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Here's Looking At You



September - the month when our Sprocker Spaniel goes nuts. Today is the autumnal equinox so I am hoping he will begin to settle down to maturity until next September when I plan to be away on holiday. He'll be fine with the others. Orlando is my loyal friend and I really love him but his constant whining when I take too long in the bathroom ahead of walkies - and his refusal to come indoors when I try to stop him barking at the neighbours - not to mention his disinclination to go into the garden in order to relieve himself before bedtime - gets to me every September.  I ask myself,  "Why September?" He is five now - born in August - so he has had six Septembers - and I am expecting more grown-up behaviour - please, Orlando.

Yet September does seem to be an unsettling kind of month. March makes big strides towards Summer. June promises great things. December settles into conviviality. September? We never know what to expect.  Will we get an Indian Summer? Will the winds increase and cause havoc? Will an early frost finish off the sweet peas? How long before the trees are stripped of their leaves - one month - two - or will there still be the odd hanger-on at Christmas? Uncertainty then. September is an uncertain kind of month - probably the most uncertain of all months. Our first daughter was born early in September.  She was expected in August but she waited. I remember pegging out nappies - yes, the washable ones - in September 1978 with the sun warming my back and the wasps out for blood. Then the weather changed and the nappies had to be dried indoors.

This September welcomes a newly ordained young woman to Saint John's Church in Wick. She is to be the new curate and will work alongside the male priest. As I write this, two of my daughters - neither one is the September daughter - are sharing lunch with the curate, the priest and members of the congregation after the celebration of Holy Communion. Simple facts. And yet they speak volumes. Growing up in a rural backwater - literally a backwater - drained mostly by the Dutch - I had a traditional experience of religion. We knew nothing of Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism or Judaism. Naturally a Christian was aware that the holy book, the Bible, was, in part, shared by the Jews but I was quite grown up before I realised the link with the Qur'an of the Muslims. We are all People of the Book - along with Zoroastrians. (Freddie Mercury brought Zoroastrianism to the attention of many but it is, in fact, possibly the oldest of the world religions.) I listen to your views regarding religion. I listen with genuine interest and empathy. I can put myself in your place and I want to know more about the filaments which are able to join us together, potentially producing an illuminated tolerance and understanding of all peoples - not just People of the Book but those who have no book, no faith, no  belief system.

In the Isle of Axholme we had our famous Wesleys. Chapel folk worshipped as Baptists or Methodists. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, now has his statue in Epworth - put up in 2003. When I was growing up there in the 50s and 60s, the market cross and Samuel Wesley's tomb in Saint Andrew's Churchyard were the Wesley focal points - they and The Old Rectory. John Wesley had preached at the market cross and Samuel was his father - the priest in charge at Epworth.  He was not well-liked because the locals - some of my ancestors were among them - couldn't understand him.  Even in mid-century Axholme, we had a smattering of American visitors. The Methodist Church in America was initiated by the Irish who had been converted by John Wesley himself.  There are more American visitors to Epworth now.  The world is a smaller place and it is a simple thing to hop across the pond. In my childhood we were fairly taken that people visited the area and spoke as they did on imported American television programmes - like the Cartwrights in Bonanza. 

 In those days, women were instrumental in running Sunday Schools, coffee mornings and jumble sales. Now, except for the Roman Catholic Church, most Christian churches have a healthy balance between men and women as leaders. Is this an improvement? Were attendance numbers dwindling before women were ordained? I haven't studied the statistics. I won't bother either as statistics are regularly massaged in all walks of life and the fallibility of the various church hierarchies has proven that they are no less inclined to deviate from the truth than anyone else.

The Roman Catholic Church in Axholme was then, and still is, in Crowle - Saint Norbert's on Fieldside.  There was a  R.C. Church in Keadby on Chesswick Avenue - Our Lady of Axholme - but this was closed in 1994. When my family returned briefly to The Isle of Axholme in 1995, our children attended Saint Norbert's Primary School for a time. We still maintain friendships with those we knew there. 

The Isle was host to some of the oldest Baptist groups in the country. Each village had its congregation - the one at Crowle dated back to the end of the 16th century - and my grandfather's brother-in-law, Wilf Tonge, did much to encourage young people to attend the chapel on Station Road in Epworth. I attended Sunday School there before moving "up street" and changing to the Church of England Sunday School - later joining the congregation of Saint Andrew's and then the choir. It was a geographical thing. They were all Christian congregations so it really didn't matter. I was baptised in an Anglican Church; confirmed in the same building, All Saints', Belton-in-Axholme; married in the Methodist Church at Crowle - also in Axholme; our eldest child was baptised in the same building we were married in, and our other children were baptised and confirmed in other Lincolnshire Anglican churches. I've  attended a number of Roman Catholic Churches over the years - with boyfriends, friends of friends when we were the only Christians in the house party, our children as pupils and, sadly, for funerals of dear friends. When we moved back up to the north of Scotland, I divided Church attendance between Saint Joachim's R.C. and Saint John's Episcopalian. I rather liked that but now I don't attend much at all. 

Never confuse faith with religion. Over my 65 years I have come to appreciate the joy of worshipping with others whilst growing in certainty that human rules need not apply in order to grow in faith. God preserve us from zealots. Of any religious persuasion.

Here in Wick we have a variety of churches. As well as Saint Joachim's and Saint John's, we have Saint Fergus (Church of Scotland) and Pulteneytown Presbyterian Parish Church which is diagonally across the square from us. Around the corner is the Bethany Gospel Hall and the Harbour Mission is - yes - at the harbour. The Baptist Church is just off the square and the Free Church worships in the church hall belonging to Saint John's Church. For a relatively small town (approx. population 7000) Wick is well served. Many people attend a church on Sundays and some on weekdays too. When I was a regular attender I used to think how nice it was to pass people I recognised going in another direction and all of us with the same intention. The other thing that occurred to me was that most of the men who were not in a church, were lovingly washing their cars. I say lovingly, but thoroughly would also be a well chosen word as the same men were working away when I headed home as when I was on my way to church. I reflected on their respect for the vehicles and hoped that their wives or partners were given equal care. It doesn't always follow. Nor is the reverse true. I can count on one hand the number of times my husband has washed our cars - and, when he does, I find myself asking him if he had worn his glasses. But we are about to celebrate our 42nd wedding anniversary.

The social life generated by the assortment of churches in Wick is quite impressive. From Pudding Night to Quiz Night, Saint Fergus brings together like-minded folk. On Saturday, they have an exhibition of shoes, hats and handbags as part of their Harvest Thanksgiving Weekend. On Friday of this week Pulteneytown Parish Church hosts a Knit n Natter session and the regular Book Sales at Saint John's are very popular events, drawing people from all over Caithness - and sometimes beyond - to benefit from the excellent standard and selection of second-hand books available. All of the churches have their outreach and it follows that their fund-raising events will bring together all ages and a mix of backgrounds.  What's not to like?

Although I missed it last year, one of our favourite get-togethers of the churches in Wick is on Remembrance Day. I am against war.  It has never been a lasting solution to any problem. But I am grateful from the foundation of my being, to all those, over the years, who defended my ancestors and me. My family and I have had links with the military and, whatever my own view on the politics of conflict, we are indebted to those who have made it possible for us to progress. On Remembrance Sunday we all don warm clothes and walk down to the riverside, joining many others with similar sensibilities. We stand around the War Memorial and the landlord from the Mackays Hotel, across the road, brings round soup and coffee to keep us warm until the service begins. Some people bring their dogs.  Some people have well-behaved dogs. Ours enjoys an hour of quiet reflection in his crate at home. We all feel something as we watch and hear the bands marching along Bridge Street towards us.  For some it is nostalgia; for some, sorrow; for others, pride. Many of us feel a sense of wonder at the annual display of thanks and hope for the future. There are hymns, prayers and many wreaths and tributes are placed around the memorial. They play Flowers of the Forest on the pipes and rockets are fired. When this happens, hundreds and hundreds of birds fly noisily into the Wick skies from their vantage points in trees and on buildings. The service is led by  a selection of local church leaders and eyebrows are sometimes raised by the vocabulary used. I remember, one year, the person who led the prayers ruffled a few feathers when he questioned the local Hallowe'en celebrations which had recently taken place. We have a lively scene here - many types and many opinions!

From the home of Methodism in the Isle of Axholme, through the simple churches of Orkney, the historic cathedral of Saint Magnus, the elegant Norman church in Barrow upon Humber to the welcoming mix of churches in Wick, Caithness, I have come to know the love that is the church community and, at the same time, to understand the limits and shackles placed upon spiritual development by man-made - and woman-made - rules and expectations. As Freddie said, " I want to break free." And hey - guess what - once I've imbibed, it is clear I'm still loved - and here's Werner Heisenberg's God waiting for me at the bottom of the glass.

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