Kirk's still preaching politics 20 years after Thatcher row

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SHE came dressed from head to toe in brightest blue – but Margaret Thatcher's visit to the Church of Scotland's General Assembly was like a red rag to a bull. In her "Sermon on The Mound" 20 years ago this month, the then Prime Minister tried to claim a Christian underpinning for the controversial policies of her government which had failed to win support north of the Border.

Before she even got to the lectern, ministers were queuing up to register their dissent from the invitation for her to speak.

Although she was heard politely, the event sparked a storm of protest. It was seen as a provocative move from a politician who enjoyed little support in Scotland.

A year earlier she had won a third general election, yet again without a majority in Scotland. Moves were already under way to set up the Scottish Constitutional Convention to draw up detailed plans for devolution. And the poll tax was about to be introduced in Scotland a year ahead of the rest of the UK.

Yet here she was, using the Church's annual gathering as a platform to preach her ideology.

The Church of Scotland has a long history of involvement in social and political issues and was an outspoken critic of the Thatcher government on issues from the poll tax to privatisation and unemployment to Trident.

It has continued to speak out over the two decades since the Sermon on The Mound. This year's Assembly, which opened today, will be asked to oppose military intervention in Iran, call for a halt to the spread of gambling and press for an extra 10,000 affordable rented homes every year. But the high-profile church-state confrontations so common in the Eighties are far less frequent.

Has the demise of Thatcherism and the advent of the Scottish Parliament – long-supported by the Church of Scotland – led unintentionally to a loss of influence for the Kirk?

Before devolution, it was sometimes said the General Assembly was the nearest thing Scotland had to its own parliament. The gathering brought together people from every part of the country and they debated nuclear weapons, unemployment and foreign policy, as well as doctrine, buildings and ministers' pay.

Some have argued now there is a genuine parliament, the Church has become just one voice among many others.

Morag Mylne, who completes her spell as convener of the Kirk's church and society council at this year's Assembly, says the church is engaged with politicians of all parties at the Scottish Parliament and at Westminster, and has its own parliamentary officer at Holyrood.

"It's more of a day-to-day relationship," she says. "The profile may not be the same, but there is a continuing meaningful discussion."

She argues the Kirk continues to represent a lot of people despite membership falling below 500,000. "That's still a pretty sizeable proportion of Scotland and vastly bigger than any political party."

She says politicians are ready to listen to the Church on issues such as social care, drug rehabilitation and poverty because of its involvement on the ground. "The Church speaks from experience on these issues. That gives strength and credibility to its contribution politically and that is respected," she says.

The Rev Dr Norman Shanks, convener of the Kirk's church and nation committee, 1988-92, believes it was the particular nature of Thatcherism which prompted the constant stream of Kirk criticism at that time.

"Traditional One Nation Toryism is something the Church would have been much less critical of," he says. "But we had this confrontational, market ideology."

In her Sermon on The Mound, Mrs Thatcher sought to persuade the Kirk there was a theological justification for her emphasis on individualism and the creation of wealth.

She quoted St Paul saying: "If a man will not work he shall not eat." She told the assembled churchmen and women: "It is not the creation of wealth that is wrong but love of money for its own sake. The spiritual dimension comes in deciding what one does with the wealth."

She added: "Intervention by the state must never become so great that it effectively removes personal responsibility."

It has to be remembered she was never invited by the Church of Scotland to be at the Assembly. She attended as a guest of the Queen's representative, the Lord High Commissioner, after she let it be known she wanted to go.

There is a convention at the Assembly that VIP guests are invited to speak, so the Kirk had little choice but to let her deliver her "sermon".

However, the Moderator, Professor Jim Whyte, had the last laugh when, thanking her for the speech, he presented Mrs Thatcher with two books, both reports critical of her government's policies and one of which he described as "a Christian approach to the distribution of wealth".

Twenty years on, some have suggested the Sermon on The Mound contained little for the Church to be upset about and it could now have been delivered by a Labour Prime Minister.

But Morag Mylne disagrees. "That says more about the Labour Party than the church," she says.

"Anyone who thinks the Church would sit back and say Mrs Thatcher was right after all would be very much surprised.

"There is still a real sense of social justice that rejects the creed of materialism and self-advancement.

"Politics has changed a lot in the last 20 years, but it's a mistake to see the church as having somehow drifted along with that. The Church still stands for what it stood for then."