Call me Ishmael. In 200 days I shall have spent exactly half my life as a reluctant Presbyterian and half – the more recent – as a Roman Catholic convert, albeit one who as a remarried divorcee is denied the Eucharist. Small matter that the conversion was formalised at St Patrick’s, Soho, an outcasts’ church if ever there was one, or that the divorce preceded it. In terms of the two main ‘sectarian’ tribes of Scotland, this was to put oneself nowhere at all. Family disapproved, sorrowfully; friends were mystified (apparently unable to see that some restorations of mystery was exactly what was sought); colleagues in that other sectarian tribe, the media, thought such a conversion was inconsistent with my professed politics (which also remain resolutely left-footed); with all these people religion remains, if not the elephant in the room, then certainly the white whale off the port bow.
Tom Gallagher does many valuable things in Divided Scotland. He removes the quote marks from ‘sectarian’ for a start. Gallagher’s definition is plain and upfront: ‘It [sectarianism] refers to ideas, assumptions and myths about the behaviour and worth of individuals and the groups to which they adhere’. He refuses to accept the growing consensus that religious hatred is predominantly a one-way street and predominantly anti-Catholic. Nor does he accept that sectarianism is simply an epiphenomenon of football rivalry, which is one of the stupider rationalisations of the recent rise in tension. A standard middle-class reaction to sectarian hatred is to point out, without much actual demographic sampling and with as much social/class prejudice as religious understanding, that few on either side attend their respective churches and few could, if pressed, explain the doctrinal differences between them. This is where the ‘tribal’ argument creeps in. Gallagher broadly accepts that tribalism is a reality, but he takes pains to give it proper historical footing in terms of Irish immigration (which was both Catholic and Protestant), shifting economic and political hegemonies within Scottish society, and a net change in the positioning and intensity of sectarian conflict since devolution and in anticipation of next year’s independence referendum.
Gallagher has covered much of this ground before, in his short-lived 1987 book Glasgow – The Uneasy Peace: Religious Tension in Modern Scotland (and to some degree in its contemporary Edinburgh Divided, published by Polygon in that same year). There is little sign that he has changed his views substantially on the back-story, which covers the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in 1878, the curious fact that open hostility and ‘ethnic cleansing’ were never part of the Scottish urban experience despite the depth of hatred involved, the 1918 scandal of ‘Rome on the rates’, when that endlessly kickable political football, the ‘denominational school’ became a matter of fierce controversy, and the geographical and historical contiguity of Scotland to Northern Ireland, where open conflict did flare up. He’s very good at showing how willingly Irish, or Scoto-Irish, settlers flocked to the imperial colours in wartime, until the Easter Rising, that is, and how shifting loyalties were corralled and politicised by a congeries of churches, faith groups, football and social clubs. And he rightly identifies the emergence of Scotland’s last-but-one Cardinal Thomas Winning, who was in his very different way no less controversial than the recently departed Keith O’Brien, as a key moment in a newly emergent social and political confidence among Scottish Catholics.
One telling moment in the story is told by Gallagher thus. Describing the reluctance of certain constituencies to put forward Catholic parliamentary candidates, he recalls a famous moment in the 1959 general election. ‘A showdown occurred in the normally safe Labour seat of Coatbridge and Airdrie when Labour nominated James Dempsey, a Roman Catholic, to fight against Mrs C. S. Morton a sister of the great Rangers football hero of the inter-war years, Alan Morton, who was standing for the Tories.’ Even allowing for syntax that implies it was the ‘Wee Blue Devil’ and not his sister-in-law who was standing, the point’s well taken. Sectarian issues, and the charisma of the Wembley Wizards, made a profound difference to the Airdrie count. Mrs Morton lost by just under 800 votes, a squeaker compared to the 1955 election, at which a small turnout delivered Labour a nearly 12 per cent lead, cut to less than two per cent four years later. Tribalism isn’t often so easily quantifiable.
Alan Morton was my father’s uncle, and my first conscious introduction to the tribes was the new year Old Firm game at the start of that hustings year. I watched from the Ibrox directors’ box, looking down enviously but a little naively at the boys’ enclosure, which looked more fun but much less comfortable. I remember someone pointing out that the Celtic end was thinly populated, a direct result, a friend of my grandfather assured me, of the Catholic disposition to strong drink. There were curiously worded songs from the crowd. None of the directors or guest sang along, but they tapped their feet in time and smiled at one another indulgently. A tribe at ease.
Four years later the family moved to Argyll, where the issue of denominational schools, soon to become a major political cleaving point, was no longer relevant. There was a school, with a small Catholic enclave. In 1970, in one of the Labour Party’s main electoral suicide notes of the next decade or two, the Glasgow City party passed a resolution calling for the termination of segregation in schools. Few political issues remain quite as inflammatory, a curious irony in a country which along with most of the developed West appears to be going through an unstoppable process of secularisation. With church attendances falling, fewer people spontaneously identifying as having any denominational loyalty and a steady defection to the spectrum of new social ‘religions’ and blunt atheism of the Dawkins/Hitchens sort, it shouldn’t make much difference. But…
The main polemical thrust of Gallagher’s book is the present situation. It’s also the point at which the earlier material from Glasgow – The Uneasy Peace betrays a certain partiality of perspective because quite understandably both books are more sympathetically inflected toward the Catholic side of the story, and because much of the current discussion of religious and ‘sectarian’ issues in Scotland has focused on the Catholic community, both as victim of religious hatred and as perpetrator, by commission or omission, of some pretty egregious wrongs. That story continues to unfold, and unfolds in the context of a new political autonomy in Scotland and the question of how that autonomy is either consolidated or extended. At which point, the exact demarcation of any and all political hegemonies, which includes the churches, becomes a very live issue.
How the story has unfolded is, of course, very much part of the story. The media tribe is now the most powerful of all. Gallagher has elsewhere identified a small group of what he calls ‘post-modern’ Catholic journalists, essentially secularists but secularists who hold on to enough of their natal ‘pieties’ to be able to criticise the Church’s failings, cover-ups, obfuscations as if from within. It is a double irony, as Gallagher points out, that much of the criticism directed at Keith O’Brien, during and following his fall from grace came from apparently secular Catholics waving the blunt instruments of ‘inconsistency’ and ‘hypocrisy’, while much of the sympathy expressed for O’Brien’s insufficiently vigorous struggle with his physical nature came from within the Protestant community.
The various arguments at play here – which run an absurd gamut from child sexual abuse to whether homosexuals should be allowed to marry, an issue which doesn’t really belong in the same moral universe – have become as bogged down as that 1959 Old Firm game. Unlike it, which was over as a spectacle by half time, the present controversy shows every sign of becoming a muddy field on which competing interests play out their differences according to obscure rules which have very little to do with the Gospel of Christ. Sectarianism in Scotland is not about the ‘vanity of small differences’ any more than it is about the doctrine of real presence as opposed to symbolic presence, homoousian versus homoiousian, or any other doctrinal crux. It is, in highly concentrated form, a representation of what is wrong with society at large.
Gallagher cites (but possibly second hand, since he doesn’t quote him directly?) the American social critic Christopher Lasch, whose book The New Narcissism and earlier study of ‘the intellectual as a social type’, are required reading. Lasch saw, as Gallagher seems to intuit, that both left and right are complicit in extinguishing human liberty, allowing corporate interests to create dependencies (which could involve addiction to drink or possessions, slavish devotion to the social rather than spiritual manifestations of creed, or supporting the blues rather than the greens, mutatis mutandis) that over-ride the everyday grace of community, mutuality and self-help. It is argued that Cardinal Winning promoted such a vision, but was thwarted by his own clergy. With the election of a Pope who identifies as Bishop of Rome rather than Supreme Pontiff, there is fresh relevance to Lasch’s argument, which was that the neglect of family and community values left people confronting an inner emptiness and indulging in destructive social experimentation. Gallagher even suggests, ‘Some of these observations may be relevant for Cardinal O’Brien, part of whose conduct suggested that he may also have possessed such an inner emptiness’. One prays that wherever he is passing his exile, he is going some way to refilling it.
At times, the Catholic hierarchy almost resembles the directors’ box at a football ground, embedded in but cut off from its community, indulgent and authoritative in equal measure and yes, regrettably, casting envious glances at the Boys’ Enclosure. The Church has to acquire the humility to heal itself, but it also must at the same time counter the impression, common to ‘sectarian’ opponents and ‘post-modern’ adherents alike, that the Church now only functions as a vast mechanism for promotion of social harm, obsessed with moral intervention and hypocritical proscription rather than promoting a gospel of hope. Gallagher points to shoots of hope in the Scottish scene, figures like Magnus McFarlane-Barlow, founder of Mary’s Meals and, on the ‘other side’ Kirk moderator Lorna Hood, whose own triumph over adversity is genuinely inspirational. There are others. It isn’t all darkness. And it certainly isn’t all about gay marriage or gay ordination.
As one might expect from a book which attempts to come right up to the minute, there are some signs of haste in the editing and proof-reading of Divided Scotland. Syntax slips here and there. There are too many typos and literals. There’s no proper bibliography; would it have contained anything by Lasch, or just someone else who’d read him? But it’s an urgent and vital book, its shortcomings instinct with its air of immediacy. Whatever foot you kick with, or neither, it’s a book you can’t afford not to read.
Divided Scotland: Ethnic Friction and Christian Crisis
Argyll Publishing, PP288, £15.99, ISBN 9781908931283