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.’
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.