Tuesday, 26 June 2012

It’s not about politics but a conversation about the very soul of the nation

An opinion poll commissioned by the Future of Scotland campaign and conducted by Ipsos Mori has received quite a bit of coverage over the weekend.

I found reading the responses to the questions about what type of Scotland people want to live in to be the most fascinating; forget about the mechanics of a particular referendum and instead focusing on what people’s hopes and dreams, visions and aspirations for our common life together in years to come.

Like 94% of respondents saying that it was essential or very important that Scotland is a safe place where law and order are upheld, 88% who agreed it was essential or very important for the future to be a financially successful Scotland where businesses are encouraged.  78% said it was essential or very important that Scotland was a caring place where the most disadvantaged were looked after.

At the other end of the scale the least values that were deemed to be least essential were a secure Scotland where the borders are protected and a powerful Scotland which is respected on the world stage.

What, then do these things tell us? 

Firstly, that these things are important to us regardless of the outcome of the referendum.

Secondly, that peace, prosperity and compassion are, in this poll, the important things that matter.  From a Church perspective I’d say ‘Amen’ to that.

Thirdly, border protection and a powerful nation are not part of the aspirations of the overwhelming majority.  This is surely reflected in many parts of Scottish public life speaking up for asylum seekers and against Trident replacement.

If we can get our Churches, our communities and our politicians talking about these values and visions, then this debate about the referendum need not just be about where power lies, but it should be a conversation about the very soul of the Scottish nation.

Friday, 22 June 2012

They care for others but not themselves

It was a reported at the weekend that 40 per cent of unpaid carers are ‘putting their own health at risk’ in Scotland. As many as two in five kinship carers are sacrificing their own health by putting off medical treatment because they are looking after someone full time.

There is growing evidence that many carers delay preventative treatments including cancer screening because they have caring responsibilities and feel they cannot take the time out to attend. This is having a negative impact on the health of almost nine out of ten carers in Scotland. In addition many have suffered a physical injury such as back pain through caring for someone ill, frail or disabled but have not always sought the full medical support and treatment that they require.

What can we do for the more than 650,000 kinship carers in Scotland who are at risk? They are the embodiment of the values we as a faith community uphold - selflessness, love, and consistent compassion. They deserve not only our respect, but our active and practical support. The Church of Scotland is in a prime position to offer assistance on the ground - volunteers offering to step in so carers can attend appointments or providing additional support for families when a carer is unwell. We can be pastorally being attuned to the struggles they daily encounter and we can be advocates for more support and funding from
the statutory providers at the centre. Kinship carers save the government millions of pounds, but more importantly, they give the gift of love and dignity. Because of their care, people are given the opportunity to stay at home and be as independent as they can for as long as they can.

The Church of Scotland recognises this as being a critical issue for society today. Therefore
we will be taking a report to the 2013 General Assembly on the subject of Kinship Carers and the challenges they face.

We have a duty - no, a privilege, to care for those who care!

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Difficult decisions

A few years ago I read a book called ‘The diving bell and the butterfly’, an extraordinary
Autobiography by a man named Jean-Dominic Bauby.

Jean-Dominic Bauby had been busy living his life. At 43years old, the Editor of Elle magazine in France - he had friends, two children and a new partner he loved. He was doing what we all do, living his life. Then with no warning he had a massive stroke that left him ‘locked in’ his body and his busy life came crashing down around him. After 20 days in a coma, he woke up to find that the only thing he could move was his left eyelid. Although perfectly lucid, all his thoughts, his ideas and his dreams were trapped, and the only way he could communicate was by winking. His friends found a way to communicate with him by saying the alphabet and he would wink when they reached the letter he wanted. The entire book was written this way and it opens a door and invites you into a place nobody would want to go. It is gut-wrenching at times, but there is unexpected beauty there too.  At one point, he describes the surprising reality he sometimes glimpses - "my diving bell becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly."

Jean-Dominic Bauby was busy living his life - so was Tony Nicklinson, another victim of ‘locked-in’ syndrome whose struggle we have been following on the news. He is asking for help to die should he decide at some point that life has become unbearable. I cannot imagine how he must feel and would not be arrogant enough to suppose I could begin to.

Whatever the decision made by the legal powers that be, we must not lose sight of the human being behind the headline. For me, there is no greyer area than this... legislation that would lead to relief for Tony Nicklinson could lead someone else in a similar situation to feel a pressure to ‘relieve’ family and friends of the supposed burden of care. The right to die could become, with time and law, a perceived duty to die. Those who are the most vulnerable could become even more-so, life in all its variety could start to be judged on a set of perceived criteria that begins to erode our understanding of common inter-dependence, and so I struggle. I think we all do - and should.

But still I come back to Tony Nicklinson and his life, gifted to him by God. Because we share our fragile human condition, we have to listen. He is in a place nobody would want to go. It is gut-wrenching at times, but I hope there is unexpected beauty there too. Until a decision is made, until the time comes however it comes, I hope he still finds glimpses of the surprising reality Jean-Dominic Bauby described - "my diving bell becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly."

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Food for Thought

I was pleased to read on Eco Congregation’s Blog about the launch of the Sustainable Agriculture Report at the Royal Highland Show.

Our Daily Bread is a major new report that looks at how members of congregations can help to promote Sustainable Agriculture in their local churches and in their lives. The report draws attention to the fact that food provides more than just fuel for the body - a meal sustains us physically, mentally, emotionally and socially.  The report also makes us really think about where our food comes from and the impact of food production in the 21st Century.

If you are at the Royal Highland Show on Thursday 21 June at 3 pm please join us!

Suicide: The Church as a community of carers

I was distressed to read the recent research into the reasons that Scotland has a higher suicide rate than other parts of the UK.

The fact is that, in Scotland, suicide is a major cause of non- natural death, particularly among young men. A young death is always one of the most devastating events for a family, and when that death results from suicide, the tragedy is all the harder to bear. Those with mental health issues are more likely to attempt or complete suicide; other groups at risk include those leaving care, prison or the armed services, and people involved in substance abuse. The care of these vulnerable groups must be at the core of our work as Christians.

Doing all that is possible to prevent the tragedy of death by suicide is an important aspect of the work of the church concerned as we are to share new life and new hope on our journey through life. For us, as Christians, it is our faith, as well as our care and compassion, which calls us to ‘be there’ for, and to help and support those who are contemplating taking their own life. The Church of Scotland General Assembly of 2011 received a report on suicide, particularly among young men.

It is possible to undertake training to become more able to support others who feel desperate or suicidal: among the organisations recommended is Scotland's Mental Health First Aid and we have recommended that churches avail themselves of local courses which are run free from time to time.

The church often becomes involved after a suicide and it is just as important to look at how the church, in its parishes and communities, deals with suicide and with those bereaved by suicide. Bereavement by suicide does not necessarily take longer to heal than any other bereavement. However, there can be some questions in the aftermath of a suicide which make coping with that particular bereavement difficult: Why did this happen? Why could we not stop it? Grief may be mingled with feelings of anger, guilt confusion and shame. Added to these emotional stressors are the involvement of police, the need for a post mortem and the involvement of the Procurator Fiscals Office. Pastoral care for those suffering through this painfully difficult time is a real way the Church can show its "there-ness."

Any suicide, but particularly that of a young person, has a profound effect on the community to which the church seeks to minister. To our shame, the church in Scotland, at both a local and institutional level, has not always dealt with suicide with sufficient compassion. The booklet accompanying the report to the Church of Scotland General Assembly in 2011 has been used by many churches, and is also recommended by some NHS agencies.

I was distressed to read the recent research into the reasons that Scotland has a higher suicide rate than other parts of the UK. Let's do whatever we can to change these alarming statistics

An injustice that will cost lives

For reasons as yet unclear, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) has stopped its financial support for the Al Ahli Anglican Hospital in Gaza City. Moderator Albert Bogle has written to David Cameron to ask for his help in what can only be described as an alarming situation. Without this money the hospital will close and the many thousands of Gazans who rely on it for primary and urgent care and treatment will suffer even more.

The Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East, manages the Al Ahli hospital, providing primary and emergency care without any outside interference or political calculation to the almost exclusively Muslim population in Gaza, and does so without proselytizing or discriminating on the basis of religion, ethnicity, politics, or social identification. It is not an exaggeration to say either that the humanitarian conditions in the Gaza Strip are as severe as any on earth, or that Al Ahli Hospital is a rare and absolutely vital source of genuine good news in that context.

This is an injustice that will cost lives. Something must be done.

Friday, 1 June 2012

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?” So said John Maynard Keynes. 

It's pragmatic, it's realistic, and surely it's something we should all aspire to be able to do? To be flexible and have the courage sometimes to put our hands up and say: "hey, you know what - I got this one wrong."

So a big thanks to our Tory Chancellor George Osborne.  His announcement that he has heeded the advice of charities and philanthropists and decided not to cap tax relief on charitable donations is good news. It's also brave - and when our politicians do the right thing, especially if they know that the media and opposition will have a go at them for changing their mind, then it's really important that this is acknowledged.

The shoes I have to fill taking over from Ian Galloway are big, and it's a role with great challenges. I pray that I might have the sense to know when to stay the course and when my decisions need to change.

As I pray for further changes from George Osborne. As Ian Galloway said in his speech to the General Assembly last week:

"Austerity has a moral, stiff-upper lip quality about it. It sounds like something which might do us all good. The reality is somewhat different: food banks, places for desperate people to find something to eat are opening across the UK at the rate of one every four days. If austerity means that we all have to tighten our belt, and maybe especially those who can most afford it, then so be it. But what is really happening is that the most vulnerable are being punished out of all proportion"

C'mon George: see the facts. Change your mind. Help those who need help most.

Climate justice

I recently read this quote by First Minister Alex Salmond: "The huge injustice of climate change is that it is those who have done the least to cause the problem, the most vulnerable from the world's poorest communities, are those who are hardest hit by it." This was stated on the day the government launched its response to the increasing call for climate justice.

Climate justice is one of those big ideas that just continues to grow. It came out of anger, and is in response to the demands from the poorest nations on Earth. They could see that the rich were destroying the livelihoods of the poor through the reckless use of fossil fuels and the resulting emissions of greenhouse gases. They could see the terrible irony that we in the rich countries are the ones who are the big consumers, and in our greed, we put the Earth at risk and those people in the poorest countries who are least able to defend themselves.

That message was brought to rich countries by churches and development agencies such as Christian Aid and Oxfam.  It is good to see this small but significant response being made in Scotland with the launch of the Scottish Government Climate Justice Fund by Mary Robinson and First Minister Alex Salmond. It is admittedly a small beginning (£3million over three years) and is limited in reach to four African countries (Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Zambia).  But its significance is so much bigger. It is an acknowledgement that our impact on other countries has been profound and that we must address this injustice.

The launch of the fund was marked by a short film to which the church lent its support. The Moderator of the General Assembly, Right Reverend Albert Bogle, contributed briefly to the film, as did other faith leaders. We need to do much more to promote climate justice and we will be happy to work with the Scottish Government to achieve this.

Check out the video.