Auld Reekie, reeks no more

Article by   September 2010
In days gone by when the smoke of countless coal fires curled into the winter air, Edinburgh had the nick-name "Auld Reekie," which being translated is 'Old Smokie' - not to be mistaken for some eponymous but indeterminate Appalachian mountain famed in song. But, thanks to clean air acts, there is no smoke in Edinburgh today.  Which in a convoluted way, I'll explain in a moment, brings me to the current visit of Benedict XVI to the UK. 

Living here in South Africa, I have been attempting to gauge, in a totally non-scientific way, how folks back home are responding to the Pope's visit. One survey tool is the day's Facebook postings, 'likes' and status changes. Strangely, few are negative. Some have made the point that Benedict is a good man who shares common ground with Calvinists like me. One friend, who maintains a somewhat high and controversial profile, went so far, in a Radio Scotland programme this morning, to extend his personal welcome to the Pope. To be sure, he lodged the caveat that he didn't agree with everything he stood for but, nevertheless, felt he could welcome him as a 'Christian brother.' And by adding this media coup to his Facebook status, he earned some 'likes.' It was one of those times when I wished there was a 'dislike' button. 

The argument for accepting the Pope's offer to build on "our common Christian heritage" as he put it, is, of course, that in the battle against strident atheism any theistic ally is to be welcomed, in particular someone who can sign up to the Apostles' Creed and has media clout. I understand this seductive logic. When I was Free Church moderator in 2007 I found I had considerably more common ground, both theologically and ethically, with Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the genial Archbishop of Edinburgh and St. Andrews, than I had with the charming Reverend Sheila Kesting, my Church of Scotland counterpart.  But let's not kid ourselves. If the Reformation continues to mean anything then those few points of convergence, even if foundational and vital, are set in an ocean of irreconcilable differences. 

In August, Harry Reid, writing in the Scottish daily, The Herald, charged the Kirk with being "feart" (afraid) to celebrate this year's 450th anniversary of the Reformation. Curiously, in the topsy-turvy world of the Scottish churches, the Catholics show no such inhibitions. A few weeks ago it was announced that the Pope was to be welcomed in Edinburgh today by a historical tableau depicting great Scottish men and women, including an actor playing the part of John Knox. Although I see no sign of that in the press reports, in his Glasgow homily Benedict did draw attention not only to the 450th anniversary of the Reformation but also to the 100th anniversary of the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, which he thanked God for as "the birth of the modern ecumenical movement." 

Although sectarian point scoring and medieval invective ill serves the cause of Christ, I despair of the dewy-eyed miasma which seems to have enveloped some of my friends. After all, we are not responding to a visit from some benevolent, elderly, white-haired German pastor with an penchant for discussing orthodox Christology. This man is the Pope of Rome. I blush with shame to consider what Patrick Hamilton and George Wishart, whose souls reside 'under the altar,' might have thought of such adulation, or for that matter what Thomas Chalmers or Robert M'Cheyne might have had to say. All of which brings me back to the smoke thing. It is said, that after the burning at the stake of Hamilton at St. Andrew's in 1528, one of Cardinal Beaton's people told him, that "the reek (smoke) of Master Patrick Hamilton has infected all it blew upon." Indeed! The Scottish Reformation was the consequence, but lamentably, today, Scotland's air seems largely cleansed of Reformation reek. 

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