Wednesday, 25 November 2015

God and government in Edinburgh's George Street

Half way down George Street, at the heart of Edinburgh's New Town, sits a lovely eighteenth century building: the Church of  St Andrew's and St George's West. Surrounded by some of the city's most expensive shops and busiest bars and restaurants, it seems an unlikely setting for one of Scotland's bitterest religious and political conflicts: the Disruption of 1843.

The building used by the congregation of St Andrew's and St George's West was erected by the Town Council of Edinburgh as part of its development of the New Town. The grid pattern of the surrounding streets, originally planned in 1768 by James Craig, could not be more different from the cramped and winding lanes and closes of the mediaeval Old Town. Its clean lines suited the rationalism of the Scottish Enlightenment, which was sweeping away the cobwebs of ancient tradition.

St Andrew's (as it was originally called) was founded in 1781 and opened in 1784. In 1787, a spire was added, the tallest structure in Edinburgh at the time. The portico, or entrance, resembles a Roman temple, a fashionable architectural style in the eighteenth century, similar to St Martin's in the Fields in London. The design of St Andrew's, however, had been copied from temples in Syria.

The oval-shape of the body of the church is most unusual. Indeed, St Andrew's was the first building in Britain to use such a design. Light streams through the windows, which in the eighteenth century would have been of clear glass.

However, what is really striking when you raise your eyes, is the plasterwork of the ceiling. In its delicacy, the ceiling almost seems more suited to the drawing room of one of the nearby townhouses. Again, the design reflects Roman originals.

Many old features remain, including the original box pews and a gallery which follows the gently curving line of the walls.

As in all Presbyterian churches, however, the focal point is not the ceiling, nor even the Communion table, but the pulpit. Originally it would have been raised much higher, so that the minister could look down over his congregation as he declaimed his sermon. By the nineteen fifties, however, the relationship between preacher and people symbolised by this positioning was no longer considered appropriate and the pulpit was lowered.

St Andrew's today is a calm peaceful space in the middle of a bustling modern city. However, in 1843 'peaceful' was the last word one would have used for events inside the kirk.

These days, it can be quite difficult to relate to the kind of battle fought out in this church. When we think about the nature of the relationship between Religion and the State, we tend to be concerned about the potential pressure on citizens' personal and social lives of a dominant and powerful religious entity.

In our own western culture,we think, for example, about interference in women's rights to manage their fertility and space their children by both the Roman Catholic Church and sections within evangelical Protestantism. We think of lack of access to family planning or to abortion in northern and southern Ireland. We think of the besieging of abortion clinics in the United States and threats to those who attend or work in them.

Further afield, we think of prejudice and laws against homosexuality across much of Africa and parts of Asia, often introduced as the result of pressure from evangelical church groups or, indeed, by conservative sects within Islam. Hindu nationalism in India is threatening social cohesion. Laws on marriage and divorce in many countries have been unduly influenced by the dominant faith.

We can all of us probably think of several such examples in our own times of the social and political impact of religion.

A hundred and fifty years ago, however, concerns about the appropriate relationship between Church and State in Scotland were rather different. Anxieties were more about interference by the State in Church affairs rather than the other way round.

The national church in Scotland was and is Presbyterian. The Covenant of 1638 had rejected the 'English' liturgy imposed by King Charles I (the Stuart monarch of both England and Scotland) and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Over the following years, the Covenanters fought hard for the independence of their church, many of them suffering terribly during the Killing Time. In 1689, the Claim of Right of 1689 put an end to interference by the King and Parliament in the affairs of the Church and the way its members worshipped. In 1690, Parliament passed the Act establishing the Presbyterian Church as the national Church. The hierarchy of bishops and the Anglican prayer book could no longer be imposed. 

In 1707, the Act of Union between England and Scotland confirmed the role of the Church of Scotland in Scottish public life. In Scotland, individual churches would be managed by 'elders' through elected sessions, and the Church as a whole by a General Assembly led by an elected Moderator. The reigning King or Queen would no longer have a role in Church government, unlike in England where, to this day, the Queen and Parliament appoint the bishops. Any fears or suspicions about whether or not the monarch was 'really' a Catholic and likely to return Scotland to that faith were also now over.

It didn't take long, however, for the Westminster government to start interfering in Church affairs again. In 1712, the Patronage Act reintroduced the right of the laird to appoint the minister of the local church. Although the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland stated in 1834 that congregations had to be consulted, that did not always happen. The Assembly managed to get the Veto Act passed, which allowed congregations to reject the laird's choice of minister. However, it proved unsuccessful in protecting their rights.

Did it really matter who appointed the minister? Well, actually, it did.

Just think about the social implications of appointments to church livings. There is the laird in his comfortable house with, perhaps, little understanding of, or concern for, the lives of his tenants and local villagers, let alone the poor and indigent. And there is the minister, who lived within the village, who baptised, married and buried its inhabitants, who probably provided a crust at the kitchen door for the tramps. Their perspectives and attitudes could be very different.

The 1830s were years of social reform and the Reform Act itself was passed in 1832. Ideas of democracy and social change had been afoot since the middle of the previous century, if not before. Indeed the French Revolution was well within living memory. Many Scottish clergymen were influenced by the social zeal of evangelical clergy in overseas and inner city missions. Some ministers worked within the growing industrial parishes of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee. They saw poverty and degradation close at hand. Some of them did not consider it appropriate for the rich and socially advantaged to appoint the pastors who would serve the poor.

However, the concerns of the Scottish clergy were not just about recognising the role of ordinary people within Church government. Their struggle was not just about democratising the Church. Their principal argument was that it was not right for the King and/or Parliament to be head of the Church. Jesus Christ was the head. The Church had to stand apart from civic powers. It might be 'national', it might be 'established' but it was not to be ruled by the State.

Nevertheless, opinion was split and debate was passionate. While feelings among the evangelical reformers ran high, more moderate church leaders were not prepared to rock the boat.

The leader of the evangelical wing which resented the 'intrusion' of the government into Church affairs was Dr Thomas Chalmers, Professor of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh. He himself had a strong social conscience, even setting up a welfare project in the slums of West Port near the Grassmarket, the poorest part of the Old Town. However, it was dependent on contributions for the rich and eventually failed. Chalmers attempted to negotiate with the government about the patronage issue, asserting the spiritual independence of the Church and arguing for the separation of Church and State.

In 1843, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland was held in St Andrew's Church on George Street. Instead of the normal agenda, starting with a prayer, the retiring Moderator Dr David Welsh, professor of ecclesiastical history at the university, read out a long statement detailing the attacks which the Parliament had made on the Kirk over the last ten years. The Church believed that it it existed under the leadership of Jesus Christ. The Parliament believed that the Church existed under the sovereign power of the State.

When Welsh had finished, he walked out, followed by row after row of his supporters. The evangelicals made their protest and then proceeded to walk out of the building and down to a nearby hall - a pre-arranged meeting place. Here they held their first Assembly and elected Chalmers as their first Moderator. In leaving the national church, these men also left their manses and lost their stipends. They gave up a great deal to stand by their belief that the State had no right to interfere in the life of the Church. It is only fitting that a statue of their leader, Dr Thomas Chalmers, should stand on George Street, a few yards from the Church of St Andrew's and St George's West.

All in all, 474 out of 1200 ministers left the Church of Scotland and set up the Free Church and about half the laity. In Edinburgh, about two thirds of the church walked out, making the Free Church the largest denomination in the capital. That is why there are so many churches in Edinburgh. Everywhere there was a church belonging to the Church of Scotland, the Free Church founded one of their own.

In time, the new church developed its own church government, trained its own ministers in its own institution, New College on the Mound, and even provided a role for women to support local congregations. It started up child welfare centres, Sunday Schools and day schools to educate those children who stayed outside the school system for reasons of poverty and social deprivation. These young people had to become literate, if only so that they could read the Bible and become active church members.

In Edinburgh, the congregation of St George's Church at the other end of George Street, in Charlotte Square, split in two and the breakaway congregation went to Shandwick Place, where they eventually became St George's West. The minister and members of St Andrew's, however, remained within the Church of Scotland. In time, the Church of Scotland itself severed its strong relationship with the State and regained the power to appoint its own ministers. In 1929, the Free Church rejoined the Church of Scotland. In 2010, St George's West merged with St Andrew's, hence its current name. The wheel had gone full circle.

This exploration of old church history has been rather longer than I originally intended. However, the issues which have emerged are surprisingly relevant to us today though the context may be very different. For a long time, in Scotland, we have become a bit complacent about a separation between God and Government which has now lasted for more than 100 years. The main concern of the Church today is survival in a secular world, not interference by the State.

However, in some parts of the world, not all of them all that distant, the Religion versus State debate has returned to its earlier manifestation as an anxiety about the interference of religion in secular life, not the other way round.

Stuart and I have just returned from Turkey where some people believe that Ataturk's revolutionary achievements in secularising Turkish government and society following the fall of the Ottoman Empire are now being overturned. Many fear the introduction of a more strictly Islamic way of life, with pressures on women in particular to adopt particular forms of dress and modes of behaviour. We can all remember what happened to women's lives - and the lives of the general population - in Iran during government by the ayatollahs.

In order to guard its culture and civilisation against continuing interference by the Catholic Church following the Revolution, France has long insisted on the exclusion from schools of any religious symbols or activity. Faced now with a large Muslim population which feels excluded from mainstream society, from employment and prosperity, the French government has, if anything, increased secularisation, banning the hijab and long skirts from schools and even, this last month, denying school children who do not eat pork for religious reasons the right to eat something different when pork is on the lunch menu. A government which makes children suffer for the faith of their parents can hardly be surprised by the resentment this step has aroused.

This week's attacks in Paris cannot be excused by the injustices experienced by its Muslim population. Indeed, from what we know of the attackers, they were not particularly religious people, although there is little doubt that Daesh itself is a religious entity, though a particularly perverted form of religion. However, these attacks and others like them in Nigeria, Kenya and Mali have brought to all our minds in the most brutal way possible the age-long conflict between Religion and the State. In many countries, arriving at a state of equilibrium has been painful and even violent, and not just in our own century. The 30 Years War was as vicious in impact on local populations as the actions of Daesh today. Huguenots fleeing from persecution were witness to that.

So, the history of the Church of St Andrew's and St George's West raises several questions for us today, not least of which is: What is the appropriate relationship between God and government?

Finding out more

The Church of St Andrew's and St George's West has an interesting set of leaflets about the history of the church. I referred to the one on the Disruption when writing this post.

Other information came from Edinburgh: A History of the City by Michael Fry, Pan Books, 2010

You may also be interested in the following posts:

Post of gold but no rainbow, in St Andrew Square Edinburgh

Greyfriars Kirk: asserting Scotland's religious and political independence

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