True diversity comes in accepting the differences between us

Canon Michale McMahon
Canon Michale McMahon
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A casual Google search of “Equality and Diversity in Scotland” returns, 0.68 seconds later, an astonishing 566,000 results. It seems that every group, company or organisation has an Equality and Diversity policy. Interestingly, while they all seem to have their own somewhat elastic definitions of those terms, all agree the principles are worthy.

Coming, from the Judeo-Christian tradition I base my approach to the reality at the beginning of that tradition – the book of Genesis. Not a factual account of creation, rather a reflection on the human condition, the origin of evil and the nature of shame. In teaching not “How it was” but “Why it is”, it is an unsurpassed narrative.

Genesis is affirming the goodness of the created order; humankind is made in the image and likeness of God and while there are many kinds of plant, fish, bird and animal there’s only one kind of humanity. This truth is the foundation of my belief and practice: I value all persons as fundamentally equal – because they all bear the image of God. There can be no foundation or excuse, then, for discrimination on the grounds of gender, colour, ethnicity, belief or lack of it, sexuality or politics.

It seems simple enough. These latter qualities make us different but still equal. In fact, equality actually requires difference – and recognition, acceptance and respect for it.

Equality does not call us to be identical. If we were identical equality would become a non-existent concept. Only when people are different does equality become desirable and worthy.

So why the great palaver? If equality is not an issue, is diversity the requirement for great reams of 
policy? It shouldn’t be, because it is the flip side of equality – we are different but equal, we accept and embrace diversity.

In Scotland, however, our history of this is, at best, chequered. I think the flaw which trips many a liberal commentator is a passionate advocacy of diversity for people as individuals but intransigent insistence on a “one size fits” for all institutions. So held up to us as a model of elysian balm is the championing of individuals’ rights to be who and what they want at any given moment, broadly speaking the idea of “identity politics”; but the insistence on a conformity to a liberal consensus of what is “correct or acceptable” for the Establishment, groups and organisations.

To imagine the sunny uplands of a bland and homogenised Scotland is superficially attractive, but surely the ability to recognise that people are different and to learn of it and respect it, is a profound mark of maturity and reflective living, generally thought to be a good thing since the time of Socrates.

At this point I confess – my perplexity arises from the routine denigration and casual bigotry directed at Catholic Education in Scotland, particularly the existence of Catholic schools.

The Education Act of 1918 offered state funding to any religious denomination which desired it.

The Roman Catholic Church chose to exercise that option in exchange for their education assets – they already had schools, property, teachers and a parallel system which they had previously funded in addition to paying taxes, and then turned over to state control.

These Roman Catholic schools are ecumenical. All Christians are welcome in them and respected therein; furthermore they are beacons of interfaith co-operation too. Witness the number of Muslim parents and young people happy and respected in their Roman Catholic school, and the shared campus of the Jewish school and St Clare’s Primary soon to open in Newton Mearns.

The casual line that Catholic schools cause bigotry is highly offensive to parents and teachers as it suggests they somehow support a manifest evil, and it is entirely illogical. Visit the USA, Canada or Australia, for example, to see how this is not true; and the corollary, were there no Catholic schools there would be no bigotry – remember your history of Scotland for an illustration of this logical fallacy.

To tell people who value and support a resource that has served them well and empowered them in their culture and society that it’s not good for them is paternalistic and patronising.

A Scotland that has changed in its attitudes to so many groups and expressions of self so radically in the last 25 years is certainly comfortable with difference. A shorter and equally necessary journey now beckons towards a Scotland that can see difference and accept it with respect. Therein lies true equality in diversity – a profoundly educative enterprise.

Father Michael McMahon of the Diocese of Paisley