Episode 2 General Assembly


Episode 2

Sheena McDonald reports from Edinburgh on the week's proceedings of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.


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Transcript


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The single

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clenched fist...

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..lifted and ready.

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Or the open asking hand...

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..held out and waiting.

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Choose.

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For we meet by one or the other.

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These words by the American poet Carl Sandburg

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were spoken at the Church of Scotland's General Assembly,

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the morning after the Manchester bombing.

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The speaker said, "In this harsh, judgmental world,

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"there are clenched fists all around."

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Richard Frazer was presenting the Church And Society Council's report,

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which covers a broad span of interests

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from politics to gender and climate

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to justice. From asylum seekers and refugees to welfare.

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"Essential to all of these," he said, "is how we treat each other."

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And that sentiment by Sandburg contrasts

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what the world looks like to so many people today,

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with the world that Christ would like it to be.

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In our report, the term surveillance from the cross

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might have baffled a few of us,

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and it certainly baffled me when I first read it.

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But in the harsh world in which we live, the big data world,

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the world of random terrorism...

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..where people's online activity follows them forever

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and you cannot have your past misdemeanours forgiven.

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Where keyboard warriors lash out, and there's no mercy.

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Where people's anger and alienation

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is expressed in the killing of children.

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There are clenched fists all around us.

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And surveillance from the cross means

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looking out on the world with Christ's hands...

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..his open hands stretched out on the cross,

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forgiving a common criminal who was crucified beside him.

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The asking hand held out and waiting.

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And that is Christ's way.

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That is the Church's way.

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That is our way.

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A passionate debate ensued.

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We'll give you a flavour of that later.

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Before that, the Assembly considered

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how to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration,

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a paragraph in a letter sent in 1917 by Church of Scotland elder

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and Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour

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to Lord Rothschild, a leading Zionist.

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He wrote, "His Majesty's government views with favour

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"the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.

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"It has been clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may

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"prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish

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"communities in Palestine."

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The 1918 General Assembly supported that declaration.

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Today, a century on, the council's report is sobering.

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"The current situation between Israel and the Palestinian people

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"is unsustainable, not only for the disenfranchised Palestinians

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"but for the long-term security of Israel as a nation state."

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So how to mark the Balfour centenary?

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Moderator, following our practice in the World Mission Council of

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attentive accompaniment,

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I have sat in a Palestinian refugee camp with a family of a teenage boy

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shot dead by Israeli soldiers.

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And I have sat with the Jewish parents

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of an Israeli soldier who lost his

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life in the conflict.

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Their grief was the same.

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I have joined the crush and shared the humiliation

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of Palestinians trying to get through the Bethlehem check point

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just to go to work.

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They just do what they have to do because they see no other way.

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I've shared a conversation with a Jewish settler

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who lives in a settlement,

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not for ideological reasons,

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but because it meant he could afford a home for his young family.

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And when I asked him if he thought the current situation was just,

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and was it really tenable and sustainable for the future,

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and would he want his children to grow up behind walls?

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He said, "No..."

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"..but I cannot see any other way at the moment."

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Moderator, it is the responsibility of all of us who care...

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..to help everyone to look for other ways.

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Ways of building a just peace that is for all.

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"A just peace for all."

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Some commissioners wanted more.

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I am working with the refugees,

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and I would like to ask if it is possible

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for the Church of Scotland to take a stand on the settlements,

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so that probably we can start thinking

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of returning some of the refugees.

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As, after 69 years of being refugees,

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I think we should take them into consideration

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and start to think of solutions.

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I want the Assembly to be clear what the misery of Palestinian people

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which flows from the Balfour Declaration is.

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The question is always - who pays the price?

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And any comment which seeks to resolve the conflict

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which does not recognise the scale of Palestinian refugee problems

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doesn't begin to understand.

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Moderator, I understand that it's possible

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that you may go to Israel and the occupied

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Palestinian territories next year.

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If you do, I plead with you to get up at four in the morning

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and go to check point 330 and stand and watch 7,000 -

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that's the population of your parish, Moderator -

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7,000 Palestinian men who have to get up at two o'clock every morning

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in order to be forced through tiny metal cages

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to walk the huge, long distance, one hour, two hours,

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four hours it often takes,

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and you've no way out. If you can't breathe, that's your problem.

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If you can't get to the toilet, that's your problem.

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And at the end of it, you're meeting the IDF,

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and you've no idea what reception you'll get.

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And if you're late for work,

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or if you don't get to work the next day, you lose your job.

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I was in Israel and Palestine with 28 other members

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of the Church of Scotland,

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and we were fortunate enough to meet Naim Ateek,

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the doyenne of Palestinian theology.

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And he said to us,

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"I challenge the Church of Scotland

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"not to conceal the misery of the Palestinian people

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in the discussion of the Balfour Declaration."

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I pray every day, as everybody in this General Assembly does,

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that God's will will be done,

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and I believe that God's will WILL be done.

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Some day, that wall will fall.

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Some day, Jew and Christian and Muslim

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will be able to sing songs together.

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Some day, Jewish children,

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Israeli children and Palestinian children

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will be able to play games together.

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Some day, young people will fall in love.

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Some people, old people and young people,

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will see visions and dream dreams.

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Some day, when that day comes, the scripture will be fulfilled.

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That the wilderness, that wildnerness,

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the wilderness and the solitary place will be glad for them.

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The desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose,

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and when that great day comes, Moderator,

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the sun of righteousness will rise and shine with brilliance.

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Not so much on a promised land...

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..but on a land of promise.

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The Assembly eventually agreed that,

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"Commemorations be undertaken with integrity,

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"recognising the enormous cost to the Palestinian people

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"of the failure to fulfil the promise of the declaration.

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"Infringements of international law,

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"including the expansion of illegal settlements,

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"were condemned rather than deplored."

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But that wasn't enough for some.

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To deplore is not enough.

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And further pressure is needed now and worldwide

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from all who are concerned.

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Moderator, economics matter.

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We live in a global community.

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And so where words fail, economic factors can make a difference,

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as indeed we know they did,

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as a challenge to the apartheid regime in South Africa.

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One such tool for the creation of economic pressure is BDS.

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The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement

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which works to end international support

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for Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories

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and pressure Israel to comply with international law.

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Apartheid wasn't changed by economic pressure.

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It came from within.

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I was a junior clerk

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in the office of President de Klerk at that time,

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not being in the ministry.

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When he called us together, beginning of 1990, and he said,

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"Gentlemen and ladies, fasten your seat belts.

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"I'm going to release Nelson Mandela.

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"Not because of economic sanctions, not because of pressure,

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"but because it's the right thing to do."

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The call for boycott and sanctions was not, in the end,

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supported by the assembly.

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Furthermore, an extra new clause was inserted,

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expressing, "Deep concern in regard to Hamas's continual declaration

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"that Israel does not have a right to exist".

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The Church of Scotland has a long-established reputation

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for international concern.

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In the World Mission Debate,

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former moderator John Chalmers spoke of the world's youngest country,

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South Sudan. The Church of Scotland

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is working with the Presbyterian Church there to train peacemakers.

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The real tragedy is that not enough is being done

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by the international community.

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This is a forgotten place and a forgotten war

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and a forgotten nation.

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Our own government, both Scottish and United Kingdom,

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is barely involved.

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So we have to step up our advocacy on behalf of those

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who have no-one advocating for them.

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And as a simple tailpiece,

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you have to know that in this war-torn nation,

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where tribe is pitted against tribe,

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and where the killing fields are as brutal as any in recent history,

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more than 90% of the population would self identify as Christian.

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The church's influence there, therefore, is of huge importance.

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This year's Lord High Commissioner Princess Anne

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has been hosting at Holyroodhouse,

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a mile, a Royal Mile down the road here,

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Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan,

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an internationally acclaimed Muslim scholar and inter-faith pioneer.

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He was invited to address the General Assembly.

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Let me start by condemning in the strongest possible terms in my name,

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and in the name of His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan,

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these latest terrorist attacks on innocent young people.

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We ourselves have suffered many of these

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and I grieve to see them come to this country.

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We are particularly appalled to see them pretend

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to represent our own religion.

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Obviously, they do not.

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His view of the next 25 years was bleak.

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Terrorist propaganda and acts will succeed in making Muslims more hated

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than they currently are by most of the rest of the world,

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and in some places, Muslims will be in internment camps.

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And in others, in concentration camps, like Srebrenica in 1995.

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In some Muslim-majority countries,

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terrorism will succeed in intimidating minorities

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so that mass migrations

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will eventually separate religious populations,

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just as they did in Greece and Turkey after World War I,

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or in India, after partition.

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Religiously speaking,

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we will, of course, continue to have a growth of radical fundamentalism

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in Islam, but we will also have an Islamisation of radicals,

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so that angry young people with little faith

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will use Islam as an outlet for their anger.

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In addition to an Islamisation of criminals...

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the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of Isis,

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was such a criminal,

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and the Islamisation of lunatics, such as in Boko Haram.

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And finally, Islamisation of really ignorant and gullible people,

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such as we see in most of the lone wolf terrorists here in the West.

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Now, if all this sounds too bad to be true, unfortunately, it isn't.

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It is a mordant but serious warning,

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and, in fact, much of its substance is to be found in Islamic

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latter-day prophecy literature.

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So what to do?

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Jesus Christ said, "Woe to the world because of traps.

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"For traps must come.

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"But woe to that man by whom the trap comes."

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Now, we will certainly agree across religious lines

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that the first thing to do is keep our faith, prayers and principles,

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and not be buffeted by the vogue of the day, no matter what the cost.

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But even the fanatics believe this.

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And in fact, they take pride in it, quite literally.

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So, how can the dangers of fundamentalism be avoided

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whilst avoiding traps?

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The best way, traditionally,

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to broaden one's horizons was to do so literally, ie, through travel,

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with its dangers, difficulties,

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wonders and exposure to different peoples and ways.

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God says in the Koran, "Have they not travelled in the land

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"so that they may have hearts with which to comprehend?

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"Or eyes with which to hear?

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"Indeed, it is not the eyes that turn blind,

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"but it is the hearts that turn blind within the breasts."

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Now, however, since it is "ban voyage" for Muslims,

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and travel will scarcely be feasible,

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there remains only one option.

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And it is this. That people should put down their mobile phones

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and turn off the net and the TV

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and spend an hour every day in silent, solitary

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systematic reading.

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Indeed, the very first word revealed of the Koran was "read".

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And in fact, though you would not know it now

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to look at Muslims today,

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traditional Islamic civilisation,

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having no clergy or clerical institutions or castes as such,

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was based entirely on the written word.

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First, God's word, the Koran.

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Then the Prophet Muhammad's words,

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then all beneficial knowledge.

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And the moderator acknowledged the significance

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of Prince Ghazi's visit.

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Your Royal Highness,

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we are greatly honoured that you should come here and speak.

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You are known to some of us as a scholar

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who has produced the leading study of love in the holy Koran.

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We know that with His Majesty the King Abdullah II,

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you were the agent behind the Oman Statement in 2004,

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that insightful document that set out clearly

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that Islam is founded upon the mercy of God

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and is best exemplified in balance and moderation.

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In 2007,

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you were a leading mover behind the fundamentally important document,

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A Common Word Between Us And You,

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which you addressed to Christian leaders across the world,

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and maintained that Muslims and Christians

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may stand together on the basis of our common commitment

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to love God and love our neighbour.

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The Church of Scotland has a long-standing commitment

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to pay its employees

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the Scottish living wage, now £8.45 an hour.

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But with the best will in the world, it can't afford it.

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The Kirk employs 2,000 people in Crossreach,

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its social care services provider,

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with programmes and premises right across Scotland.

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These services are mainly paid for by local authorities,

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but they're not paying enough,

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as the Social Care Council Convener Bill Steele explained.

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In reporting on this matter at the Assembly last year,

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we were asked to work with the Council Assembly

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to enable payment of the living wage

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to all employees as soon as possible.

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Our report covers this matter in detail

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and makes clear that the church

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through the Council of Assembly

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has made additional financial contributions

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of over £452,000 over the past two years - that is per annum -

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to fund low pay.

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It is with considerable regret, therefore,

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that neither council has access to resources

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to enable the payment of the Scottish living wage

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to all Crossreach employees.

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Both councils are committed to the principle

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of paying the Scottish living wage to all employees,

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but unless funding agencies include this

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in their purchasing of the services we provide for them,

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the costs are prohibitive.

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Let's get back to where we started,

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The Church And Society council report.

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We come to see how the new digital technologies are changing politics,

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shaping public opinion in the echo chamber

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that reinforces particular opinions

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rather than inviting us to discourse in the public square.

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It is altering the nature of democracy,

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and we need to remember that we must,

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in an atmosphere that seeks consent, to make room for dissent.

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We restate the view

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that the church is neutral on the issue of Scottish independence.

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We've supported the Constitutional Convention

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in past years, the establishment of a Scottish Parliament,

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but we believe there is a profound difference

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between independence and devolution.

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The General Assembly has never expressed a wish

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to have a position on independence,

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recognising that there are honestly held opinions

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on both sides of the debate,

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and these opinions are held with integrity and with...

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..a desire to see the best for our country.

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And we see no obvious purpose being served by changing this position.

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For the tenth time in 15 years,

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the Assembly received a report on

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migration, asylum seekers and refugees.

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The emphasis this year was on the challenge

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of bringing together asylum seekers

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and refugees and other people.

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Commissioners spoke of their individual experiences.

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When these families attended their local secondary school

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through an interpreter, to share something of their experience

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of being refugees...

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..one question that was asked was, "What do you like about Scotland?"

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And the answer that came back from the teenage son was,

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"Here in Scotland, we feel safe."

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My wife and children spend every Wednesday with Syrian refugees.

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I was wondering if there is any possible way

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that we can urge the church...

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..to make an active approach at making funding

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to some extent available for English as a second language

0:20:510:20:55

to those who might want to volunteer...

0:20:550:20:57

..and minister to these beautiful people.

0:20:580:21:01

It is such an extraordinary outpouring of generosity

0:21:010:21:04

on the part of members of the Church of Scotland throughout Scotland...

0:21:040:21:08

..in offering that hand of hospitality and welcome.

0:21:090:21:13

One of the things that is a very practical suggestion

0:21:150:21:19

that is immediately open to any congregation to do

0:21:190:21:23

is if they want to do exactly what you are suggesting,

0:21:230:21:26

that in...

0:21:260:21:27

In association with a local authority,

0:21:290:21:31

it is possible for a congregation to apply for Go For It funding

0:21:310:21:35

to do just the kind of thing that you are suggesting.

0:21:350:21:38

So, Go For It.

0:21:380:21:40

Since being appointed as transition minister

0:21:420:21:43

at Saint Rollox Church of Scotland in Glasgow,

0:21:430:21:46

which is often known as the asylum seekers' church,

0:21:460:21:50

I have had my eyes opened in a new way.

0:21:500:21:55

And in a very uncomfortable and disturbing way,

0:21:550:21:58

to the way in which we as a nation

0:21:580:22:02

treat those who seek asylum in our country.

0:22:020:22:06

I am shocked to discover that within the congregation,

0:22:070:22:10

there is a family of four,

0:22:100:22:13

who, for 18 months have had no income whatsoever

0:22:130:22:18

because their appeal for asylum has been rejected.

0:22:180:22:23

Can you imagine what that is like for a family with two children?

0:22:240:22:29

No income?

0:22:290:22:31

All the implications that means for them?

0:22:310:22:34

And then the debate moved to the politics of health,

0:22:360:22:38

social care and education,

0:22:380:22:40

tackling some of the uncomfortable realities of life in Scotland today.

0:22:400:22:45

The report says we need political policy consensus

0:22:450:22:49

on issues like health care and education.

0:22:490:22:51

Is it not better to have a politics of difference,

0:22:520:22:55

debate and divergence

0:22:550:22:57

in order to discover new and better ways of doing this?

0:22:570:23:01

Does consensus not fossilise bad policy in health care and education?

0:23:010:23:07

I think what we don't want to do is find ourselves in a situation

0:23:070:23:12

where health and social care become political footballs.

0:23:120:23:17

I think one of the things that I feel very strongly about is,

0:23:170:23:22

as I said in my speech,

0:23:220:23:25

that consensus also invites the idea of dissent.

0:23:250:23:29

And I think that one of the things that we need to avoid in our society

0:23:290:23:32

is getting into the idea that somehow or other,

0:23:320:23:35

we need to stamp out opposition, we need to stamp out dissent.

0:23:350:23:38

I think consensus is arrived at

0:23:380:23:41

through dissent as well as respectful dialogue.

0:23:410:23:44

I hope you will consult

0:23:440:23:46

with those involved in health care

0:23:460:23:49

and those engaged in education.

0:23:490:23:51

The background to this is

0:23:510:23:53

it's not a long time ago

0:23:530:23:55

when we had enough ministers, enough teachers and enough GPs in Scotland,

0:23:550:24:00

and the country has changed enormously,

0:24:000:24:03

as has our attitude to what it means to be a flourishing Scotland.

0:24:030:24:08

And so we need to consult with others

0:24:080:24:10

who are trying to create appropriate policies

0:24:100:24:13

to make sure we have flourishing communities at the grassroots level.

0:24:130:24:17

I had a conversation with a GP the other day who said to me,

0:24:170:24:20

which I thought was really interesting,

0:24:200:24:22

she feels that, in many respects,

0:24:220:24:25

a lot of the work that is coming her way

0:24:250:24:27

is coming her way because some of the social networks of nurture

0:24:270:24:32

are breaking down in our society.

0:24:320:24:34

And so we need things like counselling services,

0:24:340:24:36

we need things like accompaniment,

0:24:360:24:38

and we need things like our churches to reimagine their role

0:24:380:24:42

as places of nurture and support and community,

0:24:420:24:46

not just for our congregations,

0:24:460:24:47

but for the whole community.

0:24:470:24:50

In last Sunday's programme,

0:24:500:24:52

we previewed the latest stage in the long-running

0:24:520:24:54

same-sex marriage conversation.

0:24:540:24:57

The Theological Forum had tabled a report

0:24:570:24:59

declaring that there is no theological barrier

0:24:590:25:02

to same-sex marriage being conducted in the Church of Scotland.

0:25:020:25:06

In debate here, the convener, Iain Torrance

0:25:060:25:09

said that neither those opposing nor those supporting same-sex marriage

0:25:090:25:12

should look for a knockout blow,

0:25:120:25:14

but the church members should live together.

0:25:140:25:17

One Commissioner's experience illustrated that.

0:25:170:25:20

We are never going to come to an agreement

0:25:200:25:23

on all of these theological matters,

0:25:230:25:26

and simply to keep repeating them and bring God's name into them all

0:25:260:25:30

calls into question my whole calling,

0:25:300:25:33

my whole understanding of God and my witness to Scripture.

0:25:330:25:37

And one of the things I sometimes think

0:25:370:25:40

is that it's hard for people to understand

0:25:400:25:43

how do you navigate this concept of constrained difference?

0:25:430:25:48

Well, at times, I can be quite a simple soul,

0:25:480:25:52

so could I just give you a very simple illustration

0:25:520:25:55

of how constrained difference CAN work?

0:25:550:25:57

I'm sitting up here beside Mike Goss.

0:25:590:26:02

Those of you who know Mike,

0:26:020:26:04

those of you who know me,

0:26:040:26:05

will know that we sit really quite far, theologically.

0:26:050:26:09

Poles apart, some might say.

0:26:090:26:10

In fact, we were sitting together the other day,

0:26:110:26:13

and we were joking that we might actually be

0:26:130:26:16

the embodiment of constrained difference.

0:26:160:26:18

And I'm sitting beside him again today.

0:26:190:26:22

But what some of you don't know is that Mike and I

0:26:220:26:25

were ministers together in Dundee.

0:26:250:26:28

Not only were we ministers together, we were neighbouring ministers.

0:26:280:26:31

We lived on the same street,

0:26:310:26:33

our houses were three doors apart from each other, we worked together,

0:26:330:26:37

we met together, our congregations met and worshipped together.

0:26:370:26:41

And we even socialised together.

0:26:410:26:44

And we remain friends.

0:26:440:26:46

And in time to come, Mike moved away from his charge,

0:26:460:26:49

I moved away from my charge.

0:26:490:26:51

Our charges held, I would say,

0:26:510:26:54

to predominantly our own theological persuasions on either side.

0:26:540:26:58

A few years down the line, Mike's charge, my charge became united,

0:26:580:27:03

and it was a very happy union

0:27:030:27:05

because it was based upon relationships,

0:27:050:27:08

it was based upon understanding the Word of God with difference.

0:27:080:27:12

With difference.

0:27:120:27:14

Mike Goss loves the Lord.

0:27:140:27:16

He serves the Lord.

0:27:160:27:17

He has a ministry for the Lord.

0:27:170:27:19

I would like to claim I have the same.

0:27:190:27:22

This is constrained difference.

0:27:220:27:24

And this is how you navigate these things.

0:27:240:27:28

It is not about saying that what one person believes is wrong

0:27:280:27:31

and the other. It will never get anywhere with that.

0:27:310:27:34

And after what the moderator had correctly predicted

0:27:360:27:39

would be a good and robust debate,

0:27:390:27:41

the forum's recommendation

0:27:410:27:43

was accepted by a majority of commissioners.

0:27:430:27:46

Each morning assembly began with worship, led by the moderator,

0:27:570:28:00

so let's end with one of Derek Browning's reflections

0:28:000:28:04

on how Jesus met with those who felt unworthy and unlovable,

0:28:040:28:08

welcoming them, not with a clenched fist, but with an open hand.

0:28:080:28:11

None so broken, they can't be mended.

0:28:130:28:16

None so wicked, they can't be forgiven.

0:28:160:28:19

None so sick, they can't be healed.

0:28:190:28:22

None so lost, they can't be found.

0:28:220:28:25

None so unable to keep their promises

0:28:250:28:28

that they can't be given another chance.

0:28:280:28:32

None so unclean on the inside that they can't be purified.

0:28:320:28:37

None so narrow-minded that they can't be enlightened.

0:28:370:28:41

None so stuck in their ways that they can't be moved.

0:28:410:28:46

None so hard-hearted that they can't be softened.

0:28:470:28:52

None so invisible that they can't be seen.

0:28:520:28:56

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