I arrived in the Shetlands just as the national weather forecast was warning of extreme weather in the north of the UK. My visit there showed that there is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing! Luckily the warmth of my clothes along with the welcome of the people there made this a really special visit for me.
Methodism came to the Shetland Islands in the 1820s with John Nicholson, a former soldier, who returned home to Shetland and began preaching. Very early on, the Methodist Conference provided practical support, in the form of ministers to station and additional funding. This recognition of the particular needs of Methodism in these islands has continued with additional financial support for the ministers stationed here, and a recognition that a higher proportion of ministers is needed than the membership might suggest.
The islands are run by the Shetland Islands Council. With a population of under 25,000 this would be the equivalent of a small town council. Yet it owns ferry services and power companies, runs schools (with boarding pupils), and does all the things that a large metropolitan borough would be expected to do. Together with Revd Andrew Fox, the Superintendent of the Shetlands, I met with Malcolm Bell, the elected Convenor of the Council and Frank Robertson, a Methodist member and councillor, and learned about the issues facing the islands’ population. The meeting ended with an invitation from Mr Bell to explore more of the ways in which the Churches and the Council could work together.
The Shetlands are rich in their archaeological history, with Iron Age and Viking settlements. The Shetland Archaeologist, Dr Val Turner, is a Methodist and is much respected internationally for her contribution to the understanding of Shetland history. Val took us on a tour of Old Scatness where she led the excavations beginning in the 1990s. At the centre is a large Broch, a form of tower found around the Shetlands and beyond, surrounded by round dwellings. At the corner of the site a dwelling has been reconstructed to give a sense of the way people lived. It was so cold, with snow and hail falling – I was wearing six layers of clothing yet I still felt numb – I did wonder how people used to cope before the invention of central heating and Gortex.
On Tuesday I went to the farthest reaches of the Islands. Andrew drove me, via two ferries, to the island of Unst. I met folk at the most northerly Methodist Church, Haroldswick. This church was re-built a few years ago, and the members of the church did it all themselves. It is a much loved place. Then we drove onto the island of Yell and met people at East Yell Methodist Church. They are a tiny chapel, facing all the challenges of small societies everywhere and more, but I had a real sense that they are up for growth. They are looking at ways in which they can reach out to their small community, offering love and sharing the good news. In the evening I joined a small bible study at North Roe, near where the Atlantic meets the North Sea, and again witnessed the desire of these people to engage with the bible and respond to the love of God.
On Wednesday I visited a Methodist local preacher, Alma, who lives on a croft. She soon had me kitted out in wellies and waterproof trousers, and we went off to feed the ducks and hens and collect eggs. Then she gave me a shepherd’s crook, and had me catching a young lamb, just a few hours old, and iodine its cord. My second encounter as Vice-President, after my West Yorkshire visit, with a newborn lamb! Alma spoke about the hard life experienced by crofters, most of whom also maintain at least one other job in order to earn a living. But she also spoke movingly about the delight and privilege of living close to the land, seeing the birds and animals around her.
In the evening I joined the well-attended Shetland Easter Offering service. I spoke about my visit to the Church of Pakistan last year, about the experiences of Christians there and the way in which the British Methodist Church World Church Fund supports the work of the Church. The Shetland Island Methodists, with a membership of just over 200 people, raised an astonishing £1,500 for the World Church Fund, a real example of the generosity of the people on the islands.
The British Methodist Church has a history of supporting Methodism in the Shetland Islands, and it is good to see this continuing with the imminent arrival of a new probationer, who I met at Queens earlier in the year. The membership may be small, but it is disproportionate in terms of population and strong in faith.
Thank you to Andrew and Susie Fox, and all the people who welcomed me with such generous hospitality.