Monday, 15 October 2012

Moving on

After three year's of the Convener's Blog we are making some changes.  I'll now be blogging from Sally's Blog, which can be found on the main Church of Scotland wesbite.

I hope you like the changes to the look and feel of the blog, please bookmark the new page and check regularly with what's happening.  I'd also love to hear your comments!

I've you've not already seen it, my first new post is about the war on the poor and the language delployed by George Osborne which is driving deeper divisions into society...

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Today is World Mental Health day

Human beings are a wonder - so adaptable and resilient, yet so intricately complex and fragile.

It's this combination that makes each person unique- a one off, never to be repeated miracle.

I don't think we see each other that way often enough. I worry, that in today's busy, hectic rush, we don't see each other at all.

Today is World Mental Health Day, and I hope we will use this day to see each other, to listen and learn.

A lot of what I get to do in my work is listen to people. One thing that resonates is the comment from so many sufferers of mental illness that they feel invisible and silenced. "How do I begin to explain my mental illness? The hardest bit is telling others – folk can see a broken leg but they can’t see inside your head." 

One in four adults in the UK suffers from a diagnosable mental health condition in any given year.

I believe we have to work to end the stigma around mental illness.  The burden which must be carried by those affected by mental health problems, and those who care for them, is not only heavy, but can be life- long.

How we, as church, as friends and family, support each other is at the heart of a culture of positive relationships that we seek to foster.

Our churches should surely be places where everybody can be sure of having someone to listen, somebody who cares and values each and every man, woman and child. The presence of the church as a community of people who care and who can simply ‘be there’ can be very important in times of need.

At parish level, individual and congregational prayer is powerful.  Support from pastoral care teams can provide invaluable ministry, promoting self esteem and a sense that a person’s and family’s journey and burden are shared.

The Church of Scotland’s General Assembly received a report on mental health in 2011

You can explore these issues further by using this Bible Study.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Food banks are for Life, not just for Harvest

Harvest represents not being hungry!

Sadly, we’ve got our work cut out for us and Harvest has just officially been extended: in Scotland today, the fastest growing voluntary sector is in food distribution: Food-banks.

Food-banks are opening all over Scotland and the ones already operational are running out of food as fast as they can get it in. In Alloa, the food-bank there gets up to ten referrals a week – referrals from the Citizens Advice bureau, the Police, Social Services, the Prison Service, Health Visitors and the schools.

Need has increased exponentially. Where they used to see mostly single men, they are now seeing more families. In Arbroath, the local Primary Schools now take it in turns to have a special collection on Fridays because the food-bank found that weekends were when people needed the most help. They struggled to make it through the weekend when the usual routes to assistance were closed. What is going on? How, in the same country where we throw away 566,000 tonnes of food each year, can so many people be going hungry?

From the perspective of the church, there has to be a two-pronged attack. Firstly our neighbours cannot be allowed to go hungry, so we have to step up in communities to make sure that these food-banks are consistently and adequately stocked; BUT and this is an important BUT, we have to continually ask the question – to the Government and to ourselves - how on earth can people be going hungry in Scotland today?

How can there be such incredible gaps between the rich and the poor, how can there be such yawning lags between applying for help and actually receiving it? With high unemployment levels and the introduction of the universal credit system and other benefit changes, there is genuine fear that things are only going to get worse – so we help plug the leaks by supplying food-banks, but we do so while consistently calling for change. Community is connection so we have to work for ways to reach out to those in our community who have fallen through the ever-widening cracks in the economic system we all participate in. Community is connection – we cannot stand by and say the problem is too big – the problem is too big to ignore!  

The Church has often used a phrase purported to Jesus as almost a “get out of jail free” card. When Jesus said “the poor are always with us,” did he mean that we should just accept that as the way it is? The statement could equally be seen as an indictment and a challenge. Do we accept that in a world so technologically advanced that we can speak to someone across the globe in seconds, where medical advancements have banished diseases which used to ravage, where we can genetically modify crops, that we cannot re-adjust our economic system to be more just and equitable - or is it a matter of corporate will? Will we accept hunger on our doorstep or hunger on our global stage? 

Or will we follow the example Jesus left his followers – he fed the hungry, but he also got into a lot of hot water by asking awkward questions to those in authority about why people were hungry and oppressed and compromised.  His words hit home all the more because he put his actions behind his words.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Tax Bus Blog Friday: Tax - who is responsible?

All this week the Tax Justice Tour has been travelling around Scotland. This seven-week tour around 50 towns and cities across Britain and Ireland has a message of tax justice for poor communities locally and globally. The iniative has educated, inspired and equipped those who have boarded the bus and engaged with the complex issue of tax law.

Hopefully the impact will continue to unpack itself as they pass on what they’ve learned: that tax avoidance is a devastating wrong, morally unacceptable and something we can no longer tolerate. It has a particular sting in an age of austerity and spending cuts. It effectively amounts to robbing the poor, in the UK and in poor countries, of the money that should be spent on education, health and welfare.

But today, on the tour’s last day in Scotland, I pose the question: Whose job is it to make sure that people pay their taxes fairly?

On the one hand there is clearly an issue with very wealthy individuals, companies or institutions using immoral or unjustifiable (or even illegal) means to avoid tax.

There is also a question of what Governments can do in terms of regulations, enforcement, prosecution and closing tax loop-holes.

Christian Aid and the Church of Scotland have also asked for reforms to the international accounting system for large multinational corporations, to ensure transparency in reporting of how much tax they pay and where some tax dodging schemes are cloaked in secrecy and so making corporate accounts report what they do in each country would be one way in shedding light on dodgy practices.

And does society, the media, political and community leaders, the churches, have a role in setting out what is and what is not ok? We need to make the concept of tax dodging as socially repugnant as racism; it is sinful, it is evil, it is harmful. On this last day of the tour in Scotland - as the bus pulls out, we need to recognise that we all have a part in this complex mess. If there is a change coming, then we all need to get on-board! 

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Tax Bus Blog Thursday: Tax justice for you and me

Scottish Church Leaders in Edinburgh with the Tax Bus yesterday

The Tax Justice Tour continues its journey across Scotland today. Having had stops in Dumfries and Alloway, Glasgow and Edinburgh earlier this week, today it is in St Andrews before travelling on to Inverness tomorrow. 
Yesterday I got a chance to visit the Tax bus as it sat in Bristo Square in Edinburgh.  Now I have to confess that I find understanding finance “challenging!”  When it comes to numbers, I feel a cloud of confusion descending on my brain and a strong urge to bury my head in the sand follows; however, I have come to the conclusion that this issue is too important to ignore.  And I have begun to realise, as I meet and talk with others for whom the penny has dropped, others who have also begun to engage with the issue of tax justice, that perhaps my urge isn’t unique – perhaps big corporations actually count on our ostrich-like inclinations. 
We cannot allow that to be the case anymore – our brothers and sisters who are daily being more marginalised by the extreme profit margins of tax-dodging companies are counting on us to start counting the tax cost. 
As I visited the bus, I was struck by the potential impact of this awareness-raising, education- offering tool! I met dedicated people whose knowledge and commitment to seeking tax justice planted seeds in others who left more informed and more empowered. Hopefully, they will go out and spread the message; hopefully they will be encouraged to believe that their voice can make a difference - write messages to leaders or go on rallies or lobby centres of power. Hopefully they will not go back to the default position of adopting the ostrich position.
If you’ve not been able to get to the Tax Bus or if you’d like more information about tax justice, then Christian Aid Scotland and the Church of Scotland are happy to come to speak to your congregation or a group linked with your church.  Please get in touch by emailing  
We’ve also prepared some prayer and worship resources on the theme of poverty and tax which you are welcome to download and use.  October 17th is International Poverty Eradication Day - a great chance to use these resources to engage with this complex issue.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Tax Bus Blog Wednesday: The Politics of tax dodging

I’ve been blogging about issues around Tax to mark the visit of the Tax Justice Tour to Scotland this week. 

Today the Bus visits the Scottish Parliament, where there will be an opportunity for MSPs, Parliamentary researchers and others to board the bus and find out more about what Christian Aid and Church Action on Poverty are calling for.

Neil Findlay MSP, who represents the Lothians, has achieved cross-party support for his motion, which I’ve copied below.

If you are reading this and live in Scotland, please consider writing to your MSPs asking if they have signed the motion, and if not, to do so!

One of the challenges we face is that however sympathetic Scottish politicians might be to the cause of greater transparency, accountability and responsibility in the tax system, the only real change will come from wealthy individuals and institutions changing their attitude to tax dodging. 

As a lot of these issues touch on global trade and economic policy the UK Government and Westminster Parliament need to be convinced as well; but with support at every level of power, influence and leadership, hopefully the message that the system has to change can be heard loud and clear.

The Tax Justice Tour website allows you to sign an online petition to add your name to a list which will be presented at the end of the Tour to the Prime Minister.

Motion S4M-04217: Neil Findlay, Lothian, Scottish Labour, Date Lodged: 20/09/2012

Christian Aid, Tax Justice Bus

That the Parliament commends the work by Christian Aid and Church Action on Poverty in taking their Tax Justice Bus around the UK and Ireland raising awareness of tax dodging; notes Christian Aid’s estimate that the global culture of financial secrecy costs the developing world $160 billion every year, which is one and a half times what is delivered in international aid; understands that, in the UK, the poorest people are also worst affected by the impact of tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance; notes that the Tax Justice Bus is in Scotland between 1 and 5 October 2012, stopping in Dumfries, Alloway, Glasgow, Edinburgh, St Andrews, Inverness and Inverurie, including a stop outside the Parliament on 3 October to allow MSPs and parliamentary staff to meet campaigners, and welcomes the opportunity for people to get on board the tax bus and find out why tackling tax dodging is so important in the fight against local and global poverty.

So get on board by signing the on-line petition, by writing to your MP and MSP, by telling your friends and neighbours that they too can get on-board. There’s plenty of room on the bus! 

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Tax Bus Blog Tuesday: Tax and global development

I am blogging about Christian Aid and Church Action on Poverty’s campaign for tax justice this week.  Like the Olympic Torch relay, the Tax Justice Tour is travelling to communities across Britain and Ireland seeking to raise awareness about the injustice of tax dodging.  For all of this week the Big Red Bus is in Scotland.
Christian Aid estimates that around $160 billion a year are lost to developing countries’ governments because of tax dodging by wealthy individuals and institutions.  This sum is greater than the global international aid budget. It means that poor countries do not benefit from the tax revenues they are entitled to, and these unethical practices are harming education, healthcare and infrastructure; keeping the poorest in the world poor while the rich avoid paying their fair dues.

Access to clean drinking water remains a major problem in Bangladesh. Yet the money Bangladesh lost between 2005 and 2007 as a result of trade mispricing with the EU and US – an estimated £184m – could have been spent on establishing safe drinking water for much of the population.

In Bangladesh, water is simply not on tap. A quarter of the population lives without sustainable access to improved water. Millions of women and children spend hours travelling just to quench their families’ thirst. As a result, children lose out on education because, rather than filling their brains, they are filling up buckets.

Minu Basar crossed a wide and sometimes dangerous river travelling up to 10km to buy fresh water at vast expense for her family. ‘I used to feel so scared going to fetch the water because it was often windy and it was frightening because of the waves.’

Christian Aid partner Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies has worked in villages across southwestern Bangladesh such as Minu’s to establish Pani Parishad, or village water councils, which provide community-based approaches to delivering sustainable water solutions.

Minu did not know she had the power or the voice to change things until she joined the village Pani Parishad. Through the Pani Parishad, Minu has learned how to safely gather and store rainwater and how to inspire others to do the same.

Taxes aren’t burdens, things to be “relieved” or “sheltered” from: they certainly aren’t there to be dodged. Taxes are an investment in the society you are part of and benefit from. It is time to call time on tax dodging!

Monday, 1 October 2012

Tax Bus Blog Monday: Tax and Theology

This week the Tax Justice Tour comes to Scotland.  This big red London bus is travelling around the UK to promote awareness of tax dodging, it is being managed by Christian Aid and Church Action on Poverty. 

Today I want to write about tax and theology, and to share with you the following ideas, adapted from the joint Church of Scotland – Christian Aid report on the subject, Paying their dues: how tax dodging punishes the poor.

Tax evasion – a challenge to citizenship and discipleship

The conviction that God is sovereign over every part of life, not just our religious or church life, is central to Reformed theology.  There is no division between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’, no ‘no-go areas’ for discipleship.  The Church of Scotland has always held that our politics and economics are as much legitimate arenas for our Christian faith and practice as our prayer lives.

Widescale tax dodging, whether legal or not, is problematic from a Christian perspective. In a democracy, citizens enter into an unspoken contract with regard to taxation. Complain about it as we do, debate appropriate levels as we should, there is an implicit understanding that paying our taxes is part of our civic duty.

Jesus asked hard questions about taxation. He challenged people to make difficult moral decisions, and then live them out as adults who had the capacity for free will. How shall we live? Whom shall we serve? You decide. He asks the same questions of us today. What are your fair dues?

The gospel resistance to taxation was not to the principle.

Rather, it was based on two realities.  First, the taxation system weighed particularly heavily and unjustly on the people who could least afford it.  Jesus’ concern for the poor is central to the gospels; in Matthew 21, we read that he overturned the tables of the money lenders in the temple, where the very poorest were subjected to a kind of loansharking in order to be able to make their temple offerings.  To fulfil the requirements of the law, it was necessary to make sacrifices of small animals, birds or money.  A brisk business trading in these went on, right inside the temple courtyard.  But the poor, the majority, had either to borrow the money to buy the offerings, or couldn’t afford them at all.  If you borrowed, you weren’t in a position to bargain – you just had to take the rate you got and stand a good chance of being fleeced.  So the only choice was either to get into debt to fulfil your obligations, or default on them, find yourself classified among the sinners, and be excluded from the number of the righteous.  You didn’t have to do anything we might consider morally wrong to be a sinner, you just had to be poor.

The second reality was that the taxes were being collected on behalf of an occupying power, the Roman Empire.  Tax collectors were not hated because they collected taxes, but because they were considered to be traitors by doing so for a foreign power.  And they were despised because they were also often engaged in malpractice and extortion.  Tax collecting was franchised – the tax collector paid an amount to the authorities for the contract to collect money.  Whatever he collected over and above the due amount was up to him.

Corruption was built into the system.

In Matthew 22, a loaded question about taxes was posed to Jesus. It was not just about money, it was about power. Jesus was being confronted here by a rather unlikely alliance. The Pharisees were nationalistic Jews, middle-class anti-Romans. Those of Herod’s party were collaborators with Rome, urbane upper-class people who knew and played the system well, and were adept at managing the compromises involved in sharing power with Rome. The two groups were traditional enemies. But even more than they despised each other, they feared the challenge presented by Jesus, the rural upstart who proclaimed the rule of God, which they purported to represent, and championed the poor. So they put aside their differences in another attempt to trap Jesus and make him stumble before their political power.

They began by trying to flatter Jesus into giving himself away. The question was: ‘Is it against our law to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor or not?’ If Jesus said, ‘pay’, then he would reveal himself as a collaborator, a traitor, and discredit himself in the eyes of most Jews.  If he said, ‘don’t pay’, then he was open to charges of lawlessness and criminality.  Jesus knew they were trying to trap him, so he answered their question with another question.  He asked for a coin. The unspoken implication was that he did not have one himself, and if he had no money, then he wouldn’t be paying any taxes.  But he never actually said so.  When the coin was produced, he asked them to describe it.  The face was the Roman Emperor, the inscription underneath ‘Son of the Divine’, blasphemy to any devout Jew.  The claims of Caesar, depicted on his money, were not only economically and politically oppressive, they were idolatrous, claiming an authority which belonged only to God.  But Jesus would not be constrained within the limits of the question he was being asked.  By calling for the coin, Jesus sprung the trap set for him.  And by turning the question back to them, he caught them in their own trap.

Now they were the ones who had to declare themselves.  In his final statement, ‘render to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s, Jesus drew another distinction between himself and the Pharisees.  They talked of paying taxes.  Jesus spoke of ‘giving back’ (and the Greek makes it clear these are different things).  What Jesus referred to was a submission to authority.

This text has sometimes been used to justify a rigid separation of faith and politics, to assert that God and money have nothing to do with each other, that the things of God belong in a spiritual realm while money belongs to a material realm from which faith must keep its difference and its distance.  But Jesus demonstrated that people’s values and motivations, their spirituality, showed up precisely in how they used their money.  And no Jew in Jesus’ audience would divide reality between the power of God and the power of Caesar.  On the contrary, many believed that Caesar had usurped God’s authority and must be driven out by armed revolt.

A spiritual challenge

Jesus’ words presented a huge challenge to his listeners, and they still do to us today.  Were the Pharisees, in their opposition to paying taxes, driven not just by nationalistic fervour but by their own love of money and indifference to the plight of the poor, whom they subjected to religious exclusion?  Were the Herodians really motivated by concern for good order and the safety of their fellow Jews, or rather by the power and influence their collaboration gave them?

Were the onlookers looking for easy answers from the party that would tell them what to do and save them having to make hard moral choices themselves?  Jesus’ words and actions depict a very subtle position.  He accepted neither the authority of the Sanhedrin, the religious power, nor that of Rome, the military power.  But neither did he sanction open, and certainly not armed, revolution. He changed the terms of reference, and questioned the very nature and legitimacy of authority.  Money, good order, political influence – all have a claim and a role.  But all are subject to the authority of God, to God’s justice and mercy, and that meant a radical reordering in favour of the poor and dispossessed.  If money was your god, you needed to be liberated from that attachment; if power, then that too was a chain.  And in the face of all these competing claims, no one was going to allow you to shake off your responsibility and hide behind others.  You had to decide for yourself as to the weighting you gave each of these claims.  And your choices would show up what your spirituality really was.

In the context of deep poverty and insecurity for the vast majority of the peasant population, disturbance and dissatisfaction were rife.  As Kenneth Leech writes: ‘The climate of colonial rule, oppressive taxation, accumulating debt and bankruptcy, forced migration and revolutionary uprisings, formed the background to Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God.’

His call resonates today with as much relevance.  Tax evasion by wealthy and powerful companies and individuals causes grief to those who can least tolerate it, misery to those who have more than enough share in that. Proper taxation is an investment into the communities we are a part of, whose flourishing means we too can flourish.  Companies who take advantage by embracing the benefits of a country and then refusing to put anything back into them are as guilty as the tax collectors and collaborators in Jesus’ day.  The characters may have switched places, but the result is the same: misery for those who have no way to fight back. Join Christian Aid in fighting for them.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Even the hairs on your head are all counted

The human genome is pretty amazing: it’s made up of 24 chromosomes, which between them contain about 30,000 genes, made up of over 3000 million bits (called “bases”). That's a lot of bases: if I were to count one of these bases every second, it would take me 100 years to count them all. And that’s inside essentially every one of the 50 trillion cells in your body.
It has been reported this week, in what is likely to be a very major outcome from the Human Genome Project, that it now seems that around 80% or so of the human genome is functional in one way or another. Whilst many people would assume that all of the human genome would be doing something, until very recently scientists thought this was not the case. Indeed, it has been known for some time that only about 2-3% of the human genome actually contained information that led to the production of protein molecules and thus to all the components of the body, whilst a further small percentage was involved in keeping the chromosomes structurally intact and still a further small percentage in the regulation of the activities of genes. The remainder of the genome was routinely referred to as ‘junk DNA’.

This latest discovery not only signals that the term ‘junk DNA’ must itself be junked, but also vastly revises the proportion of the genome involved in regulatory activities - scientists have identified about four million genetic 'switches' that modulate the activities of genes, and many of them are associated with changes of risk in disease, diseases as diverse as heart disease, diabetes and mental illness. This opens up whole new avenues of research into these diseases and thus may be very important in developing new therapies and preventative strategies, which is clearly to be welcomed. However, previously expressed concerns about genetic selection and/or modification do, of course, remain valid.

We still have a lot to learn about what it means to be human, but the Psalmist was certainly right when he wrote: “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. (Psalm 139:14)

Monday, 24 September 2012

From here to Korea

The Moderator’s recent blog post from Korea highlights the Church of Scotland’s partnership with the wider Christian family across the world. 

He also pays tribute to the Scottish missionary John Ross who helped to translate the New Testament into Korean, which is being marked this year as the Church in Korea celebrates its centenary.

South Korea’s economic development since the 1950s has been remarkable, though there is a shared realisation in Scotland as well as Korea and indeed around the world that economic growth needs to take account of environmental sustainability.  The issue of renewable energy in Korea will be raised by the Moderator at the Korean Church’s General Assembly.

The occasion of the anniversary, coinciding with the Moderator’s visit, has even been the inspiration for a motion in the Scottish Parliament proposed by Rhoda Grant MSP, a member for the Highlands and Islands region:

*S4M-04162 Rhoda Grant: Recognition for Ross-shire Minister for Christian Work in Korea—That the Parliament recognises the significance of the work of the Scottish missionary, Rev John Ross, originally of Ross-shire, in his contribution to translating the New Testament into Korean, leaving a lasting legacy for Christians in Korea; wishes the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland well as he joins the General Assembly of the Korean Church in celebrating its 100th anniversary; understands that the Moderator, Right Rev Albert Bogle, will address the General Assembly of the Korean Church on issues relating to renewable energy policy, and considers that both Scotland and Korea play a significant contribution in promoting renewable energy policy.

Friday, 21 September 2012

21 September – a day of prayer for peace

Today is the UN International Day of Peace, and the World Council of Churches Day of Prayer for Peace.  21 September is increasingly being established in the Church calendar as a day of reflection and action for a more peaceful and just world.

The focus for this year’s Peacemaking Sunday is around global attempts to introduce an Arms Trade Treaty, which has been the focus of campaigns for many years and which has been strongly supported by the Churches.

As the conflict in Syria continues, it is right that we take time to stop and remind ourselves of the importance of peace, the complexity of securing it, and how lucky we are to live where there is peace.

This prayer is taken from the Peacemaking Sunday resources, and is a prayer for peacemakers:

A prayer for peacemakers everywhere...
Lord, we pray for all those people who in the coming week will try to be the means of bringing peace to situations of conflict and confusion.

We pray for politicians and leaders who are working to bring warring countries and factions to the negotiating table. We especially remember the work of the United Nations. We ask for wisdom and insight for deal makers In the corridors of power, we ask for protection for the 17 UN peace operations deployed across the globe. We pray for safe and successful missions in Haiti, the Western Sahara, Liberia, the Ivory Coast, the Congo, Sudan, Kosovo, Cyprus, Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and East Timor.

We pray for countries where democracy is fragile and the rule of law is vulnerable.

We pray for ACAS, and their work in the UK to mediate where there are disputes within the workplace.

We pray for counsellors, trying to bring reconciliation to families where husbands are divided from wives, and one generation estranged from another.

We pray for our own churches. We ask for your forgiveness for our petty fallings out, for our very public disputes about how we interpret Scripture and about how we hold holiness and inclusiveness in tension.

Finally, Lord, where there is conflict in our own lives, perhaps even in our own hearts, may we become more submissive to you and the ways in which you call us to live, which are always the best. Amen.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

In the corridors of power

One of the privileges of being Convener of the Church of Scotland’s Church and Society Council is that people want to talk. 

As my family, colleagues and congregation will testify, I like talking.

This week I have been able to meet with Dr Alasdair Allan MSP, minister for Science in the Scottish Government, and with Johann Lamont MSP, leader of the Scottish Labour Party. 

After I took up this role in May I wrote them – and lots of other people – to introduce myself and the work of the Church.  Alasdair and Johann asked to meet, to talk and reflect together as colleagues and people I’ll need to work with for the next four years.

So this week I was down in the Scottish Parliament twice, once on Tuesday and again on Wednesday.  What a fantastic and inspiring place that is! 

The Council's work is seen through the lens of the Gospel bias to vulnerable, marginalised and poorest people.  So when I meet politicians and influence-shapers, this is the message I want to get across to them: the love of God is open to all, and to follow Christ is to show love to all.  In terms of policy making and political process, this means equality, fairness, justice and help to those who need it most.

I realise that my role in speaking on behalf of the Church in the political world is a privilege – having half a million members behind me is both massively uplifting and incredibly daunting!  But I am assured that serious politicians take the Church seriously – not because it is big, but because of what it does in terms of serving others, and for the values of love, generosity and graciousness that are at the heart of what we do.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

A right royal stooshie; but is it a real priority?

The Earl and Countess of Strathearn (Kate Middleton and Prince William to you and me), have been at the centre of the world’s media attention in the past fortnight. 

The embarrassment, and questions about privacy which has dogged them, has dominated the news. Such an invasion of privacy is apalling and our fascination with a young couple's private moments (and private parts) is a sad indictment.

But seriously, aren't there things that should grab the world's attention more? I think so, and strangely, it isn't even five steps away from the headline that has dominated.  

On their travels, the couple visited the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu, a member of the Commonwealth and which has Queen Elizabeth as head of state, as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

Tuvalu is a low-lying collection of atolls and islands, the highest altitude is just 4.6 metres above sea level.  This means Tuvalu is extremely vulnerable to rising sea levels caused by climate change.  Some people suggest that Tuvalu will be uninhabitable in the next hundred years.

Rev. Tafue Lusama, General  Secretary of the Church in Tuvalu, has sent a message to Churches in Scotland about the visit of William and Kate:

‘We are hoping that this visit will further serve as an opportunity for them to be exposed to the fate that we are in and experience what we are experiencing due to the negative impacts of Climate Change.’

Please share the story of the people of Tuvalu, and next time you get into a conversation about the private lives of the royal family, think again about the sad prospects for the people of Tuvalu, whose way of life, culture and nationality are under threat. 

Please continue to pray for the victims of climate change and for the future of the people of Tuvalu, whose culture, way of life and nationality are on the verge of extinction.  Resources for marking Creation Time (1 September to 4 October) are available on the Church of Scotland website.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Black Wednesday

The date, 16 September 1992, exactly 20 years ago, on which the British Government was forced to remove the Pound Sterling from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). Britain had joined the system for maintaining fixed exchange rates only a few years earlier but high inflation and poor economic management rendered it untenable and Britain’s exit was the start of a serious recession which led to business failures on a large scale and a major crash in the housing market that left many people with negative equity on their mortgages.

This event came hard on the heels of problems in the corporate world-BCCI, Polly Peck and Maxwell Communications gave the impression that all was not well in the seats of economic and political power.

Various policy initiatives and corporate re-structuring were introduced to address the difficulties but, although they had some success-inflation was brought under control, they did not remove the types of risk from our economic life that led to a series of major problems including the split capital investment fiasco and, more recently, the worst financial crisis since the 1930s.

Arrogance, ignorance and greed continue to be major driving factors in our economic and social lives. It is time for a serious re-think.. Black Wednesday, despite its costs, changed little. It would be a mistake to let the current crisis pass without learning its lessons.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Jobs and Numbers

Sometimes numbers can dazzle, sometimes they tell a story that causes real concern. Adventure (or exploration) and independence, are essential parts of growing up and growing into work. These are some of the crucial elements being denied Scottish young people because they cannot find real job opportunities, opportunities that give them experiences that foster a sense of purpose and responsibility.

The number of unemployed young people is a figure which is so great that it’s hard to grasp. Yet for each individual, there is a story to be told. Countless stories of the difficulty of finding employment and the knock-on effect of unemployment amongst a whole generation of young people could fill every page of today’s newspapers, and more.

The continued trend of the high numbers of young people out of work is very concerning. And yesterday, yet another survey showed that in spite of recent improvements, Scotland’s general employment outlook is lagging behind the rest of the UK. Compounded with today’s labour market statistics, this demonstrates that this is a continuing issue which isn’t going to go away in the near future.

The problem here is not just the wages that are not being earned, but the opportunities that are being denied.  Unemployed young people are not being granted the opportunity to experience a working life and all the challenges and rewards that this presents.  The first few years of a working life are often the most formative, building self-confidence, developing new skills and discovering talents, as well as the offering the chance to gain experience of working alongside people you might otherwise never have the chance to meet.

For thousands of young people, the prospect of developing and maturing as an adult and as a citizen is being denied. This surely has to be the real worry behind the headline-grabbing figures.  The sheer number of young people who are out of work is a very real demonstration of the reality of today’s so-called austerity measures.  But what this will mean for the rest of society in years to come, when this generation’s collective out of work experience makes its very real impact, is far more difficult to gauge.

Monday, 10 September 2012

End-game for tobacco?

When you think about it, the steps they are taking may be extreme, but so is the situation.
Tobacco is essentially the only drug which, when used as recommended by the manufacturers, causes cancer, increases your chances for heart disease exponentially,  worsens asthma, and doesn’t do wonders for your oral hygiene either! 
Its effects cost the NHS billions every year – 100,000 deaths in the UK every year are directly caused by smoking. The medical evidence for the damage it causes is irrefutable. If tobacco was a new drug, it would probably not be legal! I have to say that I was encouraged to read that Tasmania, not content with laws insisting that cigarettes must be sold in plain packages, has been discussing banning tobacco products altogether
Some will argue that this is another step in the unfair persecution of smokers, and that to do so would risk a radical shift to illicit tobacco sales.  Some would prefer that we in Scotland (which, lets not forget, was the first part of the UK to ban smoking in enclosed public spaces - which many people said would never work) should instead follow suit with Australia and move to plain packaging, or perhaps to smoke-free cars or banning smoking in more and more places (including hospital grounds and playparks). 
I think that all these ideas have merit and we should explore any and all ways that we can work to rid our air space of this toxin. But you’ve got to give the Tasmania solution - to prohibit tobacco sales to everyone born after 2000, so creating a 'smoke-free generaration' - some consideration; by allowing the continued sale of tobacco are we putting future generations at risk? Maybe it's time that we realised that this noxious, addictive weed causes so much harm that its place in a civilised society needs to be seriously questioned.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Child Poverty - It Shouldn't Happen Here

I was shocked to hear the news today that there are 3.5 million children living in poverty in the UK.  And the figures are set to soar in the coming years. 

Today Save the Children has published its report ‘Child Poverty in the UK in 2012: It Shouldn’t Happen Here’, which has found that the UK’s poorest children are bearing the brunt of the recession. 

The report is based on a survey of parents and children, and I welcome the opportunity to expose the voices which are so often hidden from the debate which rages over the economy.  One of the most telling things which it has exposed is the extent to which children are aware of financial hardship. 

The Coalition Government says it is committed to eradicating child poverty by 2020, but it’s difficult to see the evidence of this when figures like these are revealed. 

I’m pleased to see children and families getting a voice through this report, but it just shows the impact which austerity measures are having.  It’s difficult to believe that children in the UK are going to school hungry, without adequate clothing, every day.  We must do all we can to help those without a voice. 

That’s why I support the proposals for not just a minimum wage, but a living wage.  I welcome the consultation into the Living Wage (Scotland) Bill and look forward to contributing to this in the next few weeks.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Welcome to Creation Time

When I was growing up, we were constantly reminded to "leave a place better than you found it" - so when we were invited to dinner at somebody's house, we were expected to help with the dishes, when we went on a picnic or a walk, part of the fun was seeing how much rubbish you could pick up. And even if it wasn't your personal mess, it was still a mess, so why shouldn't you be the one to help sort it out! Leaving a place better than you found it - sound advice. 

The start of September signals the beginning of Creation Time, an ecumenical church season when Christians are encouraged to think, pray and act on issues relating to the environment, nature and the created world.

There are many reasons why Christians need to be aware of and involved in environmental issues.  For me it isn’t just a matter of heeding the scientific evidence that without our action on carbon emissions, the effects of climate change will be devastating.   That’s really a given, and you don’t need to have faith to get it.  For me, there remains a much stronger, and much older, cause, which is that the earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it. 

We have a sacred trust and responsibility to care for the planet.  But also as we ourselves are part of creation we need to be more aware of how our actions, decisions and choices impact on the waters, air, plants, animals and human beings that we share this world with. 

Friday, 31 August 2012

Threats to Church property in Romania

This week I have learned about a recent court judgement in Romania which has taken property away from the Church and given it to the state.

The history of Church property in Romania was very difficult in the 20th Century, as after the war the Communist regime nationalised religious land and buildings.  Church property was eventually restored to its original owners in 1999. 

I have been concerned to learn in recent weeks that the Romanian government have been apparently successful in their attempts to take back a High School in Sepsiszentgyörgy, owned by the Hungarian-speaking Reformed Church (Transylvanian Reformed Church District), who are partners of the Church of Scotland.

What is most concerning is that this action appears to be targeting a minority, as the Transylvanian Reformed Church is Hungarian-speaking, and has a different culture, ethnicity and tradition from the majority of Romanians.

There is a key article outlining the history of the case on the Reformed Church of Hungary website:

A demonstration is taking place on Saturday 1 September at the High School.  I and Alan Falconer, Convener of the Ecumenical Relations Committee, have sent this message to Bishop Dr Géza Pap of the Transylvanian Reformed Church District:

Friday 31 August 2012

Dear Dr Pap,

We are distressed and concerned to learn of the decisions of the Romanian courts with regard to the ownership of Székely Mikó Reformed High School in Sepsiszentgyörgy.

The long and troubled history of Church property ownership in your country in the Twentieth Century had, we hoped – as certainly you had hoped too – been resolved in 1999 with the restitution of property to its rightful owners. 

We share the pain and fear expressed by the resolution of the Transylvannian Reformed Church District’s General Assembly, in that the rule of law, protection of minorities and the upholding of human rights appear to be in jeopardy as a result of this action.

Please convey our thoughts and prayers to our sisters and brothers during this difficult time. 

We will raise this issue within the Church of Scotland and ask for our congregations to pray for reconciliation and human rights in your country. 

We will send this message too to the Romanian Consul in Edinburgh, the UK Foreign Office and Members of the European Parliament representing Scotland.  It is of deepest concern that such vexatious legal challenges are being brought and unjust penalties imposed, flying in the face of reason and justice, and that this is happening within the European Union. 

Please keep us informed of developments,

Yours in our continued spirit of solidarity and friendship,
Alan Falconer
Sally Foster-Fulton

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Paralympics and Super Humans

During the Olympics, our screens were filled with sportsmen and women pushing their bodies to the limit, and achieving amazing feats of speed, distance and endurance. Perhaps more amazing still are the athletes now gathering to participate in the Paralympic games, who don’t let “disability” or "different ability" to stand in the way of their sporting achievements.

For most of the athletes, their results are a mixture of determination, training, sheer hard work and raw talent honed through years of commitment. It is an inspiration! The pressure consistently placed on them for years for one brief moment, it must be incredibly tempting to use any advantage to give your chances a boost.

Inevitably and sadly, the potential benefits of winning a medal, and that desire for personal and national glory, mean that some may be tempted to resort to non-legitimate ways of gaining advantage over their rivals- performance enhancing drugs, for example. The news during the Tour De France and the Olympics was spattered with accusations (and occasional incidents) of abuse and it tarnished some of the excitement and enthusiasm. It made me sorry for the athletes who work so hard for so long, who give their all to a sport and play fair. It also made me reflect on the pressure we all feel to be "perfect" and the lengths we are tempted to go sometimes to chase that elusive ideal.

Many of us have benefitted from medical technologies which have benefitted our quality of life-  whether that be hip replacements, heart pacemakers or just reading glasses. I'm a diabetic and wear an insulin pump - it has radically enhanced my everyday life, and I am grateful to the science that makes it and things like it possible.

Most of these technologies are currently used in a medical context, to restore us to a normal, healthy state.  However, some people (particularly within the military) would like advocate going a stage further- to begin use technology to give humans abilities which we don’t currently have: for example, infra- red vision, which would allow us to “see in the dark”.

How far down the road of building “better” humans should we contemplate going using technology and medical science? Of course, just being fastest or strongest doesn’t necessarily make us better people. In fact, paradoxically, it is often through our most difficult struggles that we find a deeper strength of character and the presence of God in others who support and sustain us.  Complexity is part of being human and oftentimes what we perceive we as "strength" and "weakness".

Are we beginning to subscribe to an ideology that says " there is one brand of beautiful and we can all be sculpted into shape?" Like the athletes who find that the extraordinary pressure to win leads them to compromise who they are and what they stand for, are we aware of the pressure we place on each other to conform to a model, no matter the cost?  Hopefully the Paralympic athletes will be an example and inspiration to us all, in that pushing ourselves to be the best that we can be is part of what makes us human, but what also makes us human is our beautiful diversity.

Let that be an achievement worth celebrating!

Monday, 27 August 2012

Banking ethics: a few bad apples or rotten to the core?

 What has been the problem with our financial services sector?  It seems that so many of our present woes can be connected with it – from the housing bubble to the credit crunch, the Eurozone crisis and currency speculation to the dodgy marketing and selling of PPI and mortgages.  The LIBOR fixing scandal seems to be just the latest in this sad litany of disasters which have transformed the public perception of bankers to something akin to – or maybe even worse than – politicians with duck-houses or phone-hacking journalists.

There has been a lot of finger-pointing and blaming going on, but I don’t really see much purpose in trying to apportion blame to anyone. When it comes to human nature, I’m a bit more optimistic. I do not believe that there are really so many bankers who are all so deceitful and manipulative that they would deliberately go out to do wrong. 

What I think is more helpful and more constructive is offering suggestions for the future to do our best to prevent future harm and where necessary to reconcile and restore trust in the ability of financial services to create wealth in a way which is consistent with an ethical framework which we can all agree on.

The Church and Society Council has recently done this in its submission to the Westminster Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards.  The Council has urged the City to consider its values and the devastating implications of putting profit before ethics, and suggested that taking excessive risk should become a criminal offence.

The way in which our economy is structured means that many people are marginalised by market forces, and this is of concern to the church.

Banks are not simply businesses, but provide an essential economic service fundamental to how we operate as a society. 

It is necessary that they operate on principles which are driven not simply by profit, but take cognisance of the wider effects which their actions have on society, especially the most vulnerable.  

The Council has said that excessive risk-taking should become a criminal offence as many people at the top in banking have reaped rich financial rewards with no threat of prosecution  when their actions do harm to the consumers they are meant to serve. 

In addition, we feel that non- executive directors should also be liable to sanction in the event of their failure of provide proper oversight.

Our response also challenges tax havens, argues for more effective supervision of Chief Executives through improved auditing and the presence of more shareholder and employee representatives on Boards, calls for the end of the present ‘bonus culture,’ and recommends changes to the Financial Services & Markets Act 2000 to permit all victims of mis-selling to obtain proper redress through the courts.

Earlier this year, the Church of Scotland’s Commission on the Purposes of Economic Activity published its final report.  The thirteen member commission comprised people with expertise from the fields of business and economics, church and community, politics and trade unionism.  In their report they argue that it is necessary to:
  • Reduce inequality
  • End poverty
  • Ensure sustainability
  • Promote mutuality