Where the Kirk leads, will Catholics follow? | Kevin Mckenna

Why has the Catholic church yet to play any part in the credit union established by the Church of Scotland?

My first excursion to Morningside, the south-western arrondissement from which the rest of Edinburgh draws its annual supply of douceness, occurred only late last year. It’s not that I had avoided the area; simply that in the course of several years working in Scotland’s lovely wee second city, I’d rarely encountered anyone from that neighbourhood nor ever been summoned to any social occasion within its arboreal environs.

Last December, though, I was invited to attend a reception there hosted by Scotland’s recently installed archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, the most reverend Leo Cushley at St Benet’s, his official residence. Archbishop Leo was a warm and affable host and as the delightful choristers of two primary schools serenaded us with Christmas carols I had the chance to scan the room to see who was up and who was down in the nomenklatura of Scotland’s top Tims.

It was while engaged in this shallow and worthless enterprise that I became startled by the sudden knowledge that this was probably the most expensive private house I’d ever been permitted to enter. Soon, I was informed that JK Rowling lived nearby. The properties in these streets are of the type you only ever see belonging to some dastardly aristo who is about to be dispatched in Midsomer Murders. I don’t know if you would call the archbishop’s residence a mansion but it certainly looked like one to me.

Two questions immediately sprang to mind: how much north of £5m would this property fetch and why in the name of the Holy Mother of God has the Catholic church in Scotland not sold it and put the money to better use?

Last week, it was revealed that my reformed brothers and sisters in the Church of Scotland, along with other Scottish churches, have established a credit union as a Christian alternative to the predatory wickedness of banks and payday lenders. Sadly, the Catholic church, for reasons unknown, is not part of this venture. Perhaps when the Catholic hierarchy is finally compelled to do the right thing and sells its Edinburgh mansion it could support the Church of Scotland’s credit union and donate a slice of the St Benet’s money to it.

There could not have been a more apt week for the Kirk to announce this fine initiative. Two days later, the swamp in which many of our major financial institutions wallow was laid bare by the HSBC leaks. The two most shocking aspects of the HSBC affair were that no one was really all that shocked and that few would be surprised if other major high street banks were caught up in similar activities.

This is why it is vital that the Church of Scotland credit union, which will have 35,000 members to begin with, succeeds. For by doing so it would signal to others that credit unions, even though the annual percentage yield may be more modest for savers, are the ethical alternative to modern banking and all of its deceptions and avarice.

The Church of Scotland’s act of mercy in establishing its credit union is in the finest tradition of an institution that has embraced social justice since its inception. The Kirk had established the principle of a publicly funded school in every parish long, long before such a populist concept was accepted as the only moral and civilised way of educating our children.

According to the historian Niall Ferguson, the church helped to establish the world’s first modern insurance fund in 1748. In his book, The Ascent of Money, Ferguson writes: “It was their achievement to create the first modern insurance fund, based on correct actuarial and financial principles, rather than mercantile gambling.”

Two Edinburgh ministers, Robert Wallace and Alexander Webster, along with Colin Maclaurin, professor of maths at Edinburgh University, sought to establish a fund for the widows and orphans of deceased Kirk clergymen, who were curiously prone to premature death in a city that was infamous for its bad hygiene and incidence of disease. Their fund, based on the principles of charity, compassion and modest profit, was the inspiration for similar initiatives that sprang into being all over the world.

Both the Church of Scotland and the Church of England have been vociferous in calling for social change in a land of plenty where, nonetheless, the gap between rich and poor is increasing daily. Last year, John Sentamu, archbishop of York, condemned how little many successful companies pay their staff. Low pay is one of the great corporate evils by which economic control is wielded over the many by the gilded few.

They do it through a practice that is akin to slavery and that maintains a workplace model that is underpinned by something approaching serfdom. As a Christian who believes that every human life is sacred, no matter how tiny, and that we are all equal before God, it is pleasing when our great churches reach into people’s lives in this way instead of fashing themselves about the country’s rainbow sexual habits.

Meanwhile, in a 19th-century Morningside mansion, a young Catholic archbishop is fighting to recover his church’s lost sense of purpose and authority. The scale of the opulence of his residence is matched only by its emptiness and thus it stands as a symbol of the modern Catholic church in Scotland, still mired in scandal and still in denial about its self-inflicted wounds. In Glasgow, a retired archbishop who remains in the pomp and ceremony of his office during his forgettable tenure is in his £1m grace and favour house on the city’s south side, his requirements all being attended to. Another home has had to be found for his successor.

In the streets outside, child poverty increases and food banks proliferate but the Catholic church in Scotland seems detached. Once it was expected to hold the line in bearing witness to our saviour in a world that has rejected Him. It is good that the Kirk, sturdy, steadfast and true, has taken the standard and returned to basic and mere Christianity.


Kevin McKenna

The GuardianTramp

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