Mennonite pilgrims from North America arrived in Edinburgh at the end of a long two week journey across these islands. They have been taking in some significant Celtic Christian sites and meeting inspirational people who continue to be shaped in the contemporary by ancient roots, and by a style of faith which is deeply rooted in landscape, community, human longing for wholeness and the sharing of resources and worship.
The group is staying at a hostel at the top of Leith Walk. This morning some of them have been at St Giles Cathedral (or the High Kirk, as many loyal Presbyterians prefer to think of it!) and some other local churches: Church of Scotland, United Reformed and Catholic were mentioned when we met them last night. I will be speaking this afternoon about the changing nature of Christianity in these island.
After a slightly late arrival from the lure of Lindisfarne and Durham, a meal was enjoyed at the wonderful French/Scottish bistro Cafe Marlayne, yards from where the AMBS pilgrims are staying. Then we (the group, and local contacts Simon Barrow and Carla Roth) went back to spend some time reflecting with our presenters for the evening. Ian Milligan [pictured] and Eildon Dyer live in Glasgow and Ian, in particular, has been working to cultivate interest in Anabaptism and its particular expressions (not least the Mennonites) in Scotland. He made a presentation about a fascinating 30-year local independent church community in Pollokshields called - enigmatically - 'Bert'. Eildon offered her own distinct perspective in response to questions.
Iona and related material), the sharing of food and hospitality, an economic discipline (based on graduated tithing), involvement in caring and socially-oriented professional and voluntary work, connections with places as far afield as Bosnia and Nicaragua, and practical connections with other church and community groups. Partying and celebration is another binding characteristic.
The size of Bert has stayed fairly consistent, with a core of around 16 people, throughout its history. In some cases that has involved whole families, and in other cases partners are not directly involved but have sympathy. Some retain relationship with historic denominations, others do not. For some Anabaptist influences (especially personal ones, with people like Alan and Ellie Kreider, formerly Mennonite mission workers in Britain) are important and explicit. In other ways, those resonances, and indeed Celtic ones, are more "in the mix" rather than explicit.
In a cafe conversation about Scotland's future, Ian referred to a speaker at a major rally for the devolved Scottish parliament talking proudly about being "a mongrel nation", rather than one defined by ethnic exclusivity and privilege. In many ways, Bert comes across as a positively "mongrel church". Its strength lies in drawing on a range of influences, including people with different backgrounds and faith journeys; emphasising the evangel (good news) in the evangelical heritage rather than ideological conformity; being mostly 'Protestant' but having had a Catholic nun as a community guide; following Jesus but not trying to 'own' him; practicing communal discernment around decisions (but without the formalism and anxiety that can often betoken); and being both emergent in form but also open to inheriting the depth and breadth of the Christian tradition and the wisdom that comes from genuine encounter with those of other faiths and good faith.