This is part two of John Macleod’s articles in the Daily Mail on the state of the Church in Scotland today. You can read the first one here – Losing Our Religion – The Daily Mail on the State of the Church in Scotland
Again there is plenty for us to reflect on in the article I reproduce below. John’s argument that the outward Christian character and institutions of our culture have been steadily eroded is well made and I think incontrovertible. The loss of Sunday, knowledge of the Bible and the imposition of secular humanist values as if they are the only ones, are key factors in this decline. There are other factors I would add….but there is sufficient below to give us pause for thought. And of course we need to remember that the Lord is on the throne. It may be that he is not finished with us yet and of course he can revive and renew us. We have been here before! But our crying need is for prayer, repentance and a return to the preaching of Christs word. Let Scotland flourish by the preaching of the Word!
Carol Monaghan is the 44-year old SNP for Glasgow North-West, bespectacled, earnest – she previously taught science at Hyndland Secondary School – and, with so many notable Nationalist women, has attracted little public attention.
But she is a conscientious constituency member and, given her background, boasts a seat on the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. And she was there on Wednesday 1st March when a colleague stared and snapped, ‘What is that on your forehead?’
For it was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, and Monaghan – a sincere Roman Catholic – had been to church for Mass and the traditional ‘imposition’ of ashes, the priest marking the heads of the faithful while intoning, ‘Thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return…’
The faithful sport this mark for the rest of the day, as a witness to others, Mrs Monaghan politely explained. ‘But this is going to be broadcast,’ said her horrified colleague. The Glasgow North-West MP shrugged – and would not yield.
In short order there was an online BBC story and a still more shrill post on a BBC Facebook page – ‘Was it appropriate for this MP to go to work with a cross on her forehead?’ There was much fuss on Twitter. The predictable shrieking from secularists. How very dare anyone in public life make plain their Christian faith?
The collapse of church attendance in Scotland has in turn, and most visibly in the last decade, seen the general flight of Christianity from the public square. Dreadful and highly publicised scandals have not helped. But Westminster and Holyrood are now spheres where framing a consciously Christian argument would be thought the height of eccentricity – in a country where, in certain circumstances, you can be arrested for quoting Scripture aloud in the street.
This is all the more remarkable in what is still, in law and constitution, an officially Christian land. We have an established Church in England and a national Kirk in Scotland, both on terms appointed by Parliament. Among the very first oaths our Queen took, at her accession in February 1952, was to uphold the Presbyterian order of the Church of Scotland.
At her Coronation, in 1953, she was solemnly presented with a Bible in joint-ceremony by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the General Assembly. ‘We present you with this Book, the most valuable thing that this world affords. Here is wisdom; this is the royal law; these are the lively oracles of God.’
Local councils are still annually ‘kirked’, as is each new Scottish Parliament; non-denominational schools are still supposed to have some sort of Christian observance and (save for those who choose to affirm) a host of public servants, from police-constables to High Court judges, must swear an oath of allegiance by almighty God.
And yet, in recent decades and on a variety of fronts, a public Christian order centuries in the making has been steadily dismantled. Our quiet old Sundays, once a day for rest and church and family, are now devoured by shopping and sports. Three decades ago, of a Sunday morning, you drove to church in Glasgow or Edinburgh through deserted streets.
Today, you will struggle to find parking. At least, on Sundays, it is still free, though Edinburgh City Council – greedy for extra cash – threatens to introduce charges.
Scenes are now shown on national television which our grandparents would unhesitatingly have damned as pornography. Politicians and their hangers-on – as evident in such recent studies of the Brexit campaign as Tim Shipman’s All Out War – now routinely speak, it seems, in foul and blasphemous language.
There are growing calls for churches to be stripped of charitable status; the Scottish Greens want to close Scotland’s Catholic state schools. When it became clear that the Cameron administration’s legislation for same-sex marriage would not force every clergyman in the land to provide it, one of his MPs – Mike Weatherley protested.
‘As long as religious groups can refuse to preside over ceremonies for same-sex couples, there will be inequality,’ he stormed. ‘Such behaviour is not tolerated in other areas, such as adoption, after all…’
Yet, less than forty years ago, few MPs, head teachers or anyone of standing in public life would have dared to mock believers and churches or speak out against traditional family values.
James Callaghan, on his sunnier days, was known to amble around Downing Street humming hymns. He was not afraid, in a speech at the Labour Party conference in 1978, to blame much of our crime and social unrest on broken homes.
Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home were earnest Christians who attended church regularly and William Ross, highly respected Secretary of State for Scotland under Harold Wilson, was an elder of the Kirk.
One of the SNP’s ‘First Eleven’ MPs in the Seventies, George Thompson, a devout Catholic, was subsequently ordained to the priesthood. Donald Stewart, leader of that Parliamentary group, was a loyal Free Church adherent and, in April 1986, spoke out strongly in the House of Commons against Sunday shopping, assailing Mrs Thatcher’s dragooning of her troops –
‘It is appalling that a party should be whipped on an issue of conscience. The real issue is the spiritual one. The Bill goes directly against God’s plan for living. The Fourth Commandment is an integral part of the moral law of God and is therefore binding on all men. By denying this, a nation erodes its moral and social fabric…
‘The proposals in the Bill would be irreversible. If the Bill is carried, the House and the country will be crossing the Rubicon, and the nation will suffer for it…’ The Bill in fact fell, the only one Thatcher lost in her entire premiership.
It is hard to imagine any MP or MSP speaking in such terms today. Even popular culture reflects the collapse of the church’s standing in Britain. In The Vicar of Dibley, Anglicanism was portrayed as sweet but distinctly eccentric. In the darker Rev, a well-meaning vicar fights a losing battle in an inner-city parish where he, his church and the very Gospel are held in raucous contempt.
Assorted reasons underpin this. One is a tedious claim you hear far too often: that someone is ‘spiritual,’ but has no time for what they like to call ‘organised religion.’
The averred spirituality consists, as a rule, of little more than a liking for smells and crystals, whale-song and massages and some sort of noisy concern for the environment. Disdain for ‘organised religion’ is curious. We all accept that children must be taught in organised schools, pensions and benefits administered by complex organisation in a realm still defended by an organised army. So why the widespread aversion to going to church?
There are excuses more convenient than convincing. They point to the sad cases where churchmen and religious institutions have been exposed for dreadful child-abuse. (But so have schools, football clubs and even the BBC.)
Thanks to the less herbivorous politics of America and the howling affairs of Northern Ireland, the church – too – is lazily identified with right-wing and authoritarian politics. Or accused of being ‘obsessed’ with homosexuality; which is a bit rich after a decade or so when it is all its clergymen have ever been asked about.
In reality, the attitude is born in part of a far more individualistic and atomised age, one where fewer and fewer folk each year attend anything. We do not visit each other like we used to, or join political parties on the scale we used to. In a telling though little-reported phenomenon, it is not just churches we now see shutting up shop all over Scotland – pubs are closing down too.
But there is a harder reason. Faith – the belief in a living God, to Whom we are accountable – is a profoundly unsettling, disturbing concept in a self-consciously liberal, pluralist society. To give just one example, the deep Left in Britain, just now, is tying itself in knots trying to accommodate both Muslims and homosexuals. To give another, the highest virtue in society today is self-affirmation. If I point out that the Bible plainly teaches your chosen way of living is wrong, that profoundly threatens your right to be ‘authentic.’
It is no wonder that, from our university campuses to our TV channels, there are more and more rows each year about freedom of speech: more and more demands to ‘bar’ or ‘no-platform.’ Only this week, in classic institutional cowardice, the BBC formally reprimanded one of the most respected women in broadcasting, Jenni Murray.
Why? Murray, in an article for the Sunday Times, had argued that a transgendered woman – post-surgery and all – is ‘not a real woman.’ That ‘it takes more than a sex-change and make-up’ to ‘lay claim to womanhood,’ that someone who had enjoyed the privileges of growing up as a man had no knowledge of true female life-experience.
Even a decade ago, such views would have been unremarkable. Today, they invite a lynch-mob – and Jenni Murray was not even speaking from a Christian perspective.
‘Nowadays,’ despairs my colleague Stephen Daisley, ‘everyone expects the Secular Inquisition. The freedom of religious conscience, once a foundation stone of liberalism, has fallen out of favour with many who consider themselves progressives.
‘Much the same fate has been accorded to free expression. The retreat of liberalism into identity politics has necessitated the purging of religion from the public square. Religion says “you must” in a time when “I am” is all the rage and if you’re unwilling to join in with the politics of self-affirmation, you must be mocked or cajoled into denying what you believe, and conforming…’
In his 56 years Edinburgh’s Archbishop Leo Cushley has glided from modest working-class roots to parish priesthood in Lanarkshire and through the corridors of the Vatican, far-flung service as a Papal diplomat and fluency in nearly a dozen languages.
Little rattles him and he thinks the tide may well turn, talking of the ‘little green shoots’ he sees here and there. He was particularly moved to be invited to a Shrove Tuesday reception at Downing Street which Theresa May had expressly thrown for Britain’s Christian leaders. Not ‘faith leaders’ – Christian leaders.
Cardinal Vincent Nicholls,’ he purrs, ‘Bishop Chartres, Dr John Chalmers, Dr Russell Barr – the current Kirk Moderator, yes – but so many ordinary Christian leaders, with their own stories.
‘We had a small private meeting with the Prime Minister first, a few of us – of us all, she connected most instinctively with Dr Chartres. Of course, she is Anglican. A vicar’s daughter. I was so pleased to see this ease and friendship between church and state, this symbiosis, and I thought, “The Cross is Still in Kingly Crown…”’
He fingers his pectoral cross, this serene and silver-haired figure in episcopal robes.
‘You know, even today,’ says Archbishop Cushley, ‘we still have more people going to church on Sunday than to football on Saturday. But does media coverage reflect that? We have Sportscene on television – well, where is Churchscene?’
Of her own Ash Wednesday experience, Carol Monaghan holds no grudge against her SNP colleagues. ‘I think they just thought I didn’t want to be embarrassed – but I was not going to rub it off.
‘Many religions have visible symbols and Christians should not feel any embarrassment in either practising their religion or in the public display of religious symbols.’
Pointing out that she had the same Ash Wednesday experience through years as a teacher – puzzled pupils; squeaked inquiry – Mrs Monaghan is quite used to comment from strangers. ‘I am happy to answer their questions. For me it is an educational opportunity.’