SEI October 2020 Newsletter

The Scottish Episcopal Institute, which is responsible for training priests, deacons and lay readers in our Church, produces a monthly newsletter.

This edition of the Newsletter is the first of the new academic session.  Orientation Week this year was held on-line (see image above) and gave the new and returning students the opportunity to get to know each other and the staff.  Read all about it and much other SEI news in SEI Newsletter October 2020.

The SEI Journal’s Autumn issue features a set of articles on Pilgrimage. It includes papers from a Conference at the Church of St Margaret of Scotland, Aberdeen, in September 2018, organised by the Church in Society Committee of the Scottish Episcopal Church. The aims of the Conference were to review the history of pilgrimage in the northern part of Scotland, to assess its contribution to Scottish heritage and culture, and to look ahead to how it might continue to contribute to the development and maintenance of Christianity in Scotland.

The Journal hopes to continue to publish on the topic of pilgrimage in
its Winter 2020 issue and throughout 2021. Two years ago, the College of Bishops designated 2021 a Year of Provincial Pilgrimage. The Rt Revd Anne Dyer, Bishop of Aberdeen and Orkney, lead bishop in this initiative, said: “In this designated year of pilgrimage we will be encouraging as many people as possible to make a holy journey of some kind. This can include taking part in an organised pilgrimage or spending time individually or in groups simply focusing on our own spiritual journeys.

Cycles of Life

photo by JRP

Le Quattro Volte” is an idiosyncratic film by Michelangelo Frammartino. It lasts for an hour and a half, following cycles of life in the hills of Calabria. In four chapters the film successively chronicles a year in the life of an old man, a young goat, a tree and a batch of charcoal. There’s no dialogue, you do hear murmurs of human speech, but they’re unintelligible and there are no subtitles. There’s also the barking of a dog, the bleating of goats and clanging of their bells and the wind sighing in the branches of the gigantic pine that’s felled for a village celebration.

Perhaps watching such a film doesn’t sound like a particularly entertaining way to spend 90 minutes, but when I saw it in 2011, I found it captivating. In the same way I found watching a small cluster of fly agarics (Amanita muscaria) last week. They emerged, looking for all the world like iconic toadstools in a Walt Disney cartoon, but by the following day they looked more like plates, then like shallow bowls, after which they fell over and started to disintegrate.

They say that the one certainty in life is change and, as in both the film and the toadstools, change often occurs in cycles. The cycles may be over years, months, weeks or days, but there’s an inevitability to them, whatever the cycle length. Most of us find change unsettling, even when it is part of what one might call gentle cycles, as illustrated in my examples.

However over the last seven months we have had a great deal of a much more disruptive change thrust upon us. One of the more difficult aspects of change is the grief that we feel for what has been taken away. We recognise grief when someone that we love dies or suffers from a life-changing accident or disease. We may also recognise grief when we lose something that has been a familiar part of our life, or that hold precious memories for us. But we may also grieve for our way of life, the things that we are used to doing, the people that we are used to meeting or gathering with.

Grieving isn’t a well defined process with clearly delineated stages as is often written about in self-help books. Grief is individual and if there are stages, one may bounce backwards and forwards dealing with denial, isolation, anger, bargaining, depression before accommodating and accepting a ‘new normal’.

Over the past few months, I have found the cycles of nature very helpful in adapting to the changes that have happened and that may be what appealed to me about “Le Quattro Volte”. I have also found the psalms to be of great comfort, because the psalmist frequently found change and the circumstances in which he found himself troubling and God was always there at his side to comfort him.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.


Three in One

St Columba’s in Brora has been open for Individual Prayer on a Sunday afternoons for many weeks now, but on today (27th September) the Eucharist was once again celebrated in the “Tin Tabernacle”.

It was a lovely occasion, where we marked a Trinity of events. St Columba’s opened for worship after three years of closure due to fire on 28th September 2019, so this weekend marked the first anniversary of resumption of worship.

It was of course our first service since the start of lock-down in March, some six months ago.

Finally, it was the last service of Don Grant’s period of curacy with us and fittingly, he was presented with a painting of Brora beach, to remind him and Silvia of their time with St Columba’s. Thank you Don for what you have done in Brora over the last twelve months and we all wish you well in the next phase of ministry based out of the Cathedral in Inverness.

We weren’t of course able to have a party to celebrate these things but Claudia spend this morning making individual ‘cup-cake’ birthday cakes with a candle in the middle for each member of the congregation – thanks so much Claudia.

Thanks to everyone who helped to prepare the Church, the flowers and provide us with lovely music during the service and of course everyone who was there filling the Church to almost its (COVID) capacity. St Columba’s will now be open for worship each Sunday at 4pm.

Sermon for Pentecost 16A (20th September 2020)

Jonah 3:10-4:11; Psalm 145:1-8; Phil 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

When I worked in the University of Glasgow, every year it was up to each of us to decide whether or not to apply for promotion or an extra increment or whatever we thought we deserved. In short, in order to get on, you had to blow your own trumpet loudly and often.

Applications were filtered by the head of department, who wrote a supportive (or otherwise) statement before passing it on to the relevant committee who ranked them and made awards within the cash limits they had.

I had a colleague who did this every year and was generally successful in getting something – until the head of department changed. Under the new management he didn’t get anything and he wasn’t a happy bunny. You see the new head of department didn’t think that the system was fair – especially for those who worked hard and achieved good results but when required to ‘puff up’ what they’d done, just couldn’t do it. The new boss coached them in ‘selling’ their contribution and insisted they submit an application from time to time.

Well after being knocked back a couple of times, my colleague declared that what was happening was grossly unfair, resigned and took up a job at another University at a lower salary.

I was also knocked back under the new regime and since I wasn’t in the habit of applying, I was rather cross and went to see the head of department and she said (yes in case you hadn’t guessed the old HoD was a man and the new one a woman) “I can see why you’re angry, I would be too, so go on have a good yell at me”. I said “no you tell me why and I’ll decide whether or not to yell”. So she told me that from her perspective, three other people had been deserving of promotion for some time, but not applied and once they’d been dealt with it would be my turn.

I’ll let you figure out whether I yelled or not.

Fairness isn’t an absolute, it depends on both the situation and a person’s perspective. The colleague who left had a very different perspective from the new head of department, those who didn’t apply for promotion and from me – lots of different perspectives.

Today’s readings are all about fairness and perspective. First we have Jonah. Jonah is a prophet and God’s told him that he is going to smite Nineveh and its people unless they mend their ways. Jonah takes great delight in proclaiming this and quite contrary to expectation, they do exactly what they’re told, mend their ways and go around in sackcloth and ashes.

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.

Jonah isn’t happy that they’ve listened to what he’s said and mended their ways, he’s worried that he’s going to look a right idiot, because he’s forecast destruction and it hasn’t happened. From his perspective, he’d rather God sent judgement than mercy, even if it calls into question his skills as a prophet.

In our Gospel, we meet an employer who takes on workers and offers them a fair wage. Three times he decides that he needs more workers and offers them a fair wage too. The first set start at the beginning of the day and the last ones just an hour before evening. The employer pays them all the same wage, starting with those who’ve only worked an hour. The other groups then expect to get more, more than they agreed when they were hired, since after all, they’ve done more work.

Those who started early aren’t complaining that they didn’t get what they were promised and what they agreed to, but that they didn’t get extra because they worked longer, than those taken on later. They’re not happy for those who finally got work later on, but grumpy that these folk get the same wage.

Was is the fault of those who spent most of the day without work? The short answer is we don’t know, but when I hear politicians say that the unemployed are all lazy scroungers, I do become a little uneasy. There may be some that are, but there’ll be many who aren’t and whose lack of work causes them and their families much pain, anxiety and stress.

One thing that the present pandemic has thrown into sharp relief is the many inequalities and unfairnesses in our society.

The Book of Jonah is wonderful in that it tries to get us to understand how God tries to work with us in spite of our resistance! God even provides a shady bush so that Jonah can have a grandstand view of this wonderful transformation of Nineveh, but he just can’t take pleasure from it. Jonah’s in a massive sulk! It’s easy to blame Jonah for being so petty, none of us do that sort of thing do we, not even my ex-colleague? But it’s about putting aside our own concerns, just long enough to see the things that God’s doing, right in front of our noses.

When God tries to reason with Jonah, comparing his suffering to the much worse suffering of many thousands of others, Jonah simply doesn’t want to hear. He’s locked in the perspective of his own misery and self-pity. God’s ways are not our ways, God’s perspective is not our perspective.

Both the parable in the Gospel and the story of Jonah make the same point: they show us our tendency to see the world through the lens of our own self-centredness. We are generally moved by the fate of starving millions or those caught up in hurricanes or earthquakes, or those killed in horrific accidents or terrorist outrages, but if something relatively trivial happens in our own lives, our suffering can eclipse all of theirs.

Our faith urges us to try to love others at least as deeply as we love ourselves, to feel their pain at least as acutely as we feel our own. And it can be done – some of the most truly inspirational (and coincidently happy) people I’ve ever met were people who could escape from their own perspective and empathise with the situation that others have found themselves in.

It’s worth remembering that whatever new restrictions come in over the next week or two, some people will be affected in perhaps life-changing ways, whilst others will be merely irritated – an important distinction for us all to recognise.


Midweek in St Andrew’s from 16th September

From this Wednesday (16th September), the afternoon arrangements will change (as agreed at a Vestry meeting last week).

St Andrew’s will no longer be open from 2pm until 4pm for Individual Prayer.

It will however be open:

  • from 5pm until 5:45pm for Individual Prayer 
  • from 6pm until 6:40pm for a Midweek Eucharist 

Both will be in the main Church and those arriving should come to the main Church door (unless they have mobility issues that make getting up the steps tricky).

I hope that you will find these new arrangements helpful.

Many Blessings

Prayer in the Upper Room

Fir Chlis Chapel

The Return is a movement which invites people return to God by coming before His presence in humility, in sincerity, in prayer and in repentance.

From the Biblical Feast of Trumpets (18th September) until the Day of Atonement (28th September).  We are invited to observe 10 Days of Prayer, Fasting, and Repentance.

During this period, Kathleen Pannell will be opening her “Upper Room” chapel at Fir Chlis in Tongue to anyone feeling led to come to offer prayer. Should you wish to drop in for a while you would be most welcome.

The door will be open from 10am until 8pm each day.

Kathleen has put in place measures to implement Government Guidelines regarding Covid-19. There will be sanitiser and masks in the hall and a book to record a name and phone number. Those dropping in should take responsibility for ensuring Social distancing both in the chapel and whilst entering and leaving.

During this period, Rev Beverly Cushman is going to post a special prayer on the Altnaharra and Farr and the Melness and Tongue websites each day.

Please phone Kathleen if you need any more information

Rewilding the Church

I have been sent a book for review entitled “Rewilding the Church”. In it Steve Aisthorpe sees the Church as having slipped out of kilter with its head – Jesus. He uses the metaphor of the rewilding used to restore a balance between nature and its environment, to suggest the corrective that we need to get back on track. He writes: “The New Testament’s vision of Church is not a herd of people with common beliefs or shared behaviours. Rather, it is a community centred on Jesus [which] draws them together in a shared quest of Christward transformation.

The last six months have had a profound effect on all our lives. Gone are a lot of the certainties that we’ve come to rely on. One of those certainties was that there would be services of worship, according to a regular pattern, in eight locations around Sutherland and Tain.

For much of that time, there’ve been no services and, even though there has been a resumption in Dornoch and Tain and also three church buildings open for Individual Prayer, there are a number of places where we can’t yet meet and people who for many reasons can’t be present even though they would like to be.

We’ve all spent much of more time on our own with God these last few months and the gatherings online, the broadcast services and now the hygienic, distanced and masked services aren’t the same as the familiar experiences we were used to and it can all seem very strange indeed.

Increasingly in our society, there are people who used to go to church who now describe themselves as Christians who do not go to church. What does our experience of the last six months say about such a position? Have we not all been Christians who do not go to church? Overwhelmingly the people that I talk to in our congregations speak about missing the fellowship of worshipping and praying together. They’ve come to realise just how important community is in being followers of Jesus. We seem to be very keen to get back to meeting up for prayer and praise, rather than only engaging with God on our own. Far from being the end of the Church, lockdown seems to have made us all appreciate the time that we spend together as the Body of Christ, the Community of Faith.

The balance between being with God on our own and being together with God is described by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, always the one to express things neatly in just a few words: “Let him [or her] who cannot be alone beware of community … Let him [or her] who is not in community beware of being alone.

Steve Aisthorpe concludes that “Rewilding the Church is not about implementing our best ideas with unusual passion; it requires stopping or slowing down, a conscious setting aside of preconceptions and a determination to discern what God is doing and our role in that.” Now is probably an ideal time to do just that.


Worshipping again in St Andrew’s

Today we celebrated our first post-lockdown Service at St Andrew’s in Tain, five months to the day since our last one.  It was good to be back in each other’s company, even if behind a colourful array of masks.

It was a joyous occasion for the all those who were there this morning, with the sun streaming through the windows, as we lit the Paschal Candle and acknowledged Christ as the ‘Light of the World’.

Almighty God,
you sent your Son to be the light of the world
and to bring to your people the radiance of your glory:
set us aflame with the fire of your love,
and renew us in faith and hope,
that we may shine as a light in the world,
and glorify you in our lives;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Preaching about a text that seems to resonate with so much that’s happening just now, James reminded us that “we have to remember is that as well as being fully God, Jesus was also fully human and what I find so refreshing about his encounter with the Canaanite Woman is that we don’t see a goody goody Jesus, we see a real human being, struggling with the difficult decisions and issues that you and I face every day.”

Although we weren’t able to sing, Jamie provided appropriate music on the organ at a number of points in the Service, including the Hallelujah Chorus to leave by.  By next week it will feel a little less strange sitting scattered around the Church  and doing things in a slightly different way from what we are used to.

A big thanks to everyone who contributed in so many ways.

There will now be a Service in St Andrew’s, Tain at 11am each Sunday in addition to the one in St Finnbarr’s, Dornoch, also at 11am each Sunday.

Three Churches Now Open for Prayer

St Columba’s, Brora open 4pm -6pm on Sundays

St Finnbarr’s in Dornoch and St Andrew’s in Tain have been open for Individual Prayer for a few weeks and have now been joined by St Columba’s, Brora.  A fair number of people have taken the opportunity to drop in for a little while during the two hour periods that the Churches have been open.

St Finnbarr’s, Dornoch open 10am -12pm on Wednesdays


St Andrew’s, Tain open 2pm-4pm on Wednesdays

A Psalm of lament and praise in a time of coronavirus

How shall we praise you, Lord, our God?

When we are locked down, how shall we praise you?
When the doors to your house are barred, and your people cannot assemble?
When those urgently in need of money and work can’t even wait in the market-place?
When we have to circle round people in the street,
and to queue for shops maintaining safe distance?
When we can only communicate by hearing on the phone,
or seeing on the screen; or by digital messaging,
or even just waving through a window?
When we cannot meet our parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren,
or other family members and friends?
When we cannot touch them in their flesh and blood, to know they are really alive?

How shall we praise you?
How, like Thomas, shall we not see yet believe that your son is raised among us?
How shall we praise you?

Lord, I will try to praise you.
Through gritted teeth, I will try to praise you.
I will try to remember that you created all things, and this virus is part of creation.
I will try not to hate it but seek to mitigate its harm.
I will try to do my bit to keep others safe, by the way that I behave.
I will pray for all those around me and seek to help in whatever way I can.

Lord, when I cannot pray or worship help me be aware of all your people
and your saints and angels hovering around me, lifting me up.
When I feel alone, let me feel you near me,
even if only for a moment that enables me to go on.
Let me hear you say “Peace be with you”.