St. Giles’ has an interesting history. It was built in the 1300s, and so of course belonged to the Latin Church. Pope Paul II granted St. Giles’ the status of a collegiate church to the great satisfaction of King James III and the Edinburgh merchants who applied for it.
Then came the Reformation, the establishment of John Knox in the church, and his gutting and whitewashing of it. Subsequently there were squabbles between the Scottish Episcopalians and the anti-episcopal Presbyterians over the place. Sometimes members of one sect or the other were executed in a jail outside the West Door of the church. The door of the vanished jail is now marked with a heart shape in the pavement — the original Heart of Midlothian.
I find St. Giles’ more interesting on the outside than on the inside, and I am never tempted to go in and listen to a Church of Scotland sermon. Unlike the excitingly fiery Free Presbyterians, the Kirk is thoroughly modern and anodyne. Therefore, I was surprised to discover that the yelling outside St. Giles’ West Door was old-style Evangelical Scottish Christian preaching.
Standing on a stool before the ramp to the West Door was a 30-something Scotsman in black jeans and a black jacket, his hood pulled up against the sleet. He was testifying that salvation comes only from Jesus Christ, who died for our sins.
The preacher was interrupted by a heckler standing on the cathedral’s ramp and jeered at by a knot of people in rain gear standing on the far side of the Heart of Midlothian.
“Jesus said, I am the Way, the Truth and the Life,” shouted the preacher. “No one comes to the Father except through Me.”
Despite the sleet, we stopped and listened. Not only were we offended by the anti-Christian scoffers, we admired the preacher’s counter-cultural guts.
“Mohammed is dead,” he yelled. “He cannot save you. Buddha is dead. He cannot save you. Jesus Christ is alive, and only Jesus Christ can save you!”
“I wonder how long he will be allowed to say such things,” muttered Mark.
Eventually the heckler disappeared and the jeerers lost interest. Mark and I crossed the street towards the cathedral and stood at a reserved distance, right at the Heart of Midlothian. We continued to listen, trying to telegraph solidarity: Yes, this speaker is worthy of attention. Yes, shouting the Gospel in the street is a good thing. Yes, we believe in God, in our Lord Jesus Christ.
It was wonderful to hear the beloved verses shouted into the Royal Mile: “God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him will not die, but will have everlasting life!”
“Are you ... with him?” asked the 50-something Scot who suddenly popped up beside us.
“No,” said Mark cheerfully. “We’re Catholics, actually.”
The man looked momentarily confused but explained his interest. He was in Edinburgh to research the Covenanters (17th century political Presbyterians) and when he heard the preaching, he was amazed and delighted because it was just like in the Edinburgh of 17th century: “He’s even wearing black!”
Thus the historian chatted with Mark, and they laughed with shared historians’ delight. I hoped the preacher didn’t think they were laughing at him and listened with interest to his confession that he had been a drinker and a womanizer. I also watched the tourists ignoring his Christian preaching as they streamed into the Christian church to gaze at its perhaps disappointingly contemporary interior.
Finally we decided that we had shown enough solidarity. Rain was glistening on Mark’s hair, and the preacher had come to the end of his sermon and started again.
“Amen!” shouted Mark to our separated brother. “God bless you!”
“God bless you!” shouted the preacher.
I waved, he waved: ecumenism in action.
“We have made enough of a spectacle of ourselves for the day,” Mark cheerfully murmured.
“Obviously we are in a civilizational crisis,” I joked. “Edinburgh Catholics applauding the Protestant preacher outside St. Giles’? But who was it who said, if we don’t hang together, we will surely all hang separately?”
“Hmm,” said Mark. “I don’t remember.”
“I think it’s from the American Revolution,” I said, and I was right, for the speaker was Benjamin Franklin, only he actually said, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
(Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer and author of Ceremony of Innocence.)