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The Rise of Scotland’s Radical Preachers – The Daily Mail

It is unusual for a mainstream secular newspaper to run a major series on the state of the Church in Scotland – but the Daily Mail has done just that.  The journalist John Macleod has written a perceptive and insightful analysis – part three of which was published on Saturday.  I attach the article below, and as I feature in it, I will add some comments after it.  It is well worth reading – whether you agree with it or not.  Well written, accurate and provocative.
It is the first evening of March on the first day of Lent, and hundreds have packed St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral in Edinburgh for Mass with Imposition of Ashes.
Archbishop Leo Cushley presides with gravity and aplomb over a liturgy maximally confusing to those not born to it. We stand. We sit. We kneel. We stand again. The hymns are traditional and robust. The faithful duly queue for the dab of ash on their foreheads; queue again, twenty minutes later, for the sacrament.
It is all reverent and ordered and a far cry from the gloom that beset the Catholics of this Archdiocese four years ago, with the disgrace of Keith, Cardinal O’Brien, and months of depressing newspaper coverage. Cushley was duly consecrated his successor in September 2013 and has since had decisively to reorganise.
The Kirk’s essential problem is its haemorrhaging membership. The Catholic Church’s burden is a desperate shortage of priests. Parishes have had to be combined; churches here and there closed all together.
‘Yes, I’ve had to restructure things,’ Archbishop Cushley confided this morning. ‘We have 113 parishes in the Archdiocese and, by 2020, I will have just thirty diocesan priests under the age of seventy-five.
‘And I do have some priests from religious orders – I have seven or eight from Poland, for instance, and they’re a great help. I have, too, half a dozen young men in a seminary – really excellent men – and some of them have graduated from university, which we didn’t use to get.’
Of course changes and closures are most upsetting, especially for older believers. ‘We are all attached to the place where we were baptised or our grandmother helped to buy the altar. I’ve been there,’ Cushley has remarked, ‘the church where I was ordained is now a car park.
‘It’s not going to be easy in some places. I want to encourage people to be courageous and charitable and magnanimous and to do what is best for the local Catholic communities so we all move together.’
After tonight’s rites I am invited to join some of his young people for a lecture on the Eucharist. It is in the cathedral café, a cosy place, and every seat is occupied. There is a large mix of background and nationality; youths and girls in equal proportion.
Cushley talks for nearly an hour, moving freely around the room, with fluent authority and much quotation – Ignatius, Tertullian, Augustine. Occasionally he puts questions, which are answered thoughtfully, or someone questions him. He is an enthralling speaker and – though at all moments dignified – bubbles with unfeigned optimism.
‘There’s something about our young people today,’ he tells me. ‘There’s a steeliness. They don’t want me to teach Christianity Lite. They want it straight; to do the stuff it says on the tin…’
The Rev. David Robertson, 55, has seen more than restructuring; he, in 1992, beheld near-total desolation, when he was inducted to his second charge, St Peter’s Free Church in Dundee. In a building that could seat 900, just seven appeared for the first service. There were no young people; no families. The atmosphere was dispirited and hopeless. The temptation was to retrench – meet in the small hall; or to go in search of the traditional constituency (Highland and Hebridean students) or resort to some gimmick or other.
Robertson is himself from the north country – Easter Ross – but of Brethren upbringing, irrepressible enthusiasm and keen social conscience. Now he held his nerve and just… preached, refusing in any way to dumb down or cannily, to abandon the sanctuary.
‘There was no targeting. Free Church students either did not exist or were not interested. We decided to try and reach out to everyone. We met in the main church, put the heating on, sought to improve our singing, switched to the New International Version. I happen to believe the Word of God is for everyone – and we grew gradually.’
A quarter-century later, Robertson leads a team-ministry at a St Peter’s now attended by over 300 people. Twenty different nationalities are represented. In 2000, there were only five children; now there are sixty, and he baptises a baby almost every month.
‘I agree with the Archbishop,’ he says. ‘Christianity Lite just gets blown away. People like the fact that we are serious, biblical, contemporary and radical. It’s total confidence in the Word. That’s where the Church of Scotland has gone wrong.’
Robertson and his congregation have also engaged in determined church-planting, first in St Andrews, where there is now a flourishing congregation with two morning services. A first attempt in Montrose did not prosper, but a second did: fifty now attend, largely ex-Kirk. There is a new sister-congregation in Broughty Ferry which (like quite a few others in Scotland) repudiated the Kirk for its incoherence on homosexuality and is now a 100-strong Free Church charge.
‘This year we’re starting a new Free Church in a housing-scheme in Dundee – Charleston. And I hope to do some more. The fact is that when we came here in 1992 there were about fifty people in the whole Free Church in Tayside. Now there are about 800…’
Robertson is not unusual. There is a general shortage of good preaching in Scotland and, in a large urban area, a conscientious, studious pastor can, even today, gather and hold a substantial flock. Where Robertson does stand out is in broader, almost military campaigning. He is a tireless writer, lobbyist and blogger with entire and cheerful loathing of aggressive secularism, lazy reasoning and liberal intolerance.
He now commands the Solas Christian Centre in Dundee and publishes its hard-hitting monthly magazine. Robertson is not readily pigeon-holed: he voted Yes in 2014, but Leave last year. He has now repudiated the SNP, convinced it is now the vehicle for a ‘progressive’ anti-family, anti-Christian agenda.
‘A big part of what I’ve done is cultural engagement in the public sphere, not because I want to engage in culture wars but because I have found it a useful means to communicate the Gospel to a culture which is largely ignorant of it.
‘I believe the Church needs to be much more radical and get back into education, media, and poverty issues. I think we need to get back into caring for the elderly, education and social work. And I think the government should help us, because we would do some of it better than them and cheaper than private enterprise.’
There are precedents for this, notably in the career of the late and sorely missed Cardinal Thomas Winning, the gruff but handsome Glasgow prelate who was never afraid of a really good row.
Over the years Winning, for instance, set about the ‘woolly thinking’ of the Prince of Wales, opposed the Falklands War, campaigned for the release of the Birmingham Six, denounced the poll-tax and fought hard – if in vain – to prevent the repeal of Section 28, legislation that forbade the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in state schools. But he also put down 1976 plans to beautify his own cathedral and instead spent the money allocated on a campaign against Glasgow’s dreadful poverty – and, in 1997, the Cardinal set up an initiative to offer not just counselling but financial support for expectant single mothers pressured towards abortion.
There were howls of derision, from the usual suspects; but hundreds of thousands of pounds poured in and, in time, dioceses all over the world adopted the scheme – with Germaine Greer, no less, endorsing it.None of this was driven by a bid for populism: in the last days of his life, in 2001, Cardinal Winning publicly deplored the prejudice and mistreatment against asylum-seekers in Scotland – forbidden, for instance, to work, or beset by thugs.
‘Such sanctions are an affront to the human dignity of the individuals concerned,’ he declared, ‘and an incoming government should review them as soon as possible.
‘As a Christian I cannot approve of such blatant discrimination… The face of our city has been disfigured by a series of ugly and brutal acts of aggression against people whose only crime is to flee persecution and seek refuge in a foreign country.’
Such practical endeavours for decency, of course, are not unique to Christianity. In recent years many truly hungry Glasgow people have been made welcome, and fed generously, by the Sikh community at their Gurdwara in Pollokshields – the Sikhs being rather big on free food.
But no one is after the Sikhs. By contrast, Scotland’s Christians are uncomfortably aware of growing, even concerted endeavour to drive their faith out of the public square.
A handful of obsessives, backed in strident and even offensive terms by the National Secular Society, have been campaigning for years to force the Western Isles Council to open the Stornoway Sports Centre on Sundays – against the wishes of most of the councillors, most of the community, and almost everyone who works there.
And only a fortnight ago it emerged that Tommy Sheppard, the articulate SNP MP for Edinburgh East, is a foe of Catholic schools and even the presence of ministers and priests (a statutory requirement) on local council education committees. At a Humanist Society Scotland event he demanded ‘a secular school system’ in our land, urging those present to wage their war ‘bit by bit… Chip away at the power organised religion has within our school system… take those little victories and use them to move onto the next campaign.’
Many increasingly fear that, within a decade, the SNP – or, indeed, Scotland’s political class as a whole – will grant Sheppard his wishes. ‘Though the Scottish Government’s ongoing support for Catholic schools is appreciated,’ one senior Catholic remarks privately, ‘there’s growing concern in the Church that Nicola Sturgeon is not making the same efforts to reassure the Catholic community the SNP has their best interests at heart that her predecessor did.’
But there is unease about Roman Catholic leadership in the west, which has kept a singularly low profile on issues troubling many Christians, such as the Named Person Scheme or the ‘Time for Inclusive Education’ campaign.
Archbishop Philip Tartaglia, it is feared, has become far too close to the SNP, as his extraordinary speech at a December 2014 function attended by Nicola Sturgeon attested.
‘There is a feeling around that we are in a special moment when we can shape a new Scotland,’ he crooned. ‘Our new First Minister, who is happily with us here this afternoon, has proposed a more consensual form of government, less partisan, less party-political, and less adversarial. I think everyone would welcome that … We are all equal in Scotland … all free to express our views and follow our consciences…’
By New Year Sturgeon had been photographed, beaming broadly, with the happy couple at Scotland’s first same-sex wedding. She vigorously opposes the slightest reduction in the 24-week limit to abortion and has encouraged ‘abortion tourism’ from Ireland.
‘She is entitled to these views. But she’s not simultaneously entitled to fawning tributes delivered at a religious service by the Archbishop of Glasgow,’ wrote one aghast London commentator. ‘The SNP, having noticed that Labour has screwed up its relationship with Catholics, wants one thing and one thing only from the Scottish hierarchy: moral support that will put pressure on Catholics to vote for it. For that, it needs a useful idiot in a mitre. And, boy, has it found one.’
Archbishop Cushley, a seasoned Vatican diplomat, is a cannier man and far more circumspect. Over three years since his installation he has still, an aide comments, to be invited to Bute House.
And David Robertson, meanwhile, is certain that ‘in time, there’s going to be a threat to liberty, in a Scotland where the State replaces God. I would argue that freedom of religion is the foundation of any society.
‘I want to know if in a few years’ time I will still be free to preach – or if you will no longer be allowed publicly to disagree with the State’s beliefs.’
Reading the above you may think that St Peters is paradise on earth!  Of course that is not true and there is much more to the story – apart from one or two minor inaccuracies (Solas magazine is published every three months, not every month)  the facts as reported in the article are true.  I would however add the following:
1)  I was going to disagree with the baptising a baby almost every month – but in fact that is the case so far this year – and we have another four infant baptisms coming up in the next two months, and probably a couple of adult baptisms.
2) I wouldn’t say that I have ‘repudiated the SNP’ as I was never a member, and in one sense repudiate all political parties.  But it is true that I was more supportive of the SNP and Scottish government (being a supporter of independence for Scotland) than I currently am.  My view is that the SNP has been infiltrated by a significant number of career politicians and liberal progressives whose interest is more in building their secular Nirvana, rather than genuine independence.  I am also concerned that this is leading the SNP down an increasingly authoritarian road, where those who disagree with them are sidelined.  As John reflects in the rest of the article this has worrying implications for religious freedom in the future.
3) St Peters is a church full of problems.  If I listed the difficulties we have faced over the years and currently face, it would be the longest article I have ever written.  As I told a man who inquired about the church ‘we are a screwed up people in the midst of a screwed up world, with a great Saviour’!  Incidentally that man is now one of our elders!   I am also deeply conscious of my own sins, faults and personality quirks.    But we are also a greatly blessed people.  Even yesterday as I came out of the evening service, one of our longerstanding members came up to me and said ‘we are greatly blessed to be part of this’.  That is true.   Yesterday we welcomed a new member, celebrated a solemn and joyful communion, mourned with those who had just lost a husband and a mother, thanked the Lord for mothers, heard a tremendous sermon from Sinclair Ferguson, participated in quality praise, ate and shared together and for me it was encouraging to meet two students  and another man from non Church backgrounds who had recently come to faith.   ‘We were as men that dreamed’!
4) I stand by the comment that abandoning faith in the Bible as the Word of God is where the Church of Scotland has gone wrong – however there is one obvious qualifier to that.  It is true of the denomination as a whole, not of every single congregation or member within the Kirk.  There are fine preachers, churches and individuals within the C of S…how they square the circle of preaching the Word whilst vowing allegiance to a denomination that has denied it, is their responsibility, not mine!  I am just thankful that they are proclaiming Christ.
5) I believe that the key need for the Church today is as it has always been – prayer and the proclamation of Christ through his Word.  That does not negate the comment I made about the need to be more radical and get back into education, poverty and media – in fact that is where it stems from.  My motto has always been ‘preach the Word and see what happens’.  As Christ is proclaimed, people come to faith in him, and his people are stirred up to care for the poor, educate the young, look after the elderly.  We do so in obedience to his Word, because we love and serve him.  An inward looking church is an oxymoron.
I look forward to meeting Archbishop Cushley – he sounds a fascinating person!   I’m not sure about the two of us being lumped together as ‘Scotland’s Radical Preachers’….but if that is the case, so be it!
Please pray for us in St Peters, pray for the church plants and pray for the whole church in Scotland.  Ps 80 is our prayer (along with Ps 126)

Psa. 126:1    When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,

we were like those who dreamed.

2 Our mouths were filled with laughter,

our tongues with songs of joy.

Then it was said among the nations,

“The LORD has done great things for them.”

3 The LORD has done great things for us,

and we are filled with joy.

4 Restore our fortunes, LORD,

like streams in the Negev.

5 Those who sow with tearsa

will reap with songs of joy.

6 Those who go out weeping,

carrying seed to sow,

will return with songs of joy,

carrying sheaves with them.


  1. The attempts to Christianise liberalism have led to much of Christianity being liberalised. That a remnant now says ‘no more!’ and begins to push back is no surprise. The question that remains to be decided is are we looking at the beginning of revival or at just another battle in the long defeat? Only the grace of God can bring about victory for the Church in this struggle.

  2. “And David Robertson, meanwhile, is certain that ‘in time, there’s going to be a threat to liberty, in a Scotland where the State replaces God. I would argue that freedom of religion is the foundation of any society.
    ‘I want to know if in a few years’ time I will still be free to preach – or if you will no longer be allowed publicly to disagree with the State’s beliefs.’”

    Along the same lines, on the need for religion, from the USA here is an excellent blog post from Albert Mohler:

    After sketching argumentation,put forward by others he concludes:

    “In other words, there must be no exceptions. Religious liberty simply evaporates as a fundamental right grounded in the U.S. Constitution, and recedes into the background in the wake of what is now a higher social commitment—sexual freedom.”

    So, as you say David, the state becomes the arbiter of morals, takes the place of God , decides what you can and can’t believe, backed up with laws. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, the state fills the place vacated by the church as the church absorbed unbelief triggered by the blindness of the enlightenment and growth of secular scholasticism.

    15 , or so, years ago there was an attempt at humour – if Christianity were a crime, would you be convicted? As others have pointed out here, we are not there yet, unlike other parts of the world where many live out Paul’s words, “To live is Christ, to die is gain.”

    I’ve been greatly challenge recently to live life “backwards”, from the place of my destination in Christ, rather than forwards, which rather focuses more on the material, here and now. (Not that I’m advocating gnosticism or neo platonism) But it brings a focus on eternal security for the individual and the certainty of the consummation of the Bride of Christ.

    It is from the position of living backwards, in the light of eternity with Him, that God is Good News. that God saves us from God. We are Christ’s inheritance, His, bought with an eternal price, to graciously share His inheritance with us.

  3. A quietly momentous change which I think is taking place is that people in the Free Church and similar groups are a little more open to seeing the value in faithful Catholic leaders such as Cushley as mentioned in this article, or Chaput in Carl Trueman’s recent book recommendation on First Things. There is a most definite change in tone from the implacable hostility I remember from decades ago. Perhaps the increasing experience of hatred from the secular world is having an effect, by the grace of God.

  4. I am so deeply grateful to have discovered Mr. MacLeod through this blog and in a roundabout way through God’s providence: I discovered this blog because I am a great admirer of Sinclair Ferguson. I am the same age as Mr. MacLeod but have been Reformed, which is to say in Christ, for only the past three years, having been a Roman Catholic all my life. I have been devouring Mr. MacLeod’s books along with Banner of Truth books. I am actually an American who lives in the Chicago area, and I have deep German roots, but I have had a strange fascination with the Highlands ever since I studied in England thirty years ago and traveled to Scotland on my own. Thank you so very much for publishing these articles.

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