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Welcoming remarks at the opening of the Launch of the Friends of the Old High Church, Inverness
12 January 2016
Rev Peter W Nimmo, minister of Old High St Stephen’s
Deputy Provost, ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of the congregation of Old High St Stephen’s, I would like to warmly welcome you to our historic city centre building, the Old High Church of Inverness, for the launch of this new Friends Group.
Jesus of Nazareth was someone who greatly valued the life and worship of the great Temple of Jerusalem. He taught in the Temple courtyards, and discussed matters of faith with the religious leaders who gathered there. Yet perhaps the most famous incident involving Jesus and the Temple was where he cleared out the money-changers, individuals who were profiting financially from the piety of the people. As he did so, he quoted from Old Testament prophecy: ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’.
That is a line which I saw on a noticeboard outside an historic city centre church a few years ago. And it is, I think, a fitting text for any great church which seeks to serve the community. This is a house of prayer for all nations. It should be open and welcoming for people of all nations, all backgrounds. For this is the original town church of Inverness, and it really belongs to all the people of Inverness.
This building- and its predecessors on this site- has served this town and city for centuries. We think that this site, as a place of Christian worship, must go back to around 565AD, when the Irish missionary, St Columba, converted the King of the Picts, Brude, to the newish faith of Christianity.
Adomnan, Columba’s first biographer, recounts a number of tales of Columba in these parts, including that he drove off a water monster on the River Ness (now there was the beginning of a great legend!). And he tells that when the saint first approached the King’s fortress (usually identified with Craig Phadraig) the King had the doors barred against him, but Columba
‘signed them with the sign of the Lord’s cross and only then did he put his hand to the door to knock. At once the bars were thrust back, and the doors opened of themselves with all speed. Whereupon St Columba and his companions entered. The king and his council were much alarmed at this, and came out of the house to meet the blessed man with due respect and to welcome him gently with words of peace. From that day forward for as long as he lived, the ruler treated the holy and venerable man with great honour as was fitting.’
Who can doubt that it was not long thereafter that the king gave to the saint this piece of land, which became known as St Michael’s Mount or Mound. It was a strategic spot- next to the river, close to the ford at Friar’s Shott, yet high enough to avoid flooding, able to be defended in turbulent times, on a spot which was perhaps holy even before the Gospel of Christ arrived. And so, almost 15oo years ago, on a site named for the chief of angels, Michael, the first church of Inverness was established Michael and dedicated the Mary, the mother of Christ.
Our Victorian ancestors had a romantic notion when the church was being remodelled about 100 years ago, and they floored the chancel, where I am now standing, with marble brought from Iona, so that those of us lead worship here find ourselves standing symbolically on Iona’s rocks. For the buildings on this spot have been built and rebuilt, as changing fashions and understandings of the faith have brought new requirements.
We may think ourselves in the edge of Europe here in Inverness, but I like to point out to visitors that many of the great religious movements of the last 1,500 years have influenced this place, for over the ages this church has been Celtic, Roman Catholic and Episcopalian. It is currently Presbyterian (it’s been Presbyterian for only 325 years of its 1,500 year history!).
Our resident historian, Ross Martin will tell us more detail about the history of the building later, but I want to just remind you what a unique place this is. It has been part of this story of this city from almost the very beginning. It is older than the nation of Scotland. It belongs, I truly believe, to all the people of this city, for each Christian community in the city today has a link to this place, and it stands as reminder to every inhabitant of today’s multinational and multicultural capital city of the Highlands of a rich spiritual, cultural and religious tradition which shaped our city in ways we are sometimes only dimly aware of.
Today, we are again living in turbulent, changing times. It is up to us not just to preserve, but to enable our historic church buildings to continue to be what they have been in the past- spiritual, historical and cultural resources for the whole community. That is why our Kirk Session took the initiative to set up the Friends of the Old High Church Inverness. It’s a way of involving everyone in the community, especially those beyond this congregation, in ensuring that this wonderful building can continue to serve our city into the future.
For there is no doubt that this building, like similar church buildings across Scotland, is in danger. The costs associated with maintaining such a large building as this are beyond the resources of congregations such as ours. The Church of Scotland needs to work with the Scottish Government, and with others in our communities, to ensure that the financial burden of these historic buildings is shared more widely. We hear much about the importance of reinvigorating our city centre. The city centre, indeed the whole city, of Inverness would be bereft if this church was not here, or if it was to be left empty. This Friends group is one approach towards ensuring the future of this building. We hope it will be warmly embraced by the community, and by lovers of Inverness across the world.
This is a house of prayer for all nations, a place which belongs to all the people of Inverness. We want to open it up even more than it is at the moment, so that it truly gives a welcome to all the people of this city, and to visitors and tourists, from whatever faith and cultural background they come. We hope to work with the Friends to better interpret the history of the site, and to develop this building as an important part of the lively cultural and arts scene in our vibrant city.
Like Columba of old, we are once again knocking on the doors of the city. And as we open our doors- the doors of this building- to more and more people, so we hope that city will open its heart once again to this wonderful building.
We in the congregation of Old High St Stephen’s are deeply grateful to the committee of the Friends, which already has members beyond the membership of the congregation, for the work they have already put in to getting to this stage. We look forward to working with them in the future. On behalf of the Kirk Session of Old High St Stephen’s, I wish the Friends every success, and I pray that God will bless their work.
Note to editors:
The Rev Peter W Nimmo is minister of Old High St Stephen’s. The congregation has two places of worship, the Old High in the city centre, and St Stephen’s in Southside Road. The Kirk Session is the governing body of the congregation, and have approved the setting up of the Friends of the Old High Church as part of a strategy to secure the future of the Old High building.