Michael Gove: flabby Kirk needs to regain its moral might

ONE of the terrible things about getting old is discovering how often you find yourself agreeing with Dr John Reid. In his new role as chairman of Celtic FC, Dr Reid was laying into Rangers fans the other day.

As a lifelong Aberdeen supporter, I would normally regard any interchange between representatives of the Old Firm as a bit like a spat between Russian oligarchs – a distant conflict between flashy types I wouldn't normally go anywhere near for fear of getting roughed up in the crossfire. But on this particular occasion, even though I'm as True Blue as they come politically, I want to say: let's hear it for the Bhoys.

The matter at issue is the habit of some – I stress only some – Rangers fans of singing a particularly offensive song from the terraces when facing not just Celtic but also Hibs and even Dundee United. The song, to the tune of the Beach Boys' 'The Sloop John B' is a deliberately anti-Catholic rant which ends: "The famine's over – why don't you go home?"

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Now I'm no naif. I've been to Ibrox and understand the way in which the tangled strands of Irish and Scots history, a type of Unionist pride and a strain of Republican braggadocios have become so much part of the Old Firm story. But, as the fate of Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross shows, simply turning a blind eye to the gratuitous giving of offence isn't acceptable.

I know how much some supporters of each team cherish their traditions, but the famine song isn't an anthem from the past rendered respectable by the passage of time; it is an all too modern, all too ugly expression of the purest street prejudice. And the sentiments behind it couldn't be more out of place.

Because the anti-Catholic bile which gives the famine song its dark energy comes at a time when the Roman Catholic Church is actually rendering Scotland a signal service. We're living through a period of moral questioning and ethical uncertainty. And we need leadership that can help us navigate past the easy temptations of believing that there are no absolutes any more and bending affairs to our unfettered will is the ultimate good.

We wonder where the boundaries of life should be drawn. We hear the plea from Margo Macdonald for a relaxation of the law on suicide and listen for an answering argument against making killing easier. We ponder the wisdom of making life a means rather than an end in itself, hear some argue that embryos should be used as instruments to engineer scientific breakthroughs and listen for a clear ethical response which safeguards innocence. We reflect on how a generation can be raised to show respect to others and live a life of service, hear men like Richard Dawkins take a wrecking ball to the ethical architecture which has sustained our civilisation and listen again for a strong authentic case to counter his zealotry. In all these conflicts we are lucky there have been voices raised to question the spirit of the age, the view that human life can increasingly be seen as a commodity or an accident, rather than a gift. And the voices which have been clearest have been Scots voices. Scots Catholic voices.

I am thinking particularly of Cardinal Keith O'Brien and the composer James Macmillan. The Cardinal brings a directness, the composer a gentleness, to their interventions, which are complementary. You may not always agree with every word either man has uttered. I don't.

But I am grateful beyond words that both have used their intellect, their fluency, their moment in the public eye to argue for protecting innocence, for the voiceless and vulnerable, for ethical traditions which place defence of the weakest at their heart.

It's ironic that the strongest voices of moral clarity in Scotland now should be Catholic, much in the same way as the clearest moral leadership in England now comes from the Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, and the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu. The Catholic workers who settled in west central Scotland in Victorian times, the Jewish refugees who came here at the turn of the century and the new Afro-Caribbean citizens who've arrived since the war have kept alive the tradition and example of moral witness in a way many of the rest of us have forgotten.

Writing as someone brought up in the Church of Scotland, I have to ask who is there now in the Kirk, or of the Kirk, who speaks with the command, force and gravity of Cardinal O'Brien or James Macmillan? I cannot think of a contemporary William Barclay or George MacLeod in the Kirk, nor a scholar, preacher or social missionary to match these men. Nor can I think of any decisive intervention in the ethical life of the nation which the Kirk has generated recently.

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The Church of Scotland, throughout its life, used to punch above its weight. From the Reformation, through the Great Disruption of the 1840s, to the missionary work of late Victorian times and the foundation of the Iona community, the Kirk and its controversies have given life and spirit to Christianity and intellectual energy to the United Kingdom.

But now it seems to have lost its fighting strength; what was once muscular about its Christianity now seems increasingly flabby. And, it appears to me, the place once taken by the Church of Scotland in our national life is increasingly occupied by the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland. The famine may be over, but there's still a hunger in the lives of men, and we Scots should recognise it's not being fed, here, in our home.

• Michael Gove is Shadow Secretary of State for Children