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Communion Season in the Scottish Hebrides

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Category Articles
Date September 13, 2017

I haven’t been to a communion season in the Scottish Hebrides for three or four years and so when Hugh Ferrier invited me to come to their August Communion Season this year, I was delighted to accept.

The High Free Church Stornoway

The High Church in Stornoway was the largest Church of Scotland congregation in the Hebrides until April 2014 when it joined the ranks of those seceding from the denomination. The ordination as well as marriage services of practicing homosexuals being commended by the Church of Scotland was more than enough reason for these godly, serious Stornoway believers to vote to leave. Almost every man in the High congregation seceded.

It was a costly decision, resulting in them having to leave their building and losing their manse. For many, it was a difficult transition as their parents and grandparents had worshiped in that church building. In October that year, they voted to join the Free Church of Scotland and were accepted, becoming the only congregation of the Free Church on Lewis and Harris that had a piano to accompany the praise, and sung hymns alongside the Psalms in their services.

The continuing concern of the High Church was to call someone to be their pastor. How evangelical and confessional will he be? May he have an awakening ministry– something we very much need– but can you have this without being a Bible-believing man? The High Free Church did indeed call a pastor in September 2015, 28 year old Hugh Ferrier, and it was he who invited me to preach there.  The English speaking church now meets in the Main Hall of Stornoway Primary School while the Gaelic speaking people in the church meet in the Small Hall. The singing of each drifts between the rooms.

The High Free has been able to buy a fine manse and also purchase land with a plan to fund and build a new church, the fund for which is growing by leaps and bounds. An architect has designed the new building which has met with the congregation’s approval. There are 200 in attendance at the meetings, just a little less in the evening service than in the mornings, a grand group of elders, lots of children and teenagers, and many godly women. It is a growing church.

If you are interested in reading more of the story of the secessionist movement in the Church of Scotland then it is well recorded in David J. Randall’s book, A Sad Departure: Why We Could Not Stay in the Church of Scotland. We seceders from the Baptist Union never produced a book that defined and explained our decision although Basil Howlett’s 1966 And All That gives a helpful history of those days. There is a doctrine taught by our Lord that is our message is opposed and demeaned then there comes a point where we are to brush the dust from our feet and move on.

The Communion Season

The Lord’s Supper is generally held four times a year in the Hebrides and all of the churches in Stornoway hold it on the same dates. Churches in other parts of the island hold their communion at other times of year. Twice a year a visiting preacher comes to the High Free but on the other two occasions Hugh Ferrier takes the services. You might think that there should be more than four communions in a year, but worship in Scotland is centered not on the Table but the pulpit. Nevertheless, as it is observed on successive weekends at different churches within Presbyterian bounds, it is possible to take communion in other congregations up to a dozen times a year within that denomination.

In the recent past (well within the memory of the middle-aged church members) the shops of Stornaway were closed from Wednesday evening and the schools closed on the Friday. Thursday was the ‘Fast Day’ with a focus on human sinfulness and the great need for grace. I can remember participating in ‘The Question’ in the Associate Presbyterian Church on the island when on the Friday morning one of the elders put a question to the ministers and elders concerning a verse from Scripture and one by one we gave our interpretation.

The theme of Communion Fridays was one of self-examination but the ‘Fast Day’ and ‘The Question’ generally no longer happen. The elders working on Thursdays and Fridays are no longer free to leave their crofts and their work as would have been the case in earlier times. These days a number of the Stornoway shops remain open on Fridays.

I preached on Friday night and then there was an after-service. Visitors and those not intending to come to the Table left. A reading followed before all who were coming to the Table formed a line, leaving their seats row by row, and making their way to the front in a queue, each took a lead token from an elder, a token which they would present as they came to the table on Sunday morning.

I also preached on Saturday morning and twice on the Lord’s Day. I preached what is called the ‘Action Sermon’ then fenced the Table on Sunday morning. The Collected Writings of John Murray provides a couple of fine examples of the manner in which he fenced the Table, instructing who might not participate in the ordinance. To ‘fence’ is an old Scots legal term meaning simply to constitute a court. Put simply, it is not an open Table. The service was ordered, stately, and reverent.  At the Table, absolute silence was preserved and it was a solemn time. Afterwards the Rev. Roddy John Campbell gave a second address, brief and tender.

We sang two hymns and two Psalms at all the services and I preached on the cross on Sunday morning. On Sunday evening I led in an evangelistic service and gave testimony in the after-meeting about how God had dealt with me as a teenager and later called me to service. Friday night, after the service, we went home for fellowship and finally, at quarter past midnight, two of the elders prayed and a minister read a chapter of Philippians to us, after which a retired minster led us int he singing of a metrical Psalm.

It used to be that the Fellowship meeting was a Friday morning event if sharing and discussion. In one of the first such meetings almost 200 years ago Francis MacBean presided and the discussion centered on the text, ‘The hope of the hypocrite shall perish.’ The hope of the self-deceived or false professor was discussed at length and during the rim Francis MacBean made this observation; ‘When the hypocrite is in a company  and hears something rich and convicting that pleases the people, he says to himself, “I’ll put that in my pocket,” and when he hears the next thing that pleases the people he will say to himself again, “I will put that too in my pocket, and when I shall see myself being called on to take part in a service I’ll take those fine helpful things out of my pocket and tell them to my hearers and then the people will say, ‘Isn’t that the godly man?'” Isn’t that the hypocrite?

It was a blessing as ever to be there in Stornoway, and I greatly admires the men and women I met and spoke to. Hugh Ferrier has such a privilege to pastor this likable and holy congregation. There are just two congregations left in the Hebrides today who hold a Gaelic service every Sunday, the High Free Church being one of them. Others might hold a Gaelic prayer meeting or perhaps a monthly service in Gaelic.

May the Lord bless all the gospel churches on the island of Lewis and Harris.

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