THE tensions between Church and state have provoked their fair share of war and bad blood over the centuries.
But an infuriated Catholic bishop in Scotland, appalled over social reforms being carried out by David Cameron, has taken things to a whole new level.
In an intemperate two-page letter to the Prime Minister, Bishop Joe Devine of Motherwell has accused him of being “out of his depth” and suggested he is “devoid of moral competence” over his attitude to Christianity.
Not only that, he also tells Cameron that he is responsible for a political culture in which “words mean nothing” and is guilty of using “graceless … offensive” language when dealing with clerical affairs.
It marks a fresh low in relations between the government and the Catholic Church, which Cameron angered further last week after declaring he would support moves in England to allow same-sex marriage to take place in those churches that allowed it.
The Church, and other religious bodies including the Kirk, oppose the plans on the grounds that they redefine the meaning of marriage from its traditional meaning of a union between a man and a woman.
Devine’s tirade against the Prime Minister, sent last week, followed an exchange of letters earlier this autumn over a government decision to oppose moves by Christians to go to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to demand their right to wear a cross.
Devine had asked Cameron for a guarantee that the government would back their cases, given the latter’s previous support for people who wanted to wear the symbol.
Cameron replied: “I have said that people should be able to wear a cross, and this is the government’s position.” However, he added: “We are not supporting these cases as we want to defend UK legislation and do not think that the law in this issue should be dictated by Strasbourg.”
The response appears to have been the final straw for Devine. In a second letter, he lets fly.
Cameron’s statements on such issues, he says, have “only served to compound our perplexity about the imperfect fit between your statements and actions. You appear to be creating a political culture in which words mean nothing”.
The bishop then asks that with the “contradiction” between Cameron’s support for the right to wear a cross and his opposition to ECHR appeals “on what basis can you expect anyone – Christians in particular – to trust or respect you?” Devine then complains about how Catholic groups, such as adoption agencies, have been made to feel “not welcome”. He continues: “That feeling… is the legacy of the last Labour government. Sadly, many of your government’s policies show no sign of reversing that, despite your plausible public relations exercises.
“Which brings me to your regrettable reproach of the Church of England.” Cameron, he recalled, had used “your customary linguistic aplomb” to urge the Church to “get with the programme” by allowing women bishops.
“Disagree with decisions by all means, but such graceless comments were indelicate to the point of being offensive. And this from a Prime Minister belittling the nation’s established church. Hardly an example to set for society in general and especially for the youth of this country.”
He goes on, sarcastically: “So where next for David Cameron’s spiritual mission? … While I cannot speak for other creeds, let me be quite frank with you. So far as the Roman Catholic Church… is concerned, you are out of your depth. We will take no finger-prodding lectures from anyone or any group devoid of moral competence.
“I suspect it is only a matter of time before you go one step further and outlaw the teaching of Christian doctrine on sexual morality on the grounds of discrimination.”
Religious freedom “under your premiership… is no longer being respected in the UK”. And in one final barb, he notes how the Christian Church has lasted for “two millennia… and all this amazingly without any direction and guidance from you or your peer group”. He then signs the letter “Yours Truly”.
Independent MSP Margo MacDonald last night said the bishop’s bad-tempered rant was likely to backfire. “I’m quite sure that Bishop Devine will have his supporters, who will be lost in admiration at his sheer vituperation and conversational style. What he thinks of the government is not in doubt.
“He won’t be over-pleased with someone like me saying you catch more flies with jam than you do with vinegar, but I get the feeling he is only up for a fight and not a resolution.”
A Downing Street spokesman said Devine would receive a reply in due course.
Equality campaigners last night criticised the tone of the Church’s attacks. Tom French, policy co-ordinator for the Equality Network, said: “Bishop Devine is, of course, entitled to his views and to express them as he sees fit, but we think the large majority of Scots will have a more measured perspective. For example, opinion polls consistently show that two-thirds of Scots support same-sex marriage.”
The row comes with the UK government preparing to launch its plan to legalise same-sex marriage this week. The Scottish Government is also expected to confirm its own plans soon.