(This is a report from our friend, Geoff Thomas, who has pastored in Wales for 40 years at the same church; we love this church dearly and the believers there; thought you would enjoy reading this dear British pastor’s report of his visit to Scotland– it is alittle long, but really enjoyable if you have interest in Great Britain– Mack T.)
From Geoff Thomas, pastor of Alfred Place Baptist Church, Aberystwyth, Wales
I have just got back from Scotland and here is my report
An invitation to a wedding is always delightful, but to get one taking place just before Christmas it is especially welcome. There is light and sparkle and chill in the air, the frost is on the grass while the church and hotel are warm, the latter with log fires. So I barely hesitated in canceling my annual visit to the Westminster Conference. I forfeited hearing, among others, Iain Murray (“What Can We Learn from the Puritans?”), Bob Godfrey (“the place of tradition”) and John J. Murray (“the recent rediscovery of the Reformed Faith through literature”). The occasion itself, with 200 men gathering there and talking together publicly and privately, is larger than the sum of the individual papers and the official discussions, but unfortunately this year it had to be missed and my son-in-law Gary Brady had to field the question, “Where is your father-in-law?” Nice to be missed, but I had to be at St Albans the Friday 12th December at 10.30 for the wedding of Andrew and Serena.
Spicer Street Evangelical Church, St Albans, has grown phenomenally since it opened about forty years ago and now it has two morning services. The wedding was beautifully simple with grand hymns; Serena had to take some deep breaths to get through her vows without a break in her voice, and I preached on ‘God is love.’ The families and friends of the bride and groom, many of whom never attend a place of worship, listened well. Serena was a student for three years in Aberystwyth and very supportive. Students don’t know how much their discipleship means to a pastor. One final year student has in fact fallen away this term, and that’s a grief to all to whom that student is known. But back to this wedding where a cellist and violinist played Beethoven duets while the wedding register and marriage certificate were being signed. We were able to stroll to the hotel through old St Albans and there they played again while we drank the hot mulled wine which warmed us on this winter’ s day before the meal.
Saturday morning my son-in-law, Gary Brady, and I were up at 6.30 and he drove me to Terminal 5 at Heathrow to fly to the Scottish Hebridean Islands. What an adventure, going to the far north of Scotland in the deep mid-winter. It took an hour’s flight to Edinburgh with the help of a tail wind; an hour’s stopover, and then the 45 minute flight up the backbone of Scotland and across to the Western Isles, touching down 20 minutes early in Stornoway. Malcolm Maclean met me and drove me the hour across the Isle of Lewis to the Isle of Harris and into the village of Scalpay. The village is on the Isle of Harris while the island of Scalpay is attached by a new bridge. The day was absolutely calm and so the numerous loughs were like mirrors and the snow-capped mountains were reflected in the depths of the lake. It was breathtaking. The Free Church Manse is on the side of a hill overlooking a sea inlet; a large boat was moored across the valley on the island side next to the fish factory which has recently closed. In the sea are sea otters, seals and salmon. Men fish from the bridge, which was built linking Scalpay island over the inlet to Harris about ten years ago. It was in fact built in Norway and brought across the North Sea on a boat and exactly settled into its allocated place, a very impressive achievement for the islanders many of whom were sceptical. It was opened by Tony Blair. It immediately rendered the ferry defunct. But what leads people onto the island more easily also leads many off it. Once 600 people lived on the island but now only about a third of that number are inhabitants. They were mostly Gaelic speaking. All six elders speak Gaelic with just two of them feeling fluent enough to pray in English. There is the inevitable linguistic and economic decline of these places on the west coast of the UK which we in Aberystwyth share. As we drove back to the Manse on Saturday night at 8.30 we saw in the car headlights four local lads who had taken their regular walk to the bridge, crossed it and at that moment were returning home. It is the most significant architectural piece on Harris. There are no cafes and just one or two shops in Scalpay. You walk to the bridge and back home.
It was the Scalpay Free Church communion season which they hold four times a year, two major communions with extra meetings starting Thursday evening and ending with a Monday night meeting, but this was an abbreviated series of meetings of Saturday and Sunday, but there was no abbreviation to the Sunday morning 12 noon communion service. We sat to sing the metrical psalms, and we stood for prayer. I preached the sermon and then we sang; I fenced the Table; we sang; I gave a word of invitation and welcome; the common cup and bread were distributed to the people sitting at the designated ‘Table’ as the first seven pews with white cloth on them is referred to; I gave a word of exhortation and we sang the closing psalm. It was a service of an hour and 45 minutes. I preached again at 6 p.m. which was followed by a prayer meeting and the two elders who prayed moved me deeply by their intercessions. Then we turned in at a nearby house for refreshments and I spoke about my pilgrimage and answered questions. They are blessed days and I often wonder about what I can do to emphasize or deepen our communion services, and I do have one or two ideas.
Monday I spent time at four different manses of three different confessional Presbyterian denominations. First we drove to the second community on the Isle of Harris, Leverburgh. This used to be named ‘Obbe’ but in December 1920 it was renamed Leverburgh after the soap tycoon Lord Leverhulme who was generous towards it, setting up a fish processing site and widening the harbour. But when he died five years later this source of support finished too and the 33,000 acres were sold in 1925 for nine hundred pounds. Today the population is 200 people; there we spent an hour with the Free Presbyterian minister, Kenneth Macleod who edits the Free Presbyterian Magazine which I enjoy and whose editorials and book reviews I put on the Banner of Truth website. A relatively young man, he has been a widower for a decade and he showed me a photograph of his late wife as we were leaving.
Then Malcolm drove me almost the length of the Hebrides, well, from south Harris to north Lewis (the large island of Uist does lie to the south-west), from Leverburgh north-west to Back to spend a couple of hours in the Free Church manse with Iain D. Campbell. They are building a splendid addition to their church, a large hall which they need in a unique way because of their growth, and the two languages in which the church worships. Iain reminds me of Joel Beeke in his piety, in writing prodigiously, in preaching powerfully and the way they both take the gospel everywhere. They shared a conference together for the first time earlier this year. I would love to have been listening to them on that occasion and sense the dynamics of the relationship, but both men are going to be in Geneva in July at the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin (of which I have heard nothing since July). I had supper with the Campbells and then he took me to the airport from whence I flew the 35 minutes across the Minch to Inverness (‘the Queen of the Highlands’) on mainland Scotland. I was met by Associate Presbyterian minister Calum MacInnes and thus ended the day at the fourth manse of the third denomination. It has been sixteen years since I stayed here with them at their communion season and I remember we had gone to the Free North after our own evening service for its centenary service. Kenny Macdonald came down from Rosskeen to preach. His daughter, Alison, had disappeared on a vacation in northern India. Calum has a cousin who is the father of twenty children, beautiful Christian children, many of them married. They worship with the Free Presbyterians.
On Tuesday evening Calum drove me to Dingwall and I spoke in the hall of Dingwall Free Church opposite the Highland Theological Academy. Forty or fifty gathered, some families, younger men and pastors. I preached on the God of hope filling us with joy and peace as we trust in him, and I thought there was a divine blessing on the occasion. After the meeting was over they took me into the auditorium which has been unchanged since the days when Dr. John Kennedy was the pastor and Spurgeon preached there. They have gutted the downstairs, removed all the pews, many going to a church in Romania, carpeting the whole and bringing in 120 chairs, making a new pulpit in the front and two screens lit from the back for the Powerpoint hymns and sermon outlines. There are that number who attend on Sunday mornings and 80 in the evenings, and Angus, the pastor, has had new people joining the church at every communion season. There were some objections to these changes but the redecoration of the whole building in its original colours, and the good taste in which the work has done, and the fact that money has come in to pay the whole cost of almost 300,000 pounds for these renovations has silenced virtually everyone. The gallery which seats 600 has not been changed.
On Wednesday morning I was picked up by William Mackenzie who heads Christian Focus publications and taken to his house for coffee which his wife, a prolific children’s writer, prepared. Christian Focus produce 120 new copies a year and some of them are enormous books such as Douglas Kelly’s new first volume of his three volumed Systematic Theology. William wanted to know what works of mine he could print and I floundered (I have to offer anything to the Banner first) suggesting lamely the sermons on 2 Corinthians as so few sermons on that book are in print (I know of none). He was more interested in gathering together my children’s talks, but none of those has been recorded, and also they are just written on scraps of paper. Lot of work; no time. “Send them to us,” he pleaded. He told me of his contacts with an array of men, Sinclair Ferguson, John Piper, Alistair Begg, Dick Lucas and Richard Bewes. He knows them intimately and he and his wife speak on raising children in a Christian way in conferences in some of their churches. He would like to supply a pile of books for the next Eccentrics conference in Cardiff. He gave me half a dozen books including Steve Levy’s volume on an introduction to the New Testament and the collected writings of Alan Stibbs.
He took me to the King’s View Christian Centre (as the Associate Presbyterian church is known) and I spoke to 65 older people at their luncheon club where half a dozen people with learning difficulties joined us. What a lunch! It was a three course Christmas dinner followed by coffee and Christmas cake and chocolates. We sang two carols with an organ and then I sang to them in Welsh ‘O Iesu Mawr’ to Llef. Then I preached evangelistically and simply for 20 minutes. During and after the meal I spoke to a number of people, especially to Ross a young father soon to enter the ministry who is a close friend of Ali Johnson, a friend of Fflur’s in Cardiff whose little boy Padi has a brain tumour, of which family Fflur often speaks so admiringly and tenderly. Strangely enough this very day Padi was being taken with other children with cancer from south Wales to 10 Downing Street to meet the Prime Minister and afterwards to decorate the Christmas Tree in Highgrove. There was a report of the visit on Welsh television news.
After the meal I spoke to an old friend Donald who used to arrange the transport for the royal family in their journeys around the Highlands and who has got to know the Princess Royal, Princess Ann, closely and has given her many Bibles. “If she would only begin to read them,” he said longingly. He told me of the extraordinary conversion of a drunkard and drug addict in Inverness who died at 50, but he could not remember telling me of the scrap metal trader, a tinker, who had a similar dramatic conversion 16 years ago. You would think that such a transformation no one could ever forget. I would never forget it. Are such conversions so commonplace in Inverness? It was a happy hour and a privilege to speak to them that lunchtime.
There is the Campbell family nearby, Free Presbyterians, and they have twenty children. Isn’t that amazing? Beautiful children. When one of the last ones was born the doctor commented to the father that he had a very large family. “We believe in being fruitful and multiplying and replenishing and filling the earth,” replied the Mr Campbell. “Yes, but not you alone,” protested the doctor. The family include David Campbell, some of whose reviews I have put on the Banner website. His older brother William is the General Treasurer of the Free Presbyterians, and a sister works for the Banner of Truth.
In the evening about 80 folk gathered in the King’s View Christian Centre and I spoke to them on the Welsh Revival of 1904. I didn’t want it to be ‘revivals long ago and far away’ to make them discouraged and I could give that event an immediacy through family connections. It was a happy time in this A.P. church and I promised to go back in 2010 for a communion season.
The journey home was long; the plane to Edinburgh; the plane to Heathrow where Eleri was waiting for me. I took her to the Welsh school for the afternoon and the evening Christmas concert and then drove home to Aberystwyth getting here at 7.20. Six whole days away, but I believe it was a useful time, certainly for myself. That night an alcoholic friend phoned from Cornwall. He used to be in the congregation and I spoke to him warmly, but then he called me back again at half past midnight waking me up, and then again at 2.30 a.m. when I did not get back to sleep and again at 8 a.m. I missed the Friday 7 a.m. prayer meeting for revival because of this sleeplessness, but Iola got up and went. I had thought as my former congregation member of ten years ago was talking to me, by the slowness of his speech, that he was hitting the bottle. Christmas is a bad time for lonely people with drinking problems.
Friday night was carol singing for the shut-ins and the tiny ones sang ‘Away in a Manger’ in the morning service. We were at the traditional lowest congregation of the year on Sunday night, but I loved preaching on Isaiah 11, the shoot of Jesse and the fullness of the Spirit resting upon him, and his reign of peace, the lion and lamb lying down together. It passes all understanding. When you preach in the Spirit you forget how many or how few are listening to you.
On Tuesday (Christmas Eve’s eve) the first of the girls arrived at 11 p.m., Catrin with her Ian and their 14 month son Osian. What a delight to have this inquisitive little boy crawling rapidly everywhere. They were joined by our daughter Fflur and family on Saturday, and late Sunday night after their service our first daughter Eleri and family arrived after their evening service. 17 of us slept everywhere for the next few days until they begin to drift off to other family members. Church members came to eat with us Christmas Day and the next days. The turkey was picked up from the butcher shop Wednesday morning. There were soccer games on Boxing Day and Monday the 29th, some solitary moments of reading snatched here and there . . .and then Consequences, Pictionaryand Twenty Questions . . . family games. The nine grandchildren entertain one another and the baby is handed from one to another—Golden days.
– Geoff Thomas