By William W C Scott © 27th January 2023
I see now, after a well-defined pilgrimage of 33 years, that it has been far longer. It must have begun soon after The Reith Lectures in 1947 of Sir Fred Hoyle, joint author of the Steady State Theory with Samuel Gold and Sir Hermann Bondi, [in his flat in Trinity St Cambridge, as his wife, Christine, once confirmed: she was taught by GH Hardy, the great mathematician of Trinity College, whom many thought the best in the world]. That would put the beginning about when I started on Euclid.
About ten years later, philosophy became a passion and Richard Hamilton, Professor of Education, invited me to the Gifford Lectures. For about forty years he and I attended the series in Edinburgh together, afterwards walking the streets in constant talk until about four in the morning. I remember especially the series with 4 lecturers c1970: Anthony J. Kenny, Jesuit trained philosopher, C. H. Waddington, the chemist who had known Wittgenstein very well, Christopher Longuert-Higgins, a Royal Society Fellow I was to meet again, later at the University of Sussex and A. R. Lucas, a theologian. Each gave a lecture with the others afterwards replying to it. Lucas, I recall, spoke about Godel's Theorem which was so surprising that I soon found a book on it, could prove it myself and showed it to my ablest students. [Godel's incompleteness theorem states that any system of knowledge based on the properties of elementary arithmetic is incomplete ie It should be capable of being complete but is not because some statements in it are self-contradictory: it is only complete if inconsistent. This means that mathematics does not have the security expected, a very surprising result. Paul Cohen in 1963 is taken to have 'proved' that set theory can support both conclusions.]
For most of that time, like Richard, I was fiercely sceptical about the existence of the deity. Yet Richard used to go on retreat and I took my philosophy class to visit the monastery at Nunraw. So there was great interest in the question throughout and the many proofs of the deity by Aquinas, Descartes, Alvin Plantinga et al were studied.
It was not until, fighting the inevitable moral battle in education [an idealistic life therein is full of such battles] that a serious betrayal occurred which caused me to question the issue more closely. I had always fought alone. Always there were conflicts, sometimes in courts. Always there was some loss and great stress, with lasting medical overtones, unseen till later. What drove them was the fact that at 11 and a half, I had been admitted to the Order of Crusader Knighthood, swearing an oath to stand up and fight for the right: for all those too weak to do so themselves. An oath I followed all my life.
Now I had suffered very badly by it: I had fought the necessary battle (which others would not have done), had suffered great damage in stress but had made a few valuable gains for society. The betrayal, after doing the right thing, made me wonder how to respond. I made the decision to investigate religion more deeply, take very active advice and hope to join 'the people of the light', whom I took to be the folk in the Churches of Scotland in which I grew up. If so, I would not have to fight alone thereafter: I could always act with other well-intentioned idealists, it seemed to me then. Yet, after so much creative success as a teacher and a list of over 150 articles thereon published, the ambition to write was too strong to ignore. It was time to write a book, articles being ephemeral, and become a novelist. I had not realised that the daily charge of excitement in teaching would be lost forever. Of course it had to be. I knew I had to burn my boats: there was just time to develop the necessary skills of the novelist. There was no turning back. The betrayal took years to get over: many tears shed in solitude; clinical depression.
For about ten years, I attended St Giles from Bute, rising about 7 a.m. in time to catch the ferry and then drive to Edinburgh where I would just miss the first service and read the Sunday Times in the lower aisle cafe till the second. Then, I would walk around the cathedral, surveying the competition in the memorials, choose my seat and meditate until Gilleasbuig would begin again. I soon grew to love it, would go 2 - 4 times a month, a great expense to an impoverished beginning writer. I loved the music and the sermons. Where else would I hear Emmanuel sung? My favourite hymn: full of diaereses. Sometimes I attended in the evening also or went to hear Eric Alexander at the Tron, Glasgow. That was easier when, evicted from my flat (another moral battle), I was accommodated by a friend at Pitlochry.
Why St Giles? Why travel so far from Bute? Gilleasbuig's sermons, of course. He thought I should go to Glasgow but I tried it and never returned. I did at times, go to the various churches of Bute then, including the R. C., for a fine friend of mine in his seventies was a staunch R.C. whom I would sometimes take in the car on a Sunday evening, very happy to take part, because the Canon then had an excellent speaking voice. I also tried many other churches in Perth, Blair Atholl, Tenandry, Glendaruel, Colintraive, Dunkeld, Crieff and even cathedrals like Durham where I went for summer schools in classics; and evensong was available every day. Thus my pilgrimage took place on Sundays and would have me back in Bute on a late ferry, having done nothing else that day but return with more books from Thins [a rule was to buy what seemed necessary; despite the cost].
Gilleasbuig advised me just to absorb the vocabulary which I tried to do. Once he led the congregation in process around the cathedral. I sat still. He later told me I should do it too. I did. Gilleasbuig's sermons were always interesting. My intellect was never offended. After them, I would head for the lower aisle tea room where I would try to talk about the sermons but few seemed interested. Probably, it was inexplicable that someone chose to journey so far on a Sunday, without a proper job or clear status.
But there were greater treasures yet, as I discovered. In February, I would travel all the way from Bute to find that Gilleasbuig was not to preach that day. [Often he would be at Harvard as a visiting professor for a month or so] Sometimes the replacement was off-putting, at least to me. Once, I arrived to find Gilleasbuig in a full length scarlet tunic. The preacher was to be Professor Peter Gomes. Of course I was upset at having come so far futilely when it cost so much. Gomes was a small, rotund African American who did not look very impressive mounting the pulpit steps.
What I was privileged to hear was the finest sermon I ever heard. He told of a train drawing up in a Berlin station during WWII. The passengers disembarked, to be confronted by a troop of German soldiers armed with machine guns. Their commander held up his hand when the people were all on the platform, more or less lined up, and ordered: 'Take two paces forward all those who are Jews.' No one moved. No one spoke. The order was given again. Weapons were clicked as bullets entered chambers. This time, every one of the passengers took two paces forward. Some were soldiers, airmen, naval ratings, nurses, nuns even. Inconceivable that all were Jews.
Gomes said: 'That is what you do. We all know what to do. If the call is to step forward those who are black, we are all black; if white, we are all white; If yellow, we are all yellow; or, if brown, we are all brown. You know what to do.' I was overcome with emotion at this. I shook Gomes vigorously by the hand at the exit and he could see the effect of it. I was in tears.
There was to be a coda to this story. Read on.
My visits to St Giles lasted about ten years until Gilleasbuig retired. But my position with regard to the deity was unchanged. I had read by then many works on theology but admire them as I often did, nothing in me was changed by them. On days not at St Giles, I would be at Blair Atholl or Pitlochry, Tenandry, the two in Perth or a church in Bute like Trinity which I had been attending from age 4 and refused to move at twelve when my parents were asked to make way for others by migrating to the West Church. Snobbery, of course. The new minister at the West Church was Dr J.D. Douglas whom my mother asked to see what was 'wrong with me': I had no time to spend with girls in cafes like other normal boys. I would be swotting at my books incessantly. Seeing my small library of books and the home-made record player with the one record I had borrowed (Beethoven's Fifth) he understood: I wanted to be a scholar: was driven to learn. I was invited to visit JD on Saturday nights when we would listen to his music and talk our heads off. JD left to edit the Dictionary to the New English Bible at Selwyn College, Cambridge and then became editor of 'Christianity Today'. For years I received free copies, books and letters from all over the world from him. I spent an afternoon every week writing to him about God and the universe, which seemed very important to me then. He never engaged with me but never discouraged my writing. He sent me 'The Screwtape Letters' by C.S. Lewis which I did not like at all, a surprise to J.D..
Note: Richard Hamilton thought I must be enamoured of Gilleasbuig and could not understand. I was aware of Gilleasbuig's shortcomings, some of them; was even interested in them, but I could not explain to Richard's satisfaction. He thought me demented, wasting so much time at St Giles. To me, Gilleasbuig was the best preacher. Why would I commit myself elsewhere?
I did not have to apply to do a Dip Ed, a nod was enough; and Richard asked me to undertake an M. Ed, I expect, because he understood my passion for philosophy, which I was soon teaching at George Watson's to the Sixth Form due to Richard's very good reference. Richard had attended Magdalene College, Oxford in 1941, the year of my birth and departed, unable to deal with such an elevated intellectual life, dinner jacketed, surrounded by privilege. His background had been roughly the same as mine, which meant he understood (partly) what gulf was facing me in my upward struggle. The effect upon me of Richard's Oxford acquired English was noticeable. Once, while I was working in the vacation in a brewery at Holyrood, Richard and I often attended lectures together, afterwards walking the streets of Edinburgh talking till 4 am when I had to be at the brewery by 8, I think. One morning, I was moving beer kegs around among a group of male workers, for whom conversation consisted mostly of curses. Volumes of abuse were normal: they relieved feelings which was their purpose. Suddenly, forgetting where I was, I spoke up. All discussion ended, heads turned. I had talked as I would to Richard, just a few hours before. I had revealed myself to be a foreigner from another world. Philosophy is very precise. So the careful use of language is perpetual in conversation with a philosopher or a student of it.
One book that was a favourite was 'Surprised by Joy' by C. S. Lewis, who is likely to have tutored Richard (he never discussed his Oxford days. Like mine in Edinburgh, they would have been too desperately humiliating for that: Note further: J.E. Littlewood, GH Hardy's collaborator of genius, was bracketed first in the Tripos of 1905: senior wrangler then. He wasted a huge amount of time in afternoon cinema shows because of his personal depression; he got help, of course: pills to keep the devils at bay). I spent over a week absorbing the detail of Lewis's conversion, highlighting, querying, annotating. Twenty years later, I spent another long session at it, arguing with the two theologians I know personally. I realised that there were distinct, powerful factors that acted to provoke and cause his conversion.
At Oxford, Lewis took a double first in Greats, (Classical Philosophy and History) in 1922 and a first in English in 1923. This meant that he could become a lecturer and a Fellow at Magdalene College. He immediately took over the lecture course of a fellow on sabbatical. The university was still recovering from the War that ended in 1918. At Magdalene, Lewis was surrounded by Christians, all male. These were his companions. Of course he wished to fit in. His father was a Belfast solicitor: not therefore a person with clout. Only one of his colleagues was an atheist and this one believed that the facts related in the gospels could be correct, from what he knew of them. That would exert a powerful influence upon Lewis, would propel him even more into the theist camp. A further issue mattered. Lewis was living with the mother of a friend, killed in the War. They had each promised to look after the parent of the other in the event of his death. Her young daughter was also living with them. Lewis's relationship to her mother could have been misconstrued. There was no welfare state then. So the plight of a dead parent was dire. But had the truth about Lewis's living with Mrs Moore become known, Lewis could have been deemed to have broken one of the unwritten rules of that society. I think he was very afraid of discovery, very eager to fit in and the constant pressure of all the good Christian colleagues around him would provoke his conversion, for then he would have become one of them: hugely attractive to him. His conversion process has several stages, through which he moved over the course of about five years. It was no sudden thing with him, as with most people, according to William James (in Varieties of Religious Experience).
The people I met because of St Giles were immensely valuable to me, treasured! One I did not meet was Elizabeth Templeton. It was a Sunday evening lecture there, given by her husband. I had chosen to sit behind her, ignorant of who she was and brazenly made comments to anyone nearby (as the enthusiast will, for he cannot talk of anything else). 'Well, I hope you enjoy it,' she said, turning her head, 'He is my husband'. The first salvo to come from him was an attack on 121 George Street, which the unwitting would not realise referred to the Church of Scotland HQ. I was attracted by this but soon after, due to the heating and my early start in Bute, I fell asleep in my pew. So I cannot say what the lecture was about. At that time, Elizabeth was counselling people like myself, in the church at the west end of Princess Street. I went there one Sunday but could not find her. Her book, with a foreword by the Bishop of Durham, I did not value. But, eventually, I realised what a treasure I had missed. She took to task the great Torrance, viewed as a star because he had taken a doctorate in Science as well as in Divinity, making him, in many eyes, equipped to deal with scientists as most ministers are not. I wrote a paper about this and Bishop Holloway wrote to say he thought I had successfully out-argued the great man. The crux of the matter was, I think, that Torrance had taken the view that there was such a thing as religious knowledge. I disagreed. There was no knowledge in religion at all, I thought. Nothing that could be called knowledge, a philosophical concept I had been deep into with mentors and my own students. [The philosophy of science was of intense interest to me then. Sir Karl Popper's 'Objective Knowledge' (1973) studied closely. Torrance had made the mistake of assuming that the experiences of the deity he had enjoyed could be had by anyone. That was patently untrue. Relatively few people report having such experiences. So there is no possibility of them being entitled to the term 'knowledge']
It was very brave of Elizabeth with no job or status to take on the big shot. I only wish I could have known her. I realised, too late, what an exceptional philosopher and good person she was and how brave. [Note: knowledge applies to things known for certain. The items of the Creed do not have this property. You might believe them but you are not entitled to call such belief knowledge; of course goodness is what we seek].
Dr Jock Stein and his wife Margaret could not have been kinder or more helpful to me in my quest. He had read an article of mine in Life and Work c1990 and lost it. Ten years later, clearing out of Carberry Tower on his way back to the ministry, this time at Kincardine, he found it and read it again. I was invited to visit and have done so on many occasions. He makes the best porridge I know [Yet Japanese survive to 100+ very easily using three grains, not one: perhaps we need to find out what these are]. Praying, holding each other's hands at his lavish dining room table was an activity I grew to love (though I get no value on my own). I have indeed been blest by his interest and concern for my doings. It was Jock who thought I should consult John Bell, whom I had seen briefly on TV. Alas, John was practically uncontactable, forever preaching around the world, it seemed. Then one day, I found myself in an aircraft to Holland to attend an American Thanksgiving dinner. Next to me sat John Bell; and across the aisle, his partner, Graham Maule. What a blessed surprise! My excitement was boundless and for the duration of the flight I regaled John with my failed efforts to know God. Finally, as the plane landed at Schipol, I asked John what, if anything, he could say to help me on my way. After such an earfull of enthusiasm, he could not think of anything; only that if I could attend a certain church, he would be preaching there the next day. Alas, my American was not a church goer and would be unable to drive there across Holland. I do love many of John and Graham's hymns. I knew first hand, because Margaret Stein was on the committee with Gilleasbuig choosing the hymns for the latest hymn book, that John Bell had cut by half the number of his hymns included. Around seventy, I think, had been chosen but he was too good to allow it.
Professor Iain McCallum and his wife Jean were another couple I met at St Giles. Iain had been a doctor involved in the coal industry and was interested in my father's death from cancer, because of his daily exposure to coal dust in our gasworks. Often, I was invited to join them for tea after the service at St Giles in their exotic flat in the High Street close to Moray House. I think they both had MBEs and Iain a CBE for their many acts of goodness. Donald Dewar used to go there too. He would converse, I was told, while lying stretched out on the floor. Iain was supportive of my work on Bannockburn which he read and set me up to attend an FRSE meeting in Edinburgh so as to introduce me to Professor Barrow. We could have met at lunch but, in view of Barrow's remarkable errors in his history, I did not think he would want to meet me. He did not return for the afternoon session. He would have been embarrassed.
When I first met Jock and Margaret they thought I should have a spiritual adviser. Little did they understand a basic problem. In my family, one might get money for a pair of football boots (my dad played for The Scottish Junior League against Ireland in 1937] There was no money for anything unusual in a manual labourer's kitchen and bedroom. They offered to find me a nun for £25 a session who had acted for Margaret, I think. All my school life the idea of any such extra was out of the question. At 15 I discovered the violin (played by Heifetz on TV). It never occurred to me to make a request for one, or lessons. That was impossible. Thus I declined a spiritual adviser. (I did often ask for violin concertos to be played after school and was greatly moved by them.)
Twenty years later, a spiritual adviser suddenly became necessary. I was attending Trinity, Rothesay, by then, had signed on as an adherent, Gilleasbuig having retired. A new minister was wanted at Trinity, Rothesay. The Church, the central church, was in a quandary about how to appoint a successor. Rightly, everyone on a congregation was invited to a meeting of the Kirk Session to vote on what should occur in the church seeking a new minister. Why should anyone be excluded?
Thus, the Session Clerk at Trinity, Rothesay, announced at the Sunday Service that the entire congregation would be invited to attend a kirk session at which the possibility of people in same sex marriages applying for the minister's position, would be voted upon. I was very interested in the issue and asked the Session Clerk if, as an adherent, I was allowed to attend. I was told that I was allowed to attend and I could vote. This invitation was read out to everyone in the congregation on three occasions prior to the meeting. The day of the meeting, I spent thinking about what I would say that evening. For thirty years I had lived in the town (had been born and educated there, attending every Sunday while at school) and very often written in The Herald and the Buteman, hundreds of letters and even full length articles (for which I was paid: eg 'Redefining God': title of a Herald Essay of mine on July 20th, 1996). That evening, the notice for the meeting was read out again (for the 4th time) just before the meeting by the Session Clerk. I was instantly aware of a change: no mention of adherents being admitted or everyone being allowed to vote on this particular issue. It seemed to me that, having got me there, I was now barred from participating, as I had been led to expect that I could take part.
What had happened to cause this change? Perhaps the Church at 121 George St, Edinburgh had had second thoughts on the virtue of admitting the entire congregation. Perhaps the local Kirk Session, aware that I intended to attend the meeting as an adherent, might express views with which they disagreed. [The hundreds of letters I had published in The Herald and Buteman might have caused some elders to prefer to keep me silent on this sensitive issue.] None of it made any sense. How could the arrangements read out by design on three occasions be overturned? That was the sine qua non, so far as I was concerned. An invitation to everyone had been issued and announced three times. Of course it must stand. Even so, I decided to see what would happen and said nothing, since, it seemed, I had at the last minute been excluded, though not actually asked to leave. Then I would have had something to say.
At a church service at Trinity, Rothesay, soon after, I was astonished to be accused from the pulpit by the Lay Preacher we had meantime, before the appointment of a new one, of leading a schism in the kirk. The accusation was mystifying. I did not respond. The shock was profound. There had been once, at coffee after a service, a crowd of people swarming around me. They had all heard what I had heard: three invitations on separate Sundays to attend a Kirk Session on the next Sunday. But I did not say anything to them nor they to me. So there was no schism, no leadership, still less, any disunity by an outsider like myself on a private quest to get to know God. How could there be a schism when there had been no discussion between anyone and myself? The idea of a schism arising was a creation of some elders of the Kirk Session, Interim Moderator and the Lay preacher himself. In a letter to him, I made this completely clear and allowed him to copy it to anyone he wished. As if seeking to find sticks to beat me with, he spoke (to the entire congregation!) of the problems with phobias I had had as a youngster growing up in Bute. I realised that he had asked the people, nurses, psychotherapists, psychiatrists to whom I was referred for my medical care and to whom, necessarily, I had blurted out the troubles from which I had been suffering, and they had told him! What a humiliation to find one's private medical information revealed to the congregation! Yet these were 'the people of the light', I had been trying to join.
For years, it has been standard practice in the NHS to keep such matters private. It is only good manners. To an outsider, trying to join, it is disgraceful. The complete opposite of what Christians are supposed to do: be welcoming, friendly, loving, for that is the hallmark of the Christian and his message. 'To love thy neighbour as thyself'. These people: the Kirk Session, the elders, the Lay Preacher and the Interim Moderator, sought to destroy me by telling everyone of the troubles I had faced as someone growing up on the Island of Bute. That was a horrific thing to do to anyone. How could such action be justified? It is disgusting to treat anyone that way.
Rules of Privacy which are important and continually trumpeted in the NHS had been broken in an instant, because a few elders had worried that my influence might be too great. My own rating of my influence was zero. My spiritual life was limited to reading and thinking about God, in which I was fascinated, and arguing with Dr Jock Stein, from time to time, in emails at my increasing experience in reading theology which I had to talk about. I also attended for about ten years, each January, The Scottish Churches Theology Conference. I had no one in Bute to talk to about religion. The only 'religion' men talked about in Bute was football.
One of the Kirk Session, I was informed by the Lay Preacher from the pulpit, 'would never speak to me again'. [Mr Buntin, I think] Yet of what was I guilty? Why would he not speak to me again? The only other matter I had referred to in my letter to the Lay Preacher was that some readings from the Bible had been forgotten during services, which meant that the sermon could not be understood. I knew this because I arrived early every Sunday to read them all for myself before the service started. Then, until the service began, I would sit quietly meditating about where I had got to within myself. What could be wrong in pointing this out? If a service is not working properly it is essential that it should be repaired so that it does work properly. That means, someone has to mention it. Otherwise it will continue to be an inadequate service because the biblical texts have been forgotten. To be so angry that you would refuse to speak to someone, who is not even a member but trying to join is a colossal over reaction and, from an elder, a fundamental error of procedure: trashing the whole 'love thy neighbour ' intention.
What did I think about the issue to be voted on? At that stage, I did not know. I spent the three weeks thinking about it. But I eventually found the answer. Professor Peter Gomes of Harvard had given it to me at St Giles. Even a lesbian or a homosexual, a trans-sexual or whatever, was fully human and all should be included. 'Take two steps forward, all who are Jews!' We should All step forward. That was the answer: To do anything else is to allow the Jews to be murdered in millions?as they had been! That really is important. If a human being should ever learn anything, that is the first thing! Discrimination must be outlawed. A minister can be chosen by the votes of everyone in the congregation, a democratic process. That is when you get to decide who you prefer. But you do not just cut out people because of the colour of their skin or some other reason for which they are not responsible.
I exercised my right and complained to the Presbytery about my bad treatment. A minister from Ardrishaig was appointed to investigate. He spoke to me on the phone before arriving on the island. I mentioned what had occurred, about the three invitations on successive Sundays just before the meeting, read out every Sunday by the Session Clerk to everyone in the congregation, including adherents, to attend the Kirk Session and to vote on the persons who might or might not apply to be the minister. I pointed out that the Session Clerk's address was on the notice board outside Trinity (still there!) . About a week later, I received a letter from him telling me that he had been unable to discover who had read out the invitation to the congregation on the three Sundays before the meeting itself. I phoned him and gave him a a taste of my anger. It changed nothing. I wrote to the executive head of the Church of Scotland, John Chalmers at 121 George Street, whom I knew! Jock Stein had taken me to an ordination in Fife and John Chalmers and I had sat together over a meal in the church with others. I had been able to get news of Gilleasbuig, (who I admired, of course) who had been addressing a meeting of the intending ministers. I enquired how it went. 'He took questions from the floor and ended up fighting with all of them,' said John. That was a great surprise.
What did John Chalmers do when I wrote to him? Nothing. Expressed surprise at the happenings but did not see that he could or should do anything. He was willing to let the lie of the Church stand. He saw nothing amiss in the Ardrishaig minister failing to realise that the Session Clerk had, of course, as everyone knew, announced the invitation to the meeting on the three Sundays stipulated. So Chalmers went along with the lie. The Kirk Session had changed the rules without reason or apology. They had lied. The Lay preacher had believed, without evidence, that a schism had arisen. He had addressed me at the service as if I were a criminal and even revealed details of my medical history which he had got from medical people on the island. Chalmers had nothing to say except 'I wonder who it was announced that invitation'. Of course he knew! Everybody knew. Chalmers lied. He was concerned about only one thing: whether the story would get into the Herald, for I was well known there, publishing every week for years. He would have talked round the editor.
His deputy, Dr Whyte, published a letter in the Buteman (or Bute News) saying that he had satisfied himself (without ever setting foot in Bute) that I was in the wrong. He never said what offence I had committed. He called for me to apologise to the Interim Minister, I think, for my 'unwarranted complaint'. Plainly, the Interim Moderator, Lay Preacher and elders (some at least) had taken offence at my complaint as if it should never have been made. By that time, aware of the problems arising, the Church had decided to revoke the invitation and keep the decision only for the Kirk Session in such cases. So of course they wanted to act as if that had been the decision all along. Except that it was not. You cannot change the rules after the stipulated three announcements on three separate Sundays before the meeting just when it is about to start that evening. That is not proper conduct. I had spent time preparing for the meeting and attended it when I was technically permitted to attend but not to vote or give my view. That was a waste of my time. My vote was not invited. It was confined to the elders.
With the benefit of hindsight it may be that what should have been said to me and my complaint was: We regret the change of rules just before the meeting and are sorry you were told as an adherent you could attend when, in fact you were not wanted. A few people in the Kirk Session thought you might influence the vote against the wishes of the elders. That is why the change was made at the Church HQ and read into the minutes. Of course for referring to my phobias in childhood, I should have received an apology. Nobody ever said anything. The accusation that I was provoking a schism in the congregation should have been withdrawn and apologised for. Good behaviour is an intended characteristic of Christians at all times and in all circumstances. They all failed here, including any who had been there and heard the invitation read out.
What did they do? They preferred to tell a lie: To say that the person who announced the invitation could not be identified. Who else could it be but the Session Clerk? That is what the Session Clerk is for. Everyone present knew that the Session Clerk was making the announcement and did so three times on the Sunday and again, changing the invitation just before the meeting on the fourth occasion.
I wrote to the Buteman and told the great treasure of my pilgrimage: the story of the Jews at Berlin Station. I pointed out that when the order to take two steps forward was made to those who were Jews, Everyone, regardless of their colour or religion was to step forward, as if he or she were a Jew. What difference would it make if the command had been 'step forward two steps all those who are lesbian, homosexual, trans sexual or bisexual..,?' The response should be the same. For we are all humans.
Thus, at the Kirk Session meeting to which all should have been invited, there ought to be no obstacle to any one applying for the job of the new minister.
But that brilliant story of Professor Peter Gomes made the right decision as clear as crystal. If a member of the congregation, including adherents, wishes to vote against a certain person applying, for whatever reason, he is still free to do so. But all should get the right to vote. Kirk Sessions have no more aptitude than any one else and may even be more prejudiced and out of touch. AS WE HAVE SEEN.
What we have seen so far is extraordinary. But there is more. The next week's Buteman after mine, telling the treasure of Prof Peter Gomes's story about the Jews, carried a letter from the Interim Moderator deploring the fact that I thought him homophobic.
But it was not a fact! I knew nothing about this man. He preached in the High Kirk, was even new to the charge, a church I did not attend at that time. My letter to the Buteman (or Bute News) was all about what should be done? It had nothing to do with the real or imagined homophobia of the Interim Moderator. It had never occurred to me he would take it that way. And he should not have. I was angry that my most treasured experience in all my years of pilgrimage should have been traduced, tarnished and diminished by him. Especially when it was the key to a problem with a slight extension to the more general case.
Some years later, I had to attend the funeral of Margaret Brown, aged 102, a lady I had grown accustomed to take out to tea, drive around the island (told her about the Witches, first hand), take around gardens and describe the flowers because she was blind to colours, read poetry to, take her presents of chocolates and whose courage and determination I liked and admired. Her niece and I are great friends, with a fascination for religion which we discuss all the time. Of course I had to attend the funeral to support Megg. Shaking the hand of that man at the church door was difficult but managed. It would not be kind to say more. Professor Gomes's story still seems to me a great treasure, even though its motive was taken to make him seem homophobic which it was not and no rational person could imagine it was. I am delighted to have seen that Gomes's story could be extended to everyone. That is an important discovery. The more people who understand it the better.
The effect of my pilgrimage coming to such an abrupt halt because of so much trouble and stress within the Kirk itself was awful. That was why I decided that I needed to have a spiritual adviser.
And so I asked Dr Jock Stein if he might now find me a spiritual adviser. My pilgrimage had been virtually swamped by cruel seas and my ambition to join 'The People of the Light', as I had called them, was in jeopardy: the pilgrim ship sinking. I had suddenly discovered that there was no light. They were all liars. Not one spoke up. No one wrote in the local newspaper in my favour. No one even spoke up in the street. Not one crumb of support did I receive from anyone here. They were all, even all the people who had been in the congregation on these days, dead silent, as if there was something wrong with going against the Church even when it was at fault and telling lies about it. What we have just seen is a culture of telling lies in the Church of Scotland. It is what they do to escape any vestige of blame: they defend the name of the church by telling lies to divert eyes from the Truth. And yet, the Church promises to uphold the Truth. There is no light unless it does.
What will they say about this? They will probably tell more lies. As we have seen, they are not even very good at telling them. What the minister from Ardrishaig who was appointed to 'investigate' said was, in the circumstances, idiotic. By supporting this, Whyte and Chalmers were despicably in the wrong, along with the Interim Moderator, the Lay Preacher and the elder 'who would never speak to me again' . The People of the Light, I called them. I was mistaken. They are all in darkness. It can be guaranteed that events like those described here are occurring all the time, all over the country. Why should the darkness be confined to Bute and 121 George St alone? It must be everywhere. George Street sets the tone for the Country.
Once, at Kincardine Manse, after the service on a Sunday night in winter, in front of a roaring fire, I spoke to Jock about the best ministers in the country. I knew of Ron Ferguson who wrote in the Herald at times. Another, Geoff Shaw, with a top floor tenement flat in the Gorbals, I had heard of with the door open, day and night, to any who needed him. I was planning to write a novel about a minister. 'A Bute Crucifixion,' was the title when published.
'There is a paper you might like to see,' said Jock. 'it was read to the intending ministers.' I could phone the man and ask him. Would you like that?' I was eager. I wanted to write about goodness, especially in a minister. I needed to understand what was involved. Jock returned to say that he could not contact the person. 'But I don't think he'll mind if I show you it.'
I read the paper and wept over it. The humility expressed was deeply affecting. Thus, ten years later, in his retirement manse in Haddington, Jock mentioned this man. Of course I agreed. The man was approached, had never done this before and accepted. This was how I came to know John Miller. Over the half dozen years since, because of him, my understanding of the meaning of kindness and decency have undergone a transformation. I am blessed to know him; value the experience more than any other I can think of.
I met John in a cafe in central Glasgow, one I could find and reach easily from my train station. These meetings lasted from about 11am until 1 or 2 pm over lunch. In reply to a question, I told John my most successful meetings of this kind had occurred when I was about 25 and quite desperate for help. I heard about a small psychotherapy unit in Bruntsfield, Edinburgh where I was allocated Miss Cecilia Hope-Gill, about 73, and asked to tell my dreams or say what came into my mind. I went for an hour every week, I think, for about two years. The result was brilliant. She would always ask me what I believed these meant; and I could always see the answer instantly. Gradually, my life was transformed. I do not believe I would have accomplished anything in my life without those sessions. I believe that I have accomplished far more than ever could have been imagined. All because of that fine old lady.
John chose to proceed in the same way: by asking me questions. It meant he did not have to argue or answer my questions, as Jock had been doing for so long, something he must have regretted; argument being hurtful, at times. And so, for a few years, I would meet John Miller who would cycle to the cafe and I would travel back to Bute in the afternoon.
John has written four books, I think, three of which are published. The first is 'A SIMPLE LIFE': Roland Walls and The Community of the Transfiguration which tells the story of a small group, rarely more than half a dozen, who wanted to live as Jesus lived: helping people, devoting themselves not to making money or even having a job or career but to answering the needs of people who came to them for help or guidance. Led by Roland Walls an ex fellow of Merton College, Oxford (as chaplain) they lived in a patch of grass in Roslin in tiny 'glamps', each with just enough room to read, pray and sleep; but with no comforts. There was not money for that. There was no heating. To make a little money, to make the project viable, John Halsey found employment as a labourer in a garage. Roland took a part time job at New College (where he taught Jock Stein). This income paid for most of what was wanted: the bare minimum of food, rates, clothes etc. There were no mod cons There was a wooden hut with two rooms which served as a church, keeping the monastic offices from early morning until night. People would arrive and be fed and accommodated as far as possible and helped on their way, though often they chose to hang around for as long as they liked. Meals were very simple, barely enough to sustain life. So much so, that John Halsey would occasionally, after working so hard as a labourer, feel the need to go out for a fish and chip supper. There was nothing that was not essential. They lived in poverty and helped anyone, especially the poor.
John Halsey had taken a degree in Geology after attending Eton, worked in Canada at his profession, and then gave it up because his vocation was with ordinary people in need of help. He wanted to serve his fellow men, but knew little of them and their doings because he was brought up on an estate where his father was a viscount (a title he might have inherited). He preferred the impoverished life of the Community. Another member was a bishop who eventually left for South Africa to end his days there; another was a very good woman with unusual insight who eventually, in old age, moved out to a flat above a chip shop in Loanhead.
John Miller's book about the Community is marvellous! I have read it at least three times, trying to memorise it because it matters so very much. The only survivor of the Community is John Halsey, my enthusiasm for whom was such that John asked if I could visit him. John Halsey is approaching ninety and he lives where the lady used to live. I worried that he might be so frail that he should be left alone in peace. But John Miller asked and John Halsey agreed. I was very pleased. It would, I knew, be a great privilege.
I had by then almost given up driving on the mainland because of old age. Unfamiliar roads and signs were a problem. John Miller offered to drive me to Wemyss Bay, collect me and return me in time for a ferry back to Bute. What a fantastic gift! It took all day.
When the community finally died off (except for John Halsey) and left the patch of grass at Roslin, the ground was sold and the wooden church with its two rooms was lifted and removed to the back garden of John Halsey's flat. So I attended a service there, one of three John Halsey still performs every week, in the monastic manner. This was a very special experience: my cup was running over. I felt greatly blessed to be in that hut attending a little service with only John Miller, John Halsey and his young lady doctor. I could picture the occasions during the last sixty years when a lot of goodness had been at work within that very small hut. I do not think I have ever been more moved by that simple service in that little wooden church. It beats King's College Chapel where I used to like to worship.
We had lunch in his house and we talked. It was spellbinding to ask a few questions and know the answers before they were given. The doctor, who lives nearby, apart from working in the NHS, is a concert pianist. What a blessed visit it was to me. That John Halsey should have given up his aristocratic life for one of poverty, devoting himself to helping anyone who looked for help, for about 60 years, is an extraordinary act of devotion. To me, John Halsey is a saint.
Note: I once had the run of the Rajah's library in Kuching, Sarawak and was asked to write the biography of Philip Brook who should have been 4th Rajah when I visited Santa Fe, where he lived. The Brooks were of the same family as John Halsey. I was able to tell John what had confronted Lady Sylvia, the Ranee, in the second Rajah's time on first arriving off the steamer. A man with one arm around a tree and the other inside a crocodile. The arm went with the croc. He had not heard the story; her autobiography has it. I think the Borneo Bulletin carried the tale when I worked in Brunei.
When the Pandemic came upon us, we had to give up our visits every six weeks, John Miller and I. It was too dangerous to travel. There came a time when John Miller phoned me every day for about six months because I had slipped and fallen on ice and broken a shoulder. The nurses did not think I would survive the pandemic. John, knowing how isolated I was with hardly any useful help, had the same view, as I eventually discovered. Listening to my predicament must have been a woeful performance: at times I could hardly speak more than a croak. After a week in the local cottage hospital, I was turfed out, though disabled, to my solitary flat with no help to speak of [I had a visit after a couple of months of being unable to start the oven one handed; too late by then.] John clearly thought I had had it and that he must keep in touch by phone to give me some conversation. That is why there were so many phone calls: sometimes as many as 3 or 4 a day, if the receiver was displaced or I had tried to go walking, which, having lost all my energy, was difficult. The relief and the great delight I experienced every time John phoned was remarkable, kept me alive. All last year, this so helpful service continued; and even into this one. It is such a pleasure to a lonely, solitary soul with only books for company.
In the time since, my position has changed. I have been reading Professor Rudolph Bultmann of Marburg, Prof Paul Tillich as well as returning to an old favourite 'Varieties of Religious Experience' by William James, brother of Henry, the novelist. There, on p 54 of the Penguin Edition is a fascinating insight from Immanuel Kant whose 'Critique of Pure Reason' and 'Metaphysic of Morals', I had read over half a century ago with intense pleasure. James was giving the Gifford Lectures at the time in Edinburgh in 1901-2. He quoted Kant, saying, in effect, The keywords in Christianity are God, soul, freedom of the will etc. None of them are capable of exact definition. This means that nothing can be proved about them or the stories in the bible. However, Kant thought, we can act as if these things actually exist and it might help us to live our lives if we do. That deviation from items of the Creed was stated very clearly in several books by Paul Tillich (born 1886, Prussia; chased out by Hitler in 1933 and a professor at New York, Chicago and finally, Harvard) who, is (almost certainly) the originator of the idea of 'ultimate concern' on which is based probably, the phrase: 'the ground of being' used by John Robinson, Suffragan Bishop of Southwark in his important book 'Honest to God.'
Tillich's account of God is on p2 of 'Ultimate Concern' by Mackenzie Brown, with Tillich's complete agreement (and elsewhere, of course). 'Tillich sees God as Being Itself, or the Ground of all Being. For this reason there cannot be a God. There cannot even be a "highest God". But even that concept is limiting. We cannot make an object out of God... This God cannot be said to exist or not to exist in the same way that we exist.' In Systematic Theology I p211, Tillich himself says: 'God... is the name for that which concerns man ultimately. It means that a man can be concerned ultimately only about that which is god for him.'
Therein lies an objection. What existed before the universe? Nothing. Not even 'being'. Because God is only being. It is not a finite thing. This means God did not exist before the universe. Thus God is not the creator of it.
Thus we may, in accordance with Kant, choose to act as if God is the Creator of the universe and it might be helpful to act as if this is so, but it is not so. Assuming Tillich is correct, of course.
The other issue that I have come across recently is in Bultmann who views the Gospel stories as myths and relegates them to mythology, meaning that they do not have the credibility of two thousand years ago because the modern world of science and innovation has removed the supernatural or the unexpected, feeling of awe, common then. Bultmann set out to try to demythologise the Gospels, a process I do not find convincing. How does the story of the loaves and fishes that fed the five thousand respond to efforts to demythologise it? What is unbelievable? That a few loaves and fishes could feed five thousand. Two thousand years ago, that might have been credible to primitive people. It is not credible now. We know better. We are confident that many things are not possible. So that really is a myth, something we cannot believe. What about changing water into wine? We know it is possible today, but only if we add things to the water to make it so. The idea that water should change to wine, without something being added, is unbelievable in our state of education and in our society. That means there is no miracle we can retain. It is therefore a myth and must remain a myth.
The Oxford Companion to Systematic Theology is a high-powered tome written by three theologians, one of them Iain Torrance. This is suspicious. Why does it need to have an army of theologians, from all over the world, with droves of learned commentary to defend it? I do not think that there is a snowball's chance in hell of a proof of the items of the Creed ever being located anywhere in those 700 pages. Why? Because the Creed is outrageous. To believe that there is a being, 'God', who created the universe and the earth and all it contains and that his son, Jesus, was born of a virgin, grew to manhood and was crucified and died and then came to life again and, with some of his disciples in attendance, ascended to heaven where he has been ever since performing infinitely many good works is unbelievable. Rational people do not believe this now. The modern world with all its discoveries has made the Creed impossible to believe. That is what Bultmann was saying in his early papers. Only the last one published in 1989 has the attempt at recovery. On p155 we find him say 'this way of seeing reality is demythologising because it excludes the working of supernatural powers... A thoroughgoing natural science has no need of a "God hypothesis", a view he attributes first to Laplace. To me, the idea of a science of theology is impossible. Science is far more rigorous than theology could ever be.
Thus, if you want to believe it, of course you are free to do so. And it might help you to live a more fulfilled life if you do. As Immanuel Kant agreed and William James reminded us in 1901-1902. What this great tome of a book by Torrance et al would have to do to be successful is to show that there is a deity and to do so without ever defining it fully and the other elements of the creed, these too. And for the arguments produced to be independent of all arguments and assumptions within the tome.
Without religious experiences of the deity there is no reason to believe in 'his' existence. I have never had any on my pilgrimage. Nor do I think I am unusual. I do not know anyone who says he has (except JocK but I never yet had whiff of description). I did once meet Thomas F. Torrance at a lecture by Professor Polkinghorn, the mathematical physicist who qualified and became a minister. Torrance was the author of the book 'Theological Science' wherein he pressed the idea of religious 'knowledge.' It could only have meaning and sense to those who possess such 'knowledge.' That leaves out, most of the world, I respectfully suggest.
One thing more. Because of Tillich's fresh approach to 'the ultimate concern' ie God and Bultmann's casting off the Bible stories as myth, it may be that theologians have been coming round to the view that there is no God, that the Bible stories are myths indeed: narratives produced by very simple, uneducated people in primitive circumstances; a narrative that owed much to necessity for survival and very little to demonstrable Truth. Ch13 Hosea, I read a few times recently. I was appalled at how God appeared as a punishing giant who would castigate and destroy people who offended his commandments. Where, I wondered, did the idea that God was a loving person come from? Did he not do nothing as the gas chambers at Belsen, Auschwitz et al were filled with millions of God's own people? Perhaps many ministers are aware that the Gospel has been overtaken by the modern world, that the myth no longer has the hold it once had. If so, they are keeping quiet about it. Science has chased away the demons and spirits that used to play a part in our world.
Twenty years ago, about half of the Anglican clergy admitted to non-belief of some of their own Creed that was read out every Sunday. I think that many of the clergy have moved with Tillich and Bultmann and beyond; but do not care to say so for fear of upsetting memories long used to the old tradition.
My pilgrimage will continue.
© William W. C. Scott