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Composer James MacMillan on the failings of the Catholic church, writing music for open-air papal gatherings and voting Tory

In a red-brick church, a quiet revolution is taking place.

It’s Sunday morning and a man in a crumpled linen suit is talking to his followers. They listen intently as he cajoles them, occasionally bursting into song and waiting for their response.

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He darts back and forth, sometimes conducting them, sometimes playing the organ and throwing instructions to them. “Rubbish,” he shouts at one point, and two female singers glance at each other, smiling. “That’s too slow …” Then finally, “Excellent.” After a faltering start, the choir’s voices soar towards the rafters of this striking chapel, the haunting, simple melody reminiscent of plainsong.

St Columba’s is easy to miss, squeezed between two main streets in Maryhill, Glasgow. But stumble upon it and you realise the Italian Romanesque style church – designed by the renowned architect Jack Coia and completed in 1941 – is special. The same could apply to the choirmaster infusing his small band of singers with a slow-burning confidence. The man with the rumpled cream suit and thick, greying hair is James MacMillan, Scotland’s greatest living composer. Used to taking centre stage in concert halls from New York to Shanghai as he conducts pieces such as his acclaimed St John Passion, he seems equally happy here, in the church where he worships.

The choir, all members of St Columba’s congregation, clutch sheets of music composed by MacMillan for the official visit to Scotland and England of Pope Benedict XVI next month. Among the singers is Agniezka Dyleicz, 32, whose husband Rafal is walking their seven-month-old daughter up and down the church. The couple only discovered MacMillan was an internationally acclaimed composer and conductor when they saw him being interviewed on television during a visit home to Poland. “I was, ‘Look, that’s the guy from our church,’” explains Dyleicz later. “But he’s not just a guy from the church. Afterwards I was a bit shy. I was, ‘Wow, I don’t know if I can do this,’ but he is very kind and gentle.”

As the rest of the congregation file in, they pick up MacMillan’s music sheets with their hymn books. Congregations in chapels across Britain have been asked by the church to rehearse MacMillan’s work in preparation for the papal Mass. MacMillan’s interpretation of sacred texts will be sung by thousands during open-air papal Masses in Bellahouston Park, Glasgow, and the Midlands. Infused with the influence of traditional plainsong – think pared-back, pure vocals – they are MacMillan’s rebuke to what he calls “the kumbaya brigade”. Don’t bring your tambourine.

A couple of hours later, over lunch in an Italian restaurant, the composer explains he was commissioned at short notice to write a new order of the Mass. “The visit was organised very late,” he says, between mouthfuls of pizza. “The writing of the music had to be done quickly. But people have been great in disseminating the music through the dioceses. People are getting in touch to say they’re working on it with their congregations. It’s being played in the background as people come in to Mass so it registers in their ears.”

He laughs at the suggestion his work is being piped into chapels like muzak. In fact, for a composer almost as famous for his outspoken views as his work, MacMillan laughs a lot – mostly at himself. During lunch, he chuckles as he describes how Scottish people, particularly men, are reluctant to sing and need prodded into melody. He does it again as he admits turning 50 last year was a wake-up call for someone with so much still to compose – and only “two or three decades” to do it in. “I’m still reasonably alert,” he jokes. “The Alzheimer’s hasn’t settled in yet.”

He speaks warmly of his family – his wife Lynne, a lawyer, and their three children, 19-year-old Catherine and the twins, Clare and Aidan, who are 17. Quietly and with great affection, he explains he became a grandfather three months ago when Catherine had a baby, Sara. He mentions he and Lynne will be helping look after Sara while Catherine studies music at the University of Glasgow, then quickly wraps a protective blanket around his daughter and granddaughter. He is, though, effusive about fatherhood. “I love it,” he says. “A lot of men, especially traditionally, would have regarded it as a chore, but my children have been a constant joy. Still are. I just love them being around – same with my grandchild.”

With a grandchild turning home life upside down, MacMillan is planning to build a composition hut in the garden. He composes his music in silence and, if possible, at home in Jordanhill, Glasgow, rather than during his many trips abroad. “I suppose this goes back to Mahler and Wagner,” he says, smiling. “They had their composition huts and this is my chance to copy them. An architect friend has drawn up plans. It’s not very big, it’s just a little study. There’ll be a couple of desks, a piano.” The problem is getting time. Since The Confession Of Isobel Gowdie launched his international profile at the BBC proms in 1990, MacMillan has had a packed itinerary abroad – he was recently made principal guest conductor of the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic. His output is impressive. Most recently he has composed three concertos and an oboe concerto. His third piano concerto will be premiered in Minnesota next May.

If the birth of Sara has brought its own delightful complications, MacMillan has also dealt with a great sense of loss following the death in 2008 of his mother, Ellen, who was a teacher and a social worker. “I’m still not quite over it,” he says. He finds it hard to return to Cumnock, where he grew up and still has family, because of its associations with dark periods of his mother’s life. “She had quite a difficult life. She suffered quite a lot with a mental illness that debilitated her for decades. I remember her as a younger woman – much, much happier. In those crucial early memories she was a great matriarchal figure.”

I ask whether his mother’s illness was ever diagnosed. “It was a kind of mystery really because it was so debilitating, it just kind of consumed her,” he replies. “I actually don’t know what to call it other than a very strong mental illness. [The family supported her] as much as we could. My father was saintly in the way he looked after her right to the end. My sister was great too.” MacMillan’s father, Jim, who is 78, has moved to Wiltshire to be with the composer’s sister.

The softer, gentler MacMillan chatting about his children, music and his other major passion, religion, seems far removed from the public image of a firebrand who relishes being up to his neck in controversy. It is 11 years since he delivered his speech Scotland’s Shame, which tackled the contentious issue of sectarianism, from the football terraces to the nation’s highest institutions. He had chosen his platform carefully – the Edinburgh International Festival – intent on alerting the world’s media to his views. Then he braced himself for the backlash. It came, on the news pages, columns and letters pages of newspapers including The Herald. Weeks after, a System Three survey for The Herald found 34% of people interviewed felt there was “a deep-rooted anti-Catholic attitude throughout Scottish society”.

These days, MacMillan is keen to move on from such debates. “They were all important,” he says, stressing he has no regrets about airing his views. “I do feel as if I’ve moved on, and there is a debate going on and it’s thriving without me.”

Perhaps it’s his age, or perhaps it’s being a grandfather, but these days MacMillan is keen to play down any issues that might get him into trouble. He recently began writing a blog, enthusing today about blogging’s democratic advantages. So far he has avoided making headlines, largely because he knows to take a deep breath before approaching the keyboard. “I’ve been warned within an inch of my life by my wife just to be careful, because I don’t want to get a reputation as a controversialist,” he says. “If you go at it with a red mist you might end up regretting it for ever.”

Even so, he feels brave enough to say which way he voted in the general election. “I can’t tell you [what I voted] because it would be utterly scandalous,” he begins, only half joking. Did he vote Conservative? “I’m afraid I did.” All the clues were there – the articles for the Daily Telegraph and the Spectator, the criticism of the “liberal” press and the quiet evolution of MacMillan from angry young man to middle-aged traditionalist. Why did he vote Tory? “I wanted to see how it felt.” How did it feel? “All right,” he mumbles, sounding a little unconvincing as he reaches for his bottle of Peroni.

It’s quite a concession for the grandson of an Ayrshire coalminer whose union, the NUM, fought and lost bitterly to Margaret Thatcher 25 years ago. For MacMillan, his choice of vote was a logical one, though he sees himself as politically homeless. “Obviously in Scotland it’s a tricky thing because there’s a residue of disdain for Thatcher and all that,” he says, perhaps understating the issue, “but there is nothing wrong in being moderately to the right of centre. I don’t know whether I’m there permanently but that’s the way I feel sometimes and there are not many places a moderately right-of-centre person can go in Scotland.” Does he support the new coalition government? “I don’t,” he says, pointing out he didn’t vote for it.

With a deep suspicion of nationalism and a loyalty to the union – to Britishness – he argues the UK is crying out for an alternative. “In Europe they have this tradition of Christian democracy, which is flawed but it could have been a very different way of thinking about politics,” he says. Given his track record of speaking out, could he be tempted to start the movement in Britain? “There is a move to do it, and I’ve been approached about it, but I don’t really want to be involved in that sense in politics.”

So how did MacMillan, once a member of the Young Communist Party, come to vote Tory? The answer is that he has never done what was expected. As an adolescent he was drawn to both communism and Catholicism and would raise eyebrows as he left political meetings to attend Mass. As he outgrew his political certainties he ditched communism, but his religious faith has endured, even if it has at times wavered.

MacMillan’s inclination to confound expectations manifested itself at an early age. He describes how, at around 10 years old, he joined a brass band, encouraged by his beloved maternal grandfather, George. “The coal mines are saturated in brass band culture and my grandfather had played euphonium in a colliery band as a young man,” says MacMillan, lighting up as he speaks. “Brass was a big thing in Cumnock and I felt as though I was following in his footsteps. It’s quite a big thing to march, play and read music at the same time. I was excited by that prospect.”

Only this marching was to the thud of an Orange walk. “This engagement came in for [the band] to play for an Orange walk somewhere in Ayrshire. I was going to do it – I didn’t bother about it – but my parents thought it would cause a scandal if I was seen, a little Catholic boy.” He chuckles quietly.

If MacMillan once saw nothing strange about a Catholic boy marching in an Orange parade, he is adamant now there is nothing contradictory about having working class roots and voting Conservative.

“A lot of people on the traditional left like my grandfather, who were NUM members and part of the General Strike and so on, were nevertheless social conservatives,” he says. “The Labour movement has been taken over by a metropolitan elite foreign to my grandfather and people like him …” He points to Labour’s defeat in the Glasgow East by-election in 2008, partly, he says, because of the party’s stance on “issues like abortion and experimentation with embryos”, alienating many Catholic voters.

“The message has gone out from the Labour Party: ‘We have moved on, we are no longer beholden to you,’” says MacMillan.

It is not just the Labour Party which felt the backlash of public opinion in the last few months. The scandal of child abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland and across the globe, including Scotland, during past decades has shaken the church to its foundations. In March the Pope issued an apology to the people of Ireland – and to the thousands of victims of sexual abuse by priests there – in a pastoral letter. The word “crisis” is now being used as the church grapples with the scandal. During this morning’s sermon at St Columba’s the priest spoke of Catholics abandoning the church, alienated by such issues as the child abuse scandal and the stance on women in the church. Does MacMillan agree it is in crisis? “Oh yeah,” he says emphatically. “It’s one of the worst crises the church has faced for many generations. But the church has always faced crisis … It’s almost part of the DNA of the Catholic church to be in crisis.”

He speaks quietly and carefully, occasionally referencing the Bible. “The church is made up of sinners and saints, and sometimes in the same body, the same person. So in many ways it’s a natural state to be in, and a very unpleasant aspect of life.

“There’s no way Catholics should ever shrink from the fact they are all fallen. But to have priests – and it has been a minority of priests, still a significant minority – who have so betrayed their calling, betrayed the faith of ordinary people … That’s why it’s so serious and why their actions have been so evil and catastrophic.

“It’s good for the church to face up to our faults and it’s time to crave forgiveness. If we in the church have been responsible for that kind of sin and that kind of abuse, we have to crave forgiveness and be very, very humble. The church took a long while to learn – and may still be in the process of learning – what that kind of humility and contrition means.”

MacMillan has described his mother and maternal grandmother as anti-clerical and anti-authoritarian. A little of this has rubbed off him. “Yes, the priesthood is great and I value it,” he says. “However, sometimes individual priests are arrogant, ignorant little sods and certainly my gran and my mother had to deal with some of them – lots of Catholics have to.

“In the modern world, what is the priesthood for, why are they important? They have a very, very special obligation to the rest of us but that means they’ve got to be special, and some aren’t. Some are just ordinary people with ordinary flaws and they can act badly sometimes. No wonder there’s anti-clericalism.”

MacMillan agrees the Pope should be accountable for the church’s mistakes, but attacks what he calls the “liberal press” for pointing the finger of blame at Benedict. “My issue with the way this whole thing has gone, the way Benedict has been turned into a kind of hate figure, is that parts of the secular world have not realised Benedict and the new wave that has come in with him is part of the solution to this child abuse issue – certainly not the problem,” he says.

“There are elements of the press that want Benedict to be the problem, want him to be the miscreant of the story, when the exact opposite is the case. Ever since he was a younger cardinal figure he’s realised there was something terrible going on and has been proactive in trying to sort it out. That’s not a narrative a lot of the liberal press want to hear and I think that’s deeply unfair. Yes, of course he has to be accountable and it’s very encouraging to hear him make apologies for the failures of the church. I just hope he gets a good hearing when he comes here. I think people will be astounded how much affection there will be for him – and the papacy.”

MacMillan argues society at large, and not just the Catholic church, must take responsibility for sexual abuse. “It is a historical phenomenon as well,” he says. “We’re talking about something that was at its worst in the sixties and seventies and a realisation, not just in the Catholic world, but everywhere, that there have to be better ways of dealing with it. We’re not there yet – there are improvements society as a whole has to make on these things – but I would say today one of the safest places a child could be is in the presence of a priest, precisely because of the purifying nature of this scandal. It is clearing out a poison from the church and I just wish other organisations could have the same experience.”

And what of that other crisis – falling numbers being recruited to the priesthood? A few days after our interview, the Vatican will issue a revised decree making the “attempted ordination” of women one of the most serious crimes in ecclesiastical law. MacMillan argues for some lateral thinking to ease the pressure on clergy and boost the role of lay people, but stops short of advocating female or married priests.

“Is there a role for lay people to aid the church’s mission? There surely has to be. Perhaps less onus should be put on the clergy’s shoulders and it could be taken wider. The celibacy issue is completely different and to be honest I don’t think the evidence stacks up in favour of those who think a celibate priesthood will make [recruitment] any better, because the Protestant churches are having problems with ministry as well.

“It would be a shame to allow an ideological view of celibacy to trump a traditional view. I value the celibacy of the church and most priests do, but there might be other ways of doing priesthood which involve married men and married women in different areas.”

It is here MacMillan draws the line. “There is something about the priesthood and Catholicism which will always be very special, and celibacy has its crucial position there … I’ve been through the whole liberation theology thing and the left-wing politics, but when all is said and done, I value the traditions of the church.”

If MacMillan can be deadly serious about his religious conviction, he is equally able to poke fun at it. He laughs as he recalls the last papal visit to Scotland, in 1982, when John Paul II came to Bellahouston Park in Glasgow. MacMillan travelled in a bus from Edinburgh with Lynne – then his fiancee – and others from their church, St Albert’s. MacMillan had worshipped at the Dominican chapel as an undergraduate studying music at the University of Edinburgh.

“It was weird,” he says of the last papal visit. “It’s such a strange thing to have an open-air Mass. Some of it was hilarious. Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but there were people in our pen with a carry-out. Some of these guys had fallen asleep. Then the popemobile came round and the mothers, girlfriends, wives were saying, ‘Here he’s, here he’s, come on.’ And I remember one of [the men] getting up, ‘This is terrible, you cannae get a sleep in the chapel.’ There was a strange cultural clash about it. But it was exhilarating. Loved it.”

Next month, MacMillan will again be part of the throng jostling for a glimpse of the Pope. “My work is done,” he says. “I’ve written the music and I’m not going to be involved on the day – that’s all being taken care of by others. So I can just join the congregation …” he laughs, “… and find whether they’re singing or not.”

Beyond the papal visit and the unveiling of MacMillan’s work to the world, there is much to be done. The composer has become acutely aware of his age since turning 50. His to-do list includes a fourth symphony and some chamber music, but primarily more religious work – for starters he wants to complete the St John gospel and write some of the other passions.

MacMillan finishes his drink and prepares to return home to work. This is Sunday, traditionally the day of rest, and there is much to be done. As he turns to the restaurant door, he glances at a copy of the Sunday Herald sitting on the counter. Its front-page headline is: “Scots Tories: We’re so toxic we drive voters to Labour.” He smiles and leaves.

Visit jamesmacmillaninscotland.com.

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