The Church of Scotland’s Gerald Ratner ‘total crap’ Moment
On 23 April 1991 jewellery and fancy goods chain store owner Gerald Ratner was giving a speech in which he said. ‘We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95. People say, "How can you sell this for such a low price?", I say, "because it's total crap”’. He compounded this by going on to remark that one of the sets of earrings was "cheaper than an M&S prawn sandwich but probably wouldn't last as long." People abandoned his shops and 330 were sold off as the company folded and disappeared.
The Church of Scotland’s recent public relations disaster was reminiscent of Gerald Ratner’s special moment in history. A Church of Scotland circular (Church of Scotland advice on opening churches, The Challenges that lie ahead, 4 ; 2 paragraph 2). contained the words ‘The reality is that those over the age of 70 will have to consider carefully whether they should be attending church’ This is a suicide note. A very large proportion of regular worshippers are in their seventies and above. Most are fit and well. Many church members live long lives due to responsible living, good morals and the redeeming gifts and qualities that are to be found in a living relationship with Jesus Christ. If all over seventy are to be discouraged from attending churches, then the Church of Scotland will atrophy very quickly into a skeletal organisation with many churches closing throughout the land.
This advice was reported critically in The Times on Tuesday 16th June. Rosemary Goring published a tendentious article in The Herald on Wednesday 17th June ("Kirk’s cruel plan to banish elderly from services is a disgrace". She criticised the Church of Scotland’s treatment of elderly and shielding people advising them not to attend churches. Various ministers and members replied to her in the letters page on 18th and 19th June and on the latter day Rev Dr George Whyte, Principal Clerk, Raymond Young, Chair of the General Trustees, Rev Dr John Chalmers, Convener of the Assembly Trustees and David Kendall, Chief Officer, all of the Church of Scotland replied robustly. They wrote, ‘The guidance suggests that those over 70 should consider carefully whether they should attend church, and that anyone in the extremely vulnerable category, who has been advised by the NHS to shield at home, would be best advised not to come to church for the time being. This follows the clear and unequivocal advice from the Scottish Government, the NHS and the Chief Medical Officer’. They continued, ‘The Scottish Government’s route map only allows places of worship to reopen to extended groups when we reach Phase 3, a clear indicator of the risks to the health of those attending services. We have a concern for the health of our parishioners, body and soul, and we stand by the guidance we have issued as proportionate, practical and compassionate’.
The damage has been done. The Church of Scotland prides itself in paying for an expensive public relations operation. They clearly missed this one. The heavy brigade did the usual thing, deflection and denial. They exercised the centralised hierarchical model which they deny exists. This is ecclesiastical politics, self-justifying and by no means turning the other cheek. Why did the Moderator not offer a heartfelt apology? Why did the big bosses (because that is what they have made of themselves) not accept that many people have been deeply hurt? Why did no-one see that excessive health and safety advice needed to be offered up in context? Why was this advice not issued in a pastoral manner, respectfully, contextually and with nuance? Why was it issued at all? Whoever wrote it up showed no knowledge of congregations in the Church of Scotland. Health and safety mentality and language ruled, not OK.
The Church of Scotland is run along corporate lines. At its core it is not a spiritual organisation. Its centralised operation is secularised. It has for decades been first to adopt the latest political correctness. It has lost the Church’s identity as a Christian community distinct from society. It offers up reams of over intellectualised rules and regulations. The exigencies of decline have led to top down micro-management. But this is not the Talmud nor is it Sharia which at least are religious in nature. Church of Scotland corporate speak has no Biblical references. Nothing like, say, Psalm 92:12-15 ‘The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the Lord, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, “The Lord is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him”’. It is law, not Gospel. As Paul wrote in Galatians 5:1 ‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery’. Jesus said, ‘I came that they may have life and have it abundantly’ (John 10:10).
The Church of Scotland’s over seventies have sustained congregations for decades. Experienced in church life they are well able to manage and organise a safe return to worship. It is their own interests and that of those with whom they worship week by week. They need to be valued and given words of encouragement to return with expressions of faith in God and in Jesus Christ to do so. Would the Church of Scotland prevent the Pope from visiting? It would seem so. Moses was 120 when he saw The Promised Land. He died of old age, otherwise in good physical and mental health. Sir Captain Tom Moore showed what can be done even at 100 years. Notwithstanding Covid-19 advice, the Church of Scotland is in breach of age discrimination law.
The reasons behind this latest public relations disaster lie in the Church of Scotland’s craven acceptance of closure and Phase 3 status. What happened to the ancient credo ‘The first purpose of human life is to honour God’? The four officials of the apocalypse named above saw no opportunity for the Church of Scotland to assert its legal right to determine its own worship arrangements and to place God first and foremost in its priorities. Jesus said, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22:37-39).
They were not alone among the Christian leaders of the nation. The journalist and author Douglas Murray wrote in The Spectator on Friday 19th June ‘At the start of the Covid crisis, as the government and medical professionals decided what the public could and could not do without, churches were deemed a non-essential item. Leaders of the various churches appear to have put up absolutely no resistance to this decision, despite Church of England services having piloted social distancing schemes for years. There is evidence that the leadership of both the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches actually asked to be shut down’.
Church of Scotland leaders were proud to be having discussions with lower reach Scottish Government officials and keen to be seen to be ecumenical. Indeed, it seems they were flattered by the attention they were being given due to their compliance. But the SNP has been no friend of Christians or Christianity. It is responsible in part for the de-Christianising of Scotland. Nicola Sturgeon has nothing to say to Christians not even when asked at this past Easter time. There was no need for the Church of Scotland to be such a quisling. Many years ago I described Edinburgh as ‘Vichy Edinburgh’ comparing its collusion with establishment secularism to that of surrendered and co-operating France during the 2nd World War. Nothing has changed except that the Church of Scotland has declined in presence and influence to its contemporary state. The Church of Scotland’s history of ‘moderatism’ is the context for the present obeisance. The centralising of decision-making power in a very few hands is also to blame. The self-aggrandisement of a handful deny the origins, ethos and purpose of the Church of Scotland. Yet they claim to speak for everyone and that in their bullying fashion.
Rosemary Goring and the Church of Scotland have history. She was editor of ‘Life & Work’ for a short time. She left under difficult circumstances without being to blame. There had been a scandalous cover-up which was highlighted by Ron Ferguson in The Herald. It is my suspicion that Rosemary Goring may have been given a contract pay-off with a confidentiality clause. Why else has she not written about it? She does, however, use her position as a columnist for The Herald to exploit such gifts as the Church of Scotland offers up from time to time and to criticise it in no uncertain terms. She has had insight into what goes on at 121 George Street. Yet these officials today present themselves as guardians of all righteousness. Their put down of Rosemary Goring’s article was worthy of totalitarian government crushing of dissent, Roman Catholic Vatican denial and Buckingham Palace rebuttal. It only drew more attention to the crass and bullying nature of the circular. The bullying was then multiplied by the four officials of the apocalypse.
Rev Alistair Jessamine’s brave comment in The Herald letters page on June 19th will not have endeared him to them. He wrote, ‘Rosemary Goring’s withering critique of some of the institutional Church of Scotland’s less attractive features could only have been brought into the public domain by, in this case, a newspaper column. The Kirk’s own monthly magazine would never think of doing so. The former Ministers’ Forum publication displayed signs of just such criticism of the National Church’s status quo, but it was gradually, systematically and controllably wound up’.
Like the Scottish population as a whole, cowed and bullied, older members of the Church of Scotland have been disquieted at least and wounded at worst. They will not, I think, bow to this bureaucratic guidance. If they have stood up for God, for Jesus Christ and for their personal Christian Faith all their lives, they will not stop doing so now.