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  • Dougie

Give me the child until he is seven ...

Updated: Apr 19

A sliced, toasted hot cross bun sits on a brown plate
'Formidable' hot cross buns by L'epi, Canberra

For the first twelve years or so of my life I was steeped in the culture, traditions and teachings of the Church of Scotland. Known as the Kirk, it was (and remains) the dominant form of Scottish Presbyterianism; the Christian mainstream (so to speak) established and led by the 16th Century Calvinist, John Knox.

Although -- to be entirely Scottish and Presbyterian about it -- it would not be in keeping with the Kirk's distaste for what we now call 'celebrity culture' to allow John Knox to take all the credit. Not even on Thursday, 27th August 1560 when something called The Scottish Confession was approved by the parliament of what was (back then) an independent Scotland.

There was -- I kid you not -- a committee of six Johns: John Douglas, John Knox, John Row, John Spottiswood, John Wilcock and John Winram. No cult of the personality among our Presbyterian 'founders'. And no Janets either, I note, Although, to be fair to the Church of Scotland, it did ordain women in 1968, a mere twenty-four years before the Church of England.

Mind you, it was the same John Knox that penned -- two years earlier -- a polemic by the name of The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstruous Regiment of Women. He meant regimen, of course, rather than regiment. But you get his point, I'm sure. Female monarchs were alleged to be anathema to biblical orthodoxy.

blue-grey stature of John Knox, right hand raised to the sky, left hand clutching a bible next to his heart.
John Knox makes a point at New College quadrangle, Edinburgh. (Pic: Kim Traynor 2011)

The committee of the six Johns, by the way, published their great reformation tract about a year before Prince James Charles Stuart (age, 13 months) was crowned King James VI of Scotland. And almost 21 years before his mother 'Mary Queen of Scots got her heid chapped aff' -- on the orders of his godmother and her cousin, Queen Elizabeth.

There is (also by the way, by the way) a nursery rhyme Scottish children used to recite while decapitating dandelions (boys, generally) or skipping (girls -- more frequently).

Mary Queen of Scots got her head chopped off
Head chopped off, head chopped off.
Mary Queen of Scots got her head chopped off
On a cold and frosty morning.

Back in the mid-1500s though, it was still 43 years before the 'Union of the Crowns' when King James VI of Scotland became (additionally) King James I of England because his regicidal godmother (Elizabeth, you may recall) died without a (legitimate) heir. And maybe with no heir at all. But by 1603, the English were in desperate need of a Protestant monarch because James's dead godmother's father -- King Henry VIII of the many wives -- had previously burned his bridges with the Pope (whose monasteries he had also dissolved).

Pertinent to my later thoughts here, it would be another eight years before James VI and I, King of Scotland and England, sponsored and allowed to be published what's now known as the King James or Authorised Version of The Holy Bible.

Personally, I always thought it was God that did the authorising ... Let there be light! etc., etc.


It is that 'Good Book' which kicked off these meandering ruminations on Easter Sunday. Particularly, Chapter 13 of St. Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians.

It begins,

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but I do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

And it ends,

And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.

To be raised within what became known as the "national church" of Scotland (as distinct from its State Church) was (and is) no bad thing. The Kirk emerged out of the Great Reformation of the six Johns and has been reforming itself, Scotland, and the world, ever since -- like some Presbyterian version of Leon Trotsky's permanent revolution. But with less internecine warfare and more Sunday schools, pastoral care and charitable do-gooding.

None of which are necessarily bad things. Except internecine warfare -- obviously.

My mum and dad brought me up to believe one should strive to do good. And Jim Herd -- named after the king and his own father, grandfather and many preceding generations of eldest sons named James -- was an Elder of the Kirk (even though he died aged 44, which seems shockingly young for anyone going by that Church title). My mother, as it happens, is named Elizabeth (Betty). Fortunately we seem to have safely carried the names of monarchs down through the 400 or so years since the whole Stuart/Tudor dynasty thing ended in tears (and beheadings) although we are definitely not royal.

There is, consequently, less regicide for which the Herd family needs to apologise. None, in fact. Although my younger brother Joe did receive a gong from Her Maj at the Palace of Holyrood House where Mary, Queen of Scots used to live. So ... you never can tell.

But back to why I'm here. Wasting your time if you've read this far.

My father -- who was not particularly left wing in his political views (for his era and background in Scotland) -- was, nevertheless, part of what I think of as the engaged and activist part of Kirk life. He was an active member and youth leader of Church House at St Francis-in-the-East in Bridgeton, Glasgow. in the 1940s and 1950s.

Old grey Scottish church with spire and arched stained glass window above the entrance
St. Francis-in-the-East Church of Scotland: Bridgeton, Glasgow (pic: Scotland's Churches Trust)

In his thirties my dad was involved with the Iona Community -- which I've always thought of as the muscular wing of Scottish Presbyterianism's doing good. Later, Jim Herd became an Elder of St Luke's Church of Scotland in Milngavie (pronounced Mullguy ... I do not know why).

He did good. And I am nothing if not the son of my father and mother.

Whatever it is I think motivates whatever it is I think I contribute to life, its roots are found, as much as anywhere else, in the reformed, engaged, activist Scottish Presbyterian Kirk to which my father was deeply committed. 1 Corinthians 13 drives me at least as much as -- oh, I don't know --

  • The Communist Manifesto of 1848 or

  • Antonio Gramsci's theory of political hegemony or

  • Shelia Rowbotham's Hidden from History (1973) and Beyond the Fragments (1979) or

  • Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987) or

  • the poems of Pablo Neruda, or

  • 'Prison Trilogy (Billy Rose)' on Joan Baez's 1972 album Come from the Shadows, and

  • all the rest.

And my Scottish Presbyterian upbringing has shaped, influenced and improved me at least as much as

  • my actor-director friend Trevor in Northern Ireland whose Bottom I have seen (boom! boom!) or

  • my late, lamented friends Alan Christie (a Glasgow Rangers supporter, bless his cotton socks), Charlie Angus (a loving husband and father and much more besides), and Martin Currie ("discharged as an indulgence") or

  • the wise women in Edinburgh (too many to name-check here) or

  • the unstoppable Shazza in Sydney or

  • Jon and Rosie (also in Sydney) and

  • all the many others I have not seen for a long time.

Those people (and many more) have done their best to save me from myself and stop me being a dickhead. Although -- don't get me wrong -- I have frequently been a dickhead. I will probably be so, several times again, for however long remains. Trust me. Dickheads know. We are serial offenders.

And what, exactly, is your point Douglas?

This, I suppose. On Easter Sunday.

I am not a Christian.

I hold no belief in God or any gods (of which there may still be many apparently). But, I respect everyone's right to believe -- not simply because I'm a bleeding heart liberal. But for as long as they do not try to force those beliefs or their personal dogmas onto me or anyone else.

Some of the finest people I've ever known -- Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews -- live with and for their deep faith. I've learned a lot from them. But I am not of any Church.

That being said, I couldn't possibly escape the effect upon me of the rich and empowering tradition that began with the committee of the six Johns. Nor would I want to.

So it was today -- Easter Sunday -- unbidden -- I thought of 1 Corinthians 13, verse 13 in particular (performing my own version of a great reformation, to better reflect me, as I go through life trying to honour the values my parents gave me):

... these three remain:

  • faith (by which I mean trust and an abiding confidence in the fundamental decency of humanity, especially in the face of the current horrors perpetrated by some humans).

  • hope (that although "the arc of the moral universe is long ... it bends toward justice" as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put it), and

  • love (the greatest of the three).

I try. I fail often, of course. But as Samuel Beckett pithily observed, "Next time, fail better."

Spike bought us hot cross buns this morning from L'epi, the fabby French bakery at the shops not far from our home. And, a couple of days ago, Spike also bought some more-than-decent chocolate from a shop in Kingston, near the Canberra Glassworks where she creates glass art and objects.

The baked goods and chocolate carry no symbolic meaning or significance in my life. But that's just me. You may believe something different. I simply think we should all believe with kindness.

Love n peace. Our world needs more of both right now.

A bar of cholate resting on a layer of mini chocolate eggs in brightly coloured wrappers in a small oblong wicker basket
Rosie chai chocolate ... Who knew?

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