Burns’ Night – Holy Willie’s Prayer

Burns’ Night – Holy Willie’s Prayer

Today is the closest Scotland has to a national day (arguably one of two, the other being St. Andrews Day). January 25th, exactly a calendar month after Christmas, is Burns’ Night – the celebration of Scotland’s Bard, the Ploughman’s Poet, Robert Burns, born 25th January 1759 (next year will be the 260th anniversary). Amongst his many works, just outside of the more well-kent poems, is Holy Willie’s Prayer. It is a most intriguing piece of poetry. Tradition has it, that Holy Willie’s Prayer is based upon a real-life happening (with some poetic license I imagine) when (Holy) Willie Fisher accused a local landlord, Gavin Hamilton, of financial misdealing. The Presbytery of Ayr ruled in favour of Hamilton, and in doing so, indicated that the financial inconsistency might be attributed to Hamilton forgiving the debts of those who could not pay.

In light of the ruling, Willie Fisher lost face and any reputation he had as an elder of the kirk (church). Burns writes the poem imagining Holy Willie praying to God after the events of the trial. He sees Holy Willie as justifying his ‘fleshly lust’ because he is one of the ‘chosen sample, to shew Thy grace is great and ample.’ In short, Burns is railing against the idea of a predestined few, chosen by God, who then live immoral lives in the belief they are saved regardless.

Lord bless Thy Chosen in this place,
For here Thou has a chosen race:
But God, confound their stubborn face,
And blast their name,
Wha bring thy rulers to disgrace
And open shame.—
Lord mind Gaun Hamilton’s deserts!

It’s fair to say, Burns was a man of social conscience (though, perhaps less so in personal conscience!), but he had no time for what he saw as the hypocrisy of the church.

This week I read a blog about the perceived hypocrisy of evangelicals in America. I don’t subscribe wholly to the sentiments and I don’t want to make a political or moral judgement on people and a system I have no say in, and consequently detract from the overall point – but the blog did make me consider the times where the church seems to side with the oppressor and not the oppressed. Deitrich Bonhoeffer knew all too well the problem of a church that misguidedly placed hope in a political figure and aligned itself with an oppressive regime. It led Bonhoeffer to write, “The Church is the Church only when it exists for others…not dominating, but helping and serving.” (Letters and Papers from Prison). I’m fairly certain any political leanings of a church should not replace its mission to help and serve the world around it. When the aim of the Church is to rule over, rather than serve alongside others, we have to wonder what witness we bear.

Of course, there is complexity at nearly every turn – the Church is not a homogeneous unit – there is good and bad across the landscape. It’s hard to navigate the line between taking a moral stand and the resulting imposition upon others. It’s not easy to engage with politics when often religion and politics operate in different spheres with different agendas. However, perhaps Holy Willie’s Prayer shows us where to start – with ourselves. Recognising our own failings and shortcomings (and, unlike Holy Willie, not explaining them away) brings us to a place of humility. It is only out of personal humility that the gathered church can learn to serve. As we acknowledge that we might be part of the problem, and so not blaming others (Hamilton or the Presbytery of Ayr for example!), we will also begin to recognise that we have a responsibility to resist oppressive regimes, work for justice, and promote equality. As God’s people, we are called to bend the knee and serve others, not force others to bend their knees before us and adhere to our political agenda.
These thoughts are not necessarily the views of the College, but hopefully a way to provoke deeper thought. Please feel free to engage in helpful dialogue with me using graham.meiklejohn@uws.ac.uk or through social media if that’s where you see it!