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

Monday, 13 August 2012

The Medals Race vs the Human Race

We've made it through the Olympics.

I don't know about you, but I've been a bit bleary-eyed in the mornings because the only time I can catch up is right at the end of play, and once you start watching, it gets a wee bit addictive! The Opening Ceremony was particularly spectacular - it struck the perfect note, being just eccentric enough to be thoroughly British; yet open, and embracing the core purpose of the Games: the coming together of Nations.

I found myself wishing we could hang on a little harder to that core principle.  I must admit to getting weary listening to commentators going on and on about the "medals' race" - and I wonder what would happen if we put everybody in a "Global" kit and let them compete, not for the pride of one country but simply and completely for the joy of a world-wide community. What a celebration!

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

A Healthy Relationship

July in Dunblane means a lot of weddings in the Cathedral and I must admit I'm a sucker for romance!  I'm always a bit humbled by the commitment it takes to walk down that aisle and make those promises.

Maybe that' s why the comments regarding relationship in the media over the last wee while resonated with me particularly. And while I don’t want to take a shot over anyone’s bow, I do want to unpack some thoughts I've been having about the power of relationship.

To my mind, there is nothing healthier for a human being than a committed, loving, stable and nurturing relationship with another person. To have another to hold you, support you, gently warn you when your ego might take you one step too far, or push you when you hit neutral and want to park in a comfort zone you might get stuck in, is one of the greatest kindnesses God ever gave us.

I have seen committed, loving, stable relationships be the glue that has helped to hold folk together when their world was teetering in uncertainty.  I personally know that my marriage has been the foundation that has kept my feet on the ground and let my dreams take flight.  In every story told of Jesus, he was breaking down barriers and building bridges so that we could find each other and forge relationship.

We must be careful, very careful indeed, to uphold the foundation that all human beings build best from - committed, stable, loving, nurturing relationships. They are our common ground, our best starting point and the healthiest way to be.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Cuts for wind farm funding, tax breaks for gas

It is with some disquiet I have read reports of Treasury attempts to weaken the UK government’s commitment to its climate change targets.   

The Church of Scotland values the commitments made by both the UK and Scottish Governments and strongly supports the leading international role both governments have taken.  The climate change legislation of both governments should be a source of pride.

However the UK Government Department of Energy and Climate Change, under pressure from the Treasury, has confirmed a 10 per cent cut in payments for new wind farms and it is possible that more cuts could be made following a review in 2013/14.  At the same time the Treasury announced that some new gas fields will be exempt from tax, prompting a commitment by Centrica to invest more in North Sea gas exploration. 

This may appear to be a quick cheap fix but is one that will almost certainly make our climate change targets more difficult if not impossible to reach; and will prolong our dependence on carbon fuel sources. 

Do we have to use all the gas in the North Sea before we make renewables the main source of our energy? I fear this may be the case and that the UK Treasury considers climate change with all its long term consequences less important than cutting the cost of gas.  What kind of message this sends out to business, to people across the UK and to the world is not comforting

Friday, 3 August 2012

How we measure greatness

Like many folk I have been caught up in the excitement of the Olympics. So much raw talent and humbling dedication goes onto the making of these athletes, the chance for victory and the risk of failure are so closely knitted that the courage of competing is itself simply breathtaking. As a nation, I hope we keep the focus on the human achievement that simply being in the Olympics represents and we don't succumb to the temptation of measuring success in medals and broken records.   

In the global arena, my hope is similar: that we measure greatness not in glory, strength, medal tallies or power, but by looking at giving, selflessness and acts of love.

Which is why I was so impressed by the Scottish Government's announcement that every school in Scotland will be sent a copy of the film 'Chariots of Fire'. This oscar-award winning movie charts the life of one of Scotland's greatest Olympians - Eric Liddell. He won gold in the 400m at the 1924 Games but is remembered because be refused to run his favoured event because it was on a Sunday. I must admit that I had trouble getting my head around that decision, but after reading more about his life, I realised that his decision about that race was based on a life-long commitment to a certain way of living - not through the routine following of religiosity but by living his faith in a way which still inspires us today.  Perhaps the greatest act of this courageous man was his final decision to give up his chance to leave an horrendous prisoner of war camp, instead giving up his place to a pregnant woman. 

C. S. Lewis once wrote: "People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, 'If you keep a lot of rules I'll reward you, and if you don't I'll do the other thing.' I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature."

The message of the Olympic Games is that the most important thing is not to win, but to take part with all your being. If we all play our part in the world like that, then we show each other what it means to be great.