Why has Scottish politics forgotten about religion?
RELIGIONS NEWS AGENCY (REDNA) – During the SNP leadership contest, something unusual happened: religion became a talking point in Scotland. Comments made by leadership hopeful Kate Forbes, a member of the Free Church of Scotland, on issues like gay marriage, abortion and having children out of wedlock, dominated the newspapers. But it became clear, after the dust settled – and Humza Yousaf defeated Forbes – just how unusual this discussion was.
Even people of faith find it hard to talk about religion. This summer, when reflecting back on the leadership contest, Forbes said ‘there is a fear which characterises right now any discussions about faith’. But a Scotland which does not reflect upon the role religion has played in its cultural and political history is doing itself a disservice.
At the age of nine I decided to stop going to church in Dundee. Chalmer’s Ardler Church was based in the community in which I lived, but said nothing to a young boy full of energy, questions and curiosity. The minister and other church figures did not speak to or connect with me or my parents and took many things for granted about how they saw the world.
The minister regularly used his services to rail against ‘militant communists holding the country to ransom.’ This was a spectacular misreading of his congregation, for Dundee in the 1970s was a hot bed of left-wing politics including a very active communist party. All his political comments underlined that the minister had little connection or interest in the people he was meant to serve. This was further underlined by the dynamic Catholic priest from the neighbouring church who was always campaigning for, and with, his parishioners.
It became clear, after Humza Yousaf defeated Kate Forbes, just how unusual this discussion on religion was.
That was then. Fast forward nearly 50 years and I now find myself living in the town of Kirkcudbright in Dumfries and Galloway after 30 years in Glasgow. In the past two years, most Sunday mornings I have taken the short walk from my front door to our local Presbyterian church, Kirkcudbright Parish. I’m also a regular fixture at open days, coffee mornings and art fairs held at the church.
This is something that has been a long-time percolating. First, I thought of myself as an atheist; then an agnostic; then became a person respectful of faith and people of faith; and subsequently I have become a member of a faith community myself; a Christian.
Kirkcudbright Parish Church sits in the centre of the town, not only as a striking building, but one inside filled with space, light and beauty which cascade through its windows and which visitors regularly comment upon.
It is a place of hope, calmness and activity. The congregation is welcoming, outward-facing and active in the town. They are an embodiment of the best of the practices of faith. It helps that my local minister, Rev. James Gatherer, is thoughtful, curious and has a humanity which informs his sermons and how he addresses his ministry.
He discusses the stories and parables of the Bible, grounding them to known recorded history and observations of the wider world. This is all done in a generous, non-dogmatic, non-didactic way miles removed from how I experienced Ardler all those years ago. It’s a method of lecturing that many politicians could learn from.
In the aftermath of the leadership contest, and following Forbes’ comments, I hosted a discussion on faith, religion and public life with Reverend Doug Gay, a Church of Scotland minister. It became clear, we reflected, that there has been a tendency, since around the late 1950s and early 1960s, for many of us to encourage a Scotland which talked about moral, civic and political issues without the dominance and overbearing influence of the Church.
This has occurred to such a degree that we now talk about Scotland in an almost exclusively secular setting. It brings us to a major crossroads: we need to put the Church (by which I mean organised religion and the faith tradition in its many strands) back into Scotland to explain who we are as a country, to better understand our history.
Too many modern references in Scottish public life lean on historical events through a contemporary lens, removing religion from the picture. Take the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath, something which has become a foundation story of modern Scotland and often invoked to further the legitimacy of ‘popular sovereignty’. Or the 1689 and 1843 Claims of Rights which have a lineage and direct link to the 1989 Claim of Right – which made the case for Scottish self-determination and a Scottish parliament (and which itself invoked 1320).
All these examples – 1320, 1689, 1843 – are imbued with religious power, influence and terminology and can only be understood by having religious sensitivity, knowledge and literacy. It is something we have chosen to forget – even to turn our backs on – in Scotland in the rush to overthrow old and oppressive traditions (which the worst of the Church embodied) to be modern and progressive.
Yet in this process we have fallen for the fallacy of a single-story Scotland: a land where these ancient agreements are interpreted through the prism of modern, small ‘n’ nationalist, self-governing Scotland. There is a danger of one oppressive, intolerant version of a rich tradition being replaced by another in wilful denial of the other ‘Scotlands’ out there.
A Scotland that concerns itself only with politics or individualism is a barren place. There is a richer, nobler country both in our past and present that we need to champion and nurture to tell better, truer stories about ourselves. And that is one in which the Church, religion and faith have a place.