Letter from Leurbost
I am writing this on my knee in the cottage. On Tuesday afternoon. Outside the skies are grey and there has been steady rain since lunchtime. We are in Leurbost, a scattered community on Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides, twenty minutes south of Stornaway.
We arrived here yesterday afternoon, driving up from Leverburgh in South Harris. I booked the cottage on-line a few months ago, but Google maps did us no favours. After what started to feel a long drive their instructions led us only to the garage and the school. Three people in the garage consulted their mobile phones to point us us in the right direction; on the left of the road on a right-hand bend after the church.
This occasional blog has never been a diary. And I am aware that I haven’t written [posted] anything for about three weeks. Partly because all the family came up to Edinburgh the week before last. It was excellent to see them. We saw Jem and family last summer, but hadn’t seen Joanna and Craig and the little girls for over a year. Amazingly it was dry and sunny, and unusually hot, all the week. Jem assembled the new flat-packed garden furniture very competently, and we ate more in the garden than in the house. We did Edinburgh Zoo on the Monday, along with a lot of other families. The new giraffes haven’t arrived, and we failed to find the tiger[s], but there were lots of very entertaining penguins and good ice-creams. Tuesday we went to the beach at Gullane: younger family members went in the sea, we had a carry-out picnic from Cherish, those who didn’t use sun protection got a bit burned; and we ended the outing with more ice-creams.
Later in the week we all went our separate ways.Joanna and Craig and the girls went over the bridge to Fife to see Craig’s Mum. Jem and Anna went to Stirling because either Freya or Oskar is doing a school project on castles. We haven’t been to Stirling for years, but I always remember the castle there being used to stand in for Colditz in the 1955 film with John Mills and Eric Portmaf. Susie and I went down to Berwick for the day and met up with John, an old school-friend whom I hadn’t seen for about thirty years. He is remarried after his first wife died very young of leukaemia. The media is full of stuff about the importance of friends in a time of lock-down. I am grateful for an easy rapport with people I knew at school some sixty years ago.We walked a bit on the town ramparts, and then had lunch at The Maltings, the arts centre with a fine view of Berwick roofs.
Kung: Why Priests ?
Back in Edinburgh I read Han’s Küng’s slim volume on the priesthood. I haver always struggled with the word ‘priest’, and am sceptical about the traditional Anglican dogma of ‘the threefold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons’. Küng starts by suggesting that we no longer know what a ‘bishop’ or a ‘priest’ is. Is he primarily a liturgist ? Or a preacher ? Or an organiser ? Kung explores what he calls the ‘constants’ and the ‘variables’ in ministry:
- administration in the Church is not necessarily a full-time ministry
- the ministry of leadership in the Church is not necessarily a task for life
- the ministry of leadership in the Church is not a social position
- the ministry of leadership does not necessarily require a university education
- the office of leader in the Church does not require celibacy
- ecclesial minsters should not be exclusively masculine
It is radical stuff. We need, he argues, a radical rethinking of the concept of ordination. The calling must not be confused with nomination by the Church to a specific community. Ordination is rather a general call to ecclesial service. It does not take away the humanity and frailty of the individual. Küng does not make any distinction between the ordination of bishops and of priests. He criticises the Catholic emphasis on being ordained “to offer the sacrifice of the mass”; and, equally, the Protestant emphasis on obedience to fixed and polemically oriented confessions of faith.
Kung envisages church leaders being elected by the community. The election of priests and of bishops would be for a fixed term with an obligatory age limit. Local communities are valid churches; subsidiarity means localised decision making, but equally a commitment to solidarity with other communities. “The old, sacralised image of the priest, inherited from the late Roman Empire … is no longer viable, either in theory or in practice.” The job of the leader is edification. Specifically preaching the word. And this may involve posing big questions rather than supplying all the answers. As I read the book I recall the late Colin Bennetts [subsequently Bishop of Coventry] saying to me before a Biahops’ selection conference: in the Church of England, you’re not being ordained to the priesthood [whatever that means]; you’re being ordained as a leadership resource within the church. Quite so !
We left Edinburgh on Saturday morning in bright sunshine in a hired VW Golf. After a few more days we shall probably have mastered the electronic brake. First stop was coffee in Callander, full of cafes and Edinburgh Woollen Mills and shops selling home-made fudge. Readers of a certain age may want to know that this is where, once upon a time, they filmed the television series Dr Finlay’s Casebook. Second stop was The Real Food Cafe in Tyndrum, basically an up-market chippie which does excellent haddock and chips. The Rumanian waiter talked us through the complexities of ordering on-line in a time of COVID. Apart from fish they do excellent cake, but … no.
The weather darkened a bit as we climbed across Rannoch Moor and descended through Glencoe. Our first night away was in The Old Library at Arisaig, close to the sea and under new management. Arisaig is where Susie camped as a child with her family, on Alistair’s croft at Port-Na-Doran. The wife of the couple now at The Old Library is the daughter of Peter, Alistair’s cousin. It’s that sort of community. We had dinner with our good friends Mike and Wendy, who were staying in a cabin just up the road.
Sunday started anxiously with a text from CalMac [the ferry company] saying that, “because of inclement weather conditions …”, they reserved the right to amend or cancel our ferry booking ! Fortified by a substantial Highland Breakfast we walked by the sea at Morar, on Camusdarach Beach as featured in the film Local Hero. And, as England’s Euros campaign was getting under way against Croatia, we were sitting in the car in driving rain at Mallaig waiting for the boat.
The crossing from Mallaig to Lochboisdale in South Uist is three and a half hours. The wind and rain ruled out spending much time on deck. I watched the second half of the England game. And we worked through the Saturday paper and slept in reclining seats, peering briefly at the Isle of Rum through the mists. The boat arrives on time. Lochboisdale is small and undistinguished. Rupert, our host in a very comfortable B&B, is an academic who used to lecture at uni in Aberystwyth, an expert on birdsong and bird communication.
There is time to walk into town, deserted and shop-less, for a drink at the Lochboisdale Hotel, a splendidly old-fashioned establishment overlooking the harbour. Tomorrow we continue north, towards Peter May country, to Harris and Lewis.