It was very interesting to read last week about Gerry Hassan's
journey to mainstream Christianity, and it could be said to have been brave of him to admit to something that is still not seen to be acceptable in some social or intellectual communities. I salute him for revealing himself as a person of faith.
My own religious journey has rather gone in the opposite direction. Having researched into cultural change in the Scottish Episcopal Church (the non-established group which is part of the Anglican Communion of Churches, as is the Church of England), I found the attitudes of some other SEC members were so different from my own that I was uncomfortable having to defend the latter. Not least I felt uncomfortable with the portrayal by many Christian churches of God as an angry old man. Nevertheless I retain many aspects of mainstream religious belief and have often challenged atheist chums to explain the big bang that brought forth existence, and the fact that much of what we see in the universe is certainly 'intelligent design' rather than random coincidence.
I suspect one of the reasons the churches are struggling to attract and retain members is the incoherence of some of the theology expressed by ministers. Gerry is lucky in that his local minister appears to be intellectually sophisticated and able to see the broad view. Some ministers of religion I have encountered tied themselves in intellectual knots trying to prove Jesus existed in this dimension, as a historical person, whereas a Jungian poet like Robert Bly would argue this to be irrelevant – as Jesus certainly exists in what Bly termed the 'mythological layer'. The truth is in the story, and a brilliant story it is.
The other issue that I wish the churches would be more outspoken about is that of economic ethics – for too long in the past they have been overly concerned with sexual mores at the expense of the former (one suspects for economic reasons, as the stable nuclear family is perceived as less of a burden on the state). It's not surprising that the Anglican Communion still buys into the 'rich man in his castle/poor man at his gate' mentality as they have bishops who sit in the House of Lords and have a vested interest in the Establishment. Hence the ridiculous spectacle of the Archbishop of Canterbury dressed up in medieval costume at the Windsor coronation when he and his fellows have been singularly silent on the cost of living crisis.
Some years ago, for a number of reasons too complicated to explain, I ended up on a course with a large group of Kirk ministers on 'Appreciative Inquiry'. I've mentioned it before in SR – it's a way of helping people manage change by taking forward what is positive from the past, and I wish the SNP would make more of it. The Kirk attendees were in the main male, but their attitudes and beliefs were a revelation to me, used to the change averse views of many Episcopal clergy. They were in many cases revolutionaries who were using all sorts of sophisticated ways of getting their message over, in general focusing on the socialist views that Jesus could be said to have held. I left very impressed with what I had heard.
There does seem to be a strand of such progressive thinking within the Scottish Christian tradition and in my view there should be more of it. As Gerry pointed out, the churches have in the past been guilty of a bullying type of theocracy, but that should not stop us remembering that many of the great social reformers of the past have been inspired by their Christian values. It may not be too fanciful to suggest that the appalling behaviours of the current Conservative administration stem from a lack of any ethical standards derived from religious belief.
The Watcher by the Threshold
As a son of the manse, John Buchan would have been very familiar with a range of different behaviours by Kirk ministers. I suspect by the end of his life he was as much of a nonconformist in beliefs as me, but always retained his Christian values – and a sense of the metaphysical not always present in the more matter of fact clergy.
One of his several stories of the supernatural, The Watcher by the Threshold
, concerns a rather dim-witted rural laird, Ladlaw, who gets taken over by the same evil spirit who advised the Emperor Justinian (as a lawyer, Buchan would have been familiar with the latter's contribution to legal precepts). It's not explained quite how this happens, although as the Reverend James Greig points out in his brilliant introduction to the book Supernatural Tales
, the landscape around the event is presented as uncanny and spectral, so maybe the evil spirit lurks in this dark and depressing part of the Scottish countryside.
Set to guard the possessed Ladlaw while the narrator is away, is the local minister, whose 'modernist' theology (as described by Reverend Greig) has no time for the metaphysical. In the event (spoiler alert!) the unbelieving minister is temporarily possessed by the evil spirit and consequently has to revise his opinions.
Buchan was a master of reconciling the mundane and the mysterious, and always lived by his Christian values of loving God and his neighbour – he regularly did good by stealth. Surely what the Kirk needs today is more of his sort who understand the numinous aspects of faith and are not afraid to speak out against social injustice.
A Facebook acquaintance asked me to comment on why the English language spelled words like neighbour with a 'u' while American written English misses out the letter, preferring to write 'neighbor', 'color', 'honor', etc. As a relatively weak pleasantry, I wrote that 'lazy Americans' tended to miss out the letter 'u'. Back came the Facebook fairy to announce that my comment had been removed as it could be construed as 'hate speech'. I can only think that this once great nation has become a hotbed of sensitivity. I was once termed a 'middle-class do-gooder' in the letters page of The Scotsman
– I may be a do-gooder, but I cherish my working-class origins. However, we peasants are made of sterner stuff and can cope with these slings and arrows.
Dr Mary Brown is a freelance education consultant