faith to be doing so every day. After all, none of us here is yet at home. We expect one day that the redeemed of the Lord will return to Zion; meanwhile we all sing songs in exile, often hanging our metaphoric harps on metaphoric willow trees.

Even at a secular level that is true. Are there any words more haunting to a Lewisman than Murdo Macfarlane’s “S fhada leam an oidhche gheamhraidh’ - the winter’s night is much longer in exile than at home.

But - in certain places at least - there could be the familiar forms of religion, and the Scots took these with them. The Melbost bard might have complained that there was no ceilidh on the prairie; but for many there was the familiarity of the traditions of faith. These, at least, were transportable.

It has taken half a century, but an invitation to me from some of the Reformed churches of British Columbia to preach at a conference and in their churches has enabled me to visit the site of my grandfather’s pilgrimage. Even if I could not stand in his footsteps (and probably never could), I could at least see the building in which he preached, the streets on which he walked and the hills to which he would have lifted up his eyes while he was here. And that is closure enough after half a century of knowing that he was half a world away from me when I entered it.

But tradition, as I’ve been learning, is an interesting thing. My hosts in the Reformed Churches whose roots are in the Dutch Reformation have a slightly different take on things. For one thing, their confessional position is defined by the confessions and catechisms of Europe: the Belgic Confesson, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dordt. Our Scots forefathers were Westminster Confession and Catechism men. The theological differences are not so great, but some of the cultural nuances of it are.

So, for example, the Dutch Reformed are much tighter in their liturgy than the Scottish Presbyterians would have been. Their view of the eldership is much higher than ours, highlighting the parity of ruling and teaching elder in a way that we never really mastered. And their strictures on worship are more than I would have imagined. I felt at home in their fellowship, even if most conservative Reformed evangelicals might not consider them mainstream.

But then again, what is mainstream in today’s Reformed world? None of us can escape the cultural influences on our churches, no matter how much we may pride ourselves in having shaken them off. Even those who decry tradition create their own very quickly, and often getting back to a more biblical model of doing church is just another way of saying that we have discovered someone else’s way of doing things much more refreshing than the way we have traditionally done it.

We cannot escape the historical influences that leave us where we are or worshipping as we do. Nor is there anything inherently wrong with finding a social cohesion in our religious fellowship which gives us stability and identity when we are otherwise displaced. All the time, however, we are to cultivate the mindset that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female, bond or free, Scottish or Dutch, Heidelberg or Westminster: we are one.

That fundamental unity of the body of Christ is the singular most important lens through which we can view the church. Other things are important, of course: that we confess the faith and that we gather around the sacraments. But there is nothing more basic than the unity of the body of Christ. More than anything else that the New Testament says about the church, that emphasis is ubiquitous.

I have no idea whether my grandfather had fellowship with any of the Dutch Reformed brethren while he was in Vancouver; I doubt it; he had Gaelic-speaking compatriots with whom to spend his time. But I am glad to be able to do so, and to hear of some of the great work these churches are doing all over the world to continue to encourage the growth of the body of Christ.

Thy kingdom come.