The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Right Reverend David Arnott, is currently visiting Church of Scotland partners in China. Here are two talks he is giving on Good Friday:
Christianity in a Secular Age – Scotland in the 21st Century (The Moderator will give this talk at the Amity Foundation headquarters in Nanjing on Friday April 6)
I am delighted to be able to share with you a few thoughts on Christianity in a Secular Age –. I realise that my starting point for thinking about this topic will be quite different from yours but I would like to reflect a little on the role of Christianity in 21st century Scotland.
Let me give you a few statements –
I live in a very secular country. I live in a country where many people pay scant attention to the Church. I live in a country where many think the Church is quite irrelevant to a modern Scotland. I live in a country where the average age of church members is getting older and church membership is declining.
Let me give you a few more.
I live in a country whose contemporary history you can’t understand without knowing how the church has shaped it. I live in a country where government ministers come and ask me what the church thinks about this or that because it is important they know for new legislation. I live in a country where the majority of people claim to believe in God but not in organised religion.
I expect by now you are properly confused but that is exactly where I think we are just now in Scotland. Some people view the church very favourably, some ignore it while others are extremely antagonistic.
Let me give you two examples. It used to be that all funerals in Scotland were taken by church ministers. Now because the demography of Scotland is changing, some opt for a humanist, non-religious service while others have the representative of their own faith.
Twenty years ago I was baptising 4 – 5 babies every month in my parish. By the time I retired in 2010, I had moved to another parish, but I was baptising only 1 or 2 per year!
I used to be able to go to a local hospital and ask to see the admissions list and having identified on it the people who lived in my parish, I would visit them. That list is now regarded as confidential and ministers no longer have such open access.
I was a part-time hospital chaplain for 10 years and the best conversations I had about God and Jesus and the Church were with people who told me that they had no church connection and who didn’t believe. Yet they displayed to me an often profound knowledge of matters theological.
So there is much confusion about. The old certainties we once relied upon have gone, and the church is now having to justify its existence. It can no longer depend on people just accepting it is there and thereby supporting it. The old Presbyterian Scotland is being replaced by a multi-faith and multi-cultural society peopled by folk from many different backgrounds and not countries. And we are the richer for it as a country but we are having to adjust to a new way of being church.
I describe the atmosphere in which we are living in Scotland at the moment as one of creative insecurity. Traditionally when we are at our most insecure then God is better able through his Spirit to engage us and better direct us, and there are many Biblical examples from Abraham to Paul through Zacchaeus of how God works with people who are insecure to ensure his will is done.
Young people, however, tend to look at the church with some suspicion. Organised religion doesn’t sit well with too many of them. The Church of Scotland was once noted for its moderate liberalism. It was also noted for its concern for social justice. It is now becoming much more right wing and conservative in its theology. It is a theology full of certainties which expresses a literal understanding of scripture.
To those certainties young people are attracted. Unfortunately, for me, the down side is that their subsequent engagement with the world and the many serious issues we are facing are laid aside. I was in one such church recently where many young people were present but where we had no prayers for others; no prayers for the world and its tensions and sufferings.
That is the down side of such a theology. It is true to say that the moderate middle-aged liberal has left the Church of Scotland in its droves. The theological make-up of the Church is changing.
So the young people whom we have in our churches tend by and large to be of that conservative block in general. It is they who are coming forward for ministry of word and sacrament. Now I must emphasise I am talking in broad general terms. While there are many middle of the road congregations they tend to be less well attended and not showing as much growth.
Am I then concerned about the future development of the Church and Christianity in Scotland? If you look back over the history of our church, there been several major incidents which might have suggested an end to the church. We have seen disruptions and schisms when ministers and congregations have left the church. We have endured two World Wars with unspeakable horrors. Yet still the church survives; still Christianity has continued. So no I am not at all concerned about the future of the church or Christianity. They will survive.
What I am concerned about however is the nature of the church and the type of church we will have. The Church of Scotland is quite distinctive inasmuch as it is a parish church. It is a territorial church. Each congregation is responsible for an area in the city or town or country. People who live within that area can approach their local minister for a wedding or a funeral. Anybody is welcome to attend.
The change I see happening is where ministers increasingly are working to care only for their own members, people who are members of their own congregations. There is less concern about what is happening with the world and therefore less engagement with it. And this at a time when our politicians are asking the church to be involved.
I remain convinced the church is one of those agencies that helps to set the tone for our communities. It does so by our engagement with the world. It does so by going the extra mile, by caring, by loving, by serving and by forgiving. It does so by displaying the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the undeserved love of God to all who pass by. I see the future well-being of the Church resting its ability to relate to the communities it serves.
In a poor parish in Edinburgh, our capital city, there is a small church which on a weekday afternoon, after school, runs what is called Messy Church. Children gather and through art and craft-work they draw and model a Bible story. Then they have worship. Then they are fed. For some that will be the best meal of the week. For some it will be the only time they will sit down to eat. Here is the church feeding people, with both the word of God and real food.
If I had my way I would ensure all our candidates for the ministry were experts in church history. For the knowledge that would give them would assure them that the struggle we are going through just now is no different from other struggles in previous centuries. The Christian faith is always about a struggle between good and evil, life and death. That is the story of the New Testament. But it is a struggle worth engaging in.
We are at a critical time in the history of Scotland. In two years’ time we are to have a referendum on whether we stay part of the United Kingdom or become a totally independent country. I am convinced that whatever the outcome of that vote, the Church of Scotland has a vital role to play in shaping our communities, in setting the tone for our communal lives. The values our society is based upon all stem from the Bible. This is because at the Reformation the reformers ensured in each parish there was a church and a school. Through education and worship the values of the kingdom of God became part of our very being. They are ingrained in our genes. I am equally convinced that the only way ahead for us as a country is to continue to engage with our civic society and continue to engage with our world.
I often think we are a Christian country by default. We live generally by Christian values in our communities; our laws are based on justice; and our political leaders seek to ensure we live in a fair and just society. 21st century Scotland is called a secular country, but to my mind it is based solidly upon Christian values and long may that continue.
The Place of The Bible in the Lives of People Today (The Moderator will give this talk at the Amity Printing Company in Nanjing on Friday April 6)
If you had asked me to give this speech last year I would have presented quite a different story from what I am about to share. Over the years my understanding is that the Bible is the book everybody owns but very few read. It would lie on shelves, gathering dust, ignored.
Two things have changed that. 2011 saw the 400th anniversary of the Bible we know as the King James Version, the Authorised Version. This was the Bible that helped to shape the nation of Great Britain and also helped to take the English language around the world.
It was the custom in households in Britain for the Scripture to be read by the family on a daily basis so the people were hearing the Bible not just in Church but in their homes. And the language of the Bible crept into everyday language. A book was published last year which detailed the hundreds (387) instances of direct quotations from the Bible which have become commonplace – going the extra mile, turning the other cheek – and most people don’t realise they come from the Bible. So our language in Britain is shaped by the Bible.
But shortly after the King James Version was published, the Puritans were banished to America and they took the King James Version with them. So it became the book for the people and the churches there too and in Australia, Canada, Africa and India the King James Version was responsible for the spread of the English language.
So when you ask the question about the relationship of the Bible to peoples’ lives we have to take on board that many are already familiar with the language and some of the stories because they were taught in our schools as well as in our churches.
I don’t know if you have heard of Robert Burns, our national poet. His poetry now 200 years old is infused with references to Bible stories, but more importantly with Bible concepts. He writes about forgiveness and judgement and God’s mercy. All of that suggests very strongly that Biblical knowledge was highly prevalent at that time, for the ordinary man and woman. Indeed one of Burns’ poems ‘The Cotters’ Saturday Night’ tells the story of a family sitting round the table to listen to the father read passages of Scripture.
That age has now all but gone, I suspect. Nowadays people get their Biblical knowledge from Church, the internet, DVDs, many Bible-reading programmes and many of the hundreds of different translations which abound. And there are two major ways in which people use their Bibles.
When I was studying divinity at New College in Edinburgh I was taught to use form criticism. This means that when I read a Biblical passage I set it in the context of where it is in the chapter, the context of the day, the contemporary historical setting and then apply it to a modern situation.
I firmly believe the Bible is God’s inspired word. I also believe it was written by people who had a particular agenda e.g. ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ was written to counter the belief that many had that there were several Gods of the wind, the rain, the trees, the sky etc. Once I know that I come myself to a better understanding of what the Bible means to me.
Others take a different view. The Bible is God’s inspired word and everything in the Bible is to be taken at face value. And there the debate begins and continues. And our differences emerge with the different interpretation we put on Biblical passages – but then it was always thus.
David Cameron the Prime Minister of Great Britain spoke at Oxford University a few months ago and emphasised the need for the Bible to be part of the fabric of our society. This was in the context of a speech about the King James Version.
And there I suspect is the way ahead. For as many people who read their Bible daily and who study the scriptures assiduously the vast majority of the population of the UK don’t. But they will live by what the Bible talks about.
They will organise civil life in terms of justice and fairness. They will promote equality. They will exercise a bias towards the poor and they will protect the children and the vulnerable. They will welcome the stranger and offer hospitality.
Now what are those if they are not concepts straight from the pages of the Bible? The Bible and Biblical teaching infuses our civic society and our personal lives.
It belongs to each generation to learn the Bible stories anew and to understand for themselves what they mean for their lives. I am much more hopeful this year than before that the Bible is coming back into the mind-set of people. We now know how indebted we are to it for our country, our ethics and our morality.
We now live in a multi-faith society where other religions promote their sacred writings. That alone is encouraging Christians and others to discover afresh what the Bible is saying to us today.
I don’t think you can understand modern Britain without understanding the part the Bible has played in it. The need to teach the coming generations the Bible stories and the eternal truths is as great as ever. I take great comfort from the fact that the Bible is still being printed and still being read almost 2000 years after people began to write it.
Those countries which have adopted its teaching have generally prospered and served the wider society well. Those countries which have tried to ban it have suffered and eventually relented. People from whatever background and in whatever country want to hear what the Bible is saying.
As Peter said to Jesus, Lord to whom shall we go? You have the worlds of eternal life.
The Bible did then and still does.