Jim Duffy: Brian Souter's sermon has got me thinking

After attending the National Prayer Breakfast, Jim Duffy feels inspired to help others, if not immediately join a church.
Sir Brian Souter managed to give a sermon without being preachy, says Jim DuffySir Brian Souter managed to give a sermon without being preachy, says Jim Duffy
Sir Brian Souter managed to give a sermon without being preachy, says Jim Duffy

It was 5am on Wednesday morning and, as my alarm rang out, I already began to stress. Not because I was up early or had to catch a train or prepare for an interview. No, this morning was all about transformation.

Not simply change for change’s sake, but change that would and should have lasting benefits for Scotland. Yes, I was nervous as I donned my black chinos, brown brogues and purple Ted Baker fitted shirt. It is my favourite shirt and acts likes a shield in any event that I attend. I jumped in the car and set the satnav up for the Prestonfield House Hotel. The bypass was already busy. I was less concerned with the traffic and more focused on what I was about to hear, to see and to experience. In good time, I swung into the sweeping driveway of this swish hotel and with some assistance, parked my car and headed towards my final destination. I was on table 17, according to seating plan. Table 17 at the National Prayer Breakfast for Scotland.

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I was fully expecting a bit of a sermon. After all, Jesus was the main attraction at the Sermon on the Mount and I had no doubt that he would figure somewhere in the proceedings that morning. He did, but unlike anything I had ever seen before. I found my table, introduced myself to my table-mates and sat down to scrambled eggs, black pudding and links with two rounds of coffee. There were about 300 people in the room with MPs, MSPs, OBEs, Archbishops, Reverends, Sirs and Ladies and a whole raft of other people I had never seen before. I liked that. Not the usual faces.

Many tables were hosted by churches that I had never heard of. Names like Destiny Church caught me eye. Again not the usual deity of priests with dog collars and Church of Scotland ministers looking stern. It all felt very relaxed. But, I was still apprehensive about the sermon I was about to receive.

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Sir Brian Souter was the key speaker. I’ve never met him before or seen him speak. All I knew before this event was that he was a self-made billionaire who was pro-Scottish independence and a committed Christian. I know his sister, Ann Gloag, well and count her as one of the most charitable and honest people I have met. So, I was counting on Brian being impressive on the stage, albeit a bit preachy ...

Nothing could have been further from the Truth. Yes, Souter was impressive, but far from preachy or sermon-like in his approach. As the true entrepreneur that he is, he flipped everything on its head and challenged the Church and Scotland.

A challenge that was needed 20 years ago. A bit like the third runway at Heathrow. Chris Grayling stated this week that the time was “now” for this new runway. Whereas everyone in the business knows that dithering and politics stalled this runway decision over the last two decades, while other international airports grew and flourished. So too the messaging from the Christian religions, according to Souter.

In an era where we have so many motivational gurus and change agents talking about the need for humans to have purpose and meaning in our lives, the message from Souter was honest and straight to the point. We have become “purposeless” and fragmented, more so than in any time in recent history. And perhaps the Christian religions have been left wanting, now needing to catch up fast. I couldn’t have agreed more.

“Rules” are a blocker to so many who may wish to adopt Christianity or any other religion for that matter. Do this. Do that. Don’t do this. Didn’t do that. Stand. Kneel. Fish on a Friday and all that jazz. Yep, rules put people off participating as they restrict and constrict communication and honesty.

Maybe just some guidelines might allow us to get to know Jesus a bit better. Personally, I recall going to confession when I was about 14 and telling the priest that I had masturbated. He told me it was a cardinal sin and that I had to stop it and say five Our Fathers and eight Hail Mary’s. It didn’t do me any good in any shape or form. These “Rules” were not fit for purpose for a hormone-driven teenage boy in heat.

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The next disruptive message that came from the stage was that Christianity should “connect before it corrects”. This was a powerful message in “behaviour modification”, according to Souter, and it went down well with the audience. After all, Jesus connected with people and did not judge them – right? I was beginning to tune in to what Souter had to say and I could see the “Christian” tables in the room totally digging it. Perhaps Christianity has to re-frame how it “preached” the gospel of Jesus Christ for a modern age.

After some more prayers from others and some amazing, mesmerising singing from the Watoto Children’s Choir, I left the prayer breakfast feeling optimistic. No-one had preached at me and I hadn’t needed to kiss a Cardinal’s ring. If this was the new way that I could consume the teachings of Jesus Christ, then the messaging was so much more positive and powerful. It was grounded in people. Small transformations in lots of lives at street level. Not big sermons heavy with theological and ontological depth, mind-boggling chapter and verse.

Am I going to rush out and join a church group this week? Probably not. But one thing is for sure. It has jarred me into thinking about preventing “purposelessness” in people’s lives and what small part I can play in making small transformative gestures that add meaning for people. And surely that is what religion should be focused on in the 21st century?