The bad men of the Scottish church who sleep undisturbed


By Kenneth Roy

My interest in religion, once curious and keen, was finally extinguished by the cruelty and megalomania of God’s representatives on earth. I decided that I didn’t like the company God was keeping; that God had some very odd friends. So the boy who once went to church twice every Sunday – not because he was coerced into doing so but because he just liked going to church – now doesn’t go at all. How revealing of my own vulnerability that I reverted instinctively to the third person for that small confession.

If I look relatively charitably on the sins of Cardinal O’Brien it is because I have personal knowledge of conduct in the Christian church in Scotland which was just as bad, if not very much worse.

I have only a nodding acquaintance with the Catholic Church, but I do know the Church of Scotland. I used to know it quite intimately. I even served briefly on one of its national committees and for a while was active in my own parish. I got to know it better when I worked for the BBC and presented the live transmissions from the General Assembly when that body still fancied itself as a force in the land. (Though maybe it continues to fancy itself: there are no boundaries to collective self-delusion). I know it so well that I even know where the bodies are buried.

Just as Catherine Deveney, a journalist with the Observer, has given us three priests, I will give you three ministers, all of whom are dead. I do not intend to name them. To borrow from Ms Deveney, defending the right of the priests to public anonymity: why should I? Their families are still with us. They have feelings too.

Two were men of exceptional gifts of intellect and originality, of a quality that in a lifetime of observing people I have never seen surpassed.

The third I never knew personally. I did, however, hear a detailed account of his ordeal from a man named James Drawbell, a journalist who became my mentor. This minister – Drawbell’s friend – was fired from an important Church of Scotland post one Christmas when he was recovering from a life-threatening illness. There was no excuse, no justification whatever, for this callous act. By the time justice was done in his case, the man was dead.

At this point I invoke Jimmy Reid, an atheist but in his own words not one of your hard-nut atheists. Jimmy told the delegates of the Young Scotland Programme one night that, although the death certificates of his young siblings gave a physical cause of death, he knew that they had been murdered by what he called the system, which he defined as capitalism. That made sense to me. Just as it makes sense that, although Drawbell’s friend died because his heart gave out from an accumulation of stress, he was murdered by his own church. That was Drawbell’s view and Drawbell was a man of this world.

The two men I did know, the ones of exceptional gifts, both endured forms of persecution, different in nature but with similar results, at the hands of the Church of Scotland. They were bold, unorthodox, deeply thoughtful people who drove themselves too hard and dared to be different. One, the more robust mentally, suffered a near-fatal heart attack. I have no doubt that the treacherous machinations of his church, which undermined him at every turn, to an extent that I only discovered when I was shown the written evidence many years later, contributed to the deterioration of his health. The other, abandoned by the church in his hour of greatest need, dissolved into alcoholism and was gone in his early 50s. I miss them both. The Kirk would miss them too were it not so faithless and so wanting in compassion.

The leaders of the Christian church who persecuted these three men, and who contributed to the premature death of at least one of them, were not pilloried by self-righteous journalists. Nor were they publicly disgraced. Nor were they hounded into exile. On the contrary, some did rather well for themselves. One was the coldest person I ever tried to engage in conversation on a telephone. I was attempting to intercede on behalf of a dying man, pleading for some gesture of simple humanity. I got nowhere. But highly respected in the Church of Scotland? You bet. Even as the institution crumbles, the grey men cling to the remnant of power. They know who they are, those still above ground. Unlike Cardinal O’Brien they sleep undisturbed.

Hypocrisy is the word of the week. I’m sick of it and it’s only Tuesday. All the public figures I interviewed for the BBC were hypocritical. I am hypocritical myself. Possibly the least hypocritical person I ever met – the one imbued with the purest motives – was Yehudi Menuhin and now we learn that terrible abuses may have gone on in the school of music to which he gave his name. Even the memory of Menuhin, one of the greatest souls of the last century, is tainted by association.

But hypocrisy is not the real killer. Reporting the Christian community in Scotland for as long as I have (most of my adult life), I’ve discovered that the exercise of power is more toxic in its effects. When he was a spiritual teacher 30 years ago, Cardinal O’Brien (as he then wasn’t) abused his. To what degree remains to be established. But the opprobrium visited upon him may be disproportionate when his abuse of power is compared to other abuses within my personal experience that cost reputations, careers, marriages and lives.

We cross the Rubicon in our own way. Stewart Conn confided in me once that most men cross it with the death of their father. There may be something in Stewart’s theory. But I saw the Rubicon in view, not with the death of my father, but with the terrifying realisation that crucifixion is not something that happens only at Easter; that it is a cross for all seasons, a daily activity, that it is what the people of God do to each other, and that there is no end
to it.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy and the Scottish Review