After the emotional roller-coaster of Holy Week, culminating in the joy and celebration of Easter, the week that follows can often feel a bit of a ‘let-down’ and accordingly, within the Christian tradition, the Sunday after Easter is known as ‘Low Sunday’. But it seems rather different for us this year. Within Scotland this is the week when things are starting to open up again after the long period of lock-down since Christmas. Some of the restrictions on meeting together are being eased, with even more social interaction becoming possible towards the end of the month; at last we can make appointments with hairdressers and barbers; ‘non-essential’ shops are preparing to open once more; and of course we are able again to worship together in church, subject to continuing limitations on numbers – and some of us cannot wait until we can sing together again!
And on top of all this we are on the run-up to the Scottish Parliament elections next month. At this moment my thoughts are turning back, for reasons that will be clear shortly, to sixty years or so ago, when I was studying English at St Andrews University. Our professor was a curious character – a small, rather bird-like man, always immaculately and conservatively dressed. He had a nautical war-service background and his interests (academic and maritime) were reflected in his magnum opus Shakespeare and the Sea. Over the four years I came to recognise that, in marking an essay or exam paper, the highest accolade that the professor could give, written in his spidery copper-plate, was ‘This shows a fine sense of what is appropriate’. (I should perhaps add, however, that my regard for him was tarnished somewhat when I discovered, in clearing out some old notebooks of my father when my parents were moving house, that some of the lectures we received – on Keats and others – were almost word for word those delivered by a Glasgow University professor four decades previously! But I am old enough now to realise that we are all in some sense flawed and fallible, so that even those whom we respect – whether on account of their position or character, whether in the academic, political world or wherever – are not ‘plaster saints’ and may turn out one way or another to have ‘feet of clay’…)
‘Appropriate’ is an interesting word etymologically. It has to do with what is fitting, and suitable, what ‘belongs’. So in its verb form ‘appropriate’ has come to mean something like ‘take possession of’ in the sense of taking into one’s ownership; and the adjective describes what is fitting and suitable in a particular context or situation. Against this background what is to be made of Alex Salmond’s initiative – a big surprise to many – in launching his new party Alba a couple of weeks ago, supposedly not to challenge or undermine Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish National Party but to strengthen the push towards independence and a second referendum? I do not want to offer any detailed comment on the politics of all this – or on either the electoral campaign generally or the recent series of events that culminated in the publication of the Hamilton and Holyrood committee reports, except to say how distasteful and unsavoury it has all felt, an unwelcome distraction from the major health and social issues before us. But it was hoped by many that a line would be drawn under these protracted proceedings and that Mr Salmond might withdraw gracefully from public prominence, and doubts have understandably been expressed as to how ‘appropriate’ his recent initiative is and even about his own personal and political credibility: while he previously was cleared of any conduct that might be deemed illegal, he did apparently admit to behaving ‘inappropriately’ on some occasions; is the launch of his Alba party then really much more than a big ego-trip?
And yet, and yet, there is something of a paradox here. It is all too easy to regard an ‘appropriate’ approach to anything as a case of not rocking the boat. But there are occasions where those who follow in the way of faith are called to stand up and speak out, to take the less comfortable line, to affirm and point to a different and better way, to challenge the cultural norms and prevailing policies where these are out of line with the values and priorities of God’s kingdom: for example the UK government’s policies on immigration, welfare benefits and nuclear weapons, all of which have consistently attracted criticism from the churches.
The message of Easter speaks to us above all of the primacy of God’s steadfast love and the promise of new life. ‘A different world is possible’, a better fairer society and each of us in our own way, dependent on God’s grace and generosity, is called to share in bringing this about. As Paul put it so memorably and persuasively in his second letter to the Corinthians,, For anyone united to Christ, there is a new creation: the old order is has gone, a new order has already begun. (5.16 – REB)