On holiday recently, I arrived in Arezzo, a sleepy town in Tuscany most famous for Piero della Francesca's exquisite frescoes.
This Sunday morning, however, it was busier than Buchanan Street during the January sales. It took an hour for a crowd of thousands to stream past my cafe table, a cheerful avalanche of flag-bearing, cross-carrying worshippers who had been to hear the Pope at the cathedral. By the time I reached the piazza, all there was to see were a few swaggering carabinieri and the Pope-mobile, patiently awaiting its passenger, who was no doubt fortifying himself somewhere with a well-earned lunch.
In this, the week in which the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland holds its annual pow-wow in Edinburgh, I wonder how many thousands will follow its deliberations, its every word and decree? The comparison may be unfair, but I would bet my first-edition King James Bible that, were the newly installed Moderator, Reverend Albert Bogle of Bo'ness, to ride through the city in an open-topped limo, not only would hardly anyone know who he was, even fewer would care. You might say this is a sign of moral slippage, of a country that has lost its spiritual bearings. I would say it is the fault of the Kirk. And nowhere is it more obvious how divorced the upper echelons of the Church are from society than during this week-long parliament.
Most Christians consider Christmas and Easter the high points of their religious calendar, but not the panjandrums of the Church of Scotland. Months and years of preparation go into each General Assembly, whose name is uttered, in the corridors of power, with an awe bordering on fear. Indeed, the assembly is sometimes held over people's heads as a threat, a disciplinary bogie by means of which miscreants or misfits are brought to heel. Lest anyone doubt it, recent news of the Kirk's culture of bullying, even of its own ministers, speaks for itself.
As the assembly unfolds, and its debates are given generous column inches and air space, the Kirk may still fool itself that its deliberations matter. A glance at the business under discussion, however, makes one wonder not only what its true priorities are, but also what spiritual and societal functions this institution now fulfils. While there will no doubt be rumblings on the issue of gay clergy, the matters that most vex the administrators and commissioners are parochial and self-serving. As always, its bank balance is the biggest concern, and the areas reporting to the assembly this week include the Kirk's Housing and Loan Fund, its Investors Trust, General Trustees Accounts and Pensions Trustees. What would JC have thought of that?
While some of the ills of our time are also on the agenda – sectarianism, trafficking, homelessness – I suspect that, as in previous years, these matters will be deplored, rather than robustly acted upon, even though in each parish, far from the Kirk's legalistic, nit-picking convention, there is a small but dedicated army of church-goers with big hearts and rolled-up sleeves, eager to help.
Naturally, any institution needs to keep its books in order, and meet to discuss its plans. What's galling about the General Assembly, however, is that it could and should be so much more than this. It has the potential to be a power in the land, and not just among church-goers but for non-believers, and those of other faiths too. I doubt there's been a time since the Second World War when people have been more in need of spiritual solace and moral guidance, not to mention an unjudgmental helping hand. But dare the Kirk speak up on the headline issues of the day? Will it give ordinary folk a steer? Individual ministers might wish to, but being a broad church the Kirk has many opinions, and rather than let any one of them be heard, they must all keep quiet. Thus the man on the Tranent omnibus often has no clue what the Kirk thinks about anything. Of course, if you go to the General Assembly the Church's voice will, for this one week, be loud and clear. The problem is, it will be pontificating on things that are not just irrelevant to most of us, but should also be irrelevant to the Kirk.
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