Page 10, 13th April 2007

13th April 2007
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Page 10, 13th April 2007 — Christian in-fighting stokes the embers of sectarianism
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Christian in-fighting stokes the embers of sectarianism

When our ecumenical partners call for the abolition of Catholic schools they unwittingly align themselves with the destructive forces of secularism, argues the composer James MacMillan 0 n Bums' Night this year hundreds of Christians abandoned their traditional haggis suppers for an evening of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs at St Mary's Episcopal Cathedral, Glasgow. This ecumenical event, organised by the West End branch of Action of Churches Together in Scotland (ACTS), was a celebration of Christian music across the cultures, led by the Iona Community's renowned liturgist John Bell and myself. It was one of the most moving multi-denominational events I have experienced. Taking place during Christian unity week, it manifested its central theme in a reading from St Paul's Letter to the Corinthians: "Christ is like a single body which has many organs. It is still one body though made of different parts. Therefore the foot cannot say: 'I am not part of the body." Nor can the ear say: 'I am not part of the body.' The eye cannot say to the hand: `I don't need you.' Nor can the head say to the feet: 'I don't need you.' If one part of the body is hurt, all parts are hurt with it."

There are a number of varying perspectives on the scourge of sectarianism in Scotland, and how to combat it. The fact that there is no clear consensus on the causes and the solutions is one of the main stumbling blocks in tackling the problem. It has been shown. statistically, that Scottish Catholics are more likely to suffer sectarian abuse, violence and prejudice than others in Scotland. However, many seem to be deaf and immune to this evidence, and continue to attempt the hijacking of the debate, to spin it into an snack on "organised religion", and on faith schools in particular. It is clear that the majority of these opportunists are secular humanists. keen to find another stick with which to beat the faith communities. But in their crusade against Catholic schools they have been joined by, to English readers, some very surprising allies indeed.

One crucial fundamental in the Christian response to this problem has to lie in the words by St Paul quoted above. The Catholic Church is now seen as the main enemy by the forces of an increasingly aggressive secular humanism. Defeat Catholicism, and the campaign to banish religion from the public square is more or less won, goes the atheistic thinking nowadays. Many Christians in other denominadons realise this. The inspiring display of solidarity by Anglican Archbishops Williams and Sentamu over the issue of freedom of conscience for Catholic adoption agencies is one such example of how contemporary Christians can respond to Paul's words: "If one part of the body is hurt, all parts are hurt with it." As Glasgow's Archbishop Conti said recently: "If truth and consequently religion, are considered a purely private matter, and if one's truth and religion are merely subjective then there is no ground on which to build a coherent social order, nor indeed a cohesive and inclusive community, and that applies to the Church as it does to society in general. It is secularism that feeds sectarianism, strange as that may sound to those who would scapegoat religion."

It is indeed among the unchurched that religious bigotry, in its rawest state, seems to thrive the most. Great strides have been made in building closer ecumenical unity and friendship among Scotland's Catholic community and the various Protestant denominations. And yet, there still seem to be some insurmountable hurdles preventing this ecumenism from seeming genuine and potent.

It is worrying to observe how easily some church leaders find common ground with the secular elites on some issues. The Oxford theologian Mister McGrath explores this in his masterly analysis of the decline of disbelief in the modem world, The Twilight of Atheism. In a chapter entitled "The Suicide of Liberal Christianity" he locates a crisis of confidence in the intellectual leadership of mainline, mostly American. Protestant denominations, dating back to the 1960s.

Self-styled "advanced" Christian thinkers had been persuaded that most orthodox ways of understanding the divine were oldhat. "Convinced that nobody (well, nobody who really mattered that is) could believe in a transcendent God any more, revisionist theologians launched a makeover of their faith. Ideas such as eternal life, Resurrec tion. "a God out thereand any sense of the mysterious were unceremoniously junked as decrepit embarrassments."

In attempts to curry favour with the increasingly powerful "progressive and liberal" political classes, mainline church leaders on both sides of the Atlantic have argued that Christianity needed to ditch its outmoded ideas if it was to survive. However, history has proved them wrong. Liberal denominations continue to suffer a massive loss of members while congregations derided as traditional (in Protestant terms) have blossomed. The 1960s-inspired radicalism of present-day church leaders has been fatally compromised by the death of modernism and the rise of postmodemity. The modish liberal ideas of the 1960s and the 1970s went out of fashion very quickly. Nowadays, a more authentic and truly coun tercultural Christian Church radicalism is embodied in the words of Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger.

The church students of the 1960s, lapping up the transient trendiness of the times, have now ascended into positions of influence in many denominations. It is not only Catholics who are worried about this. Browsing the website of Forward Together. a Church of Scotland group committed to core values of Christian belief, one discovers a growing resentment at the way their church leadership is going. For example, the cloning of human embryos so that they can be destroyed by biomedical researchers was approved at the Church's General Assembly in May 2006. In so doing, the Church of Scotland is now on a collision course with almost all expressions of church opinion around the globe. The Kirk is the only established church in the world to have endorsed such an unethical practice.

The foot cannot say: "I am not part of the body."

Another case of the Kirk losing its ecumenical way is in the sphere of education. In the last few years I have attended a number of multi-denominational conferences in England where Anglican and Methodist educational spokespeople have voiced their outrage to me at the Kirk's opposition to Catholic schools in Scotland. They cannot understand why Christian would attack Christian on this matter. The idea of Anglican leaders calling for the closure of Catholic schools south of the border is unthinkable. Yet up here, the present Moderator of the Church of Scotland, Alan McDonald, told the Sunday limes recently: "The system of separate schools was started in a very 'different context in a different time. It is a different time now." And he added chillingly: "It is a different Scotland."

And the Moderator-designate Sheilagh Kesting, who takes over next month, is quoted as saying that she "would prefer that there were no faith schools and there were broad-based state schools for everybody". For broad-based, read secular. English Protestant leaders are amazed at this: a church leader coils for the end of faith schools! As they belong to another denomination, in no definition could this be described as ecumenical behaviour. In fact, the astoundingly anti-ecumenical nature of these views from the Moderators should cause the Catholic Church to pause and reflect on the value of continuing with ACTS. If the Scottish version of ecumenism is nothing more than rhetoric and oneupmanship, then we need a new ecumenism.

The eye cannot say to the hand: "I don't need you."

In throwing their lot in with the secular opponents of Christian education. the Kirk leadership seems to be paving the way for a time when Christianity is but a faded memory in our culture. Is this how they truly regard the Christian Church? Are we as irrelevant or as dangerous as they feverishly imagine?

The foot cannot say: "I am not part of the body."

Luckily, not all Kirk spokespeople take this disappointingly unfriendly view. A previous Moderator, Andrew McLennan, was a wholehearted supporter of our schools his wife was a teacher in one. Discovering the ethos of Catholic education with an open mind can be a truly positive learning experience for many. (The angry and blinkered tone of much of the anti-faith schools argument would be seriously ameliorated if our opponents could visit their local Catholic school as part of their researches.) Another great Protestant supporter is minister Ron Ferguson, one time eader of the Iona Community and now a columnist in Glasgow's Herald newspaper, who writes with fairness and understanding on this matter. Any damage done by McDonald and Kesting has been partially healed by another intervention in the Herald recently from Cameron Harrison, a former chief executive of the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum, and recently ordained as a minister. "You stick up for your Catholic schools. In fact, if it helps, let's say it explicitly and authoritatively the evidence is that, on average, Catholic schools are better, and that's the blunt truth. And, judging by the queues of non-Catholic, middle-class parents enrolling their children at my local Catholic primary, you won't want for support."

This is ecumenism in action. This is how to fight sectarianism. McDonald, Kesting and others need to be reminded of Archbishop Conti's wards that "it is secularism that feeds sectarianism". The Kirk leadership needs to rediscover who its real friends are. When the liberal elites get tired of their useful patsies, -we will still be here, waiting with open arms and open hearts.

"Christ is like a single body which has many organs. If one part of the body is praised. all others share its happiness."

This is a revised version of an article that first appeared in our sister paper. the Scottish Catholic Observer




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