Five Sundays, Four Churches

Five Sundays, Four Churches

Presbyterian Church of Chestertown – October 27, 2019

John T. Ames


It’s good to be home. Though we had a wonderful trip, a month is a long time to be away. We spent most of the time in Scotland. This is Gillian’s home, of course, and we have been there many times together, so we’ve already made most of the tourist stops.  There is no family left now in Scotland, but we saw gorgeous mountains and lochs; drove on narrow, twisty, one-track roads; did a lot of our Christmas shopping in the woolen mills – there is one in every town – and ate much better than travelers used to be able to do.


And we went to church. I hope it doesn’t surprise you to learn that I like going to church. I like going to churches of very different kinds. I like vast stone cathedrals whose soaring liturgy – very different from ours – lifts the spirit and makes the soul sing. I like tiny little country churches. I have worshiped in languages that I can’t understand, inspired by the faith and witness of the congregation.


When I worship in a church very different from ours I am moved – every time – by a sense that I belong to a great church. Larger than Presbyterianism. Larger than America.  And on Reformation Sunday I want to tell you about four churches we visited on our trip.  I don’t mean this to be a travelogue – though it may sound like it. I mean it to be a sermon which on Reformation Sunday unites us with God’s people around the world. I want to tell you about a few of these people who were new to me.


You will note that the title speaks of four churches and five Sundays.  Like you sometimes do, we skipped church one Sunday.  Ministers’ vacations usually begin on Sunday afternoon, or Monday. This one began on Sunday morning. We sailed to England on a ship that left Brooklyn, New York at 2:00 PM on Sunday, so we flew from BWI to JFK on Sunday morning.  These busy airports are exactly the same on Sunday morning as they are any other day of the week. The only difference is that I bought a copy of the NYTimes at BWI so that I could work the cross-word puzzle all week on the ship.


We landed in Southampton, England the following Sunday, so we didn’t go to church that morning either. We took a taxi from the dock to the Southampton airport where we flew to Edinburgh. That evening, though, we were walking down Edinburgh’s High Street – the so-called “Royal Mile” – and discovered a concert at St. Giles at 6:00 PM that day. So though we went to a chamber music concert and not a worship service, it still lets me talk about St. Giles.


It’s often called St. Giles Cathedral, though it was never a cathedral except for a few years in the 1630s when Charles I and Archbishop Laud tried unsuccessfully to impose Episcopacy on the Church of Scotland.  The church’s correct name is “The High Kirk of Edinburgh.” Still, it’s a cathedral-sized, 14th century gothic building, though in the middle ages the cathedral for the area was in St. Andrews which is about 50 miles away.


When the Parliament of Scotland declared in 1560 that the Church of Scotland should be Protestant, it invited John Knox – who had just returned from exile in Geneva – to become minister of St. Giles and leader of the reformation in Scotland.  He did so and remained at St. Giles until his death in 1572.  In August of 1560 the Protestant aristocracy that dominated Parliament called on Knox to draw up a new Confession of Faith for the Church of Scotland. He did so in four days, and the Scots Confession is now part of the Book of Confessions of our church. I can write a sermon in less than four days, but probably not one that will still be read 459 years later.


Within a few months Knox, with some help, had written a Book of Discipline which Parliament adopted. It reformed the Church of Scotland along recognizably Presbyterian lines. Each congregation was free to elect its own minister and was governed by lay elders whom it elected. Bishops were abolished and “Pastor’s Conferences” were organized in each County. These were very like Presbyteries, though they did not include lay elders. Their main role was to examine and ordain ministers.  Knox also wrote a Directory of Worship which pretty much outlines the form of worship still used in Presbyterian Churches and he published the First Scottish Psalter which includes many hymns we still sing, including All People that on Earth Do Dwell – Psalm 100.


As the most prominent minister of the church – and the pastor of the largest church in the capital city – Knox courageously confronted the young Queen Mary, who was a Roman Catholic. He supported her forced abdication in 1567 and was a member of the Council of Regency for her young son, James 6th – later James I of England.


St. Giles is a magnificent, late Gothic building from the 14th century. Its tower is topped not by a cross, but by a crown – which became a typical and characteristic feature of churches in Scotland – and only in Scotland.  Its crowned tower is one of the distinctive features of the skyline of Edinburgh. We have worshiped there several times and it is a typical Presbyterian service of the very best quality – good preaching; magnificent music; a large, inclusive congregation which is active in mission, education, and outreach.  I’m sorry we weren’t there on Sunday morning, but enjoyed the chamber music concert in the evening.


The following Sunday we worshiped in Iona Abbey. Many of you have been there – it is one of Sara Holben’s favorite places and some of you went there with her. Iona is a tiny, very remote island in the west of Scotland. It is the place where St. Columba brought Christianity back to Scotland from Ireland in the 6th century. He established a monastery on Iona – a tiny and crude building which is long gone. He and his monks converted the Scots and Picts and Jutes to a Celtic version of Christianity. In the middle ages – when Celtic Christianity had been subsumed into Roman Catholicism – a Benedictine monastery was built on the site of Columba’s ancient church.   That building was destroyed at the Reformation in the 16th century. By that time the whole Island of Iona was owned by the Duke of Argyle. In the early 20th century the Duke gave the ruins of the medieval abbey to the Church of Scotland, but nothing was done until after World War II when the “Iona Community” was founded by the Rev. George McLeod.


McLeod was a minister in the slums of Glasgow during the depression and witnessed the horrible destitution in his congregation and community.  He established The Iona Community to revitalize the church into a mission to the nation – first to the poor, and eventually to the poor, the thoughtful, those who were seeking a new expression of spirituality. Volunteers – ministers and lay people of all denominations – rebuilt the ruined Abbey during the summers, and spent the winters ministering throughout Scotland – and the world.


They still do this; though the construction is complete, of course. Worship in the Abbey is contemplative and modest with a much less elaborate liturgy than there was on my several previous visits there – beginning in the 1960s. For many years the Iona Community, and Iona Abbey, were in the forefront of the liturgical revival in Scottish and worldwide Presbyterianism. That is no longer the case. There was a good sermon by an Anglican priest from southern England. A young Scotsman led the prayers. I prayed for my children and grand-children, and for the Presbyterian Church of Chestertown. Nowadays the music at Iona is mostly the kind of contemporary simple folk type songs which some of us like, some dislike, and some – like me – like to mix with more traditional hymns. Many of them are written by John Bell who was Warden of the Abbey for some years in the 1980s. We are singing one of John Bell’s hymns in a few minutes –  one that is familiar to us – the gorgeous Will You Come and Follow Me – to the traditional Scottish tune Kelvingrove.  It was one of the hymns that we sang last month in Iona.


The next two Sundays we worshiped in Church of Scotland congregations in the small towns we were visiting – first in Tarbert, on the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, then in Killin a beautiful little village in Perthshire.  If you have a Harris Tweed jacket or skirt it was woven on the Isle of Harris.

These two churches were very similar. Both were about the same size as our church, both were comfortably filled the day we were there, with people of all ages, including lots of young families with children. Both are obviously vital, lively, congregations.  In both cases we were greeted very warmly. In Tarbert by the minister, in Killin by elders who were conducting the service in the absence of the pastor who was on vacation. In both cases hymns were projected onto the wall and no one used hymnbooks except us. In both cases the hymns were mostly the modern folk type hymns which were also sung in Iona.


In Killin the service, conducted by the elders, was on the theme of God’s call and our response. There was no sermon, but several of the elders read scripture lessons and spoke – quite well – about various aspects of that theme. We also sang Will You Come and Follow Me in Killin.  In both cases many in the congregation – including the older people – were dressed very casually. That’s a huge difference from a very few years ago when once I was the only man in the church not wearing a suit. My tweed jacket stood out – at least I thought it did. In Killin the young elder who led the service wore jeans, boots, and a baggy sweater. A young woman elder wore a somewhat flowing black dress, and I thought when I saw her before the service that she might be the minister.


In Tarbert there was an evening service conducted in Gaelic. They have two services every Sunday – normally English in the morning and Gaelic in the evening.  On the 3rd Sunday of the month the order is reversed. The minister told us that while the English service is better attended, almost everyone in the congregation speaks Gaelic – including the children, all of whom are taught Gaelic in school.


In both churches we went to tea after the service – home-made shortbread and other treats. Though there were no deviled eggs or pimento cheese the coffee hour reminded me of Chestertown, In both churches we were very warmly welcomed by many people, Both the fact of the treats and the warmth of the welcome we received were not characteristic of 25 years ago in Scotland, where visitors were pretty much ignored.


I’ve worshiped in many different kinds of places. St. Peter’s in Rome. St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai. The Church of the Nativity in Jerusalem, and at almost every cathedral in England. At a quinceañ Cuernavaca, Mexico; and at Presbyterian Churches in one of the favalas of Rio de Janeiro and in one of the townships outside Capetown.


And every time I do this I come away inspired. Sometimes by the grandeur of the music, sometimes by the eloquence of the sermon, sometimes by the majesty of the architecture or the historicity of the place, or the warm welcome of the congregation. Sometimes by none of these things. But I am always inspired by the breadth and depth of the Christian faith; by the way in which it is expressed in every culture, every language, every type of liturgy. I am inspired by the way in which Christians do the mission of Jesus Christ in the places where they find themselves.


And I am always thrilled to come home, for we do those things here. We sing those hymns here. We express that faith here. We serve here as Christians live and serve in every corner of the inhabited world. And they are all our brothers and sisters.



This sermon is printed for free distribution to the members and friends of the Presbyterian Church of Chestertown. Since it may contain quoted material under copyright, it may not be published, widely distributed, or posted electronically without the permission of John T. Ames