Sins of the fathers
IS SCOTLAND destined for an American-style culture clash between conservatives and liberals on issues of gay marriage and lifestyle, asks Eddie Barnes.
‘It made me afraid,” said the young priest to his bishop. The Paisley cleric was talking about a Newsnight programme a few nights earlier which had held a discussion on same-sex marriage. It wasn’t the fact that panellists backed the plans, the priest said – it was, he claimed, that people in the studio audience had felt that people who spoke against it should be criminalised.
The bishop to whom the priest was speaking was the new archbishop elect of Glasgow, Philip Tartaglia. The bishop used the anecdote to begin a speech earlier this April on the subject of religious freedom. For four months, the speech had lain unwatched on the web. But on Tuesday, with Tartaglia having been named as the new archbishop of Glasgow, a section at the end of the speech was picked up. In answer to a question on the health impact of homosexuality, Tartaglia bizarrely suggested that the early death of the gay Scottish Labour MP David Cairns a year earlier had in some way been linked to his sexuality – a completely wrong assertion.
“Ignorant and homophobic,” Cairn’s bereaved partner declared. Twelve years have passed since Cardinal Thomas Winning died. Now Catholic controversy was returning to Scotland’s biggest city.
This weekend, the Catholic Church is counting the cost of Tartaglia’s insensitive remark. The furore has also taken the attention away from the more far-reaching announcement last week by the Scottish Government to legalise same-sex marriage; a decision which means Scotland is likely to be the first part of the UK to offer gay weddings, by as early as 2015.
However, the comment has also distracted attention from the bigger fight which the anecdote at the beginning of Tartaglia’s speech was meant to illustrate. It may only be that, come 2015, a small trickle of gay couples actually decide to take advantage of the new laws to officially get married. Indeed, it may be that for most people, nobody will notice any difference.
However, for the church leaders and other faith groups opposed to the plan, the issue of same-sex marriage has become a touchstone for a far wider battle they believe they are in – one that goes to the foundations of society.
In the US, politics is increasingly revolving around culture wars, pitting one view of society against another, with liberals and conservatives in a perpetual tussle.
Is the row over same-sex marriage about to pit Scotland into a replica of this culture war?
The answer to why Tartaglia made such an offensive remark lies in the increasingly apocalyptic view senior Catholics have towards modern society. In place of old certainties, “aggressive secularism” has swept aside Europe’s Christian foundations, sending civilisation off into stormy waters unanchored. And tossed around in this sea – so the religious leaders argue – society is going to pot.
The Catholic Church finds examples everywhere. Last year’s riots in London were, depending on your point of view, a consequence of poverty, urban alienation or consumerism gone mad.
Tartaglia, however, raised the issue of the riots in a sermon earlier this year to show what happens when a society unhinges itself from a belief in God.
“The crisis of western civilisation today is that too many people, and a lot of powerful people and powerful interests, want to have law and order, civilisation, wealth and prosperity, a happiness and fulfilment without God… we could not have had a clearer indication of that than when thousands of people rampaged in an orgy of destruction through London and other cities last summer,” he declared.
His fellow bishop, Hugh Gilbert of Aberdeen, recently declared: “What is happening, surely, is that our society is shifting its bases more to another morality than the broadly Judaeo-Christian one that hithero underpinned it,” he said in a homily.
The new one, he acknowledged, was not wholly “misguided or un-Christian”. But, he added, “undoubtedly – and here’s the great irony of a tolerant society – it tends to be intolerant and exclusive.”
The issue of same-sex marriage was the totem of this new morality which, Gilbert claimed, “will naturally tend not to tolerate dissent”.
Such is the level of grievance with the “aggressive” modern secular world, there is even talk of modern-day martyrdom in the air. In the same sermon, Gilbert consciously linked the plight of Christians to that of St John Ogilvie, the 17th-century Scottish priest who was hanged and disembowelled at Glasgow Cross for refusing to accept the king’s spiritual jurisdiction over that of the pope.
“Every society, at some point, will want to impose a lie. And it is then that the witnesses to freedom must step forth, cost them what it may,” he concluded. The biggest irony of all is that a church which for centuries has itself treated dissent with a somewhat short shrift, now feels itself that it is the victim of a new intolerant doctrine.
Tartaglia’s now infamous lecture in Oxford was littered with such warnings. The anti-religious agenda had “a hard edge”. He warned of a “totalitarian type of liberalism”. Christians were being forced to “ride the tiger” against this. There was a good chance he would end up in court charged with something, he added.
The comments drew agreement from his audience. His troubles began when he attempted to move from the general to the specific. “Society won’t address it,” he said, after raising the question that David Cairns may have died at the age of 44 because he was gay. The reason why society hadn’t addressed it, as Cairns’ family and friends pointed out afterwards, was because a gallstone had blocked Cairns’ pancreatic tract, leading to a further infection acquired during the two months he spent in hospital prior to his death.
Whether hospital-acquired infections is a further sign of a godless society is something Tartaglia has yet to opine on. The archbishop-elect may have shot his own feet with his crass attempt to exemplify his point – and the grudging nature of his apology afterwards – but the longer-term questions remain over the real political impact of the Scottish Government reforms last week.
The fact remains that of the record 77,000 responses handed into the Scottish Government, two-thirds were opposed. People, including many Catholics, may have recoiled at Tartaglia’s ignorance – but they may still oppose gay marriage.
John Haldane, professor of philosophy at St Andrew’s University and one of Scotland’s leading Catholic intellectuals, argues that the strength of feeling over same-sex marriage is because the matter is seen as the final straw in the steady social changes that began in the 60s.
“It seems like it is the last vestige of an older morality,” he notes.
So what will be the political damage? The opposition to the reforms goes way beyond just the Catholic Church; it encompasses the Church of Scotland, other faiths and none.
Salah Beltagui, the parliamentary officer for the Muslim Council of Scotland, said it was “unbelievable” that ministers had pressed ahead in the face of such opposition. Many Muslims in Scotland had, he said, became involved in the consultation, believing it would make a difference. “They are not that much engaged in the political process, but on this issue they were really engaged. Now, the fact that they’ve been ignored will drive them away from engaging with the government again because they will say ‘what is the use?’ ”
Fred Drummond, Scotland director for the Evangelical Alliance, added: “Its wholesale disregard for the consultation process stands to make members of all faiths seriously consider whether the voice of the faith community even matters to the SNP government.”
Drummond, a minister in the Church of Scotland, echoed Catholic leaders to claim that the move would be “dismantling generations of social structure”.
Among socially conservative Nationalists there is fury that, at a time when the SNP should be attempting to bring the country together, it has now divided the country on such a touchstone issue. And while Stagecoach boss Sir Brian Soutar – who mounted the attack on the reform of Section 28 – has not yet gone public on the issue, friends say the issue has gone down like a lead balloon with the man who bankrolled the SNP’s two election wins.
However, for others, the power of these social conservatives is wildly overestimated. For one thing, it is wrong to suggest that religious groups form a single bloc on the issue, as the split in the Church of Scotland over the gay clergy shows.
The Kirk’s first openly gay minister, the Rev Scott Rennie, praised the move last week. “I believe that love shared and celebrated in society between two people of the same sex should make no-one afraid and can only enrich communities,” he said.
Haldane believes that, once the reform is passed, people from all sides will simply shrug their shoulders and accept that life goes on. Other SNP figures argue that, while social conservatives may make a song and dance about the changes, it will be all so much hot air. Once the reform goes through, one Nationalist source declares, “people will just accept it and move on”.
A comparison is drawn with the smoking ban – similarly brought in to sounds of apocalyptic warning, but now accepted by just about everyone.
A further issue is that social conservatism no longer has a political home. The gay leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, has not surprisingly put her own name to the reform. Similarly, while he has dragged his heels this summer, David Cameron is committed to introducing the reform in England and Wales – and may now be forced to adopt the more far-reaching Scottish plans, allowing both civil and religious same-sex weddings.
Without a political party fighting their corner, there is now talk within the Scotland for Marriage coalition of setting up its own party. One example mentioned is the Family First party in Australia, set up in 2004 to espouse social conservative causes.
One source in the Scotland for Marriage campaign said: “The family party was formed in Australia for similar purposes and they have had some influence. There has been some discussion about that.”
In Scotland, the system of proportional representation means parties need only gain around 6 per cent of the vote in a region to win a seat at Holyrood. But there is scepticism about whether it really would get anywhere. Haldane notes: “This isn’t going to result in a new Christian Democrat party emerging. It has never worked in Britain.”
The reason, he argues, is because “the institution of marriage is already so shot in Britain” that a social conservative movement simply would not find enough support from a society which has moved on a long time ago.
For decades in Scotland, it has been taken as read that the voice of social conservatism, usually expressed most loudly by the Catholic Church, must be listened to. Tartaglia appears ready to ensure that, like Cardinals Winning and O’Brien before him, that voice will sound as loud as ever. The consultation on same-sex marriage has shown there is a significant and highly motivated group in Scotland which, thanks to the convulsions and liberal reforms in society over four decades, feels a growing need to take a stand. But outside this group the question now is whether anybody else is listening.
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Sunday 26 May 2013
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