Missing the ethos of a city’s roots

The statue of Thomas Chalmers in George Street. Picture: Gareth Easton
The statue of Thomas Chalmers in George Street. Picture: Gareth Easton
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COUNCIL could learn much by looking at it’s history and acknowledging the valuable role – in every sense – of Christianity says David Robertson.

Scattered throughout Scotland there are examples of what are termed “follies” – grandiose projects which serve no useful purpose – the Fyrish monument near Alness being one example, McCaig’s Tower overlooking Oban another.

There are those who would argue that Edinburgh City Council has managed to produce more than its fair share of “follies” in recent years, the grossly expensive and unnecessary trams project, being the most recent. Still it is good to know that our elected councillors are on the job and doing their best to save our money in other ways. The recent proposal to stop free Sunday parking being their latest brainwave.

When Rev Paul Rees, the minister of the large 1,000 member Charlotte Chapel Baptist Church in the centre of Edinburgh, pointed out the harm this would do to the Christian communities in the city, the deputy transport leader Adam McVey, replied: “I think it’s worth mentioning that we’re a secular city”. This is fascinating. I would love to know what that actually means and when did it actually occur? Apparently councillors are concerned that providing free parking for all on a Sunday would somehow contravene “equalities” legislation. If this is true then Edinburgh City Council had better cancel Christmas. After all it is a Christian festival.

If by “secular” Mr McVey means non-Christian then he could not be more wrong. Edinburgh was built and established upon the foundations of Christianity. That does not mean that Edinburgh does not welcome people of other faiths and none (indeed the Christian faith would require them to do so), but it does mean that councillors should not seek to turn this great city into some kind of secular utopia, without any awareness of its Christian foundations.

The trouble is that, without Christianity, there is a danger that Edinburgh, and especially the city centre, will become a closed community for the wealthy and elites with a few beggars gathering crumbs from the masters’ table. Take car parking – having expensive car parking in the city centre is a good way of deterring the plebs – especially the religious ones. No, the “secular” council, has its own god – mammon. Everything must be done for the sake of commerce and money. The excuse of “equality” in religion must be used to allow inequalities of wealth to prosper.

But there is a different Edinburgh – an enlightened and caring Edinburgh. One that is exemplified by the statue in the West Princess St Gardens of Thomas Guthrie, the clergyman who founded St John’s church and then Free St John’s (now St Columba’s Free Church) at the top of the Royal Mile. He campaigned vigorously for the poor children of the city and matched his words with his actions, tens of thousands of children being helped through his ragged schools movement. Or you could walk on to the junction of George St and Castle Street where the large statue of Thomas Chalmers is a reminder of a better ethos for the city. In 1838 Chalmers gave a series of lectures in London, arguing that governments and councils saved a fortune in policing, education, social care, etc, if there were flourishing churches.

When we are speaking of the churches in Edinburgh, we are not speaking primarily of the church buildings. We are talking about the communities of worshipping, believing Christians. We are talking about work amongst the homeless by groups such as the Edinburgh-based Bethany Christian Trust, the hundreds of youth workers, the numerous community groups, counselling, welcoming and serving. If these were all to be withdrawn then Edinburgh would find itself to be a much poorer city, in every way. And the cost to the city council would be beyond even the trams project budget.

It’s about changed lives, leading to changed communities. Its about the £2 million man – given that name because he has cost the state at least that amount of money – in and out of prison every year, on drugs and methadone, police costs, court costs etc.

Our “secular” society had no answer. Hearing the good news of Jesus Christ in prison, he became a believer and everything changed. The £2 million man is gone. Welcome to the new cheaper yet more valued, man.

If some councillors were not so wedded to their own ideology, perhaps they would see that Edinburgh needs more churches and more Christians, not less.

Instead of playing Scrooge with Edinburgh’s churches, councillors should be encouraging them. Not only will it benefit tens of thousands of people, but also it will save the council a lot of money.

• David Robertson is director at Solas Centre for Public Christianity, www.solas-cpc.org

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