Iona was studying theology with a view to becoming a Church of Scotland Minister. I tried to impress her by casually mentioning I had been brought up in the Church of England but was instantly written off as “just a jumped-down Catholic”. I had to creep off to the library to find out what she meant (there being no Google in those days). It was a reference to Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII’s secession of the English Church from Rome in 1534. Jumped-down Catholic indeed!
If that seems dismissive, you should have heard what she had to say about the Roman Catholic Church and its attitude towards women’s ordination.
“Fit wye dae they insist ye hiv tae hae a penis tae be a Minister, and then nae allow ye tae use it? Except for peeing that is, and they wadnae een allow ye that if there wasna nae alternative.” She said this with a kind of forceful but gentle determination that told you she was going to be a brilliant Church of Scotland Minister.
One Sunday, Iona came with me on a visit home. She and my dad talked non-stop about Scottish history, Aberdeen, and all kinds of other things. My dad was a regular churchgoer, and as Iona had not been to Church that day she decided to go along with him to the evening service. I went too so as not to miss anything. So did my dad’s sister Dorothy and her husband Fred. They wondered why I was going to Church with the young lady I had brought home. They did not want to miss anything either.
It was a long time since I had been to a regular service at the Parish Church. In those days it was always well-attended. More recently, I had seen decent congregations at weddings, Christenings and funerals. But this evening when we arrived, we were the only five there. The vast building looked gloomy and uncared for.
Dorothy and Fred took one pew, and my dad, Iona and myself sat immediately behind. We waited for things to begin. I won’t say “waited patiently” because Fred never waited patiently for anything. He rarely sat still. He did everything at a frantic pace. Even so, I was still surprised when he jumped up, disappeared through a side door and re-emerged with a stepladder. Ignoring Dorothy’s exasperated protests, he rushed into the most sacred, chancel part of the church, set up the stepladder, moved the golden cross and candlestick holders out of the way, and climbed up and stood on the altar. Dorothy sighed and turned to Iona with her usual resigned apology: “My husband’s hyperactive.”
Fred then lifted his arms and reached up to the heavens. I thought for a moment he must have been overcome by revelations of everlasting splendour until he began to change the light bulbs hanging from above. Only one bulb was out but he explained it was good maintenance practice to replace them all at the same time. Not even God Himself would dare disagree with a qualified electrical engineer and safety consultant.
I have to admit to being somewhat relieved to realise that that the only brilliance shining down from upon high that bothered him was the number of lumens illuminating the proceedings. I had wondered for a moment whether he might have been engaged in some newly-instigated aspect of worship, in which we now all went up in turn to stand on the altar to declare ourselves, only metaphorically I hoped, sacrificial lambs. I felt sure that when it was my turn I would be bound to get it all wrong and make a fool of myself in front of everyone. It is not easy to let go of your inhibitions in public.
Fred had just put the stepladder away when two further members of the congregation joined us. The first, a serious, shiny-faced man with a brylcreemed comb-over, checked jacket and non-matching striped tie, bid a curt “Good Evening”, went into the pew behind us, knelt down, closed his eyes tightly and began to pray. Then came an old lady dressed up in black hat, gloves and overcoat, with silver brooch and hat pin. She shuffled slowly up the aisle on a walking stick. Dorothy addressed her as Mrs. Fisher and pointed to the seat beside her. She sat down and observed loudly what a wonderfully large turn out we had this evening. Evidently some weeks it was just my dad and Mrs. Fisher.
The Minister entered through the transept from the front and began to light the candles. Fred put his hand to the side of his mouth and turned to Iona conspiratorially.
“This bloke’s a complete idiot,” he whispered none too quietly, disturbing the shiny-faced man from his communion with God.
The Minister, the Reverend Mundy, was a Church Army Evangelist who helped in the Parish by taking the Sunday evening service once a month. He was short, bald and round, but held himself stiffly upright in his surplice, like a little white budgerigar, in an effort to look more imposing than he actually did. Perhaps he imagined he was leading the grand and moving ceremony of Choral Evensong, but this was not Choral Evensong, it was Evening Prayer. There was no choir. In fact, there was no organist either: only the Minister and the seven members of the Congregation. We had to sing the hymns and psalms unaccompanied.
It was a total shambles. Our feeble voices evaporated self-consciously into the roof beams. As we mumbled our way through ‘The day Thou gavest, Lord, is ended’ all in different keys, Mrs. Fisher rustled ineffectually through her hymn book trying to find the right page. She might have managed better if she had taken off her gloves. By the time Dorothy had helped her find the page, the hymn Thou gavest, Lord, had ended, and the rustling began all over again as Mrs. Fisher tried to find the Order of Service in her prayer book.
The next hymn was even worse. It was one of those excessively cheerful, suspiciously Methodist hymns, known only to the Reverend and the shiny-faced man. They sang to completely different tunes, each trying to drown out the other as if to ensure God heard them first. Shiny-face was easily the loudest, but in any formal competition I would have called for him to be disqualified on the ground that his checked jacket and striped tie gave unfair advantage.
The psalms, prayers, responses, confession, absolution, creed, canticles and other spoken words of Evening Prayer are set out in the Book of Common Prayer. They go on forever, and the longer they go on, the more you could be forgiven for allowing your mind to wander. Fred’s mind clearly started to wander early on, but was snapped back into focus by the short prayer: “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord;” prompting him to examine the ceiling for further areas of darkness in need of lightening. He even stood up to survey the rear of the church, but the Reverend Mundy droned on without noticing.
I should have anticipated what happened next and prevented it. I failed to spot that my dad had been dying to tell Mundy that Iona was going to be a Church of Scotland Minister. The opportunity came as Mundy waited to shake our hands after the service. It was never going to work out well.
Mundy brightened up like one of Fred’s new bulbs and began to emit a long, one-sided homily about recognising one’s calling, changes to the liturgy and who should be the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Meanwhile, Fred re-appeared with a heavy wooden extendable ladder and began changing light bulbs high up the walls. Despite being a safety consultant, he did not look very safe to me. He rushed from bulb to bulb swinging the ends of his ladder so lethally he nearly knocked over the still-burning candles and set fire to the altar cloth.
And then, you knew it was coming, the topic Mundy had been wanting to talk about all along. Ingenuousness finally got the better of discretion and he homed in on the incendiary subject of women’s ordination. Iona listened solemnly as he declared it would be a mistake to admit women into the clergy, not, he forcibly emphasised, that he was personally against the idea, but because there would be a schism of two thousand Ministers leaving the Church, and he would not want that to happen. In any case, he continued, he thought a lot of women who wanted to be priests had been born with the wrong anatomy. He thought women should look like women.
Just when it seemed inevitable that Mundy would be obliterated by the “so ye hiv tae hae a penis” put down, the end of Uncle Fred’s ladder whizzed past, missing the side of his head by inches. It was like a portent of Divine Providence. Had he not just told us in one of the readings “... every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire”?
“He’s jist a bletherin’ fool,” Iona said afterwards echoing Uncle Fred. “He disna ken fit he’s spikkin’ aboot.”
* * *
In an odd sort of way, Iona’s speech reminded me of my grandparents’ Yorkshire dialect. You wondered about their common Anglo-Saxon roots. Even some of the words were the same. They talked about “bairns” and “be-asts” and t’ “watter”, and were amused when my brother had birthday cards “fra lasses”. They were words you wanted to use yourself because they felt like they meant; not clinical, educated English words that “slid so smooth from your throat you knew they could never say anything that was worth the saying at all.” (Lewis Grassic Gibbon: Sunset Song, 1932). For more about Buchan Doric as it is usually called, its origins and how it sounds, and to attempt to spik lik a teuchtar, you can do little better than to look on Google books at (or buy): Doric: The Dialect of North-East Scotland by J. Derrick McClure (2002). I especially like Chapter 4: Examples of Recorded Speech.