The service of the Kirkin’ O’ the Tartan is a unique Presbyterian service, developed in the United States of America by Scottish and other British immigrants. Indeed, it was the Rev. Dr. Peter Marshall (1902-1949), Senior Pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington DC (the Church of President Abraham Lincoln) and the noted Chaplain of the U.S. Senate, who preached a sermon on Kirkin’ O’ the Tartan. In addition to his other duties, Dr. Marshall was president of the Saint Andrews Society, a Scottish-American group that continues to be quite active today. The Society and New York Avenue Presbyterian Church used that service to raise funds for the war effort in the 1940s. The lilting phrase, “Kirkin’ O’ the Tartan,” is, essentially, a “blessing of the family.” The word “Kirkin’” is a Highlander variation of the English word, “churching.” What is “churching,” you ask. Well, “churching” is an old English way of saying, “blessing.” For instance, there is a service in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (and subsequent editions) called the “churching of women.” The Churching of Women is a service of blessing and thanksgiving for having brought a woman through childbirth or, indeed, for a child born through adoption. The tartan part of the phrase “Kirkin’ O’ the Tartan” we all know. The tartan is a piece of cloth with a unique design that represents a clan, the larger collection of family units. There was an ancient service in the Highlander services of worship called “the blessing of the cloth,” which is a similar service and may have been the inspiration for Dr. Peter Marshall (The actor, Sir Richard Todd [1919-2009], portrayed Dr. Peter Marshall, Chaplain of the Senate, in the popular movie , “A Man Called Peter.” I highly recommend the film, which is a very moving portrayal of an extraordinary Christian and gospel minister).
Thus, the Kirkin’ O’ the Tartan is the blessing of the family or, if you prefer, the service of worship and thanksgiving to Almighty God for His gift of family.
The Kirkin O´the Tartan service of worship is intended to take one Sunday out of the year, indeed, the very first Sunday of the year, to give thanks to God for our families represented here, to remember those that have passed from this life into the Church Triumphant, and remember other special people in our families who are in need of prayer.
It seemed good to us to begin the year with such a service. Some coordinate the Kirkin’ O’ the Tartan with the January 25th birthday of the national poet of Scotland, Robert Burns (25 January 1759 – 21 July 1796). We hope to hold the “Kirkin'” event on the first Sunday of the year for more pastoral reasons. For us the event is not about mere ethnic history. This is our first New Year service together as a “core group.” I pray there will be many more together. The Kirkin’ O´the Tartan service of worship is intended to take one Sunday out of the year, indeed, the very first Sunday of the year, to give thanks to God for our families represented here, to remember those that have passed from this life into the Church Triumphant, and remember other special people in our families who are in need of prayer. During the “Prayers of the People,” after the sermon, as I am at the Table, we will offer an extended time for you to stand and openly give thanks for the life of a loved one who has passed on, to give thanks for your family or a member of your family — perhaps, your mother or your father, your spouse, a grandparent, or even a guardian, or someone who has been very important in your life, like a teacher —who guided you for good. We seek to ask God’s anointing on all of our families. In this act of prayer and thanksgiving, you will be “Kirkin’ the Tartan” of your own “clan” (Scottish or not!).
Oh, by the way, that raises an important point: you don’t need to be a Scot to “kirk the tartan,” so to speak. You don’t have to be of Celtic heritage. The idea here is to pray for God’s blessings and to give thanks. The pageantry is nice. But it is really just a good old-fashioned prayer meeting. Additionally we are drawing attention to a central claim of the Bible: that in the coming of Jesus Christ all of the families of the world may be united into the one Family of God. By repentance of your sins and faith in Jesus Christ as your Lord you are brought near to God, indeed, adopted into His family with all of the family rights and honors. The great focus that we seek is that you and your family hear and receive the Gospel so that you are “there” on that glorious Kirkin’ Day when all of God’s family are gathered safely into the arms of Jesus. Thus, I pray, may every “clan” coming to worship with us in this service be blessed with love, peace, hope, security, a sweet spirit in the home, and, most importantly, a life with God that leads to eternal life. May “your tartan” be carried into the sky with joy as Jesus comes again! And if there’s not the sound of bagpipes there will most certainly be the voice of the Archangel.