Friday, 28 May 2010

Chinook Helicopter Crash Inquiry

I was delighted to hear that the new Government has agreed to an independent review of the 1994 Chinook helicopter crash where 29 people died. This is very good news indeed. Since the crash the Church of Scotland has both provided pastoral support for the families and repeatedly urged the Ministry of Defence to reconsider the judgement of “gross negligence” against the 2 pilots.

The three enquires that have taken place already have raised more questions than they have answered. Crucial questions have been raised in particular about the computer control systems which have been ignored by the MOD.

I hope that after this inquiry the families of the victims and the families of the pilots will finally achieved a sense of closure. Its been almost 16 years and that in itself is an injustice.

World Week for Peace in Palestine and Israel

Every year the World Council of Churches, which the Church of Scotland is a member, runs a programme to support peace in Palestine and Israel.
The ‘World Week for Peace in Palestine and Israel’ has been running for a number of years and is becoming more established as part of the church year. This year it runs from tomorrow, Saturday 29 May to Friday 4 June.
There are three main strands:

1. Prayer – to pray for peace, for justice and alongside Christian communities living in the Holy Land.

2. Educate – raise awareness about the conflict, the issues, and the situation facing people living in Palestine and Israel.

3. Advocate – working in partnership to ask decision-makers to work for a lasting peace.

A number of resources have been specially produced for this year, including:

  • An information leaflet produced by an alliance of UK churches and Christian organisations
  • A worship liturgy produced by Irish churches
  • The ‘Jerusalem Prayer’, a special prayer for peace composed by church leaders in Jerusalem that will be used in churches all over the world on Sunday.
Lots more is available on the WCC website.
One exciting development that I am interested in has been taken up by the UK Ecumenical Council on Corporate Responsibility. They have started a campaign to try to improve the labelling of produce from the Occupied Territories, and asking retailers to stop selling and consumers to stop buying things from Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. These settlements are illegal under international law, have been criticised by the UN and their continued existence is a block to a permanent peace settlement.


Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Child detention is a scandal – it must end now.

Despite the new UK coalition government agreeing to end the detention of children for immigration purposes, it now appears that it will still be some months before we can see this policy come into effect.

Today we have the news that although Dungavel will no longer hold children, people who would have been held there will instead be sent hundreds of miles south to Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre in England.

I think this is a fudge. First they promise something, and the spin-doctors are out pushing it. Then we hear that there will be a delay of several months whilst conversations are held with stakeholders before an agreement is reached.
Well, this stakeholder wants his voice to be heard – This Must Stop. Now. Not in a few months. Immediately. The government coalition partners talked about the need for a new politics and a new way of doing things. So far all we have had is statements and no action.

Of course it is good news to welcome the intent of the Government work to end the detention of children and families seeking sanctuary, but many people feel let down that after the initial announcement of the policy there are children still being held in what are effectively prisons, despite having done nothing wrong.
So we need to be cautious before making statements welcoming the end of child detention prematurely.
We also need to know answers to these questions:

  • When will the Government tell us what their instruction to the Border Agency will be on this? How soon will the practice of detaining children and families cease? Will they Government set a target date, for implementing their policy? Locking up innocent children is a scandal and urgent action is necessary. There should be no delay.
  • What alternatives to detention are being considered, and will they protect the dignity of the children and families of those seeking sanctuary?
  • How can the asylum system be improved to make the needs and wellbeing of children paramount?

Managing asylum is a complicated business. Iain Duncan Smith’s think tank wrote a report, Asylum Matters, 18 months ago, which clearly makes the point for a radical shape up of the system, and that there are alternatives to detention that work. He’s now in the cabinet.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Tough choices are a time for new ideas

Our newly formed coalition government have some choices ahead. Austerity, efficiency savings and cuts will be the order of the day and everyone will have to tighten their belt. Where to cut and how to cut. Its going to be tough and feel tough. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Instead of reading economic numbers the new cabinet should read the fascinating book The Spirit Level. Its authors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argue that societies with low inequality are happier, healthier and live longer. It seems that simply increasing gross national product does not in fact produce gross national happiness (to quote from the former king of Bhutan).

The Rumanian orthodox church has taken this one step further, arguing that their Government should build more churches to help people “create more jobs and fight individualism, by encouraging solidarity among people, and help believers avoid despair” I am not sure I would go so far but their point is well made, this is as much a spiritual as it an economic crisis

Jesus fought inequality and the accumulation of wealth for wealth’s sake; but he did so not from a politics of envy but a passion for humanity. Whatever decisions lie ahead for the new coalition, if they see past the pounds and to the people and focus on removing inequality wherever it occurs, we may well just see something more significant out of this crisis than simply painful cuts to reduce the debt

Thursday, 13 May 2010

A view on poverty beyond statistics to be discussed at the General Assembly

What is it like to live in poverty? What does it feel to be homeless? The Kirk’s General Assembly will be discussing on May 24th specific answers to poverty in a report that showcases innovative congregational projects, as well as the life-stories of people who fight poverty on a daily basis.

Statistics tell us a frightening story; round 950,000 people in Scotland currently live in poverty; this amounts to nineteen percent of the population. Twenty five percent of children living in Scotland live in poverty. However, numbers convey a dry unemotional picture. In order to present a more vivid picture of the effects of poverty on people’s lives, the Church of Scotland jointly sponsored Scotland’s first Poverty Truth Commission in March 2009. The Commission brought people who are experts about poverty because they live with the struggle every day and people who speak of their desire to make a difference but who often see their attempts to understand and tackle the causes of poverty fail. Unless people in poverty are included all attempts to develop a better and fairer Scotland will fail.

It is primarily in the work of local congregations across Scotland that the Church's response to poverty has to take shape. As one congregation put it: "Because we witness daily the local issues of poverty and meet and care for and worship with and marry and baptise the people living in that poverty, we wish to creatively partner local people in improving all our physical, emotional and spiritual well-being". The stories of people battling poverty within the supportive context of projects sponsored by congregations are presented as inspirational examples of good practice. Names of the people have been changed to respect confidentiality. Projects were supported by the Parish Development Fund. Information available at

The poverty in our midst has prompted congregations to act. Having attended the Poverty Truth Commission last March, I look forward to the presentation of the Congregational Responses to Poverty report and the subsequent debate

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

General Assembly will discuss advances on Synthetic Biology

Part of my job is to guide the Church into new areas of policy making which, as you can imagine, is a dangerous journey at times! At this years General Assembly, (only 10 days away!) one of the reports from the Society, Religion and Technology Project. is on something called synthetic biology. No, I had to look it up the first time too!

It brings together the two disciplines of biology and engineering . It is essentially about redesigning life through the redesign and reassembly of biological systems. The biologist wants to understand living systems better, and the engineer wants to create new things . The biologist identifies the individual bioparts of the living organism and the engineer then standardises the bioparts. Some organisations, like the BioBricks foundation  are already doing this redesigning into a biological "chassis".

This might sound like science fiction, but synthetic biology potentially has direct application in health, energy, the environment and agriculture. Sme parts of the production of the anti-malaria drug Artemisinin have already been developed applying synthetic biology techniques. The development of advanced biosensors for detection of urinary tract infections can be adapted to detect the hospital superbug MRSA (Methycillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus). Another biosensor can detect arsenic in drinking water which is a major problem in Bangladesh. Another example of synthetic biology based biomaterials is a synthetic version of spider silk. Because of its strength and light weight it can be used in a wide range of applications.

It is astonishing and awe inspiring it its creativity and potential for good…. But as is often the case, scientific progress also raises important ethical questions. What is the right relationship between humanity and nature? How far is far enough, and to what extent should our God-given ability to be creative be hemmed in by moral and ethical considerations? What are the risks in creating what are new living beings, even though they are only micro organisms?

The Kirk is the first church which flags up the ethical and moral questions raised by this important new area of scientific knowledge. I hope the debate is not hindered by the technical words but also see past the “are we playing God?” which is also a theological red herring. This is too important to simply say “No” to, but that doesn’t mean we should just say yes either.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Perspectives on Persecution

There’s been a growing voice from some Christians in the UK about fears that the church is being marginalised and even that individual Christians are being persecuted for their religious beliefs.

However, when you look at the question of persecution, you recognise that in other parts of the world there is real oppression of Christians.

A major report from the Church of Scotland’s World Mission Council for this year’s General Assembly analyses some of the most troubled parts of the world.

So it is important to maintain a bit of perspective.

The Church here still has a great deal of status, based on things to do with the traditions and history and culture of the society we live in.

However, the society we live in is always changing, and the changes mean we need to reaffirm our role and the principles and values that we stand for.

The origins of the Church was at the margins. Maybe we should be more focused at getting back to the margins to find a new way forward, rather than trying to claim that we deserve special protection or privilege. Our priority is to stand alongside the poor, not to be obsessed by litigation. Awareness of the scale of persecution around the world should be our call to action, rather than the personal concerns individuals in this country who fear a diminishing of their own influence.

Where Christians find themselves unable to work for a particular employer because of their convictions, rather than immediately blaming the situation on ‘rampant secularisation’, perhaps they should first examine their own thoughts.

Steve Clifford’s article in The Independent makes the same point – “Every case builds the wall a little higher and the disconnect between Church and society grows.” A similar point has been made by several Christian-based political organisations in the run-up to the General Election regarding the widely-derided ‘Westminster Declaration 2010’.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Assisted Suicide Bill and the view of palliative care medics

A number of Scottish palliative care medics have written a letter to The Times expressing their rejection of the End of Life Assistance (Scotland) Bill proposed by Margo MacDonald. This letter comes three weeks before the deadline for submission of evidence to the special committee of MSP set up to scrutinise this proposed legislation. Interestingly, only in the past two days, Dr Stephen Hutchison MD FRCP(Glasg) Consultant Physician in Palliative Medicine at the Highland Hospice has also expressed his personal take on the End of Life Assistance (Scotland) Bill. Dr. Hutchinson article is published in four parts within the End of Life Issues & Debate blog.

The stakes could not be higher. Public opinion in Scotland needs to be informed about all of the aspects of this debate. It is therefore very encouraging that specialists in palliative care are contributing to the debate and expressing their objections to this proposed legislation. The Scottish Churches Parliamentary Office, SCPO has produced a very informative and balanced briefing paper on the proposed bill. The Church of Scotland has expressed its views on end of life issues on repeated occasions. Personally, as a minister and as the convenor of the Church and Society Council, I cannot support this proposed legislation.

Election time

It is always difficult at election times to make sense of the different messages that candidates and parties are conveying on the last few days before the election. I feel constantly bombarded by the media “informing” me about the latest new of the campaign trail and I have almost reached the point of information fatigue. This is why I welcomed so much the work of the Scottish Churches Parliamentary Office, (SCPO). The SCPO has presented a detailed and informative briefing paper on the key issues handled presented in each party’s manifesto. If you want to save yourself a lot of leafing around through countless websites and newspapers, have a look the SCPO briefing paper. Happy reading and see you at the polling booth.

Monday, 3 May 2010

HIV/AIDS funding crisis

  • Universal access to treatment for HIV/AIDS, for all who need it – by 2010
  • Halt and reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS – by 2015

These two targets are part of the Millennium Development Goal to combat HIV/AIDS. Providing resources for universal access to treatment was also promised by leaders of the G8 in 2005 meeting here in Scotland, following the call of the MAKEPOVERTYHISTORY campaign.

According to a new report by the Church of Scotland’s HIV/AIDS project developed countries are in danger of falling short on their commitments. With the global economic crisis, many richer countries are reassessing how much money to spend on the Millennium Development Goals. Individuals and church congregations are to be commended for the work that they have done on this issue. In January churches raised more than £90,000 from ‘Souper Sunday’ that has gone to help frontline services that are working in partnership with the Church of Scotland.

After the General Election individuals and congregations need to start writing to new MPs and the Government to insist that money for HIV/AIDS prevention in developing countries is provided. A tax rise here might seem an additional burden, but it is a matter of life and death for people who don’t have access to medication.