Comment: New Scotland can be built on higher morals

Picture: Donald MacLeod
Picture: Donald MacLeod
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Since the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland has visited Holyrood every year.

The visit provides the Moderator with an opportunity to meet party leaders, attend committee hearings, and generally talk with politicians and staff as they go about their business.

It is an easy but effective method of keeping channels of communication open, expressing the Church’s gratitude to our leaders and civil servants in government, and discussing areas of mutual concern.

Not the least of these is the Church’s concern for the plight of children living in Scotland, where one-in-five are growing up in poverty, or the most vulnerable and most marginalised in our society, the weak and the poor.

This year, as part of my three day visit from today, I have an opportunity to see first hand the work being done by elected officials and will have a chance to give, as it were, a wish list to Holyrood for the coming year; and to raise matters on behalf of the Church of Scotland.

One of key areas of discussion during my trip will be about the many young people who are finding it difficult to find work and what can be done to help them get employment. These youngsters have been left jilted at the altar of education and employment. They have been promised so much but so often let down.

The problem is not just the wages that are not being earned, but the opportunities that are being denied. Unemployed young people are not being granted the opportunity to experience a working life and all the challenges and rewards that this presents. For thousands of young people, the prospect of developing and maturing as an adult and as a citizen is being denied. The blight of youth unemployment is a growing crisis in our communities.

The Church of Scotland has an idea and vision of what it wants our nation’s future to be. We urge our politicians to engage with us and work with us in shaping Scotland we want to live in, be it independent or part of the United Kingdom, as we seek the wellbeing of society.

While we recognise that we cannot leave all the decisions to those in power we want to inspire our congregations to become “communities of grace,” open to all and serving all in our parishes. At the focus of our thinking is the teaching of Jesus; human beings cannot simply live on bread alone.

Studies by Professor Phil Hanlon from the University of Glasgow, who specialises in public health, suggests we need to find a way of healing the disease of the human spirit.

The implication of his work suggests a distinct need for us all to develop our spiritual lives. The Christian faith has helped shape Scotland in the past and will continue to do so in the future. We want to show how it can continue to bring a net benefit to our communities and individuals across Scotland. During my visit I will urge those I meet to keep focused on this. I firmly believe that the whole of Scotland could be a community of grace. It is a powerful and achievable goal.

Being an elected representative is a covenant. The word covenant is an ancient word, rooted in the Old Testament. To make a covenant is to pursue the welfare of the promise you made even if it is costly to oneself. It is to dedicate oneself to the promise. I wil remind those I meet of that pledge.

So what kind of Scotland do we want for the one-in-five children living in poverty? I want us to be able to “cross out” childhood poverty the length and breadth of Scotland. We have to make sure it remains at the top of the political agenda. It is simply unacceptable for one-in-five children to be living in poverty. The Church speaks about this issue because children are central. They are not peripheral nor are they preliminary.

We should be seeking to prevent things such as childhood poverty and homelessness issues or the elderly having to choose between having the heating on or not in the winter months or have a hot meal. The increased number of food banks should be ringing alarm bells.

Paying for services now to improve social outcomes in the future might be a good idea as it saves money in the long-term as reliance on health, social and criminal justice services are reduced. But our desire should not be driven by the need to save money, but rather we should be driven by the desire to help individuals to lead happy and fulfilled lives.

That is why the Church of Scotland has been loud in telling Holyrood that something has to be done to tackle payday loan companies. They target the most economically vulnerable in society and more has to be done by Holyrood to protect people from these “legal loan sharks” who charge up to 4,000 percent interest. I urge politicians to stand with the Church of Scotland and do something.

Excessive rewards made, apparently even after failure, have caused members of the public and politicians to reassess and in some cases, to rediscover the ethical values which underpin our civic society. The Church has much to contribute in such soul-searching debates.

I am excited to talk about this with party leaders over the course of my visit: I am calling on our politicians to join me in standing up for the most economically vulnerable in our society.

Although the Church of Scotland remains impartial as to the question of independence, I think it is really important to find a space where we can explore the future of Scotland and to allow the public to engage with this important question.

How we treat the most vulnerable in society has to be at the centre of every debate we have about Scotland’s future.

• The Right Reverend Albert Bogle is Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.