Rev Peter Nimmo: Old High Church belongs to everyone in Inverness
Published on 12 January, 2016
A group created to support Old High Church of Inverness meets for the first time today, Tuesday 12 Jan. The historic A-listed Church, where St Columba is said to have baptised a Pictish King, has struggled to meet the high cost of insurance and building maintenance even though it attracts hundreds of visitors each summer and hosts landmark civic events, such as the Kirking of the Council.
Rev Peter W Nimmo, minister of Old High St Stephen's, is one of the founding members of the Friends of Old High Church. In this opinion piece he explains that Old High Church is a historic treasure that belongs to everyone in Inverness:
"Jesus of Nazareth 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— profiteers who were financially exploiting the piety of the people. As he did so, Jesus quoted from Old Testament prophecy saying, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.'
"I saw that quote 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.
"Old High Church is a house of prayer for all nations. It should be open and welcoming for people of all nations, all backgrounds. As the original Church of Inverness, it really belongs to all the people of Inverness.
"This building- and its predecessors on this site- has served Inverness town and city for centuries. And as a place of Christian worship, this site must go back to around 565 AD, when the legendary Irish missionary St Columba converted Brude, King of the Picts, 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.
"When the saint first approached the King's fortress on Craig Phadraig the King had the doors barred against him, Adomnan wrote. 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 1500 years ago, on a site named for Michael, the chief of angels, the first church of Inverness was established and dedicated to 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 with marble brought from Iona, so that those of us who lead worship 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.
"Here in Inverness we may think ourselves in the edge of Europe. Yet many of the great religious movements of the last 1,500 years have influenced Inverness, for over the ages this church has been Celtic, Roman Catholic and Episcopalian. It is currently Presbyterian, but it's been Presbyterian for only 325 years of its 1,500 year history.
"Old High Church is a unique place. It has been part of this story of Inverness from almost the very beginning.
"It is older than the nation of Scotland.
"Old High belongs, I truly believe, to all the people of Inverness. Each Christian community in the city today has a link to this place, and for every inhabitant of today's multinational and multicultural capital city of the Highlands it stands as a reminder of our rich spiritual, cultural and religious traditions –traditions 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 Old High Church, 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.
"Old High Church is a house of prayer for all nations, a place which belongs to all the people of Inverness and beyond. 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.
Our plan is to work with the Friends group 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: 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.