It is the last taboo, a predilection indulged by a small segment of the population and looked upon with disapproval by mainstream society. In Scotland, just seven percent will admit their involvement and even then they are reluctant to talk about it.
Churchgoing is a minority pursuit these days, and if you attended services yesterday you were one of only 390,000 to do so. It’s a far cry from Billy Graham’s 1955 Crusade, when one in five Scots packed venues like the Kelvin Hall and Hampden to hear the charismatic preacher. The nation of John Knox is now home to growing numbers of non-believers.
In a further sign of religion’s decline, the Scottish Parliament petitions committee heard last week from campaigners who want to scrap blasphemy laws, which have remained on the statute books unused since the mid-19th century. Such a move would not prove terribly controversial, except perhaps in the pews of Skye and Lewis, but it is the lack of urgency about closing this loophole that speaks volumes. Religion is dying a death as a force in public life.
But that is only half the story. Across Scotland churches — and mosques, synagogues and temples — are on the frontline of the battles against homelessness, poverty and drug addiction. Driven by compassion, informed by faith, these footsoldiers of mercy go about their manoeuvres quietly, never asking for thanks and seldom receiving any. They are the grandmothers who rise at dawn to bake cakes for the fundraising fete, the retirees who drive minibuses and deliver supplies to food banks, the people of modest means who give in time and empathy what their pocketbooks cannot donate.
Holyrood, which so often falls short, rose to the occasion last week with a debate celebrating Serve Scotland, an umbrella group of churches dedicated to community work. Led by SNP backbencher Kate Forbes, MSPs from every party spoke openly — and unapologetically — about how faith had shaped them, all the way from Murdo Fraser on the Right to Ross Greer on the Left. Members praised their favourite initiatives, from Safe Families for Children, a Glasgow-based organisation that helps single parents, to Jewish Care Scotland, which runs kosher food banks.
The most profound contribution came from an unlikely source. Graeme Dey, MSP for Angus South, confessed he was ‘an avowed atheist’ but added: ‘I am increasingly unsettled by the push by some people to denigrate and marginalise people of faith — any faith — and to dismiss their views and their right to hold them. I was raised to respect the reasonable and deeply held beliefs of other folk, however much I might struggle to understand them and — more than that — to be appreciative of the positive contribution to society that they might make.’
Here spoke a man of no faith but his words could not have failed to touch religious people across the country. We are becoming intolerant of faith, its practice and even the very idea of it, and freedom of conscience, once fundamental to liberal thought, is increasingly scorned as an excuse for bigotry. Tim Farron, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, was hounded for holding orthodox Christian views on homosexuality. This near-checklist Left-winger was not simply criticised (which the religious must accept) but told his beliefs were antithetical to holding public office. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a religious man to enter the kingdom of liberal opinion.
We heard another reading from the gospel of ignorance when Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg was declaimed for comments about food banks. The devout Catholic said: ‘To have charitable support given by people voluntarily to support their fellow citizens, I think is rather uplifting and shows what a good, compassionate country we are.’ This was reported by one newspaper under the headline, ‘Jacob Rees-Mogg: Increased use of food banks is “rather uplifting”‘. I disagree with Mr Rees-Mogg on a great deal but it is dispiriting to see his statement of standard Vatican doctrine on the virtue of good works mangled into a callous lauding of deprivation.
Post-Christian Britain is unfamiliar with faith and impatient of its persistence. Organised religion, especially the Catholic Church and the mainline Protestant denominations, is far from blameless. The shameful abuses inflicted on the vulnerable by servants of Christ have drained once fulsome reserves of trust. Sluggish outreach efforts too have sidelined the gospel in modern life. If the Good News is so good, why confine it to a deserted church where no one will hear it?
Yet this is why it is a mistake to turn away the religious from the social sphere. Faith fills in the gaps where government fails and charity embraces those left behind. Charity is love. The state may feed you, clothe you, put you to work, and even tend your wounds but it cannot love you. Love requires humility and intimacy; it is a choice, not a key performance indicator. That does not mean that the state is unnecessary, only that it is insufficient. It nourishes the body but it cannot feed the soul.
As Shettleston MSP John Mason noted in the Serve Scotland debate, when Glasgow City Mission set up a shelter for the homeless, the council was ‘sceptical as to whether the shelter was needed and whether there really were people sleeping rough in Glasgow’. In the abstract of numbers and records, there might not have been but the Mission knew better than the council because it knew the people. It loved them.
We stand at a hinge moment in history, the change of pace a maelstrom. Automation threatens once lifetime jobs; the generation coming up will be poorer than its parents; a middle class homelessness crisis looms; and mental ill-health and loneliness are emerging challenges. Faith alone cannot solve these problems but neither can government. The traveller on the road to Jericho did not rebuff the Good Samaritan and neither should we.
Rallies by disgruntled nationalists are now as regular as Orange marches and bring about as much joy to our lives. This weekend saw George Square again the site of collective mourning by the forlorn 45%, as they assembled to hear a variety of speakers.
I say 45% but the latest get-together was pretty sparsely attended. They’re now down to three men, 12 flags and a few hundred bewildered shoppers wondering when Hue & Cry started attracting the big crowds again. The fearsome uprising that once shook the British state to its core is a clarinet and an unwashed dog away from a busking troupe.
These excitable sorts were observing the third anniversary of the 2014 referendum. The organisers intend to gather in George Square every September 18 ‘until Scotland achieves its independence’. Good for them. It’s nice to have long-term plans.
Holyrood bosses are in hot water for serving MSPs tea from England instead of Scotland. It’s always reassuring to see parliament focused on the issues that matter. Besides, here’s how to make the perfect cuppa: Remove the teabag, toss the milk and brew yourself a pot of strong coffee.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.