David Stewart MSP

David Stewart : The Church in Modern Scotland

Speech in Old High Church, Inverness

12 June 2011


It is a great privilege for me to speak tonight in such a place of great History as the Old High Church.

President Obama recently remarked in his speech to both Houses of Parliament, of the illustrious former speakers who had predated him in Westminster Hall, including the Pope, Nelson Mandela and Her Majesty the Queen.

But here in Inverness we have our own record to rival anything Westminster Hall can produce, dating back to the early mists of time and including a cast list of St. Columba, King Brude, James Wolfe and John Wesley.

It was here in 565 AD that St. Columba preached the Gospel to King Brude and established a Celtic church dedicated to St. Mary on this site.

It was here in the early 1750s that Major General James Wolfe attended worship prior to active service in Canada where he became known as the ‘hero of Quebec’.

And it was here in 1764 that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, arrived on his horse to preach the Gospel in the Highlands.

I have had the privilege of having many dealings with the Old High over my time as a Councillor, an MP and an MSP.

As a young Councillor I never missed the very historic annual Kirking and march from the Town House led by superb Provosts such as Alan Sellar and Bill Fraser, and I am pleased to see the tradition continued by my good friend Provost Jimmy Gray.

It was as an MP that I was privileged to meet Rev. Colin Anderson – and it was with great sadness that I learnt of his recent passing.

The historic and modern contribution of the Old High Church to our great city of Inverness is immense and it is a fitting venue in which to discuss the subject of the Church in Modern Scotland.

I was privileged to attend the rededication service of your tremendous ‘Father Willis’ organ and in many ways this project symbolises the Old High Church and its place in Inverness.

This is a church conscious of its history and yet not trapped in it.

A church where the past is rightly celebrated yet where things can be changed and restored to reflect the needs of the modern world.

This can also be seen in your response to the current needs of Inverness with your involvement in Street Pastors, the Night Shelter and a number of other initiatives.

The Church in Scotland

It is hard to overestimate the role of the Kirk in the shaping of modern Scotland.

Scotland is in large part the nation it is today because of the twin influences of the reformation and Scottish Enlightenment.

Since this time the church in Scotland has taken an active social and political role within Scottish society.
We see this in the development of Scottish public services with the School Establishment Act of 1616 laying the basis for “A school in every parish”.

We see it in Medical and Welfare developments.

And of course we see it as part of the wider Victorian UK Evangelical Movement most notable for the abolition of the practice slavery, a practice in which we know unfortunately Inverness played its part.
In more recent decades this work has continued with the Church providing support services across a whole range of social care areas.

This can be seen in addiction, homeless, care and youth services.

Indeed CrossReach (run by the Church of Scotland) is currently the largest Social Care organisation in Scotland with over 2000 staff and a £50 million annual budget.

This work has developed across the Globe with Scotland’s churches playing a key role in the developing world.

Following in the footsteps of David Livingstone and Eric Liddell the church in recent years has sought the benefit of people across the world through aid agencies like SCIAF and movements such as Jubilee 2000 and the Make Poverty History campaign.

As the Westminster MP for this area during the time of the above campaigns I saw for myself the important and vital role the churches played forcing these issues to the top of the political agenda.

This was replicated across the country with churches and other faith groups leading the political debate on this issue to such an extent that the three main UK political parties have all made a commitment to spending 0.7% of GDP on overseas aid, even in these straightened financial times.

In a recent speech to faith group representatives my former colleague Gordon Brown made the following observation about the impact of churches on this issue:

“You should be proud that it was the churches and faith groups that created the momentum – and the mass membership, the mass crowds – for the Jubilee Debt Campaign and for Make Poverty History, answering in a modern way the injunction of Isaiah that we should ‘loose the chains of injustice and let the oppressed go free.’

And you should be prouder still that your efforts changed the world – and that because of your voice there are men, women and children whose names you will never know and whose faces you will never see but who are alive today because of what you did.”

(Gordon Brown: Archbishop of Canterbury Lecture 16/02/11)

Present Day

This is not just the work of the past and in the present day the church has continued to find ways to deal with very modern social issues.

Churches have been praised in Scotland for the way they have welcomed the asylum seeker and refugee to our shores.

They have offered support and help in the face of widespread public indifference and media hostility, by offering non-judgemental support to families who have often fled from situations of war and persecution.

And as you know with Street Pastors, this nationwide church initiative offers a proactive response in tackling our nation’s problems with binge drinking, working in partnership with the Police and Local Authorities, to help vulnerable young people in their hour of need.

The Future
So looking ahead to the future, what role should the church play in the national and community life of Scotland?

The issues of Church and State can be complex and can only be briefly discussed tonight.

However I do believe that an important consensus can be reached.

Furthermore I believe that there are two principal ways that the church can contribute to national and community life and it is to this which I will devote the remainder of my time.

Church and State

The Scottish church writer and thinker David Robertson offers four models of church interaction with the state.

The first two models offer a situation where either the state is dominant over the church or the church is dominant over the state, neither of which can work of course without one body destroying the role of the other.

If we are agreed that both Church and State have the right to exist then the problem arises of the relationship between them.

The third model answers this by offering strict separation between Church and State with a barrier between them and no interaction.

The fourth model seeks to address this problem in a different way.

This model, simply called ‘Good Neighbours and Good Friends,’ affirms the legitimacy of both church and state and their areas of responsibility in society.

It also affirms the idea that both institutions have some limitations and cannot perform the role that the other is intended perform within a healthy society.

It will not surprise you to know my preference. The state cannot do the job of the church in offering moral and pastoral care within society, but nor can the church attempt to do the job of the state in attempting to provide civil law and other key public roles.

However this does not mean that the Church should have no public voice and that religion should be left at the edge of the public square, as the strict barrier would suggest.

Gordon Brown also addressed this subject
recently in his Lambeth Palace lecture.
In his thoughtful contribution to the debate he questioned:

“Why it seems so uncontroversial, so incontestable, even natural, for members of churches and faith groups as individuals, and indeed for churches and faith groups as institutions, to involve themselves in a great moral movement for political change – which suggests a major role for faith in politics – and why, in spite of that, the conventional orthodoxy today is of a public square, an arena for making political decisions, where religious belief is, at best, at arms-length and which, with some notable exceptions, has become the embodiment of what some people call liberal secularism.”

Instead he argued for a politics in which values and ethics are brought into the discussion of public policy, and one in which churches and faith groups have a role to play. He summarised this as a:

“deliberative democratic politics, one in which the ethical basis of decisions is at its forefront, and in which we debate not only the ‘how’ of policy but also the ‘why’.”

How then may it be possible to achieve such a politics in which the voice of churches, faith groups and other members of civic society may be heard and may be recognised?

Words and Deeds

The book of James reminds us of the importance to the Christian of having both faith and deeds. It reminds the church of the importance of having both a voice to speak but also hands that take action to serve our communities and the most vulnerable for the common good.

As the book of James reminds us in chapter 2 verses 14-18:

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?

Can such faith save them?

15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16

If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?

17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.

This passage reminds us of the futility of speaking words without demonstrating the very faith the church professes.

Yet it also speaks of this faith as being the reason for the good deeds and so it would be foolish to pretend that the faith could somehow be separated from the good deeds.

It is in both words and deeds that I believe the church must work in Modern Scotland.


I am in agreement with Gordon Brown that there must be a place for the church in bringing the values of faith into the public square.

Politics is about the contesting and debate of ideas, principles and philosophies; and therefore this should include the faith groups within our nation, which most definitely includes the Kirk.

An ethical dimension to politics has often sadly been lacking in our national debates and nowhere more has this been seen in the run up to and the fallout from, our banking crisis.

Has there been a debate in relation to how we got into this mess, the greed and selfishness evident, and how we can rebuild a system or have we sadly reverted to simply speaking of pounds, pence and GDP?

There can therefore be a place for the church to regain something of the Old Testament prophetic voice in calling for ethical values to be part of every aspect of the national debate.


What then of deeds?

I believe that this is an area in which the church can excel.

I have already mentioned a number of fine examples of church action including very recent examples based from your very congregation.

It is these social good works that gives the church the legitimacy and the mandate in which to speak and ensure that your voice is heard.

It is these good works that will demonstrate the gospel in communities across the land as the church works for the common good.

Whatever view one takes of the public spending cuts one thing is clear.

The community needs the church to be fulfilling its role.

It needs the church to play its part in supporting those left unemployed by the recession.

It needs the church to help families struggling to bring up children, to pay their bills, to make the choice to heat or eat, by continuing to offer children’s clubs and parent support groups.

It needs the church to be offering pastoral support to everyone in the community who desires help.

For us all to heed the parable of the Good Samaritan not to walk by on the other side as the poor, the disposed and the homeless walk by.


So to conclude I do believe the church has a crucial role within Modern Scotland as part of Civic Society.

As we meet in this place of great history it is easy to imagine the giants of the past preaching to our forebears, and their words echoing from wall to wall.

And hearing John Wesley’s famous injunction:

“Do all the good you can, By all the means you can, In all the ways you can, In all the places you can, At all the times you can, To all the people you can, As long as ever you can!”

Thank you very much


Written by davidstewart

June 15, 2011 at 4:37 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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