Out of Eden

Linda Bongiorno
Monday 7 September 2020

Preacher: Revd Dr Donald MacEwan, University Chaplain
Readings: Genesis 2:4b-15; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Exactly 200 years ago in 1820, a banner was embroidered in silk for the Adam’s Lodge of the Free Gardeners Society, in St Andrews. It was made to be held aloft in processional marches through the town, perhaps during an annual festival. You can see it on the cover of the order of service. It shows amongst other things Adam and Eve, an all-seeing eye depicting Providence, a beehive portraying industry and thrift, gardening tools, the sun and the moon depicting wisdom and goodness, and St Andrew, recognisably holding his X-shaped cross. You can see this wonderful banner for real and for free in the St Andrews Museum in Kinburn Park, not far from University Hall. The museum is open to the public as long as you make a booking.

Who were the Free Gardeners Society? They were groups of men who joined together for fellowship, friendship and mutual aid, mainly in Scotland. The earliest mention we have is from Haddington in East Lothian in 1676; a second lodge was founded in Dunfermline in Fife in 1715. We know of the Adam’s Lodge in St Andrews by 1820, and a second St Andrews lodge, the Thistle and Rose by 1823. Their equally magnificent banner is on the back page of the order. The University has a small collection of 18 items in our Library’s Special Collections from the Thistle and Rose Lodge from between 1823 and 1835, including letters, accounts and certificates. One letter informs the Free Gardeners of the death of a member, Alexander Bayne, asking for help for his widow (the writer’s sister) and three children.

Many members of these friendly societies were small landowners or farmers who gardened for food and for pleasure. Long before a welfare state, they put money into their society so that in times of need they could receive financial support. It offered sickness benefits, pensions, and provision for widows and orphans. We could think of them as precursors of Trades Unions or credit unions.

What marks the Free Gardeners out is their connection to the soil. They ran horticultural shows, they would process in their festivals holding their gardening tools. And they saw themselves as descendants of Adam, not merely in their humanity, but their occupation. We heard the Principal read from Genesis that the Lord God took Adam and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. Hence Adam’s Lodge.

The Free Gardeners Society no longer exists in St Andrews; indeed it barely survives anywhere. This and other friendly societies have been replaced by national insurance and social security – the welfare state in other words. Perhaps the furlough scheme, food deliveries and rent holidays of this extraordinary year are the most current version of their purpose. Indeed when I saw the Adam’s Lodge banner in the museum a month ago I was immediately struck by parallels with today.

Exactly 200 years ago in St Andrews, people chose to care for each other, for their families, and for the most vulnerable in their community through this society. They shared what they had with men and women who had lost their ability to house, feed and clothe themselves and their families through illness, misfortune or bereavement. And what held them in common was a recognition of their dependence on the soil and the fruit of the land, and their co-operation with creation as gardeners like Adam.

According to Genesis, a river flows out of Eden which waters the garden. This town of St Andrews sits near another Eden, the river which becomes the estuary to the north of the town. During lockdown, my wife and I walked two or three times right out along the West Sands, turning left at the end and sitting on the shores of the Eden Estuary. We’d walk back along the golf courses – many townspeople have secretly lamented the return of golf to the links, denying them so many new walks they had enjoyed from March until May.

Could I also suggest that many have seen this University and town as another Eden, a paradise where so much grows in plenty and profusion – from friendships which last a lifetime, to encounters with the finest minds of a generation; from astonishing discoveries to a career-opening degree; from returning to nature in the May Dip, to the tempting fruit of Raisin, possibly a spring harvest this year.

Well, as Dorothy almost said in the Wizard of Oz, Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Eden anymore. This Orientation Week, this Martinmas Semester, this Service of Welcome are like no other in the University’s long history. Lectures will be online, other classes will be physically distanced in different ways, and student societies will be holding a lot of online quizzes. Hundreds of students have been confined to their room for a fortnight, patiently waiting in something rather more like Limbo than Paradise. Our sports centre has re-opened though not the showers. But surely better fit than sweet-smelling.

When Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome nearly 2000 years ago, it was as if he was working for our Corporate Communications unit: Let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness.
Perhaps that should be on the posters around our halls of residences and in the town. The Lectionary is truly on-message this week – no revelling, or at least not with more than eight people from three households. And not at all in East Renfrewshire where I grew up.

In other words, students, staff and townspeople are to be very very careful. It is easy to hear this rightful insistence on being careful to the exclusion of everything else. And there are some who have taken government and University guidelines so much to heart that they have been almost paralysed by fear. Yet today’s Lectionary readings offer more than exhortions to abide carefully to divine instruction. They encourage what inspired the Free Gardeners: they rouse us to care; they counsel us to love. Romans 13:8-9:
‘Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’
There is only one obligation. All the commands are contained in love. The rest is detail.

Many colleagues in the University have spent much of the last couple of months preparing risk assessments for the re-opening of University buildings, including St Salvator’s Chapel. The work has been necessary, and I am grateful for their professional expertise. But I wonder if, at root, they all could be the same: We can open this building if we promise to care for each other. The rest – and there can be 30 pages of rest – is detail.

This year we have seen what that love for neighbour looks like. It’s been not visiting family. Not hugging a friend. Not jumping the queue. Not singing in Chapel. It’s been donating to food banks. Phoning a neighbour. Skirting a fellow walker. Embracing… Microsoft Teams.

And as students gather in St Andrews to join the staff and townspeople who are nervously waiting for them, we will see in countless more ways what love looks like. Reaching out to flatmate and facebook friend. Discovering old-style ways of being a student – reading in one’s room, a walk on the East Sands. Calling home even when there really is no news. Allowing people to make mistakes.

For all that, it’s okay to recognise how strange this all is. If, on 26 January this year, at the first service of the last semester, you had shown me a picture of this one today, I’d have thought it was an intriguing image from a student-made film shown in the 60 Hour Film Blitz, imagining life in St Andrews in the year 2120. There is, at least to me, something dystopian about our separation, the concealment of our faces, the restrictions on our voices. And yet I hope that the essence of this service is the same as it ever was. We gather as a community to bring our lives before God – as individuals and as a society; to recognise our vulnerability; to be inspired for what we face, surely more unpredictable than for many years; and to hear wisdom from old in this very new reality. The motto in Latin and Greek on the banner of the Adam’s Lodge says this: I have heard everything from the beginning. God, the creator of heaven and earth, sustainer of the Universe, lover of our souls, is not self-isolating.

In the Gospel reading we heard Jesus promise: For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. Rarely has this promise seemed so pertinent, or so comforting. Two or three in a room, a flat, a household, a tutorial group, two or three walking along the Lade Braes, dancing in a silent disco, sharing a coffee break, forming a whats’app group, taking part in a Teams meeting, joining in Morning Prayers online from tomorrow. Jesus is with us. God’s Spirit is present. God is among us.

We’ll know that God is with us by the love of that community of two or three, or of 50 as in Chapel today. We will be careful. But as the word more than suggests, our carefulness is the same thing as our care. The Law is encapsulated in love. Welcome or welcome back to St Andrews. Welcome or welcome back to the University. Welcome or welcome back to St Salvator’s Chapel. We’re out of Eden. But we’re not out of love.


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