Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor (right), faces the elders of his Presbyterian Church on Tuesday. His 'crime' was to attend a Catholic requiem Mass. Terence Wynn looks at the background to the clash.
BARELY 18 months have passed since Lord Mackay of Clashfern was appointed Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, but already he has staked a claim for a place in history. He is the first Scot to have come to the office of Lord Chancellor without experience at the English Bar, and his controversial legislation to reform the English legal system, making it possible for solicitors to have audience in the higher courts which until now have been the exclusive preserve of barristers, could identify him as the greatest reforming Lord Chancellor of modern times.
Yet for many observers, Christian and humanist alike, it is his courageous stand for freedom of conscience which has the most compelling significance.
Last November he appeared before the Synod of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, meeting in Glasgow, accused of attending two Requiem Masses in contravention of the rules of this extremely Protestant sect of which he has been a most loyal and dedicated supporter. As a result of the hearing he was banned from holding the office of Elder and from taking communion.
The decision of this ecclesiastical court which put a Lord Chancellor on trial for the first time since Thomas More was subject to appeal and this will be considered when the Synod meets in Inverness next Tuesday.
During the Glasgow hearing Lord Mackay had to sit through the evidence given by his accusers without recourse to cross-examination as would have been his right in a civil or criminal court. He was allowed only to state his case for having attended the Requiems.
His argument would have been accepted by most independent observers in these enlightened times, namely that he wished to pay honour to the memory of Catholic friends, one of whom was Lord Wheatley, a former Lord Advocate of Scotland whom he had known for many years. Indeed, it was a photograph, published in a Scottish newspaper, showing Lord Mackay standing on the steps of the Catholic Cathedral in Edinburgh last summer after Lord Wheatley's Requiem Mass, which so shocked some of the members of the Free Presbyterian Church that they saw fit to bring him to trial.
I broke the news of Lord Wheatley's death to the Lord Chancellor when we were attending a reception for a colleague who was leaving the Lord Chancellor's department for a new post last August. 1 was called to the telephone to be told of Lord Wheatley's sudden death by BBC Scotland who wanted a comment from Lord Mackay.
Lord Wheatley had been in the House of Lords only a few days previously so it was quite a shock for the Lord Chancellor who, with a voice clearly broken by emotion, was able to give me the comment, describing Lord Wheatley as one who had given great service to the Scottish legal system and to Parliament, where he had been a Labour politician of distinction, and to Scotland.
So it was not surprising that Lord Mackay chose to attend Lord Wheatley's Requiem, though he did so, not as Lord Chancellor, but as a friend. Though divided by religion and politics, they were closely united by their working class backgrounds.
When the news broke that the Free Presbyterian Church was to consider the matter at its Synod in November 1988 with a view to sanctions, Lord Mackay was quite concerned, yet in no way did he regret the decision, as subsequently he told his accusers. He was there to honour the memory of his friends. In no way did his presence suggest that he upheld the doctrines of the Catholic Church.
It was typical of Lord Mackay that he chose to attend the hearings alone. He did not require a press officer because the matter was, he considered, one of a private nature and outside his role as Lord Chancellor.
It was also typical of his strength of character and his belief in the presence of God, that he chose to stand alone and make a statement to the assembled television cameras and newspaper reporters after the Synod's decision, explaining why he had taken the decision to honour Lord Wheatley and why he had no regrets.
In so many ways James Mackay is all that we would wish a good Christian to be. He is humble, very aware of the fact that his father was a railway signalman, without trying to make it appear in any way that he has achieved distinction the hard way. Yet that, in fact, is exactly what he has done.
There was no tradition of academic achievement or legal training in the Mackay family, yet he reached the top, both as an academic and a lawyer. A scholarship to George Herriot's School in Edinburgh put him on his way, then a further scholarship to Edinburgh University enabled him to graduate in mathematics, becoming a maths lecturer at St Andrew's University before moving to Trinity College, Cambridge, for post graduate studies.
He was a Don in the making when his mother died and he gave it all up to return to the small flat in Edinburgh where his father lived alone. There he began his second successful career, this time in the law, becoming articled to a firm of Edinburgh solicitors in the afternoons, while lecturing at Edinburgh University in the mornings. He was called to the Bar and rose to be Lord Advocate, the most senior legal position in Scotland.
Throughout this time his Christian faith was his anchor. In common with his fellow Free Presbyterians he abstained from work and travel on the Sabbath. His interpretation of scripture was fundamentalist: Adam was Adam, Eve was Eve, and God made the world in six days, resting on the seventh.
In the Scottish courts he became something of an expert in dealing with taxation cases, thanks to his talent with figures. His ability soon came to the attention of the Prime Minister and when Lord Havers retired on grounds of ill health he was appointed Lord Chancellor in October 1987, much to the surprise of those who did not know him. Those who had sampled the strength of his intellect, his extensive legal knowledge and his personal integrity were not in the least surprised. They credited Mrs Thatcher with wisdom and perception.
It is a great pity that he should have to go through the religious trauma once again when the Synod of the Free Presbyterian Church considers his appeal on Tuesday, but of one thing you can be sure. Whatever the outcome, Lord Mackay will remain a man true to his own conscience and convictions. Like his distinguished predecessor, lie is a man for all seasons.
Until his retirement from the Lord Chancellor's department last December, Terence Wynn was Senior Press and Information Officer working closely with Lord Mackay.