Parish experiences in Edinburgh


Four very different experiences of parish in the Diocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh were shared at a meeting of the Edinburgh Newman Circle.

The Newman Association in Edinburgh has been rejuvenating itself in the 2015-16 session with a series on The church: here and now.  Speakers have included Father Henry McLaughlin (with long-term experience of horrific conditions in Latin America), Father John Farrell OP (Dominican Provincial) and Archbishop Leo Cushley.  On December 9th we heard a panel of lay people from different Edinburgh churches relating ‘Parish Experiences’.  (We may remember Newman’s reply in his post-conversion years when, to some Roman cleric dismissing the laity, he observed that the Church would look very odd without them!)

If we feared we were in for repetitive nostalgia and cheer-leading faintly self-differentiating, the expectation could not have been more ill-founded.  It was as though the four cool, clear expositions took us to four different countries, at times it seemed almost four different planets, for all of the proximity of the parishes to one another (top of Leith Walk, George Square, Gracemount, Pathhead) – and the Archdiocese extends almost to Dundee.  What was very evident was the light-years separating the flat statistics per parish, however made and spread out before the archdiocesan authorities, from stories of human devotion, detraction and dismay.  The human stories differ even more from what high points may be exhibited either in the pious press or the malicious media (not always distinguishable themselves).

As we’re not identifying the speakers it seems easiest to refer to them by their churches.  They were very different presenters, St Albert’s being a recent graduate from the University drawn in from its place as home to the students’ Catholic Chaplaincy.  The Cathedral told she had been attending there since she had been a teenager and now lived in Midlothian but still keeps the Cathedral as her church.  This fidelity is also likely among emigrants from St Catherine’s in Gracemount but almost inconceivable in present challenging times in St Mary’s, Pathhead, Midlothian.

The Cathedral is highly conscious of its cosmopolitan, metropolitan and multi-class congregation, just as St Albert’s flourishes in the diversity of its intellectual life from student necessity to senior citizen luxury.  But Cathedral cultural breadth is very evident with its Polish congregation added from St Anne’s Oratory in Randolph Place, resulting in six Masses (two in Polish).

The Cathedral and St Albert’s are aware of their lengthy traditions, apparently more so in the Cathedral than in St Albert’s, whose regular adult congregation is offset by student graduation and Dominican self-replacement.  St Mary’s Pathhead thinks about its past, yearning for recognition and even diocesan assistance.  St Catherine’s is aware of the social warmth of its parishioners today, and conscious of God in the omnipresence of conversation before mass.

St Catherine’s also had valuable experience of cluster-churching which, for all its predominance in diocesan communications, was much less evident in the others, the Cathedral’s entity vaguely implying all other churches cluster in its shadow.   St Albert’s was equally good-natured but chiefly aware of its place as intellectual sanctuary having historically been a refuge from certain other parishes, and St Mary’s Pathhead with little current evidence of clustering.  St Catherine’s make clusters a vital part of their mission, operating as they do with two priests among three churches each with working parish councils closely liaised with one another, sharing preparation for ‘sacraments of initiation and healing’, sharing ‘music ministry’, studying Vatican II documents together in a series of Saturdays followed by full-day retreats in each parish.  All churches are members of South East Edinburgh Churches Acting Together (also including four Church of Scotland and one Episcopal church, setting up a Credit Union, maintaining a Justice and Peace group as well as monthly services in Liberton Hospital and Ellen’s Glen Nursing Home).  Making the clusters an active ecumenism is particularly noteworthy.

The Cathedral, St Albert’s and St Catherine’s sounded contemporary enough and in their various ways representative enough, but in all cases reflective of very different but familiar catholicity in wealth and poverty.

St Mary’s Pathhead made one feel cut off in time, as though we were hearing a voice from the worst penal days of the eighteenth century.  St Mary’s Pathhead told us the facts.  About four years ago, the parish priest was ‘withdrawn’ from saying their regular Sunday Masses.  So a member of the laity, who had the skill, offered to lead a service of the Word if someone else would do the service of the Eucharist.  This substitute service went on for slightly over three and a half years till a priest from elsewhere kindly started coming to say Mass for them.  The lay person still introduces the readings, but more briefly, and that is the present situation.  During the years of being without Mass, the Church authorities neither openly disapproved of what they were doing nor had any real contact with them (except for an ‘official ‘meeting under the Cardinal which came to nothing).  The parish has become much more of a community and appreciates that it is they the people who are the Church in this area, and they have all been very grateful for the exposition of the Scripture.


The beatification of Blessed John Henry Newman resembles his cardinalate as grand inspiration, but must not restrict him to Roman Catholic clerical ranks.  His place in Edinburgh Protestant devotion was admirably reflected on January 8th at the Memorial Service in Mayfield-Salisbury Church of Scotland for their former pastor Very Reverend William J. G. McDonald.  He had been dearly loved, and tributes by speakers and afterwards among the dispersing audience warmly reflected it, most intellectually in the eulogy from his former student assistant, the Principal of New College, Professor David Fergusson; most beautifully in the sublime tribute from his daughter Sheena, the illustrious broadcaster; but spiritually the zenith came when his successor pastor, the Reverend Scott McKenna, told us how in the days before Bill McDonald’s death they recited together the dying nonagenarian’s favourite prayer, Newman’s

‘May He support us All the day long, till the shades lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done!  Then in his mercy may he give us safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last!’

Owen Dudley Edwards is a writer and historian wHo lives in Edinburgh..


Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.