Thoughts on churches

  • The Observer, Sunday 13 January 2002 
  • There is nothing like a row among Christians for sheer malevolence. Bishop Nazir-Ali, said to be the leading contender to succeed George Carey as Archbishop of Canterbury, found himself all over the front page of the Times yesterday because, as the paper rather piously reported, there was a 'whispering campaign' against him. But thanks to the Times, it wasn't sotto voce but more a scream from the rooftops.

    The allegations against the Bishop of Rochester included the suggestion that he once had been a Roman Catholic, hardly an unforgivable aberration in a Christian. There was, of course, a less visible and uglier subtext, for Dr Nazir Ali is from Pakistan.

    In the end, unless the fine Italian hand of Downing Street lies behind the story, it amounts to little more than a kind of clerical belch from a church which, in recent years, has suffered severe indigestion over issues like the ordination of women and the acknowledgement of gay love. Yet, though it is not necessarily dignified, the periodic appointment of an Archbishop of Canterbury, by generating interest in the church, keeps it in the public eye. And once appointed, the archbishop has a high media profile.

    This time, the question of establishment is dominating the debate. Thomas Jefferson had a low opinion of the churches, asserting: ‘In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot.’ He and the other founding fathers gave America a secular constitution and, as we look round the world, who will say they were wrong? Sectarian conflict and international terrorism all too often seem to confirm Winston Churchill’s pessimism about the human race. He wrote that a cat would look down on a man, a dog would look up but ‘a pig will look you straight in the eye and see his equal. His verdict was unfair only to pigs.

    Establishment in England and Scotland, of course, wears different coats. The monarch is the head of the Church of England and the Queen will appoint the next archbishop on the advice of the Prime Minister, which means that it is a political appointment. The spiritual head of the Church of Scotland is God but it recognises the authority of the state in temporal matters, and the monarch is personified at the General Assembly by the Lord High Commissioner. Once, when an acquaintance of mine filled that office, he rather pompously tapped his gloves on the lunch table after a ceremonial visit and said: ‘I am the monarch.’

    Dr Nazir-Ali, according to the interview he perhaps injudiciously gave to Radio 4 last week, thinks the state should help the church disemburden itself of some of its old and superfluous buildings but otherwise seemed unconcerned by the prospect of disestablishment, and there are those who argue that it would be a spur and a tonic for churches north and south of the burden, which have been in inexorable decline ever since the 1950s.

    My grandfather was a minister in the Church of Scotland. People tend to assume that his religion must have been a joyless affair, but the Wee Frees have tarred all Scottish Presbyterians with their brush. In fact, his manse was a musical place full of laughter and although his sermons drifted well over my head I don’t think there was a hint of Calvinism about him.

    In those days, his manse in Deeside was a social crossroads. My grandparents mingled with everyone from lairds to cotters and, as my father wrote, the rich variety of a characters that trooped through his youthful life was an excellent preparation for his later career as a dramatist. Scotland was an abundantly churched country: its proliferation of kirks seems as permanent a monument to Victorian energy as the Crinan Canal.

    Now as it struggles for relevance it faces a considerable handicap because of its democratic structure. Each year moderators come and go talking, perhaps of Michelangelo like the women in T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock. But we have no way of knowing because we so rarely see them and, if we do, they disappear into obscurity again before we have grown accustomed to their faces.

    From time to time the talk goes up that the church needs a hierarchical system. Given the richness of its vestments and the high altitude of its ritual, one might be forgiven for thinking that the minister of St Giles’, the Very Rev Gilleasbuig Iain Macmillan, fancies himself a bishop; in fact he must content himself with being the Dean of the Thistle and chaplain-in-Ordinary to the Queen. Before her death my mother removed her custom from his church, strongly resentment the introduction of quasi-episcopal display into the kirk of Jenny Geddes.

    In its post-war hey-day the Scottish Daily Express campaigned vigorously against what it perceived to be a plot to introduce bishops. Lord Beaverbrook, proud of his presbyterian roots, took a personal interest in his campaign and would phone the editor, Ian McColl, every Sunday lunchtime and ask him to enumerate the main points of that Sunday’s sermon. As a campaign it was entertaining, if slightly dotty.

    But it did the trick: the Kirk has stuck to its constitution, at some cost to its presence in the land. The late Cardinal Winning became the dominant Christian voice in the land while the Church of Scotland emitted plaintive squeaks that went largely unheard. My old friend and colleague Harry Reid, now that he has stepped down as editor of the Herald, is working on a major report on the future of the Church of Scotland, which is to be published in time for the General Assembly in May. Knowing Harry, I expect it to be radical.