Below is a fuller version of the opinion article published in the Scotsman in my name
EACH year, since the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, makes a visit to Holyrood. This visit reflects the fact that the Church of Scotland is the largest Charitable Organization in Scotland. Its social capital investment programmes in the communities of Scotland means that many of our most creative and successful Scottish social entrepreneurs are ministers of the Church of Scotland. It is still the largest religious denomination with a volunteer base that extends from the borders to the islands.
The visit provides the Moderator with an opportunity to meet party leaders, attend committee hearings, and generally talk with politicians and staff about the extensive work of the Church of Scotland. This dialogue helps the church better serve the people of Scotland in partnership with government and other organisations. I’m delighted to be starting the three-day annual visit today.
Top of my agenda for discussion this week will be the ideas and visions we have for the future of Scotland. We would like our politicans to engage with us as together we seek the “Wellbeing of Society”
We want to inspire our congregations to become ‘Communities of Grace” open to all and serving all in our parishes. At the centre of all our thinking is the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. Human beings cannot simply live on ‘bread alone” The human spirit is always in search of more.
Recent studies in this area by Phil Hanlon who is Professor of Public Health at Glasgow University, suggests that we need to find a way to heal the disease of the human spirit.
“Western civilization has conquered great health perils in the past. But the peculiarly modern malaise seems resistant to treatment. Obesity, depression, addiction, loss of wellbeing – these are issues which sap the resources and spirit of modern practitioners.”
The implications of his work suggests a distinct need for all of us to develop our spiritual lives. The Christian Faith has helped shape Scotland in the past and along with others we want to show how it can continue to bring a net benefit to our communities and also to individuals. It will no doubt mean that Church will be different in the future but the message of the Gospel continues to be relevant engaging with forgiveness and reconciliation. Our vision of a future Scotland where churches are seen as “Communities of Grace” is for me a powerful and achievable goal.
As part of this, I want to put across the Church’s commitment and concern for the most vulnerable and marginalized. Among these are the many young people who are finding it difficult to find employment. This is the group that have been referred to by Ed Howker in his book the “Jilted Generation.” They have been promised so much and jilted at the alter of education. The blight of youth unemployment is a growing crisis in our communities. I believe churches can play an ever increasing role in creating employment and sustaining well-being.
We can no longer pretend that all is well. The riots of 2011 may not have materialized in Scotland but politicians need to be aware of the real struggle to make ends meet, that is happening all around in our communities. The increased number of food banks should be raising alarm bells. The disinterest in the political system continues. Fewer and fewer people are expecting solutions to come solely from politicians.
Last year, the Church of Scotland’s Special Commission on the Purposes of Economics published its final report. The thirteen member commission comprised people with expertise from the fields of business and economics, church and community, politics and trade unionism. In their report they argue that it is necessary to: reduce inequality, end poverty, ensure sustainability and promote mutuality.
Following on from this, the Church of Scotland is exploring new approaches to economics. This in itself is not entirely new thing for the church, as it was a former Moderator of the General Assembly the Rev Henry Duncan who founded the Trustees Savings Bank Movement.
Something has to be done to make the economy work for all, not just the materially rich. I was delighted to meet the new Archbishop of Canterbury on his first day in office a couple of weeks ago and we discussed this very issue. I am hopeful that both our churches can work together to tackle unscrupulous activities of payday lenders and promote alternatives, such as credit unions.
Payday loan companies target the most economically vulnerable people in society and we need to do all we can to protect people from the unethical and abusive practices of so-called ‘legal loan sharks’. I am astounded that payday loan companies are allowed to operate in the way that they do and I am pleased that the Archbishop joined me in criticising the products offered by companies that charge up to 4000% interest.
One of the possible alternatives to payday lenders is the work of credit unions. I am excited about the prospect of talking about this with party leaders at the Scottish Parliament over the course of my visit: I am calling on our politicians to join with the Church in standing up for the most economically vulnerable in our society.
The forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence may well be a unique and historic opportunity to explore in the public space the kind of Scotland we want to live in. Yet while talking about the future of Scotland we should be aware that this is a luxury for the more well off in society. The poor all around the world seldom think of the future and the big picture. They can only view the world from one day to the next.
We need to ask ourselves what does it mean to be an Independent Scotland in an interdependent world? Will an Independent Scotland mean we have become Independent because we are seeking the best for our neighbours and families in England, Wales and Northern Ireland?
We must ensure that the voice of the most marginalised, which is the least likely to be heard, is kept at the centre of debate and decision-making. Children are often to be counted in this grouping. Today in Scotland one- in –five children are living in poverty.
Although the Church of Scotland remains impartial as to the question of independence, we are actively encouraging positive and hopeful debate and discussion surrounding the issue. I think it is really important to find a space where we can explore the future of Scotland and to allow the public to engage with this important question.
However making laws to govern the moral behaviors of a society can only go so far. The law in itself will never reform or change the human heart. This requires a completely different mindset. It involves a change from within the individual and this is where faith and religion make their contribution. It is when individuals of their own free will wish to change their moral behavior, be it by contributing more to the well-being of others or by refusing to take a higher wage, or by volunteering time and energy that change will come. We need a Scotland that is motivated not by greed but by grace. Why? In the words of Bono “ Graces makes beauty out of ugly things”