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.