Features > Religion

27 April 2020


Stuart Kelly is a writer and critic whose work appears regularly in Scotland on Sunday, the Guardian, the Spectator and the Times Literary Supplement. He is the author of The Book Of Lost Books: An Incomplete History Of All The Literature You’ll Never Read, Scott-Land: The Man Who Invented A Nation and The Minister And The Murderer: A Book of Aftermaths.

Why Scotland should be proud of the Church of Scotland

While disparagement might easily spring to mind in any assessment of the Kirk’s role in Scottish life, Stuart Kelly argues that the bigger picture must be considered

IT WOULD be relatively easy to fill the whole of this reflection with the terms of vituperation often cast against the Kirk. It is – this is but a small selection – dogmatic, prejudiced, joyless, fanatical, pessimistic, inflexible, judgemental, divisive, sectarian, misogynistic, hypocritical, intellectually stunted, barbaric, full of thunder, brimstone and hellfire and rather short on forgiveness, mercy or grace. Indeed the very word “Calvinist”, or an invocation of the Reformation’s founder, John Knox, is often a short-hand for perceived failure about Scottish life. Burns gave us Holy Wullie, the epitome of pusillanimous double-standards. The writer Edwin Muir blamed Knox (and Andrew Melville) for creating a nation which was “a dull drove of faces harsh and vexed”. How about these from Robert Ingersoll: “Did all the ministers of Scotland add as much to the sum of human knowledge as David Hume?”, “Every pulpit is a pillory, in which stand a hired culprit, defending the justice of his own imprisonment”. Or take this from Tom Nairn: “As far as I am concerned Scotland will be reborn when the last minister is strangled with the last copy of the Sunday Post”. Always intriguing how illiberal the liberal intelligentsia can be.

Portrait of John Knox bearing the date 1572

What is curious about the maelstrom of denunciation is that it comes from all sides of the political spectrum. It is quite understandable that the Catholic Church might rail against Knox as a “monster, most profligate character, who gloried in his depravity”. Episcopalians, for the most part in the 17th and 18th centuries, Tory and aristocratic, equally feared the Kirk’s centrality in Scottish life. In our days it is most likely those of the Left who think the cold, dead hand of the Church (of Scotland, as well as other denominations) impedes progress. Well, I am proud to say that I am an Elder in the Church of Scotland, and made a public promise to look to the care and discipline of my district. I also believe that the Kirk and its history still has a lot to teach any forward-thinking person. I only accepted this after I wrote my last book, The Minister And The Murderer, especially as studying a notorious case from 1984, when the General Assembly had to decide on whether or not to ordain as a minister of Word and Sacrament, brought me to admire what they did. It typified what has been described by Craig Beveridge and Ronald Turnbull as “moral seriousness, distrust of complacency and passion for theoretical argument” in The Eclipse Of Scottish Culture. They further claim that the reason for this is the “mindless endorsement of metropolitan prejudice”. Having now led worship in a score of rural churches, it seems apposite to begin with how a standard service would start. After the welcome, some opening words and the first hymn, we have the prayers of Adoration and Confession. The Kirk has a lot for which beg forgiveness. Moreover, a simple sorry is meaningless unless the confession precipitates a change of character and action. It is a matter of record that the Church was deplorable in parts of the 17th century, the so-called “Killing Time”. At the Battle of Philiphaugh in 1645, Presbyterian divines urged the slaughter of 300 camp followers of the Royalists, with one soldier supposedly saying “the work gangs merrily along”. Both sides, of course, committed what we would now consider war crimes: there is not a lot of love for the Royalist Claverhouse in Galloway. The novelist Allan Massie has gone as far as to describe Walter Scott’s novel about this period as the first novel to deal with terrorism. The Church was also less than Christian in its treatment of Irish Catholics who came to Scotland at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, even aligning itself with far-rightist groups. Nor did we cover ourselves with glory in the legislation over same-sex ministers and marriages, with footling amendments and copious handwringing over what was essentially a very simple ecclesiological question, since the Kirk does not recognise marriage as a sacrament, but has to go with the Law of the Land. (That said, many more ministers might do more in terms of preparation for marriage – i.e. that it is more than a wedding. One (heterosexual) couple were divorced within a month after a church marriage.) Knox is often depicted as furious and grudging, to which I would say that he had every right to be. He had seen his mentor, George Wishart, martyred (Wishart famously told Knox to go home when news came he was to be arrested, saying “one is sufficient for a sacrifice”). He spent two years on a French slave-galley, a kind of floating torture chamber. He may not have been as precise a theologian as Calvin, Melanchthon or Beza, but he knew what the Church hierarchy could inflict. If he made one singular mistake, it was in the title of a book which is almost foundational for Scotland’s history. Alongside the other “six Johns” – Winram, Willock, Douglas, Row and Spottiswood – Knox worked on The Book Of Discipline. This is one of the most radical documents of the age, and represents a massive devolution of power. The country was divided into parishes and presbyteries with an annual Assembly of representatives of all of them (not that it actually did happen annually). Each parish had its Kirk Session, the operational part of the Church, with the Minister nominally in charge but only with veto over matters pertinent to worship and doctrine. The Book Of Discipline gave duty to each parish and Session in matters of education, which was to be universal, to poor relief, to some care of the poor (there is a reason we have a Deaconess Hospital in Scotland), and to some judicial matters. It may have been a power grab of sorts, but it put power much closer to the people. Significantly, and again not always adhered to, the Moderator of the Assembly was rotated. The implementation of The Book Of Disciple might have been somewhat haphazard but it did set out the ideal way, they thought, to govern society more equitably. It also had an unperceived side-effect. With the Reformation, one of the three estates of the Parliament of Scotland found themselves unceremoniously dismissed: the bishops. Whereas in the past the prelacy, the nobility and the burghers represented the three parts of civic society, with the forced departure of the clergy, a new class of “minor gentility” took their places. It was very far from universal suffrage but it did have one very clear impact. There was now a bloc that could vote against the hitherto dominant nobility. One indicator of Knox’s reforms is telling. When the National Covenant was created – a treaty whereby the King would support only the Reformed Church in exchange for the Kirk’s obedience to the King – it was signed by a surprisingly large number of people who could sign their name. That the campaign for a devolved parliament in the 1980s self-styled itself the “Scottish Covenant” shows how deeply ingrained the idea of a contract between power and people was. The Divine Right of Kings was no more. Another aspect of the reforms introduced was to become a very live issue again in the 19th century. A new minister to a parish could only be “called” by the congregation themselves and not imposed by the fiat of a landowner. As this was encroached upon, a faction within the Church staged a mass walk-out in 1843, a few years before the “Year of Revolutions” in Europe. One hundred and twenty-one ministers, and ninety-three elders left on the first day. More would follow. Thomas Chalmers, the first Moderator of the “Free Church of Scotland” was eloquent in stating this was not a revolution. “Though we quit the Establishment, we go out on the Establishment principle; we quit a vitiated Establishment but would rejoice in returning to a pure one. We are advocates for a national recognition of religion – and we are not voluntaries”. It was a sacrifice. By seceding, they lost their stipends, their homes and their churches. A building programme across Scotland saw a huge number of new churches, manses and schools built in the aftermath. Most of the churches reconciled in the early twentieth century, but the moral battle had been won. In the latter half of the twentieth century, the Church did align itself to progressive causes, including the beginnings of more ecumenical working with other denominations, a strong campaign against nuclear weapons and evolving more of a socially engaged rather than sternly judgemental attitude. It also allowed women to become Elders, Deacons, Readers and Ordained Ministers. Perhaps the most symbolic demonstration of changing attitudes came with the notorious visit of Margaret Thatcher to the General Assembly in 1988. Widely derided as “The Sermon on the Mound”, she decided to explain to the commissioners that the true moral of the parable of the Good Samaritan was that he had sufficient disposable income in order to be charitable. She also quoted St Paul to justify that “if a man shall not work he shall not eat” and insisted the essence of Christianity was “spiritual salvation not social reform”. This did not go down well, and that year’s moderator, the Rev. James Whyte eloquently made their “difference of opinion” clear. It was traditional to give a sitting Prime Minister who came to the Assembly a gift. He chose to give her a church report into child poverty. What of the 21st century? The statistics are stark. In 1971, there were 1,002,945 communicants. In 2017, there were 336,831; in other words a fall of two-thirds. At the Assembly in 2009 it was voted to enact the so-called “Radical Action Plan” to address both the fall in numbers and the Kirk’s parlous financial situation. If the Reformation was a kind of devolution, this represents the biggest centralisation of the Church in its history. At present there are 45 Presbyteries. The proposal is that this be reduced to “around” 11. There will be benefits in terms of shared resources, but there will inevitably be a sense of the Church becoming disconnected from the parishes. Make no mistake: some churches will close. Closing a church is never easy, since people have an attachment to their local places, even if they are not regular attenders. Moreover, many of them cannot really be sold for development: in my time I have preached in churches with no running water, no toilet, no electricity. Change will not be easy, but we might bear in mind that the motto of the Church of Scotland is nec tamen consumebatur – “yet it was not consumed”, referring to Moses’s vision of the Burning Bush. Or as Beza, a contemporary of Knox said to the King of France, “the church is an anvil that has worn out many hammers”. There is no place for slavish faith, but nor is there a place for despair.


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22 September 2020

Willie Thompson

Is religion a Good Thing?

One doesn’t have to refer to Burns’s Holy Willie’s Prayer or the twentieth century equivalents of its subject Willie Fisher in order to challenge Stuart Kelly’s encomium to the Church of Scotland on the Perspectives website. Kelly’s starting position is that religion, organised supernatural belief, is a Good Thing rather than a pernicious superstition, a view which can be argued but he provides no argument.

This discussion is about institutions rather than individual members belonging to them, and the Scottish Presbyterian Church, like other denominations, is indeed not short of admirable people, but the institution is a different matter. As Kelly points out, its founder can be regarded as John Knox, who got his version of Christianity from the anything but admirable John Calvin, who in Geneva had Michael Servetus burned alive for disagreeing with him about the Trinity (Calvin had previously denounced Servetus to the Spanish Inquisition) and handed on to his adherents such as Knox the detestable doctrine of predestination.

The earliest beginnings of this church date from the second half of the sixteenth century, when Scotland was an independent country, but the Church’s real defining moment was the National Covenant of 1638 at a time when the crowns were unified and the reigning monarch was Charles I. This document was a declaration of religious defiance against the royal episcopal policy. Kelly’s article however is somewhat ambiguous on this and omits altogether the 1643 Solemn League and Covenant whereby the English parliamentarians in arms against the king would, in return for Scottish military support, enforce presbyterianism on the English population whether they wanted it or not.

The Covenanters’ guerrilla struggle against Charles’s son, which followed after his recycling from exile to monarch in 1660, was localised but in its localities certainly popular and heroic, and though initially defeated they participated in the allegedly “Glorious Revolution” of 1688–9 which resulted in the presbyterian church becoming the officially established one in Scotland. Now in power, its ministers undertook the moral disciplining of the populace with such innovations as the “stool of repentance”. In 1697 they had a 20-year-old Edinburgh student, Thomas Aitkenhead, hanged for alleged “blasphemy”, which had constituted in his case historical discussion on the veracity of biblical scripture. The secular authorities were reluctant but the ministers pressured them into confirming the sentence. He was the last person in the UK to be executed for “blasphemy”.

Now having achieved established status it was not many further decades before the Church started to get embroiled with internal dispute. The principal division then was more over secular than theological issues, mostly the question of how ministers should be chosen. Intellectual differences however were not absent, giving rise to the differences between the “new lichts” who tended more towards a relatively rational and liberal outlook and the “auld lichts”, traditionalist and hyper-Calvinist. Organisational unity however was preserved until the nineteenth century. After that “Disruption” one sect, the “Wee Frees”, became notorious for their ultra-sabbatarianism. Somebody once commented that worshipping idols was one thing but worshipping a particular day of the week took it to a new level.

I’m not aware of any substantial and easily accessible material on the impact of the Reformation on the Shetland Isles where I spent my childhood, but there was a popular saying there that all that it had brought to Shetland was “dear meal and greedy ministers”. Certainly in the earlier nineteenth century, from about 1830, that disillusionment enabled the Methodist church to make big advances throughout the islands, which supported a maximum population at the time of around 30,000 and suffered the depredations of greedy landowners and merchants. The Methodists founded rival churches, mostly the only competitors in the rural areas. In the capital and only town, Lerwick, there was a wider spectrum, from Catholic to Congregationalist.

As Kelly points out, matters regarding the Scottish Church are very different now from what they used to be. Lord Acton’s famous remark that “power tends to corrupt” comes to mind in this connection. When the Church exercised power, whether formal or informal, it showed itself at its worst. Now that it no longer has any it becomes far more praiseworthy, but its grim history should continue to stand as a warning and not be forgotten.