As a very raw young divinity student, I applied for a scheme that sent students for the ministry to parishes in the Highlands and Islands for a summer placement. When the letter came telling me I was allocated to the parish of Assynt and Stoer, I’m ashamed to say I had to head for the university library to find out where I was going (it’s in the far north-west).
With hindsight, I think I set off (on a two-day journey by public transport back in 1973) sure that this bright young Glaswegian would be God’s gift to these teuchters, and I’d teach them a thing or two. How daft can you be?
As I said in last month’s magazine, I fell in love with a corner of Scotland that’s been a big part of my life ever since; perhaps even more important, I learned a lot while I was there, far more than I ever helped the folk I met.
The first learning experience came as I spent the first night in the “manse” – a corrugated iron shack with one habitable room, around which I moved the bed, seeking a place where there was not rainwater dripping. The following year’s student took one look at it and said, “no way” (thereby missing out on an amazing experience), and the building was later upgraded so that animals could be kept in it!
A wonderful lady called Ina looked after me, made sure I got one good meal a day and was my guide to parish and church life. Since the minister I was assisting was on holiday, I asked her what the summer student was expected to do. She spoke of two Sunday services (in churches at Elphin and Inchnadamph). Elphin had no music and Ina was the “precentor” who led the singing, while Inchnadamph had a pedal organ but no organist, and I was to start the service by asking if there was anyone present who could play (fortunately there often was, among the guests at the local hotel, since, otherwise, I had to lead the singing).
Beyond services there was “the visiting”. I asked Ina about a congregational roll, which she had no knowledge of. She could, however, tell me all the church members in the part of the parish I was looking after: herself and her sister (who lived with her). Traditionally, people in the Highlands were reluctant to join the church as communicant members, feeling – wrongly, the church nationally kept telling them – that was setting themselves up to be holier than others. The reality was that I visited everyone (in two villages eight miles apart with neither transport of my own nor public transport), from the daughter of Lord Rootes (who lived in the “big house” that had once been the real manse) to an elderly lady who spoke only Gaelic and needed her daughter to translate for me.
It was only years later that Ina told me of the trepidation she and her sister felt when this wee long-haired Glaswegian boy got off the post-bus that first day: “what on earth have they sent us this year?”. But I still cherish, stuck inside a Bible translation, a kind letter from her at the end of that summer addressed to “Mr Blount (she wouldn’t call me Graham), The Manse, Elphin”.
Some of what I learned – about people, the church and community – only dawned on me much later, but the most important thing was that the life of faith and church is not one-way traffic from the pulpit down. I found a verse in William Barclay’s translation of the Letter to the Romans that sums it up for me; in it Paul prays, before his visit to Rome, “that you and I may both be cheered and encouraged when we meet, I by your faith and you by mine”.
That ministry of encouragement of one another wasn’t just for Rome (where there were serious differences of view within the church) or just for the wonder of a bygone summer in Assynt. It is specially important for us all at a time of “vacancy” in Cambuslang; and I look forward to continuing that with you going forward.
Yours in Christ,