by Harry Reid

Amen to All That

August 3, 2014 | by Harry Reid

ONE of the chapters of this always fascinating book opens with a reference to the first papal visit to Scotland, which took place in June 1982. Its author, Steve Bruce, a professor of sociology at Aberdeen University, notes that 300,000 attended the great mass at Bellahouston Park in Glasgow. It was a remarkable event, not least because it so nearly never happened. The Falklands War had started exactly two months earlier. Despite much high level talking and political negotiating, in early May it seemed almost certain that Pope John Paul would not come to Scotland. That he did was largely due to frenetic behind the scenes diplomacy by the then Archbishop Thomas Winning – who was generally not the most diplomatic of men. The decision to go ahead was met with great relief, and not just by Scotland’s Catholic community, but significantly also by Scotland’s political elite.

The irony is that the visit was not an official state occasion. That came 28 years later, when Pope Benedict visited Scotland, and also held a mass at Bellahouston Park. This time the attendance was only around 60,0000 (giving rise to a joke among cynical Protestants that at this rate the third Papal visit would have a minus attendance). Although Pope Benedict met the Queen in Edinburgh, and his visit was attended by much more official pomp and circumstance, it was an anticlimax compared to that of Pope John Paul. It is surprising that Bruce does not mention this second visit, if only to draw attention to the remarkable drop in attendance at the second mass. Did this merely reflect Pope Benedict’s comparative lack of charisma, his lack of status as a global superstar? Or did it rather indicate the spectacular decline of Christianity in Scotland, and RC Christianity in particular, in just three decades? More likely the first, I think, but I would have liked to know Bruce’s interpretation.

His approach is partial, selective, and at times quite quirky. He devotes several pages to the Findhorn Community, and takes an interest in Pentecostal and charismatic churches. This diversion from what might be termed mainstream religion is for the most part pertinent and pleasing. I also find what he calls his ‘tone’ very agreeable. I mention this because in the preface he apologises in case it offends; he worries that he may have tried too hard to lighten what can be a dull subject with subconscious expression of anti–religious animus. He needn’t worry. Nor am I certain that the subject is in any way dull. If it is, that is more the fault of the media than academics or the hundreds of thousands of religious folk in Scotland, many of whom are, in my experience, lively people, much engaged with the so-called real world. Bruce would disagree with me about the media; indeed he reckons that its executives are too keen to solicit the views of church leaders, and not necessarily just on religious matters.

Religion, and in particular Christianity, is still widely practised hereabouts, and far more people attend Christian services regularly than watch professional sport regularly. Yet the general impression that a casual visitor to Scotland would have is that the nation is sport obsessed, but utterly indifferent to religion. To some extent, church attendance has become almost a covert activity. Yet even now, after generations of decline, it remains a very popular activity – particularly among women. Despite that, neither the RC Church nor the Church of Scotland has treated women particularly well. The Kirk is becoming more enlightened. But just a few years ago there was a disgraceful saga involving a female minister, the Rev Helen Percy, an important episode which Bruce does not deal with. Percy was raped by one of her parishioners. Instead of treating her with care and compassion, her own church then subjected her, the innocent party, to a long process of institutional bullying, legalistic nastiness and bureaucratic obfuscation. Eventually there was a high-end legal case which was in essence Helen Percy against the Church of Scotland. The Kirk’s case was endorsed by the Scottish Court of Session – but the House of Lords overturned that decision. This entailed eventual victory for Helen Percy, but was all this high-powered legalism necessary?

Meanwhile it would be ludicrous to deny the decline in church going, especially as it affects the Church of Scotland. (Free Church attendances are actually going up, but this is from a tiny base of around 13,000.) It was in the 1950s and 1960s – superficially fat and successful years for the national church – that the decline in religious attendance really set in.

Bruce does not present a credible explanation of why this happened. I suspect that many of those who attended worship were going through the motions. For example, there was something rather phoney about the great ‘preaching stations’. I would cite a then fashionable church in Shandwick Place, Edinburgh. The minister in the 1960s was the Rev Murdo Ewen Macdonald, a remarkable man and an even more remarkable preacher. He had been an authentic war hero, he was a distinguished theologian – and he was very left wing. From his pulpit he thundered against the Tory party, private schools and the like. He was intensely, unashamedly political, and also intensely popular. His successor was Bill Cattanach, who found Macdonald the proverbial hard act to follow. People queued to get into the church, which was usually packed. Often there was no room in the pews for latecomers who had to stand. And yet many of those who listened eagerly to Murdo Ewen Macdonald seemed to pay little attention to him. They continued to vote Tory and send their children to private schools. Macdonald’s social and political, if not his religious, message was for the most part ignored. This disconnect between preacher and audience was significant.

You could say that such disconnects are less common now. The churches may be less well attended, but there is a committed core audience. In churches with a distinct evangelical slant, attendances have often been going up. Partly this is because of the Church of Scotland’s moves towards endorsing gay clergy, which most of the evangelicals deprecate. There have been well publicised ministerial resignations, and a few congregations have quit the church. What has been less noticed is that evangelical rather than liberal congregations are frequently gaining many new members.

As for the Catholic Church in Scotland, the issue of gay clergy has different, and more grievous, connotations. The disgrace of Cardinal Keith O’Brien was a serious blow to the church’s morale. When its high profile leader was exposed as a serial hypocrite, many thought it would take at least a generation to recover. The historian Sir Tom Devine, a prominent lay Catholic, actually claimed that this could be the Catholic Church’s biggest crisis (in Scotland) since the Reformation. A hierarchical church obviously suffers more if its leaders are disgraced. But the more enlightened leaders in the RC Church have understood for some time that their spiritual influence was waning, in an era when Christianity is becoming more private and more personal.

The late Cardinal Winning, who I got to know well when I was working as a journalist in Glasgow, was very interesting on this topic.

He believed his key task was to increase his church’s influence in the secular world, and the political world in particular. One of his critics (and there were many of them)told me that he had become obsessed with issues of secular influence to the extent that he could no longer be regarded as any kind of pastor. At the time this seemed nonsensical, but looking back I can see some truth in it. Winning was a determined and doughty champion of his church, particularly when he was Archbishop of Glasgow; when he was elevated to cardinal he became more aloof. He was a man who attended to issues he thought might benefit (or hurt) his church with intensive dedication. An example was his exceptionally thorough, and initially highly sceptical, examination of all the evidence before he finally sanctioned the sainthood of the seventeenth-century martyr John Ogilvie. This was after a Glasgow man, John Fagan, who was undoubtedly terminally ill, made an apparently miraculous recovery when his family prayed to Ogilvie.

As this piece is appearing in a review of books I must note that through the twentieth century Scotland’s great writers have often seemed obsessed, and sometimes deeply angered, by aspects of Scottish Christianity. The book that is now widely regarded as the best Scottish novel of the century, Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, is notable for its consistent, scathing mockery of the Kirk. Various eminent Scottish writers felt driven to convert to Catholicism. In particular I’d mention Muriel Spark, George Mackay Brown and that fierce and much underrated novelist Fionn MacColla. Bruce does not discuss them. He does mention John Buchan’s Mr Standfast, but this is an inferior novel to Buchan’s historical novel Witch Wood, which is surely the greatest fictive assault on Scottish Calvinism written in the last hundred years.

Scottish Gods has many merits. The chapter on Scottish Muslims is a masterpiece of sympathetic yet trenchant concision. Bruce cogently concludes that the greatest impact of Islam in Scotland has been to hasten secularism. Overall, however, this is something of a ‘bits and pieces’ book; a series of insightful reflections, presented in a most winsome style. We still await a comprehensive, authoritative account of all aspects of Scotland’s problematic religious century. Perhaps this would require a team effort, by a group of academics, clerics and informed lay folk.


Scottish Gods: Religion in Modern Scotland, 1900-2012

Steve Bruce

Edinburgh University Press, £70, ISBN 0748682899, 256PP

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