The Meaning of Matter

Gilleasbuig Macmillan
Minister of St Giles Cathederal, Edinburgh

I have heard people say ‘The Church is not the building. The Church is the people.’ They often have axes (immaterial axes, of course) to grind, in opposition to some consuming or divisive project involving the alteration of, or departure from, a consecrated house of worship. Doubtless they are correct, though only if the Holy Trinity and the host of angels are ‘people’. Certainly they are correct to say that buildings ought not to become idols. But they are sometimes shallowly insensitive to the essential capacity of consecrated buildings to be icons (or at least to have elements of the icon).

My father grew up in the little island of Bernera, in the Sound of Harris, midway between the Cuillins of Skye and St Kilda. It is in a part of Scotland associated with relatively late Presbyterianism and little religious fervour until the nineteenth century evangelical wave massively raised the religious temperament while simultaneously reducing the number of communicants no less massively. Worship has been what people call ‘simple’, churches the same. Ministers rarely wore gowns. Services were often two hours in length, the sermon occupying one hour. You would not say of such a place that it was devoted to the promotion of sacramental symbolism. But when my father was a boy, on the occasions when the minister was away from home and the service was conducted by an elder, the pulpit was covered by a large cloth and nobody could enter it. There is in that fact something of our culture – our religious heritage – which followers of fashion can readily (probably ignorantly rather than wilfully) ignore.

You need not go to Spain or Greece to see a shrine. In Scottish glens and villages and towns the architectural ‘merit’ of the parish church can never be the chief among the yardsticks by which is measured the enshrining there of memory and ancestry, the flow of one generation to another, the good times and the evil times, both national and parochial, all consecrated through the religion of the Carpenter of Nazareth. As Iain Crichton Smith says in a love poem (and more than a love poem, though can anything be more than a love poem?):

The chair in which you’ve sat’s not just a chair
nor the table at which you’ve eaten just a table
nor the window that you’ve looked from just a window.

In that sort of sense the churches of Scotland are not just stone and slate, their furnishings not just pine and oak.

One of the most wonderfully pregnant and gloriously mysterious statements of the meaning of enshrinement came from the lips of Thomas Carlyle – whose grave at Ecclefechan we may now pass with even greater speed – on the occasion of his first meeting with Ralph Waldo Emerson during the latter’s visit to Britain in 1832-33, when he visited, in their homes, Samuel Taylor Coleridge in London, William Wordsworth in the Lake District, and Carlyle at Craigenputtock in Dumfries-shire. The meeting of Emerson and Carlyle, two thinkers and writers of brilliance, each at some odds with his religious hinterland but grappling with the issues of faith and life, initiated a long and creative friendship. Emerson described in his journal how:

We went out to walk over long hills, and looked at Criffel, then without his cap, and down into Wordsworth’s country. There we sat down and talked of the immortality of the soul. It was not Carlyle’s fault that we talked on that topic, for he had the natural disinclination of every nimble spirit to bruise itself against walls, and did not like to place himself where no step can be taken. But he was honest and true, and the cognizant of the subtile links that bind ages together, and saw how every event affects all the future.

Carlyle then said – and this is what I most wish to share with any who reads this: ‘Christ died on the tree: that built Dunscore Kirk yonder: that brought you and me together.’ Was ever so concisely made a synthesis of universal and particular, the atoning death on Calvary with the whole blessed universe, the little local shrine with the fellowship of the redeemed, matter and spirit, nature and grace?

Christian worship anywhere on earth must have that function, of offering a perspective on reality which glimpses the wholeness through the fragments (not despite the fragments). You remember how Edwin Muir begins ‘The Transfiguration’:

So from the ground we felt that virtue branch
Through all our veins till we were whole, our wrists
As fresh and pure as water from a well,
Our hands made new to handle holy things,
The source of all our seeing rinsed and cleansed
Till earth and light and water entering there
Gave back to us the clear unfallen world.

They would probably not have put it that way, but countless thousands who entered the churches of Scotland across the centuries, week by week upon the Lord’s Day, were putting themselves within an environment disposed towards just that reorientation of life.

For most of Scottish church history, the parish church was just that, the church of the parish, the only church in the parish. (An American audience burst into laughter when I showed them a slide of a bridge and a tree and a hill in Skye. It took me a while to know what was funny. I had described all three as being in my parish, and to them the word meant congregation.) The sixteenth century reformation did not alter the singular nature of the parish church; but since then we have moved from the notion of the church locally as ‘Christ’s Church in this place’ to the idea that individual ‘Christians’ were free to choose which sort of local Christian group they wished to ‘join’. Paul, Columba, and Knox would be at one in deploring such a perspective. Might it happen that the current embarrassment of ‘central’ ecclesiastical funds, coupled with the growing concern of people to conserve their local heritage, could lead to the rediscovery of the parish church as the place in a parish where real community is consecrated – confirmed, challenged and renewed?

Printed in ‘Cathedrals Abbeys and Churches in Scotland’, 1996.