The Friday Interview: An enduring faith in role of the Church

RELIGIOUS leaders have been courting controversy in the last few months, whether for denouncing the gay community in Scotland, or for calling for the introduction of elements of sharia law in the UK.

Some might think the Church already had enough to deal with, what with dwindling worship attendance numbers and recent research indicating that half the population are either confirmed atheists or have serious doubts about the existence of God.

But the Most Rev Dr Idris Jones, Primus of the Episcopal Church in Scotland, has faith that organised religion still has an essential part to play, both practically and spiritually, in modern life.

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He is head of a church which is part of the Anglican Communion, a family of some 70 million Christians in more than 160 countries, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury – who made those remarks about Sharia law.

In a remarkably candid interview ahead of Easter weekend, he tells The Scotsman what the Church needs to do to keep up with the times, where he sees God in everyday life, and why he does not feel Harry Potter presents a threat to morality.

He also outlines how he thinks the laws of other cultures can be integrated into the overarching law of the land – and why he thinks Joseph Devine, the Catholic Bishop of Motherwell, was wrong to attack a "conspiracy" of homosexual campaigners.


Today is Good Friday – what do you think the Easter story means to people today?

What I hope it would mean to people was that Christians can share with people a sense of hope, that it's possible to turn round even the most difficult situations and find a way of moving through to a good and positive outcome. I would hope that bit of the Christian message might communicate itself through Good Friday.

Is there a sense that with Easter and, to an extent Christmas, the meaning has been lost down the years – that it has become commercialised?

I don't think so. For example, our own churches this time round were full for Christmas services. That means a lot of people still connect with the meaning of the story. And the commercialism, well, you just have to learn to live with it. Easter probably has more mystery about it for people than Christmas, simply because most people know about babies being born but not many of us know about judicial execution – thank heavens – and even less about resurrection. Even the language has to be explained, and I think that means it's difficult to communicate specific understanding.

As reported in The Scotsman last week, a poll by the think tank Theos found that more than half of Scots now call themselves atheists, or have serious doubts God existed. What do you make of that?

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If that's what the poll said, that's what the poll said. How that translates into a general view, and an accurate view, of the population, I don't know. Maybe that is true about 50 per cent of Scots; maybe it isn't. I don't think that there's any more inclination to disbelieve today than there was 30 years ago. I don't think there's any more – but I don't think there's any less.

What do you consider religion's role to be in modern society?

Broadly speaking, a very well-known Christian thinker went on record as saying if religion is not part of the solution it will be part of the problem. There's an opportunity for all the world's faiths to demonstrate they have the capacity to bring people together to increase mutual respect and understanding and to work together for a safer and more just world. And I think religion can deliver on that.

It's been widely reported that church attendance figures are falling. Is that a concern for you?

Of course. I would have to say in our own denomination, although there is a decline going on at the moment, it's not going on at a fast speed. In fact, some of our congregations are increasing. That's not to say we don't have concerns. What's happening is the profile of church attendees is changing. In my own experience, what we're coming up with is people who have a much more enthusiastic and confident attitude to faith, so although numbers don't grow at the speed we would like, people who are living the Christian faith are living it with deeper commitment than ever, and that's good news.

What did you make of the (Roman Catholic] Bishop of Motherwell's comments last week about the "conspiracy" against the Church by gay campaigners, whom he described as the enemy?

That's a view that I do not subscribe to and, in my experience, I have seen no evidence that it is true at all.

What about the fact we had such a high-profile individual making those statements? Is that negative for religion as a whole and how it is perceived?

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I want to hedge my answer here because I think it must be the case that people have a right to speak from a religious conviction. So if somebody who is representing a particular faith feels they need to speak to a particular situation, they must have the right to do that. I think in this case it was the wrong situation to speak about and it was not the message the whole Christian community would wish to convey.

Also in the press in the last few months was the Archbishop of Canterbury's comments on Sharia law: that it perhaps should be incorporated into UK law. What did you think of that?

As I understand it, what the Archbishop of Canterbury was saying was that, just as special provision is made for the recognition of family disputes being settled in Jewish courts, just as it's accepted that the Law Society and the medical profession have their own tribunals for disciplinary affairs – and this is seen as acceptable within the overarching law of the nation – some similar provision should be made to include those of the Muslim community. I don't think that's at all exceptional.

It's important if we're going to have an integrated community that all sections of the community feel they have been recognised and heard, and one way of doing that would be to see if it's possible to incorporate some of this special area of family decision-making within the overarching law of the land. But there can only be one law and that is the law of the land and that cannot be diluted or compromised in any way.

Over recent years, there's been condemnation from religious groups about the so-called anti-religious nature of some children's books, such as Harry Potter and His Dark Materials. What have you made of that?

I've only read the Harry Potter books.

Did you enjoy them?

I did, although I found them a bit drawn out in places. I think it's tremendous this has encouraged children to read. Lots of children have started to read who weren't interested in reading books before. That's very positive. In the Harry Potter stuff, I have to say I've not read anything that makes me at all uneasy.

The underlying theme seems to be that love and a commitment to doing the right thing win out in the end, and I certainly wouldn't want to condemn that. It seems to me to be a very wholesome message. Heaven forbid that we ever get into a position of censorship. I think people must be free, as long as they are not offensive in their expression, to express their different views. These views actually exist, and it's quite reasonable that they should be drawn to the attention of young people.

What about The Passion, the BBC drama that has been running this week? Have you been watching that?

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I saw a couple of episodes. I think that any attempt to portray the Passion of Jesus and make it hook into the way people live their lives today – and the issues that are around today – is generally to be welcomed.

There are always things about these presentations that you feel, 'Oh well, if I was doing it, I wouldn't have done it that way', or whatever, but as a general rule I think the fact that the BBC has been prepared to screen this material is something I would commend.

You are based in Glasgow. Sectarianism has been a big issue in that city and beyond for many years. How has it evolved during your time?

Because of the initiative that was taken by Cardinal O'Brien, and then the Moderator, a couple of years ago, the two main churches – the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Scotland – have done a huge amount to educate people away from sectarianism. The Scottish Executive, as it then was, put a huge investment into this and the two main football clubs, Rangers and Celtic, have also put a huge amount of investment into this.

To a large extent, sectarianism has been removed as an automatic thing that people would drift into. But there is a residual element that likes to cause trouble and to try and pin it on sectarian difference, and I think it's clear that the people who continue to indulge in this have no religious affiliation at all, they're not interested in religion, they're simply out to make trouble. Now that's a different problem and I'm not sure that anyone has come up with any suggestion as to how we deal with that.

In recent years, going back to 9/11, how has the relationship between different religious groups which coexist in Scotland altered, in your perception?

Certainly at a leadership level, the leaders of all the faiths meet now on a regular basis, both nationally and in Glasgow. The city council took up an initiative and created a forum of faith following 9/11 so we have, at an official level, ways of being in touch with one another and discussing matters of common interest. The establishment of the Scottish inter-faith council, which also (has] headquarters in Glasgow, has been a very positive thing. So at an official level, there's a lot of consultation and a lot of common working at common problems.

However, I think we need to move to a different place, and the kind of inter-faith working we need now is when people with different faiths who are neighbours to one another start to relate to one another as neighbours, so that we can have a real integration across the community of people from different faiths.

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And what sort of effect would you say immigration is having upon the religious make-up of Scotland?

An interesting one. It's challenging us with our assumptions that our way of thinking, our way of worshipping, our way of ordering our life, is the only expression that there can be, say of Christian faith.

There are a lot of students coming into Glasgow, in particular from various parts of Africa, who are bringing with them a different experience of Christian faith, a different way of worshipping. Everybody knows about the increase in people from Poland, of course, and the impact that is having on Roman Catholic congregations, so I think it's making us sit up and wake up a bit and not be complacent.

In the future, how does the Church need to adapt to ensure it continues to be relevant, and indeed continues to survive?

I think that's a matter of communication. I think we need to develop new language and new styles.

We're not, as far as I know, very into texting and that kind of thing as a means of making people aware that the Church is here, it's available, it's wanting to serve the community.

There has been a massive expansion into the use of electronic stuff. A large number of people blog, for example. Officially, we have websites for congregations and for churches and there's a lot of information out there that's readily available to people, but I think we've got a long way to go to catch up with the kind of communication that normally happens between people today, and the Church needs to get into those channels of communication.

What about you personally? How au fait with the electronic age are you?

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Well, I'm capable of sending and receiving an e-mail and obviously I have internet connections, so I use the web for picking up information and news and stuff like that.

I don't often use the text, although I have the ability on my mobile. So I'm a bit of a dinosaur, I have to say.

Do you experience moments of doubt about your faith?

Oh, frequently. Yeah, frequently.

How do you deal with them?

I just try to live with it. When I was in training many years ago, I remember being shown a little verse from, I think it was Tennyson, a couple of lines which said: 'There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the world's religions', so I've always thought of doubt as being part and parcel of the journey of faith.

One wrestles with it and I think it's at moments of encountering intense personal tragedy – I mean the person who has lived an exemplary life but becomes ill and dies, the young person who dies, people behaving in an inhuman way towards other people. These are the kinds of situations that raise questions about what on Earth is going on. And one wrestles in faith.

But wrestling with faith is not a new thing. If you read the Psalms of David, they are full of the psalmist really having a shouting match with God and complaining that things are not as they should be. So this is not new. This is part of the general experience of faith.

How do you believe God shows himself in modern life?

I think in ordinary people striving hard to do the right thing, to be helpful, to be neighbourly. I think that's the main way.

The question is, why on Earth should people be good? But they are. Often against all inclination.

There is good in the world, and that is evidenced in the way people live and help one another. That speaks to me of God.