OF all the quotes attributed to Archbishop Desmond Tutu following his death this one seemed to define his life and work more than all others. “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Desmond Tutu believed that his Christian faith was meaningless if it didn’t impel him also to strive against societal injustice in the secular sphere.
His status as one of Africa’s leading religious figures meant that his words carried weight in a continent where the majority black population had been menaced and marginalised by a small and entitled white elite while the rest of the world, for the most part, chose to look the other way.
Archbishop Tutu would have approved of a recent intervention by the Anglican Bishop of Coventry Christopher Cocksworth about the refugee crisis. He said: “Many of those migrants, as we have heard, have so little to lose; will have suffered so much in their homeland and are so close to the finishing line that Britain will always be worth aiming for, no matter how difficult we make it for them.”
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He urged the UK Government to adopt a more humanitarian visa system that might allow people to enter directly from France. The most recent tragedy in the English Channel, where 27 people died in one small boat was, said Bishop Cocksworth, “the result of a crisis of politics rather than numbers”.
The Bishop was supported in his condemnation of the government’s attitude to refugees by several other Anglican prelates. The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Jim Wallace, joined his Anglican brethren in issuing an unequivocal statement of welcome to all refugees. “In too many cases, the churches are the only available support in an asylum system that is proving inadequate to the task. We take care to ensure our practices are safe, robust and above all founded on Christ’s command to welcome the stranger.”
Curiously, Scotland’s Catholic leaders were nowhere to be seen and remained silent. Scotland’s 700,000 or so Catholics are largely drawn from those immigrant Irish who faced similar levels of discrimination and threat as they fled a famine which killed more than one million of their countrymen.
We share a profound physical and spiritual bond with refugees and asylum-seekers forged in suffering and endurance. That we survived to make a home here and share what gifts we had was due to the kindness and generosity of good people from other faiths, who overcame justified fear and suspicion to do the right thing.
Scotland’s Catholic bishops have been largely invisible during the pandemic. You sense that purity of doctrine where faith is reduced to a series of dance steps on the head of a pin has paralysed the Scottish Catholic hierarchy. And this at a time – more than any other – when their people crave strong and unequivocal leadership.
A search of the church’s official media website reveals a preponderance of statements – as you might expect – on Covid-restricted church attendance; pro-life issues and the proposed hate crime legislation. Scotland has eight bishops, all of them maintained by working people in circumstances approaching mild opulence. For the entirety of Covid-19 they have retreated collectively behind these bland statements of the Catholic bleedin’ obvious.
The latest one will be read in Catholic churches this weekend. It’s bland, hand-wringing fayre that could have been written at any time in the last 50 years or so. Precisely 43 non-specific words are devoted to the plight of refugees trying to reach Britain.
In these coronavirus days Scotland has recorded the highest numbers of drugs deaths in Europe. If you’re poor you will be 18 times more likely to die of drug abuse in Scotland. The economic consequences of the pandemic disproportionately affect Scotland’s poorest neighbourhoods. It’s these communities that a majority of Scotland’s Irish-Catholics come from. The hierarchy deems none of this, though, to be worthy of serious comment.
For almost two years now, the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been convicting the west for its callous indifference to vaccine inequality. Thus far, the Scottish Catholic hierarchy have said nothing about this grievous and vast act of inhumanity either.
The Scottish Catholic Church’s most senior clergyman is Archbishop Leo Cushley of St Andrew’s and Edinburgh. This Vatican civil servant was inexplicably appointed more than eight years ago. Yet, I’d wager that a significant portion of Scottish Catholics neither know what he looks like or how he sounds. He is a spectral presence in the life of the Church.
Unless, like the Edinburgh lay organisation a few years back, you dare to question why (let’s be kind here) a ‘traditional’ group have been stealthily hoovering up most of the big Catholic appointments on the east coast. These ordinary lay Catholics were effectively told by their archbishop from his £5m eyrie in the Morningside district that he was their archbishop and they must desist and obey.
In secular Scotland where church attendance is falling across all denominations you might reasonably ask why any of this matters. Well, it matters because if the Catholic Church and the Church of Scotland and the other Christian churches didn’t exist the social welfare bill for the free care they provide for thousands of our most vulnerable citizens would have to be met from public funds.
Hugh Foy, the much-respected radical Catholic activist, hinted recently at the social consequences of declining church numbers. He tweeted: “Issue rarely discussed in declining Church numbers is participation levels. When numbers were higher we had [higher] active participation levels in parish/wider church. So, not only decline in attendance, but even more dramatic decline within that of active church participation.”
Scotland’s Catholics shouldn’t expect this cloak of irrelevance that’s settled on its leaders to be lifted any time soon. The death of the last Archbishop of Glasgow, Philip Tartaglia, occurred in January. Thus, in a period of profound social and spiritual distress for Scottish Catholics, the church’s most important leadership position has lain dormant for a year. It’s a situation which symbolises the sense of lethargic malaise currently enshrouding my church.
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