St Magnus' Cathedral, Kirkwall

When I visited St Magnus’ Cathedral at Kirkwall last month, I was predictably moved by its scale and antiquity. Buildings on Scotland’s outer isles tend to be low, modest and plain; this cathedral would feel at home in any ancient, north European city. It is large, airy and grand; truly, it is the gem in Kirkwall’s crown.  

Its architecture is characterised by large, rounded arches and thick, heavy pillars. Upon seeing them, I muttered to myself: why were they building in a Norman style up here, where the Norman yoke never reached? Even the Saxons built in that manner, but they too never came so far north. The proper name for the style, of course, is Romanesque, not Norman, and it is a distant echo of the architectural taste of the classical world. It is the only distinctive, European style between the fall of Rome and the arrival of gothic in the later 12th century. Although historians have speculated that English masons may have worked on St Magnus’ after completing Durham Cathedral, the ‘Norman’ style is indicative of a Europe-wide movement, even up in those cold northlands.

Although I am an enthusiastic son of the Reformation and have no desire to align with those churches which compromise the gospel with either addition or subtraction, St Magnus’ wide horizons offers a salutary lesson. Gospel-promoting churches are part of a global movement; they are members of a huge, cosmic family. We might appear small and scattered, and we Congregationalists treasure our independence more than most. Yet we are a small part of a larger, more significant whole, and it goes deeper than architecture or style. I might not communicate much with brethren in India, or China or Iran; styles of worship may vary, songs will differ, cultural assumptions will diverge, but authentic gospel truth unites us.

For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building. 1 Corinthians 3:9

According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. 1 Corinthians 3:10 (NKJV)