Rosemary Goring: Are ferries' breakdowns on the Sabbath proof that God now exists?

The CalMac ferry Loch Seaforth at Ullapool harbour   in 2018. Picture: Colin Mearns
The CalMac ferry Loch Seaforth at Ullapool harbour in 2018. Picture: Colin Mearns

THOSE who are tempted to dismiss God as a fairy-tale should look to the Outer Hebrides. Tourists and islanders who find themselves stranded when a Sunday ferry does not depart are being encouraged to believe the cause of the problem is not engine failure or woeful weather but the wrath of the Great Timetabler in the Sky.

Some time back, the Free Church (Continuing) placed a Freedom of Information request with the ferry operator CalMac for details of breakdowns and cancellations in the past 13 years. The evidence, the church says, makes it quite clear that since Sabbath sailings between Ullapool and Stornoway started in 2009, the ferry has been dogged by mishaps. Bad weather has prevented crossings, and incidents of mechanical breakdown have risen significantly.

Not that it’s necessarily a nightmare being stuck without transport. My husband was once abandoned on a winter’s evening in Ullapool, having missed his connection, thanks to the lateness of the Inverness bus. When he asked the bus driver what he was supposed to do now, the reply was curt: “There’s worse places to spend the night.” And he was right. Thanks to the Ceilidh Place’s hospitality, he had a most enjoyable stay.

Members of the Free Church take a simultaneously positive and negative view of the ferry’s travails. Its manifold troubles, they assert, are God’s “rebuke” for running a ship in contravention of the biblical command to “remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy”. On the plus side, whenever crossings are cancelled, Sunday’s sanctity is preserved. They are also no doubt of the view that since a day out of Stornoway is a day wasted, it’s best for islanders to stay put whenever possible.

The clerk to North Uist and Grimsay presbytery says that, in light of these “quite remarkable” statistics, the church is asking CalMac “to cease their breaking of the Lord’s Day for the sake of their business and the community as a whole, because ‘God is not mocked’, for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap (Galatians 6:7).”

If it is true that CalMac’s problems now stretch to dealing with a vengeful God, they should pack it in immediately. Up until now, there’s not been much sympathy for a service whose record has been less than reliable. Voices have even been raised in a place that rejoices in the name Holyrood. That’s as nothing, though, compared to the deity stepping in.

One of the things that distinguishes religious thinking is its moral opportunism. Most of us would place the blame for CalMac’s misfortunes – as they do themselves – on an ageing fleet which is doing its best to sabotage their performance.

Members of the Free Church, however, take nothing at face value. To be fair, they have fact as well as faith on their side. In the six years before the Sunday service began, there were three mechanical breakdowns on this crossing. In the first three months of the new timetable, this rocketed to six.

Who knew that He was so concerned about goings on in the Outer Hebrides? You might think He has bigger things to deal with. Yet, in the minds of parishioners offended by this breaking of the day of rest, there is no doubt whatsoever that this is a divine message.

Call it blind faith or bonkers, but members of the Free Church are not alone in their cosmic convictions. Watch Olympic athletes in the starting blocks as they cross themselves or mouth a prayer, and you’re seeing the same forces at play. The winner, who raises his or her eyes to the heavens in thankfulness, has an invincible trust in God having singled them out for victory. But what about the other competitors whose supplications went unanswered?

It’s the same when candidates for a job ask their God to help them shine. Is it right implicitly to wish your fellow interviewees to be less impressive, so you can succeed? And how do you respond when the letter of rejection arrives? Do you stop speaking to Him, or calmly accept that it simply wasn’t to be?

The question of unanswered prayers is a major stumbling block for those who would like to believe in a higher power, but can’t quite get their heads around the rules and regulations. In terms of ratios, it would be useful to have an investigation into how many prayers hit the bull’s-eye compared to those left littered like so many mis-thrown darts.

To the faithful, those pleas that fall on deaf ears are a sign of the divine working in mysterious ways. It is not for them to fathom why they have been denied their heart’s desire. Instead, they take comfort in knowing that it is all part of the deity’s grand plan, inexplicable though it seems.

It’s understandable why a job might slip through someone’s fingers, or a race be lost, and nobody’s convictions take a serious dent. But when there’s real, tangible risk approaching – a rising river, for instance – and you plead for it not to reach your granny’s doorstep, that is surely a reasonable request. It’s neither selfish nor preposterous. And yet in this, and so many far more dreadful situations, the Almighty all too often appears not to intervene. Hence why, to the uninitiated, asking for his help appears to be as much a game of chance as a roulette table.

As a child, I was given a religious tract about a family of Christian refugees from Africa who were desperate for a home of their own in the UK. One day they were walking through a building site, where new houses were being erected. The youngest daughter, who had been doing a lot of praying, looked at one of the newly-painted front doors of an unfinished house and said, “that’s where we’re going to live”.

Sure enough, a few weeks later a letter arrived telling them they had been allocated the house their child had pointed out.

At a credulous age, I accepted that her prayer had conjured up that happy outcome. I don’t recall at what point I discovered it wasn’t as straightforward as that. Perhaps when it was pointed out that sometimes being denied what you pray for is an important step on the devotional journey.

Gradually it became clear that there were answers for every eventuality.

All of them left God on his pedestal, and me in a state of confusion and doubt.

Believers, who put their faith in prayer, think there is no such thing as coincidence. Every event, no matter its import, bears the imprint of the holy. When things go as they hope – such as a ferry repeatedly being thwarted – it is merely the natural consequence of their collective spiritual endeavours.

When they don’t get what they want, it’s a question of cultivating patience and trust. Win-win, in other words.

What a confidence-boost it must be, knowing you have a direct line to God, even if He sometimes puts you endlessly on hold. That it’s taken only 13 years for His views on CalMac to become manifest is astonishingly speedy, by the standards of infinity.