LETTER FROM SCOTLAND 24th May 2013

I was brought up in the Church of Scotland. (My parents were, rather obviously, fans of its founder.) But like most Presbyterians I suffer from a mixture of pride and despair when I read and watch reports of its General Assembly which has been taking place in Edinburgh this week.

General Assembly LogoThe Assembly of 850 ministers and elders made headlines with their series of cartwheels on the issue of the appointment of gay ministers. When they came upright again – if I can use that term – they voted by 340 to 282 to stick to their original doctrine of no sex outside marriage but they would allow individual congregations to elect gay ministers if they wanted to.

As you can perhaps imagine, there was a lot of dancing on theological pinheads before they arrived at this happy compromise, which hopefully will head off another Disruption. So far, only two congregations have left over the issue.

Quite why the church spends so many theological hours in the bedroom is beyond me. I would have thought there are more important issues to address in the living room or the kitchen, or the garden or the wider world.

To be fair, this week’s Assembly has had debates on poverty, the state of the Kirk’s caring services (which employ no fewer than 1300 people) its overseas development programme (this year featuring Bolivia) and its peace efforts in Israel and the Middle East. But these worthy issues always seem to be been overshadowed by such personal issues as gay clergy. Gay marriage is another bedroom issue on which the church is clashing with the rest of society, or at least with the Scottish and Westminster governments.

It’s not much wonder that only 40 per cent of the Scottish population tell the Census they are members of the Church of Scotland, only 16 per cent say they are Roman Catholics and a third say they have no religion at all.

John Knox
John Knox
The original John Knox would turn in his grave, under that car park by St Giles, if he knew how we had betrayed his Reformation of 1560. After all, his main point was that personal beliefs were a matter between the individual and his God – whoever or whatever He is. The Reformation set everyone free to make his own way to heaven. And that, in my view at least, means the Church has to accept a spectrum of belief – from fundamentalists who take the Bible as literally true, to liberals who regard it as a collection of symbolic stories which help us think about the spiritual issues of life. But right now, as I see it, the fundamentalists are winning and the Kirk has ceased to be a broad church.

So, having got that sermon off my chest, what else has been happening this week? The terrorist attack in London, in which a soldier was decapitated by suspected Islamic extremists, was condemned in the Scottish Parliament, as it was at Westminster. And party leaders here have been anxious to calm nerves and express the hope that it will not lead to religious or racial tensions.

Alex Salmond MSP
Alex Salmond MSP
But soon, normal service was resumed with the politicians trading figures over Scottish independence. On Tuesday, the first minister Alex Salmond and his deputy Nicola Sturgeon went to the Alexander-Dennis bus manufacturer in Falkirk to launch a booklet outlining the economic case for independence. Scotland they said was a country rich in natural resources but held back by governments in London. Scots had paid more in tax per head than the rest of the UK for every one of the last 30 years (including oil revenue), so an independent government would have more to spend on public services. And it could encourage growth in the private sector by cutting corporation tax to 3 per cent below the UK rate (ie to 17 per cent).

Meanwhile the UK Treasury brought out a report saying an independent Scotland would not be able to guarantee bank deposits and it would struggle to protect pension funds. Others raised the spectre of an influx of students from England after independence because they would not have to pay university tuition fees.

Isle of Lewis
Isle of Lewis
The SNP fought back by announcing government permission for the world’s largest wave power project, off the north coast of the Isle of Lewis. Aquamarine have plans for a 40MW “wave power farm” capable of powering 30,000 homes, more than double the number of households in the Western Isles. The company is currently testing its machines in the Pentland Firth. All it needs now is the miracle — a cable connection to the grid.

And speaking of miracles, there were two last weekend here in Edinburgh. One was the feeding of the 5000 who turned up to the Kirk’s “Heart and Soul” outdoor event in Princes Street Gardens, complete with picnics, music, games and doves of peace. The other was the feeding of the 4000 cyclists who pedalled to the Scottish Parliament to demand that 5 per cent of the transport budget be devoted to cycling. They were led by Graeme Obree. Where was our other cycling hero, Sir Chris Hoy? Well, he was pictured later in the week arriving at the General Assembly as one of its special guests. So perhaps the Kirk is about to get on its bike and go through another life cycle.