Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Fall is in the air

Believe it or not, I am off on a short break, back in a week.

Why can't the minimum price of alcohol be agreed upon?

Today the MSPs in the Scottish Parliament Health and Sport Committee debated the Government proposal to introduce a minimum price of 45p per unit of alcohol and voted to delete this proposal from the Bill (Parliament report not yet available). The Church, alongside medical organisations, the police and voluntary sector organisations have been campaigning in support of this policy  so I am disappointed to hear that opposition parties remain unwilling to compromise in order to make progress on this key public health issue. Everyone agrees that action should be taken to combat the excessive drinking culture in our nation, so what is preventing our representatives from sitting round the table together and agreeing what can be done, by this Scottish Parliament, in this piece of legislation?”

On the business of medals

Yesterday I attended a debate at the Scottish Parliament about assisted suicide. In response to a highly provocative statement from Margo MacDonald, I made some comments that have caused a small media furore.

Margo stated that “the state gives soldiers medals for killing people”. This is not only an unfortunate metaphor to use in defence of assisted suicide; it is also not true. The State gives medals for bravery and valour in the field of battle. It is true that killing is involved in war situations, but it is not the killing that is being honoured.

The sanctity of life remains, whether in the theatre of war or the hospice. Death through war is tragic and our armed forces should be given every bit of moral support in the fulfilment of their duties. Only this week, I was in discussion with service chaplains about how to improve our delivery of pastoral care for those in the front line as well as for veterans. It is unfortunate that the press has chosen to report this wee spat and not the much more important issues that we had been discussing. Such is life!

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

The Mysteries of the Proposed Budget

I have followed with great interest recent statements from the Coalition Government concerning the proposed revised budget and there are things that remain persistently unclear.

It seems to be received wisdom that everyone must share the collective burden of the budget deficit. Who is precisely “everyone”? Does this mean children, sick people, the elderly, the homeless, those with mental disabilities? I think that it is a fascicle position to assign collective responsibility when it is clear that not everyone can share the burden. Where is our sense of justice if we demand of the most vulnerable within us to carry a disproportionately large share of the collective debt?

The other thing that remains mysterious is the issue of jobs. The public sector is being downsized and people are being made redundant. This appears to be done for ideological reasons as well as under the assumption that efficiency savings can be reaped. Some services will no longer be provided by the public sector on the expectation that the private sector will leap at the opportunity of developing services to fill in the gaps. Will the services provided by private companies be cheaper? Will they offer the same value for money than the publicly provided counterparts? How will they be paid? More importantly, how many jobs does the Coalition Government expect the private sector to furnish per region within the UK?

Amidst all of this uncertainty, I am certain of one thing; jobless people do not pay taxes, they consume them through social benefits. I am not questioning the need for dealing with the deficit; I am however, deeply uncomfortable that pressure from the financial sector should dictate the speed and the depth of the cuts.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

What is all of this Concordat business?

I am delighted to see that Action for Churches Together in Scotland (ACTS) will be hosting October 26, a conference where participants will be able to express to Alex Neil, MSP, Minister for Housing and Communities and Cllr Pat Watters, President of CoSLA their views on the relationship between local authorities and the Scottish Government. This relationship needs to be re-negotiated in light of the Coalition Government and its proposed budget cuts.

The conference will be a great opportunity for a real dialogue to start between service providers at community level, local authorities and the government. Churches have been in the business of providing social support and building up communities, long before theories of the welfare state were even imagined. Thousands of faith-based volunteers are currently providing social support throughout Scotland and this expertise and skills-base is not often acknowledged.

Our communities need to be prepared for the changes that will hit our social fabric. Resilience needs to be woven from within and churches are where they should be; right at the centre, building community.

The social price our children will pay

As public spending cuts loom and the news present us with huge quantities of information about the impact of those cuts I am convinced that our children will be seriously affected.

According to the Scottish Government 21 % of children in Scotland live in poverty. As the Coalition Government forges ahead on an ideological stand to reduce the deficit at record-breaking speed, services will get cut, people will be made redundant and many more children will face life within a jobless household.

Neither children nor the unemployed pay taxes, but a social price will be paid by both; for children this will be at school. Not all children arrive on an equal standing to primary school. Poverty breeds educational under-achievement. Scotland is understandably proud of its educational system but influential studies have noted the chronic under-achievement of children from the poorest families. Children from more advantaged households significantly outperform children from less advantaged homes and the gap increases as they grow up. There is a national commitment through the Child Poverty Act 2010 to eradicate child poverty by 2020. Will this commitment be scrapped as a result of the cuts?

The Church of Scotland has had a long commitment towards eliminating child poverty in Scotland and is in full support of The Better Odds at School campaign to be launched today by Save the Children. The campaign proposes to address the under-achievement gap by investing in extra resources for schools to support children in poverty. These resources are not called for in isolation, but as part of a strategy that targets under-achievement from early years onwards and that recognises the need to support parents in helping their children achieve their full educational potential. We need campaigns and actions like these to prevent our children from becoming collateral damage of the spending review.

Monday, 13 September 2010

The Papal Visit

When Pope John Paul II visited Scotland in 1982, I was living in a small ecumenical community in West Pilton, then one of the poorest parts of Edinburgh, that was supported by both the local Catholic and Church of Scotland congregations. We were aiming to demonstrate on the ground that by being alongside people who were struggling we could do together what we could not manage on our own. So when the Pope asked, at Bellahouston, “Can we not walk hand in hand together?” we felt it was an affirmation that cut through much of the things that divided our denominations. Nearly thirty years on, there are a host of examples of ways in which that appeal has been acted on, significantly at the local community level, though it can also be seen in the much warmer relationships that exist structurally.

This time round, the challenges facing the churches are considerable. Transition is under way, and the environment is more hostile. The heart of the church, though, is found in service to others rather than in institutional survival. I hope that the current Papal visit brings another wave of encouragement for ecumenical – and inter faith – co-operation in the years ahead. In particular, that priority for the poorest will more and more be seen to be where people of faith are united and making a difference.

Notable examples of current co-operation include Faith in Community Scotland, of which the Church of Scotland and Archdiocese of Glasgow are co-founders, helping local churches to punch well above their weight in some of our poorest places. These efforts will be more needed than ever in the wake of expected cuts to provision and benefits. While the material resources available may be less than for some time, the vision of prioritising the poorest will remain, and the churches will not turn away from the challenge. Together we can do what separately we can not.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Between The Blitz and the burning of Holy Books

The newspapers are full of articles about The Blitz and of the resilient bravery and dignity of people surviving under impossible conditions. There are also items about a pastor in a small church in the USA adamant in its desire to burn the Quran to the dismay and anger of Muslims all over the world.. All of these are violent acts fuelled by intransigence. Personally, and in my role as Convener of the Kirk’s Church and Society Council, the burning of holy books of any faith is seen as an act of cultural barbarism, intransigence and is totally unacceptable.

September is also a month for deep religious reflection and remembrance. Muslim people in the UK and all over the world have been fasting as part of Ramadan. Rosh Hashanah, one of the major celebrations of the Jewish faith, where Jewish people review their actions of the past year and ask for forgiveness of their fellow human beings and of God, will take place on September 9th.

September 11th is closely approaching. People of all faiths and nationalities perished. Would it not be much better than burning books, to put into practice the power and grace of forgiveness?

Celebrating diversity and challenging discrimination

This coming Sunday, 12 September, is designated as Racial Justice Sunday by all the Churches in Britain and Ireland.

This year is a very special year for two reasons. The first is that churches all over Europe have dedicated the whole of 2010 to think about how they are responding to migration.

And the second is that, here in Scotland, a new organisation to support and encourage black and minority ethnic Christians is being established. MECTIS (Minority Ethnic Churches Together in Scotland) is being launched at a special service on Sunday evening at Wellington Church in Glasgow.

MECTIS is for the ‘black majority’ or black-led churches, for migrant churches, for Christian organisations and groups working with black and minority ethnic people, and for BME people worshipping in the more traditional, established churches in Scotland.

Leaders from MECTIS groups and the established churches will be present at the special service next weekend. I hope that MECTIS will both be a place where all people can come together to talk, and to work and worship together.

Churches Together in Britain and Ireland have produced special worship resources for Racial Justice Sunday, which will be used in churches across the whole country. Maybe you could plan to use them in your Church?

This prayer has been written by Betty Luckham of the Catholic Association for Racial Justice:

Heavenly God, we praise your name and thank you for your glorious goodness and mercy.
Lord Jesus, we pray a blessing for all those actively engaged in the struggle for racial justice.
Holy Spirit, we beseech you to enter into the minds and hearts of all those in authority in the Church.
Grant that they may:
Hear the voices crying out for justice
Engage in developing a better understanding
Act to bring about change
Lead and inspire others by their good example.

We ask this through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
The love of God is greater than all evil.

We pray for racial justice:
- in our lives
- in our churhces
- in our land.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Alcohol is not an essential food item

Yesterday the Scottish government proposed the figure of  45 pence  the minimum price per unit of alcohol. If approved, this measure will affect everyone, casual and social drinkers and those with an alcohol problem.

Is paying more for our alcoholic drinks something we want? From an individual perspective, it is not nice to have to pay more for something considered enjoyable and relaxing. Scotland’s relationship with alcohol is complex. Excessive drinking is socially acceptable within our society and connected with fun and having a “good night out”. However, excessive drinking comes at a cost and we are all paying for collateral damage connected to excessive drinking.

The Scottish Parliamentary Labour Group published yesterday The Report of the Alcohol Commission. The report is an interesting read. For starters, it stresses the need for a national strategy for action on alcohol because there are no magic bullets or quick fix solutions for changing the culture of Scottish drinking. Aye to that.

The writers of the Labour report are not convinced that simply hiking the price of booze will deal by itself with the alcohol problem.  Moreover,  they argue that it has not been done anywhere else in the world. Maybe not, but let me ask you a question. If money is tight all around, is it rocket science to assume that people will buy less alcohol,  simply because it is dearer ? Alcohol is not an essential food item.

Minimum pricing is not about making drinking democratically available to all sectors of society. It is one of many possible steps to be taken to reduce alcohol consumption overall. Taking that step does not preclude a strategy with many other policies attached.

As a society, are we not willing to pay more for a drink if this cuts the alcohol related street-violence, car accidents, domestic situations and increases the overall health of our nation? I trust the answer is AYE!

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Who needs palliative care?

We might think that palliative care is for those with a terminal illness, during their last months of life; however according to the Palliative Care Bill currently discussed in Holyrood, palliative care is not just for cancer patients, or terminally ill people. This Bill proposes that palliative care be given for everyone with a progressive life-limiting condition as well as their families. This is a step in the right direction because the Bill recognises that palliative care is not just for people at the end of their life, but also for those with illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, heart failure, or Parkinson’s. These type of progressive illnesses are very stressful on the patient and on the whole family.

The main thrust of the Bill focuses on the delivery of care within a hospital environment. In all fairness, palliative care in Scotland has been delivered through churches, charitable organisations and hospices. It must therefore be recognised that palliative care can be delivered not just in hospitals, but in hospices, churches, GP practices and in the home. The Church of Scotland has a long tradition in providing spiritual help to patients and families afflicted by progressive and life limiting illnesses and has been actively involved throughout the consultation processes of the Bill.

Integrated palliative care is not just about alleviating physical conditions; it should also involve spiritual, psychological and social elements. This type of integrated care requires resources beyond currently available charitable funding. Throughout the consultation processes, the Kirk has pushed for a clear financial commitment in support of integrated palliative care. In the current economic climate, a Bill without a carefully considered financial commitment will become just idle, empty words