My Easter Sunday story.
Religion? Hmmm. The older I've grown the more intolerant I've become of its uglier excesses. Sadly there are many. And consequently I distance myself from it.
I’m Scottish, that means I have been brought up in a rather peculiar mix of ‘tensions’. I had not realized just how absurd those tensions were until I went travelling in Africa, at 17, unworldly and naive, not long after leaving school.
In South Africa a young white South African asked me:
“Do you have co-ed schools man?”
“Eh? You mean like catholics and protestants going to the same schools?”
“What! No man, black people and white people!”
“Yes of course, blacks and whites go to the same schools! Why would we want to separate them?”
He thought for a moment and digested this information, then replied
“Hey man, you mean you divide your schools on religious grounds?”
“Yes of course, no one gives a shit if you’re black in my school just so long as you’re not a catholic.”
“That is seriously weird man.” He replied.
And I realize now with the wisdom of the intervening years he was right. It is weird.
A few years back I went to the funeral of a close uncle. Uncle A was an Orangeman, a loyal adherent of the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland. The ‘Qualifications of an Orangeman’ state that a member should "scrupulously avoid countenancing (by his presence or otherwise) any act or ceremony of Popish worship". And this is strictly adhered to. No arguments. All the clues to your upbringing may be revealed by simple questions, your first name, maybe even your surname, certainly the name of the school you attended, all pointing to the faith of your birth. And on the basis of your answers, in many situations, all sorts of things may happen. Or may not.
The funeral was in Scotland’s central belt, it’s industrial heartland, home of hard men, shipbuilders and coal miners. Men for whom religion is a serious matter. The place my mother was born, one of fourteen children of a 'pit' family. The funeral brought the whole town to a halt as the cortege slowly drove from the church to the cemetery, Orangemen stopping the traffic and providing an escort, passersby reverentially turning to pay their respects to Uncle A as he made his last journey from their midst. He was well known, and well liked, and there were lots of people lining the streets.
The burial ceremony went as normal, I held a cord and we lowered him into the ground. I threw a flower onto the box, Uncle A had been a prominent figure in my young life. I was glad I had made the long journey from the highlands to be there.
We were motioned to withdraw and did so, moving back from the grave hole. But then, to my great surprise something unexpected happened. The Orangemen came forwards and took our place, surrounding the hole and Uncle A with a tight screen of bodies. Their orange sashes glowed surreally on this dark winters day.
A ceremony of some form took place, things happened, words said, hands moved, all screened from our eyes. I was confused then started to feel a growing sense of anger. What was all this about? Why were we, the family, being excluded?
And then it was over, we were all led away and the Orangemen followed us. They had been the last to see and bid farewell to Uncle A. Not us. I felt excluded, and more than a little confused, emotion and puzzlement knotting my brain.
I was told to go back to the small pub in the middle of town, on the main street, for some food. I drove back to town and into the waste ground behind the pub, a rough muddy strip sandwiched between the backs of old crumbling buildings and the recently extended motorway, a no-mans land of uncared for ground punctuated with bricks, old tyres and a half-burnt mattress.
Fearing that on my return I’d find the tyres gone from my (admittedly rather old) Land Rover, if not the vehicle itself, I hesitantly walked across to the pub door. A giant man filled the doorway, blocking my entry:
“Aye sonny, what do you want?”
“I’m A’s nephew and I’ve been told to come here for something to eat”
“Ah you’re the big lad from the highlands with the Land Rover, come on in son…”
“I’ve parked the Land Rover out the back there, will it be safe?”
He laughed. “You can leave it unlocked son, nobody will touch it. Nobody.”
And in I went.
The men at the bar turned as one and stared as I pushed the inner door open. Curious but suspicious faces. Then a low voice said “It’s A’s big nephew from the highlands” and another voice added "It’s Sadie’s boy”. And the faces softened, and a whisky appeared and was thrust into my hand. The provider adding warmly:
“We appreciate you coming down all this way for A’s funeral son. Very good of you to travel all that way at this time of year, with the snow and all that, to show your respect. Very good of you.”.
And then I was sucked into a warm nest of hospitality, drams, stories and insight. Surrounded by walls decorated with items of faith, images of long-gone brethren, and ephemera of all sorts, all evocatively sepia toned by a patina of nicotine.
My anger evaporated. Warm hands shook mine. Other hands gently held my shoulder. Slowly I realized that ‘family’ is an elastic term, that ties of blood are one thing, ties of religion quite something else, but both are bound together tighter than a celtic knot. And I realized also that whether I liked it or not, whether I cared about it or not, I was an indivisible part of all of this, in all it’s richness and history, and warmth and bigotry.
It’s a strange thing religion, it divides us, often bitterly, on the basis of the very very few differences we celebrate, but has the power to unite us on the basis of the far greater amount we have in common.
And yes, when I emerged many many hours later my Land Rover still had all four wheels intact.