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Where the center does hold

If a stranger were to walk down our village street he would find in the very center of the place a small gray-stone church. It is not only at the heart of the parish geographically but in quite another sense, too; it is the setting of countless dramas, part of the fabric of our life as a community. In the vestry hang pictures of former ministers who look down appraisingly on the latest pastor: How will he lead his flock?

We have had all manner of ministers, those who have hectored and lectured us, thundering: ''Rise up, ye men of God, have done with lesser things.'' And gentler ones who have preferred to preach of spears turned to pruning hooks. Some, like Hamlet, have ''turned our eyes into our very souls,'' showing such ''black and engrained spots'' that, even if without much success, we have struggled to be better.

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At the Christmas Nativity play the children would fight over who was to be a Wise Man, who was to carry the star. At Harvest Thanksiving they had rival boasts as to who had given most. ''I brought more pears than anyone else.'' ''My faither presented the turnips and the haystook.''

Our beadle, noted for his thrift, always kept a close watch on the offerings, and throughout the sermon his lips moved as if counting the number of apples in each basket. When he came from church after carefully sweeping up the fallen rose petals and grains of corn, we detected a suspicious bulge in his neat Sabbath jacket. Could he have been at the apples? ''Thrift, thrift . . . , ''murmured Fergus, the schoolmaster, staring so pointedly at the beadle's pockets that his sallow cheeks flushed scarlet.

He was not the only harvest raider. One autumn a farm collie, Rover, a notorious thief with an acquired taste for eggs, crept into church behind the farmer, crouching beneath his pew. At his master's first droning snore he went slinking down the aisle, only the feathery tip of his tail showing. After the service he was found under the choir stalls, licking his chops, his whiskers smeared yellow with egg yolk. ''The dug's nabbed my faither's eggs!'' Tom, the farmer's boy, howled and the Sunday school was off at a run, chasing Rover down the road, the whole village out to watch.

The beadle was a believer in respect for the cloth and proper kirk behavior. When the sermon lasted too long and the children grew restless, beginning to laugh among themselves, he hissed a blood-curdling ''Wheesht!'' This only made them laugh more than ever. Then his black-clad arm would reach forth, grabbing the offenders by the scruff of the neck and marching them out of the church. Fergus believed that the Lord loved laughter, especially children's, and he would confont the beadle with a stern ''Suffer little children. . . .''

Sometimes apathy overtook the congregation. With no outstanding causes to fight for, our beliefs grew lukewarm. Then, one day at a meeting of the Presbytery, the senior elder, Old Matthew, was suddenly wakened from octogenarian somnolence by a proposal for bishops in the Church of Scotland. He sprang to his feet. ''Bishops!'' He might have been talking of all the plagues of Egypt. His voice nearly made the kirk session jump out of its collective skin. Our forefathers had laid down their lives for freedom, not for bishops. They would enter the kirk only over his dead body. After that he rampaged around the parish, dropping more years every day, demanding everyone's opinion and proclaiming his own with such energy that we felt we were embarking on a new crusade. ''Ower my deid body,'' he repeated so ferociously that some of us felt almost sorry for the bishops. They didn't stand a chance in any encounter with Matthew. Apathy was at an end.

The seasons have marked our church. There were all the hardships of a Scottish winter, with the roof leaking at the Lammas floods, nearly blown off by the great gales of autumn, and half crushed under the New Year's snows. Once, at a service on a night of drear November, we became uneasily aware of an alien presence creeping into the pews beside us - the thickest fog in living memory. It coiled around the minister who appeared and disappeared in the pulpit, as disconcertingly as the Cheshire cat in Alice. Beyond the sanctuary of the kirk all landmarks had been blotted out.

We snuggled down in the safety of our pews and sang all the hymns we remembered by heart. ''The darkness thickens, Lord with me abide'' and ''Lead kindly light, amidst the encircling gloom'' had never been more appropriate. Gradually, as though banished by our songs, the yellow curling mist receded, a ray of moonlight fell through the high windows and we returned home under a clear, starry sky, still singing.

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The start of summer came with the Sunday school trip, when the minister, the teachers, and children set off in a great cart lent by one of the farmers. It was drawn by a lumbering Clydesdale, Bob, his harness decorated with ribbons and rosettes. He clumped off from the kirk gate, along leafy lanes leading to the hayfields. The afternoon was spent playing among the stacks, then in the farmhouse kitchen for tea and scones, strawberries and cream.

The shadows lengthened, the haycocks became blurred gold, cuckoos called, the air was fragrant with clover and meadow-sweet. Time to return. Bob, garlanded now with honeysuckle, went plodding back to the church gate, the children drowsing over in the middle of a song, their stomachs full of hot buttered scones, their heads filled with the bliss of the long summer stretching ahead.

Sometimes in church a deep sense of solidarity would come over us; we had lived through so many good and bad times together that rancors became irrelevant. The lime trees around the church cast flickering shadows over the pews, thrushes sang out there all spring. ''Hear that one!'' the organist would exclaim proudly. ''He's listened to me so much that he's woven Blake's Jerusalem into his song.''

Time flows past, we learn about change. The old minister passes on, a new pastor takes up his charge. ''Fear not, little flock'' is the theme of his first sermon. There is comfort in the words, haven within the walls. ''Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,'' Yeats wrote in ''The Second Coming.'' We could tell the passing stranger that, if in troubled times some centers fall apart, ours still holds.

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