“O that God would gie us, the gift to see ourselves as others see us” (Burns).
“And those things when we hear, let us also make open show of our defects, but of our excellencies let us say nothing. Or if the opportunity force it upon us, let us speak of them with reserve and impute the whole to God’s grace.” (Chrysostom)
The above words came to mind when I saw the following was published in the Scottish Daily Mail yesterday. It is as a result of a wide ranging interview, covering everything from Dundee FC to the Catholic Church and the Scottish Government, I did with Kevin McKenna before we left for Sydney. These are his impressions, analysis and thoughts. I make no comment other than that the quotes from me are accurate.
Here is the text of the article – for those of you who don’t get the Mail!
ONWARD , CHRISTIAN SOLDIER
Scottish Daily Mail; Kevin McKenna; 20th July 2019
He’s been a thorn in the side of Scotland’s liberal establishment, has railed against the rise of secularism and built a congregation and wider following on his fearless faith. Now, as he prepares to leave Scotland, the Rev David Robertson is as uncompromising as ever.
In the monochrome cultural landscape of Scotland today, the forces of illiberalism are on the march, eager to stamp on any signs of non-conformity – and nowhere more so than in the field of human relationships.
Yet, ironically, this nationalisation of conscience is being driven by a Scottish Government otherwise desperate to make Scotland a Xanadu of diversity and inclusiveness.
Nobody has resisted this state-sanctioned intolerance more than the Rev David Robertson, minister of the Free Church of Scotland and enemy of Scotland’s liberal thought police. But his adversaries can now put down their pitchforks and burning crosses, as Robertson heads for the other side of the world.
Along with his wife Annabel he has vacated St Peter’s Free Church of Scotland in Dundee after 27 years and moved to Sydney in Australia, where he plans to continue his ministry with a group that spreads the Gospel on the streets. He doesn’t know yet when they’ll be back. ‘Part of the reason I’m going (but by no means all of it) is that I need a breather,’ he explains. ‘I’ve become fed up with the aggro and the insinuation that now accompanies you if you try to witness to Christ authentically in modern-day Scotland.’
Several people in government and the secular humanist clique that has come to influence much of Scottish public life will be happy to see the back of him. Unlike other Christian leaders who wring their hands and meekly accept each new decree handed down by nicola Sturgeon’s Government, Robertson is Scotland’s modern John the Baptist, an authentic Christian voice crying out in a secular wilderness.
During his recent spell as Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland, he took on the opponents of Christianity and those who sought to thwart its message. now he reflects: ‘I think there is an attempt to impose a militant secular humanist ideology upon the whole country. This is effectively an attempt to replace God with the state.
‘Christians will be “tolerated” as long as we do not publicly disagree with any of the state doctrines. Too many churches which seem more concerned with state privileges and “acceptance” will acquiesce. The ones that are more Christian and prophetic will find that they are mocked, discriminated against and then persecuted and punished.’
Not very long ago it was possible to hold some age-old Christian beliefs and not be persecuted for doing so. Without risking your liberty, you could assert that an unborn child, as fully human, has a fundamental right not to be killed, or that the sacrament of marriage is reserved for a man and a woman, and that there are only two genders.
Now, to confess any of these is to risk being dismissed as sexist, homophobic and transphobic, with the possibility of disciplinary measures at work and possible questioning by the police. Only state-sponsored Christianity is tolerated.
It was Robertson who wrote the Free Church’s submission to the Scottish Government consultation on proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act. ‘This recognised, incidentally, that there was such a thing as transgender and that there were people who needed help: we weren’t disputing that,’ he says.
‘not long afterwards I had a meeting with two civil servants who asked me if there was anything that the Government could do to stop the Free Church’s opposition to the Act and I said no, not really.
‘However, I did tell them there were some concern areas that could be addressed that might help the situation. One of these would be to keep it out of education. I don’t want seven-year-olds being told they can have a pick ’n’ mix approach to gender. A young child in my own church came home one day distraught because the teacher had told them you could choose your own sexual identity.’
Robertson points to the problems posed for women’s sport, or for the Scottish Government’s aim of a 50-50 gender split across all departments, if a man is able to declare he is identifying as a woman.
And when it comes to gay marriage, he reflects: ‘I’d quite like to avoid jail for simply saying there’s male and female, and marriage is between man and woman. If you’re putting queer theory on a par with race, it follows that it will be illegal for me to say this.’
When Robertson was appointed moderator of his church in 2015, he encountered more than a degree of turbulence within it. The Free Church of Scotland has a reputation for espousing a harsh and inclement form of Biblical Christianity, led by stern, black-clad, Bibletoting ministers in the Western Isles, where this craggy old religion still campaigns to have play parks locked up and cinemas closed on the Lord’s Day.
But Robertson was never cast in this mould. He mixed freely with Catholics, the Free Kirk’s ancient foes, and even praised popes.
He welcomed people of all faiths and different sexualities into his congregations, explaining: ‘I say to people, “You will always be welcome in my church, but you might not like what you hear when you get there.”
‘In the same way gay people might feel uncomfortable about me preaching Christian marriage is reserved for a man and a woman, so will some straight people find it discomfiting to hear me condemn infidelity or underline the commitment to sex within marriage.
‘I’m not judging people or prying into their private lives or being homophobic, I’m simply preaching what has been at the core of our Christian faith for 1,500 years.’
A few years ago, Robertson challenged the renowned biologist and humanist Richard Dawkins, author of books including the best-selling God Delusion, to a public debate about religion and the existence of God. Dawkins declined the invitation. Bearing in mind Robertson’s skilled defence of Christianity in The Dawkins Letters, rebutting the atheist’s claims, this may have been a wise decision.
Robertson has been included in a list of the UK’s most influential Christians and his blog, The Wee Flea, has become essential reading for those who wish to remind themselves what robust, traditional Christianity with a grounding in reason and intellect looks like.
Unlike many high-profile Christians, he doesn’t regard a television or radio studio as a trap set by the devil to mesmerise them and make them look foolish. Instead, he has embraced them and all forms of new media as a means of communication created by God to provide opportunities to spread the good news of the risen Christ.
While he has a fond regard for the Catholic Church, he fears for its future in Scotland, saying: ‘In this country, Catholics were long discriminated against and I accept that this happened when my lot were in charge, if you like. Those days are happily gone.
‘But I fear for the Catholic Church once more. Like many other churches, it’s losing numbers. At the moment, though, its membership remains high enough to ward off the increasing attempts to bring it under state control. A time may come though, when it doesn’t have as many adherents – and the Scottish Government will then come for it, too, and move to shut down Catholic schools.’
Robertson is scornful and sad at what he feels Scotland has become: a spiritually and emotionally arid landscape where an unrelenting uniformity holds sway over thought and practice.
To remain silent in the face of the new state orthodoxy is to have a decent and rewarding career in civic Scotland, while to call it out and to resist it is to encounter snooping and threats to your livelihood and career.
There is a deep irony here. The Free Kirk has this image of being dour and joyless. The Wee Frees of popular imagination are portrayed as sinister sentinels, eternally vigilant for signs that people might be enjoying themselves.
It’s a lazy caricature based on little more than ignorance and outright bigotry which wouldn’t be tolerated if it were directed at Muslims. But it’s allowed and even encouraged to permeate in our enlightened, diverse and progressive society. Yet the Free Church of Scotland was never as intolerant as the forced and imposed morality of modern, civic Scotland.
‘Social media is full of bitterness and bile,’ says Robertson. ‘People get very angry very quickly. Firing squads are assembled and those who don’t conform to the prevailing, secular spirit of the age are targeted. It’s the opposite of reason and the very antithesis of mature debate.
‘Those who purport to be eager supporters of diversity and inclusiveness are found to be nothing of the sort: they only desire these according to their own very narrow agendas. If you don’t subscribe to these, you had better watch your step.
‘And these people wield great influence at Holyrood. These middleclass liberals think they can solve everyone’s problems by control, but you can’t. You have to give people freedom. You don’t stop kids becoming obese in Dundee by banning sugar in drinks. everything’s about image with these people, and all honest debate is suppressed.
‘I am for independence, but I am also for Brexit, which is real independence – but I find the lack of genuine political debate depressing. The Scottish parliament is a depressing crucible of uniformity.
‘I was on BBC Scotland’s Debate Night programme the other week. Afterwards, several people – with no connection to my church – said that while they fundamentally disagreed with me on several points, they felt supportive of me because I was saying something different.’
Robertson has loved his time in Dundee and has been inspired by the way that the city’s people have striven to overcome profound economic adversity and the disdain of Scotland’s Central Belt sophisticates. He smiles as he tells a story about Scotland’s other great religion. Twenty years or so have elapsed, but you get the distinct impression that while the tale may have featured in many talks and sermons, it never frays from overuse.
It concerns the misadventures of Dundee FC during a vivid time in the club’s history when it was under the control of some colourful local businessmen. Soon a galaxy of exotic, international stars were somehow being persuaded to play their football in the north-east of Scotland. Dens Park had turned into a footballing catwalk and Robertson was invited to become the club chaplain.
One of the players was the Argentinian Italian, Juan Sara – a committed Christian who felt moved by the Holy Spirit to share his love of the Lord with Scotland’s footballing public. Thus this tall Latino with the Gregory Peck looks took to removing his top during goal celebrations to reveal a T-shirt telling his admirers that while goals are good, ‘Jesus Saves’.
Unfortunately for Juan Sara, Scottish football wasn’t yet ready for the love of Jesus. But in Dundee the Lord does indeed work in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform. The seed had fallen on fertile ground in one of the city’s edgier arrondissements.
‘I was contacted by the club to ask me about more suitable Bible verses to put on shirts,’ Robertson confides. ‘They also told me that they’d just had a request for 100 Jesus Loves You shirts from one of their more belligerent groups of supporters.’
In the church hall of St Peter’s on the last Saturday of May, I took my leave of David Robertson, and probably won’t see him again for a few years. I left him as I’d first found him a few years earlier, standing in the middle of a hall packed with churchgoers and their families and their friends.
A group of musicians had played a rocky set of songs which, if you listened closely, proclaimed salvation instead of inebriation and asked us to take a walk on the mild side. Unusually, for a gathering such as this, the young outnumbered the old and there was a heady mix of races and cultures.
When Robertson was asked to take over this old Dundee church 27 years ago, barely ten people gathered to hear the Gospel of Christ. There are now upwards of 300 attending every Sunday.
As an unrepentant and persistent Roman Catholic, I have no doubt in my mind that this thorny reverend has become the de facto leader of Christianity in Scotland.
I hope that he returns soon, to cause trouble and to upset those who need to be upset.
The black American civil rights pioneer Vernon Johns, mentor of Martin Luther King Jnr, said: ‘If you see a good fight, get in it.’ Robertson is one of the few Christian leaders in Scotland who has been inspired by these words.
These are some other articles than McKenna has written in the same vein.