Sheena McDonald reports from Edinburgh on the week's proceedings of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
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..lifted and ready.
Or the open asking hand...
..held out and waiting.
For we meet by one or the other.
These words by the American poet Carl Sandburg
were spoken at the Church of Scotland's General Assembly,
the morning after the Manchester bombing.
The speaker said, "In this harsh, judgmental world,
"there are clenched fists all around."
Richard Frazer was presenting the Church And Society Council's report,
which covers a broad span of interests
from politics to gender and climate
to justice. From asylum seekers and refugees to welfare.
"Essential to all of these," he said, "is how we treat each other."
And that sentiment by Sandburg contrasts
what the world looks like to so many people today,
with the world that Christ would like it to be.
In our report, the term surveillance from the cross
might have baffled a few of us,
and it certainly baffled me when I first read it.
But in the harsh world in which we live, the big data world,
the world of random terrorism...
..where people's online activity follows them forever
and you cannot have your past misdemeanours forgiven.
Where keyboard warriors lash out, and there's no mercy.
Where people's anger and alienation
is expressed in the killing of children.
There are clenched fists all around us.
And surveillance from the cross means
looking out on the world with Christ's hands...
..his open hands stretched out on the cross,
forgiving a common criminal who was crucified beside him.
The asking hand held out and waiting.
And that is Christ's way.
That is the Church's way.
That is our way.
A passionate debate ensued.
We'll give you a flavour of that later.
Before that, the Assembly considered
how to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration,
a paragraph in a letter sent in 1917 by Church of Scotland elder
and Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour
to Lord Rothschild, a leading Zionist.
He wrote, "His Majesty's government views with favour
"the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.
"It has been clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may
"prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish
"communities in Palestine."
The 1918 General Assembly supported that declaration.
Today, a century on, the council's report is sobering.
"The current situation between Israel and the Palestinian people
"is unsustainable, not only for the disenfranchised Palestinians
"but for the long-term security of Israel as a nation state."
So how to mark the Balfour centenary?
Moderator, following our practice in the World Mission Council of
I have sat in a Palestinian refugee camp with a family of a teenage boy
shot dead by Israeli soldiers.
And I have sat with the Jewish parents
of an Israeli soldier who lost his
life in the conflict.
Their grief was the same.
I have joined the crush and shared the humiliation
of Palestinians trying to get through the Bethlehem check point
just to go to work.
They just do what they have to do because they see no other way.
I've shared a conversation with a Jewish settler
who lives in a settlement,
not for ideological reasons,
but because it meant he could afford a home for his young family.
And when I asked him if he thought the current situation was just,
and was it really tenable and sustainable for the future,
and would he want his children to grow up behind walls?
He said, "No..."
"..but I cannot see any other way at the moment."
Moderator, it is the responsibility of all of us who care...
..to help everyone to look for other ways.
Ways of building a just peace that is for all.
"A just peace for all."
Some commissioners wanted more.
I am working with the refugees,
and I would like to ask if it is possible
for the Church of Scotland to take a stand on the settlements,
so that probably we can start thinking
of returning some of the refugees.
As, after 69 years of being refugees,
I think we should take them into consideration
and start to think of solutions.
I want the Assembly to be clear what the misery of Palestinian people
which flows from the Balfour Declaration is.
The question is always - who pays the price?
And any comment which seeks to resolve the conflict
which does not recognise the scale of Palestinian refugee problems
doesn't begin to understand.
Moderator, I understand that it's possible
that you may go to Israel and the occupied
Palestinian territories next year.
If you do, I plead with you to get up at four in the morning
and go to check point 330 and stand and watch 7,000 -
that's the population of your parish, Moderator -
7,000 Palestinian men who have to get up at two o'clock every morning
in order to be forced through tiny metal cages
to walk the huge, long distance, one hour, two hours,
four hours it often takes,
and you've no way out. If you can't breathe, that's your problem.
If you can't get to the toilet, that's your problem.
And at the end of it, you're meeting the IDF,
and you've no idea what reception you'll get.
And if you're late for work,
or if you don't get to work the next day, you lose your job.
I was in Israel and Palestine with 28 other members
of the Church of Scotland,
and we were fortunate enough to meet Naim Ateek,
the doyenne of Palestinian theology.
And he said to us,
"I challenge the Church of Scotland
"not to conceal the misery of the Palestinian people
in the discussion of the Balfour Declaration."
I pray every day, as everybody in this General Assembly does,
that God's will will be done,
and I believe that God's will WILL be done.
Some day, that wall will fall.
Some day, Jew and Christian and Muslim
will be able to sing songs together.
Some day, Jewish children,
Israeli children and Palestinian children
will be able to play games together.
Some day, young people will fall in love.
Some people, old people and young people,
will see visions and dream dreams.
Some day, when that day comes, the scripture will be fulfilled.
That the wilderness, that wildnerness,
the wilderness and the solitary place will be glad for them.
The desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose,
and when that great day comes, Moderator,
the sun of righteousness will rise and shine with brilliance.
Not so much on a promised land...
..but on a land of promise.
The Assembly eventually agreed that,
"Commemorations be undertaken with integrity,
"recognising the enormous cost to the Palestinian people
"of the failure to fulfil the promise of the declaration.
"Infringements of international law,
"including the expansion of illegal settlements,
"were condemned rather than deplored."
But that wasn't enough for some.
To deplore is not enough.
And further pressure is needed now and worldwide
from all who are concerned.
Moderator, economics matter.
We live in a global community.
And so where words fail, economic factors can make a difference,
as indeed we know they did,
as a challenge to the apartheid regime in South Africa.
One such tool for the creation of economic pressure is BDS.
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement
which works to end international support
for Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories
and pressure Israel to comply with international law.
Apartheid wasn't changed by economic pressure.
It came from within.
I was a junior clerk
in the office of President de Klerk at that time,
not being in the ministry.
When he called us together, beginning of 1990, and he said,
"Gentlemen and ladies, fasten your seat belts.
"I'm going to release Nelson Mandela.
"Not because of economic sanctions, not because of pressure,
"but because it's the right thing to do."
The call for boycott and sanctions was not, in the end,
supported by the assembly.
Furthermore, an extra new clause was inserted,
expressing, "Deep concern in regard to Hamas's continual declaration
"that Israel does not have a right to exist".
The Church of Scotland has a long-established reputation
for international concern.
In the World Mission Debate,
former moderator John Chalmers spoke of the world's youngest country,
South Sudan. The Church of Scotland
is working with the Presbyterian Church there to train peacemakers.
The real tragedy is that not enough is being done
by the international community.
This is a forgotten place and a forgotten war
and a forgotten nation.
Our own government, both Scottish and United Kingdom,
is barely involved.
So we have to step up our advocacy on behalf of those
who have no-one advocating for them.
And as a simple tailpiece,
you have to know that in this war-torn nation,
where tribe is pitted against tribe,
and where the killing fields are as brutal as any in recent history,
more than 90% of the population would self identify as Christian.
The church's influence there, therefore, is of huge importance.
This year's Lord High Commissioner Princess Anne
has been hosting at Holyroodhouse,
a mile, a Royal Mile down the road here,
Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan,
an internationally acclaimed Muslim scholar and inter-faith pioneer.
He was invited to address the General Assembly.
Let me start by condemning in the strongest possible terms in my name,
and in the name of His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan,
these latest terrorist attacks on innocent young people.
We ourselves have suffered many of these
and I grieve to see them come to this country.
We are particularly appalled to see them pretend
to represent our own religion.
Obviously, they do not.
His view of the next 25 years was bleak.
Terrorist propaganda and acts will succeed in making Muslims more hated
than they currently are by most of the rest of the world,
and in some places, Muslims will be in internment camps.
And in others, in concentration camps, like Srebrenica in 1995.
In some Muslim-majority countries,
terrorism will succeed in intimidating minorities
so that mass migrations
will eventually separate religious populations,
just as they did in Greece and Turkey after World War I,
or in India, after partition.
we will, of course, continue to have a growth of radical fundamentalism
in Islam, but we will also have an Islamisation of radicals,
so that angry young people with little faith
will use Islam as an outlet for their anger.
In addition to an Islamisation of criminals...
the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of Isis,
was such a criminal,
and the Islamisation of lunatics, such as in Boko Haram.
And finally, Islamisation of really ignorant and gullible people,
such as we see in most of the lone wolf terrorists here in the West.
Now, if all this sounds too bad to be true, unfortunately, it isn't.
It is a mordant but serious warning,
and, in fact, much of its substance is to be found in Islamic
latter-day prophecy literature.
So what to do?
Jesus Christ said, "Woe to the world because of traps.
"For traps must come.
"But woe to that man by whom the trap comes."
Now, we will certainly agree across religious lines
that the first thing to do is keep our faith, prayers and principles,
and not be buffeted by the vogue of the day, no matter what the cost.
But even the fanatics believe this.
And in fact, they take pride in it, quite literally.
So, how can the dangers of fundamentalism be avoided
whilst avoiding traps?
The best way, traditionally,
to broaden one's horizons was to do so literally, ie, through travel,
with its dangers, difficulties,
wonders and exposure to different peoples and ways.
God says in the Koran, "Have they not travelled in the land
"so that they may have hearts with which to comprehend?
"Or eyes with which to hear?
"Indeed, it is not the eyes that turn blind,
"but it is the hearts that turn blind within the breasts."
Now, however, since it is "ban voyage" for Muslims,
and travel will scarcely be feasible,
there remains only one option.
And it is this. That people should put down their mobile phones
and turn off the net and the TV
and spend an hour every day in silent, solitary
Indeed, the very first word revealed of the Koran was "read".
And in fact, though you would not know it now
to look at Muslims today,
traditional Islamic civilisation,
having no clergy or clerical institutions or castes as such,
was based entirely on the written word.
First, God's word, the Koran.
Then the Prophet Muhammad's words,
then all beneficial knowledge.
And the moderator acknowledged the significance
of Prince Ghazi's visit.
Your Royal Highness,
we are greatly honoured that you should come here and speak.
You are known to some of us as a scholar
who has produced the leading study of love in the holy Koran.
We know that with His Majesty the King Abdullah II,
you were the agent behind the Oman Statement in 2004,
that insightful document that set out clearly
that Islam is founded upon the mercy of God
and is best exemplified in balance and moderation.
you were a leading mover behind the fundamentally important document,
A Common Word Between Us And You,
which you addressed to Christian leaders across the world,
and maintained that Muslims and Christians
may stand together on the basis of our common commitment
to love God and love our neighbour.
The Church of Scotland has a long-standing commitment
to pay its employees
the Scottish living wage, now £8.45 an hour.
But with the best will in the world, it can't afford it.
The Kirk employs 2,000 people in Crossreach,
its social care services provider,
with programmes and premises right across Scotland.
These services are mainly paid for by local authorities,
but they're not paying enough,
as the Social Care Council Convener Bill Steele explained.
In reporting on this matter at the Assembly last year,
we were asked to work with the Council Assembly
to enable payment of the living wage
to all employees as soon as possible.
Our report covers this matter in detail
and makes clear that the church
through the Council of Assembly
has made additional financial contributions
of over £452,000 over the past two years - that is per annum -
to fund low pay.
It is with considerable regret, therefore,
that neither council has access to resources
to enable the payment of the Scottish living wage
to all Crossreach employees.
Both councils are committed to the principle
of paying the Scottish living wage to all employees,
but unless funding agencies include this
in their purchasing of the services we provide for them,
the costs are prohibitive.
Let's get back to where we started,
The Church And Society council report.
We come to see how the new digital technologies are changing politics,
shaping public opinion in the echo chamber
that reinforces particular opinions
rather than inviting us to discourse in the public square.
It is altering the nature of democracy,
and we need to remember that we must,
in an atmosphere that seeks consent, to make room for dissent.
We restate the view
that the church is neutral on the issue of Scottish independence.
We've supported the Constitutional Convention
in past years, the establishment of a Scottish Parliament,
but we believe there is a profound difference
between independence and devolution.
The General Assembly has never expressed a wish
to have a position on independence,
recognising that there are honestly held opinions
on both sides of the debate,
and these opinions are held with integrity and with...
..a desire to see the best for our country.
And we see no obvious purpose being served by changing this position.
For the tenth time in 15 years,
the Assembly received a report on
migration, asylum seekers and refugees.
The emphasis this year was on the challenge
of bringing together asylum seekers
and refugees and other people.
Commissioners spoke of their individual experiences.
When these families attended their local secondary school
through an interpreter, to share something of their experience
of being refugees...
..one question that was asked was, "What do you like about Scotland?"
And the answer that came back from the teenage son was,
"Here in Scotland, we feel safe."
My wife and children spend every Wednesday with Syrian refugees.
I was wondering if there is any possible way
that we can urge the church...
..to make an active approach at making funding
to some extent available for English as a second language
to those who might want to volunteer...
..and minister to these beautiful people.
It is such an extraordinary outpouring of generosity
on the part of members of the Church of Scotland throughout Scotland...
..in offering that hand of hospitality and welcome.
One of the things that is a very practical suggestion
that is immediately open to any congregation to do
is if they want to do exactly what you are suggesting,
In association with a local authority,
it is possible for a congregation to apply for Go For It funding
to do just the kind of thing that you are suggesting.
So, Go For It.
Since being appointed as transition minister
at Saint Rollox Church of Scotland in Glasgow,
which is often known as the asylum seekers' church,
I have had my eyes opened in a new way.
And in a very uncomfortable and disturbing way,
to the way in which we as a nation
treat those who seek asylum in our country.
I am shocked to discover that within the congregation,
there is a family of four,
who, for 18 months have had no income whatsoever
because their appeal for asylum has been rejected.
Can you imagine what that is like for a family with two children?
All the implications that means for them?
And then the debate moved to the politics of health,
social care and education,
tackling some of the uncomfortable realities of life in Scotland today.
The report says we need political policy consensus
on issues like health care and education.
Is it not better to have a politics of difference,
debate and divergence
in order to discover new and better ways of doing this?
Does consensus not fossilise bad policy in health care and education?
I think what we don't want to do is find ourselves in a situation
where health and social care become political footballs.
I think one of the things that I feel very strongly about is,
as I said in my speech,
that consensus also invites the idea of dissent.
And I think that one of the things that we need to avoid in our society
is getting into the idea that somehow or other,
we need to stamp out opposition, we need to stamp out dissent.
I think consensus is arrived at
through dissent as well as respectful dialogue.
I hope you will consult
with those involved in health care
and those engaged in education.
The background to this is
it's not a long time ago
when we had enough ministers, enough teachers and enough GPs in Scotland,
and the country has changed enormously,
as has our attitude to what it means to be a flourishing Scotland.
And so we need to consult with others
who are trying to create appropriate policies
to make sure we have flourishing communities at the grassroots level.
I had a conversation with a GP the other day who said to me,
which I thought was really interesting,
she feels that, in many respects,
a lot of the work that is coming her way
is coming her way because some of the social networks of nurture
are breaking down in our society.
And so we need things like counselling services,
we need things like accompaniment,
and we need things like our churches to reimagine their role
as places of nurture and support and community,
not just for our congregations,
but for the whole community.
In last Sunday's programme,
we previewed the latest stage in the long-running
same-sex marriage conversation.
The Theological Forum had tabled a report
declaring that there is no theological barrier
to same-sex marriage being conducted in the Church of Scotland.
In debate here, the convener, Iain Torrance
said that neither those opposing nor those supporting same-sex marriage
should look for a knockout blow,
but the church members should live together.
One Commissioner's experience illustrated that.
We are never going to come to an agreement
on all of these theological matters,
and simply to keep repeating them and bring God's name into them all
calls into question my whole calling,
my whole understanding of God and my witness to Scripture.
And one of the things I sometimes think
is that it's hard for people to understand
how do you navigate this concept of constrained difference?
Well, at times, I can be quite a simple soul,
so could I just give you a very simple illustration
of how constrained difference CAN work?
I'm sitting up here beside Mike Goss.
Those of you who know Mike,
those of you who know me,
will know that we sit really quite far, theologically.
Poles apart, some might say.
In fact, we were sitting together the other day,
and we were joking that we might actually be
the embodiment of constrained difference.
And I'm sitting beside him again today.
But what some of you don't know is that Mike and I
were ministers together in Dundee.
Not only were we ministers together, we were neighbouring ministers.
We lived on the same street,
our houses were three doors apart from each other, we worked together,
we met together, our congregations met and worshipped together.
And we even socialised together.
And we remain friends.
And in time to come, Mike moved away from his charge,
I moved away from my charge.
Our charges held, I would say,
to predominantly our own theological persuasions on either side.
A few years down the line, Mike's charge, my charge became united,
and it was a very happy union
because it was based upon relationships,
it was based upon understanding the Word of God with difference.
Mike Goss loves the Lord.
He serves the Lord.
He has a ministry for the Lord.
I would like to claim I have the same.
This is constrained difference.
And this is how you navigate these things.
It is not about saying that what one person believes is wrong
and the other. It will never get anywhere with that.
And after what the moderator had correctly predicted
would be a good and robust debate,
the forum's recommendation
was accepted by a majority of commissioners.
Each morning assembly began with worship, led by the moderator,
so let's end with one of Derek Browning's reflections
on how Jesus met with those who felt unworthy and unlovable,
welcoming them, not with a clenched fist, but with an open hand.
None so broken, they can't be mended.
None so wicked, they can't be forgiven.
None so sick, they can't be healed.
None so lost, they can't be found.
None so unable to keep their promises
that they can't be given another chance.
None so unclean on the inside that they can't be purified.
None so narrow-minded that they can't be enlightened.
None so stuck in their ways that they can't be moved.
None so hard-hearted that they can't be softened.
None so invisible that they can't be seen.