As churches and charities staunch the wounds of a society broken by the cost-of-living crisis, Rev Iain Greenshields, Moderator of the Church of Scotland, talks to our Writer at Large about what Christmas really means and the need for love this holiday season

IT is little wonder that the conversation quickly takes on a Dickensian flavour. Talk soon turns to matters that feel very familiar to readers of A Christmas Carol: poverty, want, hunger, cold, despair, the gulf between rich and poor.

But then, what church leader – if they really believe the principles they espouse – wouldn’t be troubled by the state of the nation as we approach a holiday that is meant to celebrate love and kindness?

How does a country, where the poorest now choose between heating and eating, celebrate Christmas? How does the spirit of these times – of families struggling to survive on low wages or benefits, of food banks and warm banks, of strikes and fear – sit alongside the traditional notion of Christmas cheer?

These are questions Reverend Iain Greenshields, the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, is trying to unravel.

Rev Greenshields is something of a radical Christian. He wants drugs decriminalised. If addiction is a disease of despair, then at least make addicts safe in medicalised consumption rooms, he believes. But heroin is simply the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the social ills stalking Scotland.

A cursory glance at the news paints a picture of a nation slipping deeper into a world that would seem very familiar to Charles Dickens, the great social reformer: homeless shelters turning away rough sleepers as there is no more room at the inn; food banks running out of supplies; parents going hungry to buy presents for their kids; disabled children facing care as their families can no longer afford to look after them.

On the frontline

“Thousands are on the edge,” Rev Greenshields says. Church outreach workers in his Dunfermline parish talk of people choosing “between heat and food, between parents having a meal or not having a meal so their children can eat”.

Christmas simply adds to the pressure on the poorest. When schools close, that means “a warm place closes for children” Rev Greenshields says. There are no school meals either during holidays.

Churches of all denominations are often on the frontline when it comes to triaging society’s ills. “We’re stepping up to the plate,” he says. Different denominations in the same area now stagger the days they open food banks or warm banks so “the most vulnerable” always have somewhere to turn.

Rev Greenshield’s own church has an emergency fund of “several thousand pounds” to get cash to people who are so broke they can’t afford to heat their homes. “It makes it possible for people at the very edge to have support so they feel there’s somebody on their side – that they feel secure and safe.”

He speaks, without judgment, of revellers in Edinburgh and Glasgow city centre “spending plenty of money” in bars and restaurants. It gives the impression that society hasn’t “hit hard times”. But, he says, go out into the housing schemes that ring our big cities and it’s a different story. The church, Rev Greenshields adds, is “committed” to the people struggling in our poorest communities.

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“You won’t see these people in Princes Street or Argyle Street because they can’t afford to go there. They’re the forgotten people. You forget that if you live in Bearsden you have Drumchapel on your doorstep. Glasgow is a good example of where you have very poor societies living cheek by jowl with extremely wealthy societies.”


REV Greenshields knows what he’s talking about from personal experience – he grew up in a working-class home in Drumchapel in the 1950s.

If we want a country where people don’t depend on charity, he says, then we need to debate “how we structure society”. If you want a nation like Finland, where the gap between rich and poor is low, then “you have to convince the rest of society that there is potential sacrifices financially that they’d have to make”.

In other words, significant redistribution of wealth through progressive taxation. Then he poses a question: “Would the Scottish nation be prepared to do that to have a fairer society? I don’t know the answer.”

For now, though, society requires churches, and secular charities, too, he points out, “to look out for those people who fall through the gap. It seems to me at this moment in time that the number of people in those circumstances is far too high, relatively speaking to the society we live in”.

Clearly, it is absurd and patronising to imply that everyone living in housing estates is poor. That is just not the case, Rev Greenshields points out. As the news cycle shows, those from middle-class backgrounds are now finding themselves in dire financial straits, too.

Rev Greenshields says: “It could be a simple thing like the person lost their job and they just need a wee bit extra for a month or two to get them through a difficult period.” Others are in “long-term situations where they’re just not making it month by month, week by week”. He says rising bills means “there are things [his own family] won’t be able to do”. The benefits system allows people to simply “survive not thrive”, adding: “If inflation goes “way beyond benefits, how can you possibly live? You’re not talking about thriving – how do you exist, subsist?”


NOR should we forget refugees and addicts, he points out. Rev Greenshields tells a heartbreaking story of two young boys in his parish aged nine and 10 who come to the church food project on their own. Why? “Their parents are addicts and they wouldn’t eat otherwise.”

Listen to Rev Greenshields long enough and there is a dark sense that the poor in Scotland have taken an almighty kicking over the years. Life chances have changed greatly for people in Scotland’s housing schemes since Rev Greenshields was a boy, he believes. Back then “it was all about aspiration – a premium was placed on education and how important it was you got the best chance in life to get either a good trade or go to college or even university”.

However, he notes sadly, “things have changed”. It’s down to intergenerational unemployment, he believes. Under Thatcherism, factories which supported good jobs closed and “many housing schemes became places of mass unemployment. There was a quantum shift”.

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Yet it is often people from the poorest areas who keep hope alive for the most vulnerable by setting up food banks and credit unions. There are people from every struggling housing scheme in Scotland “quietly making a difference”, and trying to “give people the opportunity to make the best of their lives that they can”.


THIS takes Rev Greenshields to his big theme: decriminalising drugs. “Part of the problem,” he says, “is there is no ‘right to recovery’. That needs pushed hard.” Right to recovery means the state is legally obliged to provide rehabilitation for all addicts. “There are people desperate to find somewhere that will help them.” Simply getting “dried out” isn’t enough. Addicts just end up “back on the street”. Addicts are also taking drugs cut with adulterants to pad them out.

“Far too often I go to the crematorium or graveside with young people who have taken substances that have got stuff in them that’s just horrendous,” he says. British police have found drugs cut with the synthetic opioid fentanyl which is much stronger than street heroin and linked to fatal overdoses.

“If there are people on these substances, you want to make it as safe as possible,” Rev Greenshields adds. “And at the same time provide services that will help them not only come off [drugs] but find out why they were on them in the first place, help them recover, and get back to some kind of normal life.”

Often addicts are “self-medicating”, he says, “to take away the pain”. It is common to find heroin users have experienced care and abuse as children before sliding into a life of addiction and prison. “Everyone has a back story,” Rev Greenshields says. “When you get to the root of that story you start to understand why they are where they are.”

So, does he want safe consumption rooms for heroin users? The answer is yes. “Here’s the dilemma. You’re not suggesting that something is right, but you’re acknowledging that’s where people are and what they’re doing, and what you want to do is make life safe for them in whatever way possible.”

The Kirk’s General Assembly doesn’t have a position on drug consumption rooms. “But,” says Rev Greenshields, “my personal view is that people who are using drugs in a hazardous way, injecting in public places which are often outside and in conditions of poor hygiene and then discarding equipment, it is proportionate and humane to provide safer facilities with advice that reduces the risk, educates on the dangers and, critically, engages the person in treatment to help them move away from harmful usage.”

Rev Greenshields is taking part in a special service at Glasgow’s Springburn Church on December 22 to remember “all those who have lost their lives to drugs and to stand in solidarity with their family and friends”. Scotland has the highest drug death rate in Europe.


A LOT of his thinking was learned in Scottish prisons, where he was a chaplain for 10 years. Rev Greenshields began ministering to young offenders. “Prison offered very little to them. It was actually a place where they learned to be criminals rather than helping them get back into society in a positive way.” Many were in jail simply for stealing to feed drug habits. For such offenders, “there has to be an alternative that’s better than prison”. Rehabilitation is key, he says. “If prison isn’t rehabilitating, it’s not doing what it should do.”

There is evidently a real desire to reform society within Rev Greenshields. We need to prioritise “health, the environment, education, infrastructure, social care – these are the things that burden people, that they want to see investment in and action taken about. These are the pillars of society”.

He adds: “You’ve got to make sacrifices for the sake of other people – love your neighbour, not put yourself first. It’s about looking at what you have and asking yourself ‘do I have more than I need?’ The answer is almost always ‘yes’. Then ask yourself this supplementary question: ‘How do I help those who have less than they need’.”


IT is the quintessential Christmas message. Yet Rev Greenshields wasn’t a believer until his twenties. “I was agnostic – I’d have said the Bible was rubbish.” But when he visited a Glasgow church, he was “floored”. He was working as an apprentice, but within a few years was off to university studying to become a minister. What was it that made him turn to God? “The vacuum that exists,” he says – the sense of emptiness many feel without spirituality.

For Rev Greenshields, Christianity is about “love, you have to love one another and your neighbour and even love your enemy”. There’s a “deficiency” in human beings as “love isn’t at the heart” of what we do and say. Love isn’t just an emotion, he adds, “but an action”.

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“Christmas is the beginning of that message,” he believes. Unlikely as it seems, Rev Greenshields doesn’t rage against the commercialisation of Christmas. He still sees the holiday period as a time when most of us “actually stop and think” about others, even if it’s just “a wee girl thinking about what she’ll buy her mother to say ‘thank you for being my mum’. And that’s quite a beautiful thing.” Yet it’s obvious, he says, that “increasing numbers of people are thinking we’ve overdone it”.


THE wonder of Christmas, he notes, still touches the hearts of even the most avowed atheists, who find themselves singing carols or moved by the Nativity. Equally, the way Scots who are Muslim or Sikh take part in Christmas, sharing the experience with Christians and atheists, is a “mark of an increasingly tolerant society”.

The persistence of Christmas in the lives of non-Christians reveals, he believes, the need for “a sense of meaning, purpose and hope” within everyone. Although faith is withering fast in Britain, “the secularisation of society doesn’t necessarily mean people have lost the sense of searching for something beyond themselves”.

Nevertheless, he says that believers are happier than unbelievers – they “thrive and actually live longer”. There is some truth in what he says. Scientific studies have shown religious people reporting higher levels of happiness than those who aren’t religious.

“In my congregation I have a 102-year-old, two 101-year-olds, and a whole back-up of 90-pluses.”


But doesn’t that highlight a problem for the church? It may be unpleasant to note but congregations are literally dying off. In 2017, Kirk membership was 336,800. In 2021, it stood at 283,600. The church admits “death is the main cause of membership reduction”. Last year, Rev Greenshields’ predecessor as moderator, Rev Martin Fair, warned the Kirk “faces extinction by 2035”.

However, the way churches are redefining their role in society may offer a survival route. Food banks and recovery groups based in churches make the Kirk meaningful in the lives of often non-Christian groups of people. “They describe the church as their church and me as their minister even though they don’t necessarily go to the service on Sunday,” he says.

He refuses to accept that “decline is inevitable”. Staff have been hired to make sure “we grow the church rather than manage decline”. Hope may be an admirable Christian trait, but is Rev Greenshields too hopeful here?

“There’s been a wake-up call to us as a church that we perhaps took our place in society for granted and now we’ve got to work hard to get out there and get our message across,” he says. Essentially, the means of doing that centres on precisely what he’s been talking about today, working within communities and often doing what Jesus taught: helping the poor and desperate.

Rev Greenshields says that in some areas, the church – because of its charitable work – is “becoming the centre of the community” again, in a way which he feels emulates the early days of Christianity. “When the plague hit Rome, all the wealthy Romans left and the Christians remained to look after those suffering. It’s about: what are the needs of society today and what can the church do to meet those needs?”

Social ills

ESSENTIALLY, he believes “reports of the death of the Kirk have been greatly exaggerated”. “I was told 40 years ago when I first entered the ministry that there would be no church by the time I finished – that’s proved to be vastly not the case.”

The Kirk has also changed greatly since Rev Greenshields joined. In November, the Kirk entered into what it described as “an historic declaration of friendship” with the Catholic Church in Scotland. The St Margaret Declaration was signed by Rev Greenshields and his counterpart in the Catholic Church, Archbishop Leo Cushley.

“This was a huge moment,” he says. “Archbishop Leo and myself were brought up as west of Scotland boys in a culture very different from the one where we would have shaken hands together on something like this.” Evidently, sectarianism is far from dead, but this was an important gesture, with the two churches “sending a very clear message” that there is no place for religious bigotry in Scotland.

Sectarianism, though, is far from the only blight on Scottish society. Increasingly, the country feels divided over issues like LGBT rights. Abortion clinics have been targeted by fundamentalist Christians. Rev Greenshields says he prefers to talk about a church “for” Scotland, rather than a church “of” Scotland, adding: “We need to place ourselves where we talk about not so much what we’re against but what we’re for.” And what is the church for? “Love,” he replies. “If you lose that you lose everything.”

So, the church will embrace anybody regardless of sexuality? “Absolutely, yes. Just as Jesus did,” Rev Greenshields says.

As the conversation closes, he explains that he will be having a traditional family Christmas this year. He won’t be preaching as the moderator gives up their congregation while in office. So, he and his family will attend church as worshippers then head home for dinner. It will be a busy afternoon. Rev Greenshields has six kids after all –from 33 all the way down to 11. And three of those children are adopted –youngsters from China.

Does he have a Christmas message? Yes, and it’s simple: “Christmas is a time of hope.” So don’t despair.