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Open Features: The Firebrand

Linda McLean tells of a remarkable and unforgettable woman minister whose faith inspired a congregation and helped the needy.

In 1981, Phil, Darryl, Ivan and I moved to a house in Edinburgh.

It took a while to settle down into our new home, but at long last, the fabric and furnishings were to my satisfaction. Everything was ship-shape, so it was time to find out what the local church offered. Both the teenagers needed to be kept fully occupied and to learn a little bit more about socialising. I thought that in the local church there might be organisations they could join.

So, I went along one Sunday morning to see what was going on. I was astonished. A woman was taking the service. Her name, I was to learn, was Mary.

I didn’t know much about women ministers, apart from the fact that I didn’t like them. This was not a matter for debate. I would never and could never like women as ministers. It was obvious to me that a man could do the job better. Anyway, why would a woman want such a job?

However I was now seated in the church. It would be rude to leave. But I told myself that this would be my one and only visit to this particular church. And the service would only last an hour. I decided to make the best of a bad job.

The service followed the usual format, and Mary obviously loved music. She sang lustily, meaning every word. I was reluctantly impressed.

When she preached she addressed the congregation in a conversational tone. She spoke enthusiastically, cleverly disguising the fact that she was teaching. Many in the congregation were probably unaware that they were being taught.

Her husband had served as a missionary in India, giving her a wealth of stories upon which to draw. She told of the happiness which Indian people derived from their religion, in contrast to the seriousness with which the subject was treated in Scotland.

“People get religion, and then spoil it all by getting religious,’’ she said laughingly from the pulpit.

This was certainly something different. I looked around, gauging the reaction to her words. People were spellbound, listening intently to the news that religion could be fun.

I found myself considering whether I should join this church. Surely I could not be happy talking things over with a woman? But why should that not be acceptable? We talk things over with a variety of people. Sometimes a man can be helpful, at other times a woman, depending on the problem.

An announcement was made. A choir was being formed. Those interested in joining it should stay behind at the end of the service. Tea and cakes would be served.

With misgivings I went for a cup of tea. A young, dark-haired man, announcing that he was called Harry, asked if I had enjoyed the service.

“Well, I must admit, it was most interesting,” I replied. “I have never heard a woman preach before.”

He guffawed heartily.

“Well, you ain’t heard nuthin’ yet!” he exclaimed. He said that Mary had made a huge difference to the church. The congregation had trebled. She was resolved that the church should be involved in the local community.

“She refuses to drive a car,’’ he said. “She cycles alone at night through the streets of this neighbourhood. If anyone needs her, she’s there. She makes a great effort to help, and everyone admires her for doing so.’’

I was impressed.

“You know how bad the problem of homelessness is in this district,’’ the young man continued. “Mary gets really cross because the local council allows flats to remain empty for such a long time. She takes photographs of flats and documents how long they remain unoccupied, and if they are broken into or set on fire. She’s some woman, that Mary! I tell all my pals they should come along to church on a Sunday morning. It’s a great laugh. There are nice people here. This is the highlight of my week.

I was persuaded. This was worth a try. No-one could compel me to stay if at any time I decided to leave.

I joined the choir. A year later I became the church organist. Later still I was appointed an elder, or a deacon as the office is known in some places. I learned of the pleasure there is in service.

Mary ensured that elders really did serve. She galvanised them, spurred them on, making them feel worthwhile. It was not just a case of paying token visits to old folk. Before they took communion I washed and set their hair so that they looked nice.

As a mother Mary tried to make Christmases extra-special. One year there were sheep in the church, shepherds and spinning wheels beside the altar.

Then she decided we should help old people who were alone on Christmas Day. They were invited to a meal in the church hall. The church elders served turkey and all the trimmings. Mary and one of her friends had prepared all the food for this gargantuan banquet.

The elders worked until 3 pm, helping to feed 180 old folk. Mary’s was the only church in Scotland to offer a Christmas dinner to the old and lonely.

No-one dare speak ill of Mary. No minister could have had more defenders. There were no grumbles. We were too busy thinking of positive things we could do. This was a happy fellowship.

Mary remained calm during my moment of disaster. I was playing the organ at a wedding. The signal for me to start playing the Wedding March was when Mary stood up in front of the altar steps.

When she rose I launched into the familiar music. Then I saw two elderly ladies rushing helter-skelter down the centre aisle. Assuming that the bride had allowed the latecomers to go before her, I immediately reverted to the music which I had played prior to starting the march.

The elderly ladies hurried along until the stood before the altar.

“Mrs. McLean, this is the bride, and her bridesmaid. Can we please have the proper music now?” Mary inquired mildly.

Mary spent £200 of her own money on new hymn books. She had faith in her congregation, believing they would repay her.

From the pulpit she declared “This is what you call faith. I believe you will want these books. I believe you will purchase one each.”

They did.

She was not short of so much as one penny.

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