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Is Edinburgh a Secular City? – Article in The Scotsman

COUNCIL could learn much by looking at it’s history and acknowledging the valuable role – in every sense – of Christianity says David Robertson.

Scattered throughout Scotland there are examples of what are termed “follies” – grandiose projects which serve no useful purpose – the Fyrish monument near Alness being one example, McCaig’s Tower overlooking Oban another.

There are those who would argue that Edinburgh City Council has managed to produce more than its fair share of “follies” in recent years, the grossly expensive and unnecessary trams project, being the most recent. Still it is good to know that our elected councillors are on the job and doing their best to save our money in other ways. The recent proposal to stop free Sunday parking being their latest brainwave.

A Secular City?  

When Rev Paul Rees, the minister of the large 1,000 member Charlotte Chapel Baptist Church in the centre of Edinburgh, pointed out the harm this would do to the Christian communities in the city, the deputy transport leader Adam McVey, replied: “I think it’s worth mentioning that we’re a secular city”. This is fascinating. I would love to know what that actually means and when did it actually occur? Apparently councillors are concerned that providing free parking for all on a Sunday would somehow contravene “equalities” legislation. If this is true then Edinburgh City Council had better cancel Christmas. After all it is a Christian festival.

If by “secular” Mr McVey means non-Christian then he could not be more wrong. Edinburgh was built and established upon the foundations of Christianity. That does not mean that Edinburgh does not welcome people of other faiths and none (indeed the Christian faith would require them to do so), but it does mean that councillors should not seek to turn this great city into some kind of secular utopia, without any awareness of its Christian foundations.

A Closed Community

The trouble is that, without Christianity, there is a danger that Edinburgh, and especially the city centre, will become a closed community for the wealthy and elites with a few beggars gathering crumbs from the masters’ table. Take car parking – having expensive car parking in the city centre is a good way of deterring the plebs – especially the religious ones. No, the “secular” council, has its own god – mammon. Everything must be done for the sake of commerce and money. The excuse of “equality” in religion must be used to allow inequalities of wealth to prosper.

An Enlightened and Caring Edinburgh

But there is a different Edinburgh – an enlightened and caring Edinburgh. One that is exemplified by the statue in the West Princess St Gardens of Thomas Guthrie, the clergyman who founded St John’s church and then Free St John’s (now St Columba’s Free Church) at the top of the Royal Mile. He campaigned vigorously for the poor children of the city and matched his words with his actions, tens of thousands of children being helped through his ragged schools movement. Or you could walk on to the junction of George St and Castle Street where the large statue of Thomas Chalmers is a reminder of a better ethos for the city. In 1838 Chalmers gave a series of lectures in London, arguing that governments and councils saved a fortune in policing, education, social care, etc, if there were flourishing churches.

When we are speaking of the churches in Edinburgh, we are not speaking primarily of the church buildings. We are talking about the communities of worshipping, believing Christians. We are talking about work amongst the homeless by groups such as the Edinburgh-based Bethany Christian Trust, the hundreds of youth workers, the numerous community groups, counselling, welcoming and serving. If these were all to be withdrawn then Edinburgh would find itself to be a much poorer city, in every way. And the cost to the city council would be beyond even the trams project budget.

Changed Lives, Changed Communities
It’s about changed lives, leading to changed communities. Its about the £2 million man – given that name because he has cost the state at least that amount of money – in and out of prison every year, on drugs and methadone, police costs, court costs etc.  Our “secular” society had no answer. Hearing the good news of Jesus Christ in prison, he became a believer and everything changed. The £2 million man is gone. Welcome to the new cheaper yet more valued, man.

More Christianity Not Less 

If some councillors were not so wedded to their own ideology, perhaps they would see that Edinburgh needs more churches and more Christians, not less.  Instead of playing Scrooge with Edinburgh’s churches, councillors should be encouraging them. Not only will it benefit tens of thousands of people, but also it will save the council a lot of money.
• David Robertson is director at Solas Centre for Public Christianity,


  1. I did like this line:

    “without any awareness of its Christian foundations”

    Much of the foundations of the buildings in Edinburghs New Town were built using sand from areas like Shrubhill, near what is now Leith Walk. In that area were the gallows where various criminals were executed (hanged until dead and then burnt). In 1697 Thomas Aitkenhead, a 19 year old University of Edinburgh student as executed for the crime of Blasphemy. In fact, he was the last person Britain to be executed for that “crime”. His body was then burnt and the ashes spread in the sand in the area. Thus, some of the foundations of some of the best buildings in Edinburgh contain the remains of a man executed thanks to Christianity.

    Edinburgh is a secular city in the true sense of the word in that the argument put forward for a policy to be protected because it benefits a religious group is one that should not be entertained as no group should have a privilege over others. Your broader point about access to the city centre and the services needed there is important though and a proper evidence based policy around that can be developed.

    Follies are interesting in Edinburgh. My personal favourite is the statue of David Hume, a great philosopher whose questioning of religion caused the Church of Scotland to demand he be put on trial. The statue is not the folly. The fact that it has him wearing a toga for some reason is. I strongly doubt he ever wore one in life and his writings are strong enough to say he was an original thinker, rather than someone reexamining classical works.

  2. To me, calling a place a Christian place does not refer to the number of Christians there or their activity level. Rather, calling a place a Christian place means that Christians have a privileged position in that place to determine that place’s laws and mores.

    Our challenge as Christians is how to reach out to the people where we live in order to both share the Gospel and help those in need without seeking a privileged position there. The desire for a privileged position comes from the desire to be in control. And our history of being in control over places has now caused us to see the pendulum swing in the other direction.

  3. Christmas is a Christian festival, Santa, reindeer, elves, presents under a decorated tree, mistletoe, apple cider and ham, tinsel and snowmen, ribbons and bows?
    Man, I better read my bible again because I missed all that ! And here I thought Christians simply renamed Saturnalia….
    I better check and see if Thorsday and Frejasday are Norse days, and not simply named after the dominant culture at the time.
    Next, David is going to tell me Jesus is all about bunnies, eggs, chocolate and fertility rites….

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