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Who is out of tune on the singing of hymns?

The wife of one of Scotland’s most distinguished poets, up here in Orkney to participate in the St Magnus Festival, told me a story which sheds light on the latest drama to grip the Free Church of Scotland – whether or not to allow the singing of hymns in church.

(Whatever next?)

She told me that one of her close relatives, who had been seriously ill, was staying with them until he recovered.

The man in question was a member of the Free Kirk, otherwise known as the Wee Frees.

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He regarded the singing of hymns as being as decadent as breaking the Sabbath. It was a crisis for him, then, when the TV was switched on to watch Songs of Praise – on a Sunday.

So determined was he to avoid this double damnation that he took out his hearing aid and placed a handkerchief over his eyes so that he would hear no evil and see no evil. He probably took his teeth out as well.

The image of this dear man marooned in a Scottish living room beside an atheist poet and his Christian wife (both of whom who enjoyed hymns) while Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah boomed from the television set, is rather touching, both in its principled determination to avoid contamination and its complete absurdity.

Now, the issue of whether a branch of Presbyterianism should allow hymns to be sung in church is admittedly rather arcane. It is not the talk of the central belt steamie. But don’t go away. Trust me, this tale of two cultures is not without interest.

Avoiding the scenic route, here is the history. In the Disruption of 1843, more than 450 ministers walked out of the Church of Scotland over the issue of the right of congregations to choose their own minister, rather than have one foisted upon them by the local laird. Hence the Free Church.

It was a sacrificial decision on a point of principle. Sadly, though, Presbyterianism in Scotland exhibited too many walkouts over less comprehensible points of principle.

The crazed wing of the more- Presbyterian-than-thou militant tendency became so solipsist that it flew up its own anus mirabilis.

Worse than that, it unleashed bouts of authoritarian Presbyterian fratricide which make the Taliban look like well-meaning LibDem pacifists.

The situation now is that the Free Kirk is viewed as too “liberal” by the more radical of the Presbyterians in the Highlands and the Western Isles. This is not without its ironies, given the tongue lashings that the Auld Kirk – the Church of Scotland – to which I belong has received from the Wee Frees over the years for its perceived laxity.

Everything is relative. I actually have a high regard for the integrity of the more mainstream Free Kirk Presby-terians of the north and west. They are right to resist the transformation of their distinctive island and rural culture into an all-conquering consumerism which reduces genuine moral issues to lifestyle choices.

So what about the hymns? The Free Kirk, which has permitted only unaccompanied psalm singing in its public worship for more than a century, decided on Friday to give individual congregations the right to sing hymns and use musical instruments if they so choose. Hold the front page! Probably the most significant aspect of the decision is that they did not hatchet each other to death in the streets of douce Edinburgh.

They will find a treasury of much-loved hymns in the bad old Church of Scotland. I hope they won’t go happy-clappy, and end up singing mindless choruses produced by the theologically brain-dead.

There is a darker political subtext to this story, though. If some ministers leave the Kirk over the issue of Christian gays, they might find a hymn-singing Free Kirk – with not a woman minister or elder in sight – to be an attractive spiritual home. Haud me back. We shall now sing God Moves in Mysterious Ways (So He Does).

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