I am the proud possessor of a 75-year-old copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. It just happens to be my favourite book, one that I have read again and again. It belonged initially to my mother and is captivatingly illustrated by old-style colour plates.
It’s a story- let me remind you- about a young Lowland Boy David Balfour who goes to claim his inheritance only to be kidnapped and taken away on a boat destined for the Carolinas. However, on the way the boat picks up a shipwrecked Highlander called Allan Breck Stewart who is travelling with money for his clan chief now in hiding after the ‘45 rebellion. David uncovers a plot to murder Allan and take his money and he alerts him. This throws the two of them together. There is a fight in the round house of the boat which results in an agreement that Allan will be put down off shore but in the end, they are shipwrecked and the two new friends find themselves washed ashore on Mull. There follows a series of adventures as they make their way south again. Although they are very different by background and personality a David and Jonathan friendship develops. When they are in flight following the shooting of the Red Fox (Colin Roy Campbell) opportunities present for each to desert the other. However an enduring friendship has been forged and together they win through numerous dangers until they eventually confront the wretched uncle who had conspired to have David sent away to slavery.
The theme behind this brilliant story line is that of a fundamental dualism in Scottish identity. You have one side of the Scottish personality represented by Allan Breck Stewart- the Jacobite, the clansman and the other by David Balfour the Lowland, Whig, Presbyterian. On the one side, there is the Gael who likes a good fight and is fiercely proud, drawn to lost causes tending to mysticism, whose culture is the family orientated land- focussed society of the north. And on the other side the pragmatic, enlightenment shaped, more individualistic and legal minded outlook of the southerner.
I would argue that these tensions come into play in relation to the Free Church and its perception in Scotland. The Free Church’s powerbase is still largely in the north and the Highlands. Perhaps just as importantly, the perception persists that it is a Highland Church and so for many Christians who might otherwise have found a home in the Free Church there is the sense that to move to the Free Church would involve a cultural as well as an ecclesiastical shift.
How does the cultural background of the Free Church present itself? Well, there is the value of kinship where being connected is important. That has led to some Lowland congregations being gatherings of Highland expatriates. Economic, cultural and ecclesiastical changes mean that is much less true today but the impression lingers of Highland outposts in the cities. The Highland temperament is sometimes reflected in a style of preaching which is more passionate but often text based, less hermeneutically controlled and on, occasion, mystical.
The value of kinship surfaces within the models of leadership in the church. The Free Church is not averse to making idols of its minsters but more typically leadership is of a more collegiate nature. There is a greater fear of offending members of the family and the eldership has a stronger role in shaping direction. There is, at a denominational level, a stronger cohesiveness or family identity than pertains in the Church of Scotland. Ministers coming in from the outside will meet with a denomination which is comfortable in its own skin as a Presbyterian church.
On the other hand, evangelicals within the Church of Scotland have become accustomed to a more congregational outlook. The tendency is to set themselves apart from the wider family. They are less concerned about offending the other family members. The “Stillite” stream in the Church of Scotland with its fellowship rooted outside the church in the Crieff Fellowship laid emphasis on the importance of strong ministerial leadership, seeing off resistant kirk sessions and changing church culture by prayer and persistence. Confrontation at a congregational level was regarded as the norm. At a denominational level, it was a case of “keep your head” down because the important work was in the parish.
As an evangelical in the Church of Scotland your identity comes not from being part of the clan but from a commitment to systematic expository ministry. This was the commitment that was required for membership of “Crieff “and a commitment that continues to define allegiance.
For me, the entry to the Free Church of Scotland was easy. My cultural background is Highland and I knew or was related to many people in the Free Church. It is my natural constituency relationally and theologically.
But Christian unity is not predicated on people coming from the same background. In fact, the glory of the church is that by bringing together diverse strands of humanity the wisdom of God is shown in the making of a new people who are one in Christ and whose deep unity transcends all other differences. The unity we have in the church is very different from the unity that is found in the golf club or the Orange Lodge.
Which is why it is sad that at a time when visible unity is so desirable in Scotland anyone could rule out joining the Free Church because they perceive it to be culturally Highland. Sometimes the accusation “too ethnic” reflects a concern that mission to the other cultures in Scotland would be limited. Sometimes it is simply taste. That the Free Church is too Highland, rustic, not middle class enough is the real issue for many as they walk with nose held into the arms of independency.
That is a real shame. In the end of the day David Balfour and Allan Breck Stewart made a good team. In Kidnapped neither culture can do without the other. Both individuals learn a great deal from each other and are stronger together than they would be going it alone. The very name of the vessel on which they meet -the Covenant – is significant because whilst on it they find themselves thrown into a covenant of friendship and loyalty in which they both achieve their goals. And that must be true of the bringing together of cultures in the Free Church. Scotland needs a strong Presbyterian church to speak to the nation in accents it recognises. Highland congregations should be comfortable in their own skin and not be apologetic for the strengths of family, language and identity. But the Free Church is a national church and, as any visitor to the General Assembly now notices, much more diverse than ever before. Allan Breck is holding out a welcoming hand to many more potential David Balfours who will make her more and more complete.