Friday, 23 December 2011

I shall be having a wee break during the Christmas and New Year festivities therefore my blogging may be less frequent than normal. But look out for some post Christmas and pre New Year gems that may come tripping off my keyboard.

I wish everyone a very Happy Christmas and all the best for the coming New Year.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Homelessness kills

The news that Homeless people die, on average, 30 years before their neighbours is shocking but no surprise. The mental and physical extremes experienced by those who sleep rough or whose address is no fixed abode cannot be under estimated. It’s not just the lack of a roof - it’s the lack of purpose, identity, place and belonging that grinds down the souls of those who have no-where to lay their heads each evening. Homelessness kills and it seems like the world is still walking on by.

There are those who do great things in support of those who are homeless, not just in material provision of beds and food, but in getting beside them and walking with them. The Salvation Army, the Church of Scotland’s Cross reach and many others from the voluntary and statutory sectors save the lives of homeless people every day, or at least prolong them a little anyway. But the solutions lie in a level of material and spiritual investment that none of us, government and citizens, seem yet ready to make.

It’s not just beds, food and a roof we need to find. We need to be willing to do whatever it takes to walk with these folk, no matter how chaotic their lives or the darkness of their past for as long as it takes to get them to place that means they believe again that they matter to their neighbour; that they are both loved and loveable. That will cost a lot but when human lives are at stake, it seems a small price to pay. For the other truth the survey showed is that the human life at stake could so easily be ours.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

God Particles and the meaning of life

It was with great interest I read that a senior physicist of Hadron Collider at CERN announced that there was evidence of the existence of the Higgs Boson- the particle that is thought to underpin the subatomic workings of nature. I find these kinds of scientific discoveries and advancements awe inspiring

There is one part of this story that I struggle with; the idea that Higgs Boson is somehow “The God Particle”, and more importantly the suggestion that if it is discovered in the next year as predicted, this will both prove “The Big Bang Theory” and in doing so disprove the hand of God in creation and ultimately God .

I feel this is reflective of the type of consumerism society that we live in, we want everything now and we want answers neatly wrapped up in a bow. There is no room for the unknown or the mysterious. Yet science itself rarely gives definitive answers, Newton´s Law of Gravity was corrected by Einstein’s. It is only what we know now – and knowing the physical facts rarely is enough to understand the meaning of that knowledge for all of life

Higgs himself said of the name, “It embarrasses me”, going on to state that he felt it to be a “misuse of terminology”; it being called “The God Particle” overstates the importance of the particle. If discovered it will still leave many questions unanswered;

Explanation is one thing, however experience and decision are others that are critical to how our lives are lived. Self - giving love is at the heart of the Christian faith, and knowing another human being does not focus on the amounts of chemical compounds we are undoubtedly made up of. My love for my family goes far beyond emotion and relies little on scientific knowledge, however immensely valuable that is. The material of faith remains rich and is not dependent on one discovery or another. Indeed seen through the lens of faith, the work of science is to be welcomed rather than feared, especially if it can be harnessed to improve the lives of those suffering the ravages of poverty and disease. 

God is within and beyond any particles no matter how awe inspiring they may be.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Offensive behaviour and threatening communications

We all want to see a Scotland that is free from hatred and bigotry. This will take time and effort, and the Offensive Behaviour and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill alone will not in itself be enough.

It will be locally led and locally delivered community initiatives that will drive social and cultural change. Churches, schools, charities, police and statutory agencies need to be at the heart of a national anti-sectarianism strategy. It is for the Scottish Government to facilitate co-ordination and agenda setting, with all stakeholders, and for a national strategy to be visionary, long-term and attract cross-party support. This issue is too important to be used to try to seek political advantage; once this Bill has finished its progress through Parliament, MSP’s from all parties need to work together on a programme of action to combat sectarianism.

We know that sectarian attitudes and behaviours are not only found at football matches, and we know that the tackling of sectarian attitudes and behaviours cannot only be through the criminal justice system. So how are our schools resourced to teach about and explore the issues behind bigotry? What are the most effective interventions? How can leadership – spiritual, political, local community and football role-models – express clearly that there is no place for intolerance in Scotland.

I warmly commend the important work that has already taken place funded by churches, football clubs, the Scottish Government, local authorities, the police and charitable groups. It therefore should be recognised that we are not starting from scratch, however, a more co-ordinated strategy, with appropriate leadership and which has broad support, could lead to meaningful change.

Friday, 9 December 2011

The Current Financial Crisis - People's Needs first

The decisions facing David Cameron at 4am this morning cannot have been easy. He is pulled many ways and the choices he makes will always be the wrong one to some-one whose support he need.  I understand why he chose in the end to exclude Britain from the next stage of negotiations but I am not convinced that it was the right choice.
It is time that European political leaders, including our own Prime Minister listened to the voice of the people who are protesting on the streets of many European countries. In a crisis situation – solidarity must prevail. It is time for more coherent economic governance, a closer political oversight over financial markets and a move towards a developed fiscal Union – no sustainable future will be found without it.
A global Financial Transaction Tax would be a step in the right direction. It limits financial speculation, redirects a small part of the gains from financial transactions to the needs of the people, particularly in the southern hemisphere and is supported by huge numbers of people – that the financiers don’t want it is not the issue; the people do.
The current crisis is an ethical crisis as well as a political one and the solutions European need to be based one ethical principles and values.  For two years political leaders have attempted to address this crisis – none of them have worked. They have all been insufficient and unsustainable. They have done nothing to regain the trust of the people in the European Union and deal with its crisis economic management and governance. In reality every delay fuels the crisis and is costly.
Decisive action must be taken now. And a financial Transaction Tax would be a good start as it begins with a key first principle for politicians in a crisis; act together- focusing on the needs of the people.
Alex Salmond in China: The First Minister Addresses The Central Party School

Alex Salmond recently addressed members of the Communist Party of China on the legacy of Adam Smith and its relevance to climate change.  The speech coincides with the climate change summit at Durban and while neither have been front page news it is good to see Scotland’s First Minister giving prominence to the subject. 

In his speech he encouraged other countries to share Scotland’s ambition to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and pointed to moral and ethical reasons why we should do this: mainly that the burden on climate change falls most heavily on the poor. And he invokes Adam Smiths ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments’ (1759)to explain this:

As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation. Though our brother is on the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations.”

It is impressive that the First Minister can lecture the Chinese Communist Party on climate and great that we can take the global high ground.  We have every right to feel  proud of the Scottish Climate Change Act but the challenge is now to ensure that we put this into effect and ask everyone in Scotland, including departments of the Scottish Government how they can contribute to this vision.  In particular, in the same week as Alex Salmond was giving his speech his ministerial colleagues were publishing proposals to increase expenditure on road construction in Scotland.  

This continues the tradition of new road construction that has seen the M74 extension across the south side of Glasgow, new forth road bridges at Kincardine and at Queensferry and proposals to dual the A9 to Inverness.  While this may make driving a little quicker it will almost certainly lead to an increase in traffic and emissions of CO2. 

At the same time public transport in Scotland remains fragmented with incompatible ticketing and no real integration of buses, trains and other means of public transport, making journey complex and more expensive than they need to be. Investment in truly sustainable transport, walking and cycling, remains a pitiful proportion of the total.

The First Minister is preaching a great message but are his colleagues listening?

Monday, 5 December 2011

White Ribbon Campaign

Are you a man and a member of a faith community who would like to contribute to ending violence against women? Are you looking for concrete ways to actually do something effective within your faith community and beyond? We have just the opportunity for you.

The Church of Scotland aims to form two men’s multifaith groups (one specifically for men under the age of 25) who share interest and commitment to the aims of the White Ribbon Campaign. These aims are to:

• Endorse and clearly state the vital role of non-perpetrating men in challenging and stopping violence against women

• Identify, create and promote opportunities for non-perpetrating men to be involved in the campaign to Stop Violence Against Women in Scotland

• Increase the capacity of men in Scotland to engage in the campaign to Stop Violence Against Women, through examination and dissemination of best practice from the UK and abroad

For more information about the White Ribbon Scotland Campaign, please visit their website at:
Our specific goal is to work with these two multifaith groups to create an innovative plan of action within the unique context of faith communities. This is not an awareness raising campaign, but rather a think-tank with the goal of engaged activism that will make a difference in our respective communities.

The first meeting will be organized for early 2012. Please forward this to anyone you think would be interested. We need you to take action.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Nativity Plays

One of the extra-ordinary things about Christmas is the amazing creativity I see in school nativity plays – the retelling of a 2000 year old story in ways that remain fresh and new.  It’s a reminder to me of how my faith is as much as 21st Century faith as it is a 1st Century one with something to say about life and its living to everyone, no matter what they believe about God.

Which of course, is the point of things like nativity plays in schools. They are not evangelical opportunities but a time when, through drama, the wisdom of one faith community can be shared with others of all and no faiths. In that sharing everyone is included.  Those that don’t believe in the God bit can still find something for themselves and their view of life, even if it is that they disagree with the idea that Jesus was God on earth.

Sadly, there are those who, because they take the view that there is no God, want everyone else to live in a world where we can’t talk about God. They claim that they are excluded by Nativity plays when the truth is it they who are excluding themselves.  Their view of inclusion is that if they don’t like something, no one can enjoy it. Why is it that because they don’t want their children to take part in a nativity play, my children shouldn’t either. Their view of exclusion is that everything, (except their view, should be excluded in case they choose to be offended.

On that basis, we would say nothing about anything in case someone disagreed with something we said.  I don’t want that kind of world and neither did the baby in the manger who said we should love our enemies even at a cost to ourselves.

Nuclear Weapons

Last month a group from the World Council of Churches was meeting here in Scotland to discuss nuclear weapons.

The group, which was made up of policy experts and church leaders from around the world, including South Korea, Japan, Kenya, USA, Canada, Belgium, Switzerland as well as Britain, had come to meet in Scotland in recognition of the work that the Churches, civil society and the Government here have done in speaking out against nuclear weapons. Scotland is also in the unique position of having a Parliament, Government and general public opposed to nuclear weapons yet we have to host the Trident submarines on the Clyde. Speaking about the meeting Bruce Crawford MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Parliamentary Business and Government Strategy said:

“The Scottish Government remains firmly opposed to the possession, threat and use of nuclear weapons – and the Scottish Parliament has clearly voted against the UK Government’s plans for a new generation of these costly, unnecessary and immoral missiles.

“An independent Scotland would not have such weapons of mass destruction based in its waters. Until then, the Scottish Government is committed to building Scotland's role in international peace building, and I welcome the opportunity to meet with the World Council of Churches and to work with others to take this important agenda forward, with and for the people of Scotland.

“We must work together to maximise the opportunities for engaging with international partners on matters of peace, conflict resolution and nuclear disarmament.”

The UK Government has put off any discussion of Trident replacement until after the next election, yet campaigners fear that secretly the Government is already investing in the new technology for the design of new warheads and missiles.

Nuclear weapons are inherently evil, and their possession, threat of use, or use, are so terrifying that we should all continue to do our utmost to seek their ultimate abolition.

We in Scotland have been recognised by the World Council of Churches for our campaigns on the issue. I hope the group have been inspired by what they have seen here in their week, and that the Churches may continue to work internationally for peace and reconciliation. Scotland has the opportunity to show how we can lead on peace through education and awareness raising. I will be at Faslane to protest on 31 March, at an event organised by SCANA. Why don't you join me?

Sectarianism - looking to the future

The much maligned Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill is in the final steps of its Parliamentary process. The focus of debate should now shift from whether this Bill is simply an example of gesture politics or about the dangers of unintended consequences of rushing legislation to what is it that we in Scotland can do to eradicate sectarian attitudes and behaviours.

That's why I am pleased that the Government is looking to tackle sectarianism with £3 million worth of new money towards local community projects that challenge bigotry and breaks down barriers.

The Moderator, Rt Rev David Arnott, has said: “We welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to a long-term community-based approach to tackling sectarianism and we look forward to engaging with the Government to help make that happen.”

Once the hubbub and party politics surrounding this issue has gone away (after this Bill finishes its passage through the Scottish Parliament), it will be time for a whole range of organisations, statutory and voluntary, to work together to help each other address the problem of sectarianism. From the Scottish Government, the churches, police, schools, trades unions, local authorities and most importantly local communities and grassroots charities. Eradicating hatred in society won't be a change that will happen overnight, but it is one which is surely not only possible but a task for which is at the heart of the Church's mission to love and to serve.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Violence Against Women

An important reminder that we are in the middle of the international 16 days of action against vioence against - 25 November - and runs until 10 December.

The Church and Society Council is in the process of preparing a report on domestic abuse for next year's General Assembly but the Church has also published some special resources to help congregations focus and reflect.

Special Starters for Sunday resources on the theme have been prepared.
The Guild have produced a prayer booklet to use on each of the 16 days.

Scottish Women's Aid have prepared special resources and a list of actions for faith groups.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Is the UK Government’s solar panel review FiT for purpose?

The UK Government has shocked the renewable energy world by proposing to cut the subsidy for solar panels by 50%. The subsidy is provided in the form of a ‘Feed in Tariff’ or ‘FiT’ that is designed to encourage the installation of low carbon electricity generation on houses or others buildings, including churches. The scale of the cuts and their speed – they are due to come into effect on 12 December – has caused real consternation.

One of the reasons for the announcement is the success of the scheme, which has attracted far more interest than the government had expected. Churches have begun to take interest and this unhappy announcement coincided with the report of the Eco-Congregation Scotland solar panel conference at Partick South Church in Glasgow on 29 October. This conference brought together 120 representatives from churches around Scotland to discuss the pros and cons and of solar panels.

Speakers and participants agreed that solar panels might be useful in Scotland, despite our rather grey climate but firmly concluded that they only make sense as part of a ‘whole church’ energy management policy. The conference report encourages congregations to do the basics before considering solar panels: install draught proofing or secondary glazing. This would help improve the energy rating of the church, something the UK Government is also seeking to encourage in its consultation. Few churches have energy performance certificates and their introduction has been resisted some church authorities. However the UK Government is suggesting this could become a pre condition for the subsidy.

Others have criticised the UK government proposals. Housing associations have suggested that they are regressive and that they will destroy plans by social housing providers to install solar panels on housing in low income areas. Friends of the Earth in England are arguing the whole review is illegal because the haste with which it is being introduced and are mounting a legal challenge in the courts.

This is a lot to consider and we will be looking at the details closely. But it does say something about the inadequacy of the consultation. The UK Government has come up with some reasonable arguments about the subsidy but has managed to upset just about everybody in the process. At a time when government, churches and communities should be working together to respond to climate change the consultation risks driving us apart.

You can find out more about the ECS Solar Panel Conference and Review of FiT at:

Friday, 18 November 2011

Growing Pains?

There has been considerable coverage of the announcement that the world’s population has crossed the 7 billion threshold for the first time.

On the back of this people have expressed their fears about what this means in terms of managing resources. One eminent scientist went so far as to suggest that families in Scotland should be limited to two children.

I don’t think that the question shouldn’t really about limiting the number of children; it should be about how much we humans consume, in terms of food, energy, water and other resources.

There is enough to go around, we just need to find a better way of sharing it with one another.

Reports from UN and elsewhere suggest this is possible but we will have to change the way we manage and share the earth’s resources to ensure there is enough for everybody.

We hide ethical issues of sharing behind the false god of economic growth. What we in affluent countries cannot do is continue to consume resources at the current wasteful rate.

For these reasons excessive consumption rather than excessive population is the real issue.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Occupy Edinburgh

It was interesting to meet a couple of young men from the Occupy Edinburgh camp yesterday.

Pete Nicholson and Eric Nelson came along to the Church of Scotland offices in Edinburgh to give evidence to the Church of Scotland Commission on the Purposes of Economic Activity.

Although they’re located at opposite ends of Edinburgh’s George St, and their approaches quite different, it was gratifying to see just how much common ground there was between the two groups.

When we set up the Commission to look at the ethics underpinning the way we do economics, as part of the church’s response to the “credit crunch” of 2008/9, we took a lot of flack from people saying that, by the time it reported to the General Assembly in 2012, the whole thing would have blown over and we would be back to “business as usual”.

In many ways, that was the whole point: that we can’t just go back to business as usual, and the need to take a proper look at what we’re doing with economics has become more rather than less relevant.

Of course, Jesus reminds us that you can’t serve both God and money, and Paul identified the love of money as being at the root of all kinds of evil; these are themes which are echoed in what the Occupy Edinburgh protestors are saying.

We have to recognise again that economics and wealth are far too important for the church to ignore – and that they are about much more than simply money.

You can read about the Occupy Edinburgh visit to the Economics Commission at the Scotsman or watch a short news clip about it on STV News

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Prisoners' Week: 20-27 November

Welcome home?

What’s it like for a prisoner getting ready to go home after a spell inside? Will they be welcomed? By their family - probably; by their community – maybe; by employers – less likely. How can we prepare for their return?

It’s in everyone’s interest to help them settle into community life – and help them to avoid re-offending – but support is needed. But this support can and is being given! Read about Frank and Brian’s stories.

Prisoners’ Week helps us to focus on how we can welcome ex-offenders home. It’s an opportunity to remember all in our communities who are affected by crime and imprisonment – prisoners and their families, the victims of crime and those who work within the Criminal Justice System.

It is an initiative of the Churches that encourages debate and interest about justice in our communities, highlights concerns and shares hope.

And you’re invited to come along and join in the debate. Prisoners' Week Question Time is on Monday 21 November, 7pm - 9pm, in St Matthew's Episcopal Church, 200 Balmore Road, Glasgow G22 6LJ.

If you can’t go to this event you can still watch live online.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Palestinian Christians

wrote yesterday about my visit last week to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

When I was there I had dinner in an East Jerusalem restaurant with four young Palestinian Christian professional people who had agreed to tell me what life is like for them under occupation.

East Jerusalem is formerly part of Jordan, now subsumed within the Jerusalem municipal boundary. Palestinian residents have separate ID status there from the West Bank. They can travel in Israel, and in the West Bank, however they have only a resident’s ID and travel document, and are made to feel like illegal immigrants in their own country.
While Christians around the world romanticise about celebrating Easter in Jerusalem, these locals no longer go.

The prospect of having to negotiate four checkpoints manned by armed soldiers to get into the Old City is more than enough disincentive.

“This life is killing the Spirit”, says one.

“It is already dead”, says another.

These are people with Masters Degrees from Universities including Glasgow.

The question “Do I stay or do I leave?” is a daily reality – many of their friends have already gone.

They are aware that this is a privileged position, and that most young Palestinians don’t have a choice.

The first question a young man and woman ask one another is not very romantic: What is your ID status? Why fall in love with someone who is destined to be separated from you by a twenty foot concrete wall?

For information on conditions on the West Bank and East Jerusalem area go to the website of UN OCHA (the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs).

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Alcohol Bill and Minimum Pricing

As we approach Christmas, adverts on TV are urging shoppers to stock up on alcohol in preparation for the festive season. Whilst some of us may enjoy a glass of something special at Christmas, or a dram to bring in the New Year, what about our drinking habits throughout the year? What of the drinking habits of our nation?

Last week, the Scottish Government introduced the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Bill to the Scottish Parliament. The Bill will introduce a minimum price of alcohol below which alcohol must not be sold on licensed premises. The Scottish Government hasn't revealed the minimum price that they are planning to introduce, but it will be set according to the strength of the alcohol, the volume of the alcohol and the minimum price per unit.

This isn't something that the Church has just supported in the heat of political debate; the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland discussed and supported the principle of minimum pricing in 1983, 1986 and 1987 and reaffirmed this position in 2009.

If an increase in the minimum price of alcohol will reduce consumption of alcohol and reduce the resulting problems for individuals and our society then it is not a case of penalising the majority in order to discourage the minority. This is a choice that we, as a society, could make in order to improve our collective health and wellbeing. That is why I will support the principle of the Scottish Government introducing a minimum price per unit of alcohol.

Visiting Israel and Palestine

I spent last week in and around East Jerusalem and the Bethlehem area of the West Bank speaking to people about the current situation in the Palestinian Territories. I had hoped to go to Gaza but the permit did not materialise.

I have always been struck by the resilience of Palestinians I have met when they have spoken about life under occupation, however on this occasion I was aware just how tired many people have become following twenty years of negotiation that have resulted in things getting worse rather than better.

Hopes for a two state solution are strained, and the response to the Palestinian UNESCO application being approved, both by the US and Canada withdrawing aid and the Israeli withholding of Palestinian tax revenue, has caused huge frustration and distress.

As Israel continues to expand the building of settlements in East Jerusalem and in the West Bank, it is planning the forced relocation of twenty Bedouin and Herder communities into an urban setting, meaning the loss of their way of life as well as further displacement of what are already largely refugee communities.

Meanwhile the descriptions of life in Gaza are appalling, with the water supply polluted to the point of being poisonous.

As Christmas decorations start to go up across Scotland’s High Streets, life in Bethlehem is far from the glitter. Weariness and resignation are more in evidence than expectation.

For a good briefing on life in Gaza see the website of UN Office of the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Is gambling too prevalent in society?

In Britain the law around gambling is from Labour UK Government’s Gambling Act 2005. This Act was supposed to both liberalise gambling (including allowing advertising for the first time, and the establishment of new Las Vegas-style Mega Casinos) whilst at the same time introducing new protections for vulnerable players.

Has it worked? Well there is more gambling than before, but sadly there is also more problem gambling. So the industry has been liberalised but at the cost of addiction. We’ve not seen any new Mega Casinos opened, but despite this the explosion in online gambling has added its own misery.

It was revealing to read Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s remarks to the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee that he thinks the laws are ‘inconsistent’ and in ‘limbo’ which is ‘not healthy’.

Here are some of my suggestions for how to improve the situation:
  • Government should address problem gambling as a public health issue, not as part of business regulation.
  • There should be stronger restrictions on gambling advertising
  • The levels of stakes and prizes for gaming machines should be reduced
  • Children should be prevented from playing on low value fruit machines
  • Local authorities should have the power to limit the number of gambling premises in a particular area if there is local concern that there are too many
  • Government should regularly monitor the prevalence of gambling and problem gambling and if it appears that problems are increasing they must do more to stop it.

 The Church of Scotland works closely with a range of other Christian organisations on gambling policy. I will be asking them to write to Jeremy Hunt about how we can contribute for the benefit of everybody. Together we have produced a briefing on gambling issues, Against the odds…?

Robin Hood Tax

The Church of Scotland is a member of the Robin Hood Tax campaign.

This campaign calls for a tiny charge of 0.05% on financial transactions such as stocks, bonds, foreign currency and derivatives. It is estimated that if it was introduced by countries across the world it could raise an extra £250billion per year, which could help bolster public services, increase aid to developing countries or help to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Last Monday I, along with representatives of about 70 other organisations, wrote to the Prime Minister ahead of the G20 meeting urging him to consider signing up.

So far the UK Government position has been to oppose the idea of a financial transaction tax, but the French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are both in favour of it. We hope that the G20 meeting will be a crucial turning point and that if the UK Government gets behind it, it will sooner become a reality.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

H@ppy birthday email!

I notice that that (nearly) indispensable tool of modern communication, the e-mail, is forty years old this month.

The first message, sent in October 1971, travelled a distance of one metre between two computers. One small step for a message, one giant leap for mankind.

By the end of the 1990s, e-mail had become an essential part of working life in many offices around the world. By 2008, 170 billion e-mails were being sent each day, at a rate of 2 million per second. It hasn’t stopped accelerating; by 2010, the daily rate was 294 billion. Now, many of us are constantly checking our e-mails: we have access to them wherever we are (or not, in the case of BlackBerry recently). We’ve come a long way in 40 years.

This got me thinking of another anniversary: going back ten times further in history, to 1611, it's 400 years this year since the King James (or Authorised) version of the Bible in English was published. While not the first translation of the Bible into English, what is now familiar to us- an everyday part of our lives, which we now perhaps take for granted- was at the time a revolutionary departure. One of the express intentions of translation project was to make the Bible accessible to the ordinary person.

We may not consult our Bibles as often as we do our e-mails: perhaps we would all benefit from doing so! We need to use all the means at our disposal to communicate the good news of the Gospel. The church still has a message- even if the ways of communicating it has changed.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Sea level rise in Tuvalu

The news from Tuvalu is not good. A set of small islands in the distant South Pacific ocean, about as far from Scotland as it is possible to get on the surface of the earth are now at critical risk. Why? Because of a life threatening drought that has been added to the combination of a rising and warming sea which together are making life on these small islands inhospitable.

Why should this be of concern to us in Scotland with all the problems we have to worry about here? There are after all less than 12,000 people living on the islands of Tuvalu and there are others closer to hand, like New Zealand who can help out. I think the reason is a bit like the story of the canary in the coal mine. What is happening in Tuvalu is a wake up call to all of us.

When the climate changes and sea levels rise low lying places will be hit hardest and among the first to suffer are the atoll islands of the South Pacific. The reasons are not difficult to see when the highest point in the Tuvalu archipelago is less than five metres above sea level. A rising and warming sea, both caused by global warming, and a climate that appears to becoming drier spell trouble. The protective coral is bleached by warmer water and if damaged then the risk of storm damage increases; the islands’ limited supply of fresh water is reduced; ground water becomes more saline and a traditional way of life becomes more difficult.

The Church in Tuvalu, the Ekalesia Kelisiano Tuvalu has been warning of the risks for some time but now the risk has become a crisis due to a prolonged drought that has endured for months. I can do no better than quote from a message sent to us by the Rev. Tafue Lusama, General Secretary of the Church in Tuvalu a few days ago:

"… for the past 5 to 6 months there has been no rain at all, and that caused shortage of water, trees are dead, traditional plantations are all dead, land is so dry that even the crabs cannot survive.

"This is the worst experience of a drought we have ever faced in history.
Because even our underground water is salinated and is no longer viable for any use."

They have brought in desalination machines, but even that does not assist the land and the plantations for they only give out enough water for drinking and cooking for a family a day.

Tafue asks us to remember the people of Tuvalu in our prayers, which we will do. He is gracious in his plea for help and does not point the finger of accusation against those us who may be causing the misery that they must endure. But we can read in the experience of the people of Tuvalu the slow and inexorable pressure that makes the land less hospitable and the earth and sea less sustaining. Where Tuvalu is now suffering others will follow, and as the impact of climate change spreads many more will experience conditions that challenge life and wellbeing. In our own worries about the economy and our own prosperity we must find time to remember these distant islands and the warning call they make to all of us.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Priority Areas - really getting it right

Harvey Cox, the eminent American academic and theologian visited Scotland recently.

Whilst he was here he was introduced to the Priority Areas work of the Church of Scotland and Bridging the Gap, a project I am deeply involved with in my day job as a parish minister in the Gorbals.
Harvey has written back to us on his journey home to Harvard, and he said:

“I think that even though many of those involved are not aware of it, the priorities areas project is on the frontier of a new and welcome stage in Christian history and in the maturing ministry of the church. The Church of Scotland, unlike many other denominations, is really getting this one right. I know full well how discouraging it can be at times for the people involved, but I came back convinced that the program is bodying forth a fuller vision of what the Church should be. If Bridging the Gap is not a sacramental token of what the Kingdom of God is, then I do not know what would be."

Wow. Praise from the praise worthy is praise indeed.

When we’re up tae oor oxters in work, meetings, committees, preparing sermons, worrying about finances and roof metal theft, this is inspiring and uplifting.

I have written this post not to blow the trumpet for Bridging the Gap on its own, but to share the inspiration and uplift with everyone else involved in our Priority Areas work, and to share with the whole Church of Scotland that it is at the cutting edge

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Child Poverty and the growing distance between ambition and reality

Headline news today was the publication of an Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) report Child and Working-Age Poverty from 2010 to 2010.

The IFS research says that child poverty rates are set to increase substantially, despite the Government’s child poverty strategy which sets targets for reducing child poverty.

We are members of the End Child Poverty campaign in Scotland. A spokesperson for the coalition of campaign groups, charities, faith groups and trade unions in Scotland said:

"This analysis by the IFS shows that the new Universal Credit being introduced by the UK government cannot reverse the impact of massive cuts to welfare benefits, rising inflation, stagnating wages and higher unemployment. In a rich country that already has shamefully high child poverty levels, this news is devastating. If allowed to happen, it will reverse the progress made over the past decade and set us back to the rapidly rising child poverty rates of the 1980s and 1990s."

We are calling on the UK Government to take immediate steps to reduce child poverty if it is going to stand any chance of honouring the commitments made in the Coalition Agreement.

The group is also called on the Scottish Government to do more to ensure the ambitions set out in its child poverty strategy are supported by its budget decisions.

The importance of giving children the best start in life is underlined by our report from 2009 on Growing Up in Scotland. 

Friday, 7 October 2011

Are computer games good for you?

Since the days of the early computer games of pong, pacman and space invaders through to today's craze with MMO (massively mulitplayer online) games such as World of Warcraft, parents across the globe have despaired that children are wasting their lives on pointless rubbish.

But how would you feel if computer games could have a social good?

Perhaps as confused as me when I saw this article which says how online gamers have helped with an important breakthrough in understanding how the HIV virus works, and so helping research towards more effective treatment.

This form of collective working on a common project through the Internet is called crowd-sourcing, and it is beginning to be used in a number of different fields, from film reviews to the scrutiny of academic papers. Maybe one day we will even do a crowd sourced report for the General Assembly's Blue Book.

The Church of Scotland supports work around HIV AIDS through the HIV AIDS Programme.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Out of solitary places

Mental health and suicide were two of the issues which the Church and Society Council raised at the General Assembly earlier this year.

Two news stories last week have caught my attention and brought be back to look again at the reflections in our reports.

The first is the news of the publication in English of Robert Enke's biography.
Enke was a successful German club goalkeeper, a married father. He suffered from depression and killed himself in 2009. Sadly this is not an unknown story, but Enke's fame, success and celebrity status has meant that a spotlight has been thrown on suicide, and what might be done to support people in desperate need of help.

Suicide is the number one cause of death in young men in Scotland. Our report recommended the play 'Dare 2 Hope' from Cutting Edge Theatre Productions, designed for schools, which helps young people to explore some of these issues.

The second news story was about the increased use of anti depressant drugs as a treatment for mental health issues in Scotland.
This just goes to show that mental health problems remain an important and growing issue of concern. Our report tried to shed some light on this and suggested that local congregations agree a policy or charter for how they approach the issue.

When thinking about mental health issues I often recall the Bible story of Jesus healing the man known as Legion, a man cast out of normal society and tormented by his inner demons (Mark 5: 1-9). Healing is not always an easy process, but by understanding why people become ill and accepting them in society rather than ostracising them is an important way we can demonstrate love and compassion.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Bold action to tackle alcohol misuse

A year ago Holyrood was debating the Alcohol Bill.

One of its key provisions, for a minimum price per unit of alcohol, was removed by MSPs before the final vote.

An outcome of the SNP’s re-election means they can reintroduce this measure, and their majority means it is almost certain to become law.

The Church of Scotland fully supports the Government on this, or rather I could say that the Government is in line with the Church, as we first called for a minimum price per unit of alcohol way back in the early 1980s.

We need radical action, as despite years of talk about education programmes and attitudinal change, as a nation Scotland has a deeply troubling relationship with alcohol.

I read last week that Professor Tim Stockwell of the Centre for Addictions Research in British Columbia, Canada, had urged MSPs to transform alcohol policy by introducing minimum pricing. His research shows that minimum pricing has worked in Canada where there has been a fall in the level of drinking.
Critics of minimum pricing claim it is no ‘magic bullet’ that it alone will solve all alcohol-related problems. Any reasonable person would likely agree. But the thing is minimum pricing is not being introduced by itself, but as part of broader Government and voluntary initiatives, including NHS health living campaigns, education in schools, AA groups and abstinence campaigns. However all these other programmes are not enough, we need to try everything we can or the costs of alcohol misuse will continue to grow.

So I am interested in debating the merits of the plan revealed in last week's Herald (sorry no link) to have separate queues and tills in supermarkets for alcohol, and putting a rateable levy on supermarkets based on alcohol sales (currently supermarkets are only taxed on the size of their shop floor).

The Herald article quotes an unnamed source from the Scottish Retail Consortium: “Demonising alcohol is not the answer.” I say, “Yes, it is”. Alcohol has been demonising our neighbours for too long, we need to make excessive drinking socially unacceptable.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

People First - my thoughts

 Today I was at the People First march and rally in Glasgow.  The heavy rain meant the rally was curtailed, and I wasn't able to speak - but here is what I would have said!

I’m happy to be able to speak for the Moderator today –

because he agrees with me
that when the rich go on getting richer,
and the poor go on getting poorer,
and nothing – nothing in government policy
is designed to change that, to make
any difference at all –
it’s time for people from churches
to stand beside people from unions,
to stand beside people from disability groups,
to stand beside people from right across Scotland

and say that this is an offence
against the kind of society
that we want to be part of.

To be as the old Testament prophets who stood up and named what was wrong ;
Challenged injustice,
And called
No demanded
that those in power
Put others first

Some people, of course, think they come first.
Because of their wealth
Their status
Their position
Or their antecedents
And the deep desire of these people
is – at all times and at all cost
to anyone else – to stay first.

That’s why we have a body of millionaires
making up the Cabinet,
trying to get their own taxes cut
and telling us that we can’t afford
poor people.

The Bible get a lot of stick these days,
but let me tell you now what the Bible says:

It says that when there are resources to be shared out,
everyone should get enough. Everyone should
get enough, and everyone can get enough.
We’re told there’s no choice
about which direction to go in.
And of course they’re quite right,
the government.

If things are to stay the same –
the same inequality,
the same winners,
the same losers,
the same lack of values,
the same lack of compassion,
the same holding on to weapons of mass murder,
the same refusal by the wealthy
to pay a decent share of tax,
the same lack of political will and imagination….

If all these things are to stay the same
then we’ve no choice.

But today we exercise choice – the choice
to say no to the same old, same old,
business as usual.

Today we say it is time to make other choices,
it is time to put some other people first.

All over Scotland
The nation of which we are all part
Whatever our roots and our beliefs
 there are young people who believe
that our society has nothing for them –
no respect, no decent work, no hope, no future.
It really is time to put them first.

All over Scotland there are people
Some of who are here today ,
who have  already felt the sharp edge of cuts –
transport services to disabled people taken away,
to save a fraction of a banker’s bonus.
It really is time to put them first too.

If the Moderator was here he’d tell you
that these are the very people
who should get a fair deal,
because right now they are last,
and what Jesus says in the Bible
is that the last shall be first.

The way they get to be first
is that we stop living as though
there was no alternative
and make the changes that are needed
to prioritise the poorest.

Scotland has a proud record
of caring for all of its people.
We need to call on that pride today,
and say that we will not cease
in our efforts, until we have
a change that puts people first –
that puts all of our people first,
and the ideology of market forces last.

What we have now is not rational,
it is deeply irrational to have an
economy in which the only thing
that  is growing is inequality. And
it is deeply irrational to have some
with all the opportunity and others
with none. 

It’s time for those with the power
to change our political priorities
to rediscover the morality that
needs to underpin our society, and
to say no to the ideological cuts
that are doing such terrible damage
to the most vulnerable people
in it.

On behalf of the Moderator
I thank you for listening, and
thank you for coming.

Monday, 26 September 2011

People First

Next Saturday, October 1st, I will be speaking at the People First rally in Glasgow.

The event is co-ordinated by the Scottish Trade Union Congress and is supported by a wide range of civil society organisations including faith groups and equality and anti poverty campaigners.

There will be a march from Glasgow Green at 12 noon and the rally in Kelvingrove Park will be from 1.30 to 3.00pm

After the rally the Close the Gap campaign will be having a lauch event at Anderston Parish Church from 3.30-4.30pm

I hope that this day will be a chance for community organisations and social welfare groups to come together to show solidarity with one another and to raise the profile of the impact that cuts will have on the must vulnerable in society.

As I said, I will have the privilege of being able to speak at the rally. I would welcome your suggestions for things I should say.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Scottish Government – September 2011 Spending Review

Today John Swinney MSP made a statement in Holyrood on the Scottish Government’s Spending Review.

Now I’m not a financial expert and it is far too much detail to take in straight away, so here is my first gut reaction.

What I think is interesting

In his statement Mr Swinney also talked about how bold he wanted to be in terms of preventative spending. In 2011 the General Assembly urged the Government to consider the opportunities created for young people by adopting a preventative spending model when setting education budgets. Support for Family Nurse Partnerships and commitment to a Reducing Reoffending Change Fund are exciting developments.

It is also important to recognise the increase in the Scottish Living Wage to £7.20 per hour. The Church of Scotland supports the Living Wage as one way to help tackle in-work poverty.

The aspiration of the Government to care for the earth, through prioritising a move towards a low carbon economy, is to be welcomed. More investment in renewable energy so we can play our part in global efforts to properly steward resources is also welcome.

The announcement of £3million for new work to tackle sectarianism is also an important way the Government can enhance and complement the work that we are doing in Churches and communities across Scotland.

Issues of fuel poverty have hit the headlines recently and we are pleased to see that the Government has responded to this growing need with several programmes intended to tackle fuel poverty. It is to be hoped that the Government will take action to ensure that these funds are accessible to people in the private rented sector.

What I am sorry not to see in there

There seems to me no substantive discussion of poverty. I sincerely hope that the omission of strategies and initiatives specifically to tackle poverty are not a sign that the Government is abandoning its commitments to work to help those in our society in greatest need.

Poverty is a real problem for a huge proportion of people in Scotland, yet this crucial statement about the future direction of Government funding for the next three years does not address it seriously as a problem.

By having a ‘relentless focus on economic growth’ (their words) is the Government suggesting that they won’t be focusing on anti-poverty work?

This looks as though the Scottish Government is avoiding some of the difficult questions of inequality and the distribution of wealth in Scotland today. It is not enough simply to create wealth through economic growth and be blind to the consequences. We have to be far more sensitive to how wealth is distributed and the destructive impact greater wealth can have on communities and the environment.

For instance, talking about growing Scotland’s transport infrastructure through supporting a new Forth bridge and the Aberdeen bypass does little to tackle the growing carbon emissions from the transport sector.

In 2010 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland called on the Government to recognise the destructive impact of inequality on the wellbeing of all, the disproportionate impact of cuts in services on the poorest, and therefore to poverty proof all budget decisions.

The focus of budgets and spending reviews should not just be a list of financial announcements but demonstrating a deep understanding that the economy is there to serve society, and not the other way around.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Afghanistan; why we need to withdraw troops today

In May the General Assembly voted to oppose the continuation of the war in Afghanistan and called on the Government to take the immediate steps required to secure the earliest possible withdrawal.

I am repeating this call in advance of tomorrow, 21 September, which is the UN International Day for Peace and the World Council of Churches International Day of Prayer for Peace.

World Council of Churches - 21 September is the 
International Day of Prayer for Peace
By working with Church partners from other traditions, including Anglicans, Catholics and Quakers, we assessed the war in Afghanistan against the criteria for a Just War, which many Christians have used for centuries when considering a response to the use of armed force.

We found that the war in Afghanistan cannot be supported.

The Just War tradition requires a series of criteria to be met:

Is the war legitimate, or, is the war permitted by the right authority?

There are two aspects of the war. One is the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF), set up under a UN mandate which is designed to support the Afghan National Army and police. The second is Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), which aims to eradicate Al Qaeda and defeat the Taliban. The report concluded that while the ISAF mission could be considered legitimate, the OEF aspect is no longer tenable, as there is no direct threat to our own security and the UN has not given any explicit authorisation for OEF.

Is there a reasonable hope of success?

What does success in the context of the war in Afghanistan look like? Conservative MP John Glen asked in the House of Commons:

"By what measure will we gauge our success? Does it mean free and democratic elections? The removal of corruption? A well-trained and effective army and police force, new roads, new schools, rights for women? Where does the list end and what is realistic? There are many who argue that British and other foreign presence in Afghanistan is a cause for the continuation of violence and insecurity. It also makes Britain a terrorist target. This is why we have called for withdrawal as soon as possible."
Does the harm caused by the war outweigh the harm it prevents?

More than 2000 civilians a year are killed in the conflict. Lives lost which would not be lost if the war wasn’t taking place. It is sometimes argued that the presence of the NATO troops is essential to protect the rights of women. Recent laws passed by the Afghanistan parliament legalise rape within marriage. Sonali Kolhatkar who co-directs the Afghan Women’s Mission (a US based non-profit organisation that supports women’s rights activist in Afghanistan) explains:

"There are incidents happening every day in Afghanistan of women and girls being harassed and raped, flogged and killed by pro-US warlords and local commanders who are not working with the Taliban – such incidents are rarely covered in the Western media. Afghan women activists I work with have long called for US forces to leave Afghanistan."

Are non-combatants protected from violence?

The extended information now available through Wikileaks paints a picture of considerable death and injury caused to civilians and non-combatants and chronicles over 20 separate occasions when British troops are said to have bombed or shot Afghan civilians – identifying at least 26 people killed and another 20 wounded as a result. According to The Observer, (26 September 2010), no British soldier has been prosecuted in relations to operations in Afghanistan. A report in September 2010 by the Afghanistan Study Group, a reputable and specialist US organisation, said that ‘many more civilian deaths have occurred than have been officially acknowledged as a result of US and allied strike accidents’.

The use of drones in particular raises concerns as to whether the methods being used adequately take into account the likelihood of casualties among or the duty to protect them. John Baron MP (Con), a former army officer, in a speech in September 2010, expressed the view that ‘high civilian casualty rates exponentially increase hostility. They might not force Afghans actively to support the Taliban but it will certainly stop them opposing anyone who wants to kill those who have killed their loved ones.’ Non-combatant immunity is fundamental to the just war theory. The huge loss of civilian lives, regardless of whether they were directly or indirectly intended, undermines any justification of the war.

Read the full report.

This video is an introduction to the report from Norman Shanks, one of the authors.

Read the response of the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the report.