As the Old Firm tribes clash today, the public face of sectarianism will again be on show. But how deep does the hate go and what can be done to eradicate a problem that shames us all?
That night I was staying up the hill from Hampden in, ironically enough, a former Church of Scotland manse, the home of Colm Brogan, a precociously talented young journalist who was then a colleague of mine on The Scotsman. The Brogans, originally from Donegal, were a high- powered and high-profile family of academics, writers and teachers.
There was a gathering in the Brogan home of some leading members of what might be called the Celtic-supporting intelligentsia. The controversies of the final were picked over and I, the sole Aberdeen supporter present, was treated with a mixture of friendliness and derision.
I was informed, with passion and vehemence, that the fact Davidson came from Airdrie (a hotbed of militant Protestantism, I was forcefully told), was particularly damning. I was also lectured eloquently about Celtic, a club created by an exiled people.
A s the night wore on and the drink flowed, there was loud singing of Irish rebel songs. Then came a moment like one of HM Bateman’s The Man Who cartoons. I think the song being sung at this point was Kevin Barry. Colm’s father, Diarmid, a well-known Glasgow teacher, suddenly pointed across the crowded room at me and roared: “You! Yes you! Why aren’t you singing?” There was a terrible hush; everyone was looking at me.
I managed to defuse the considerable tension by mumbling some words to the effect that I was just a loon from Aberdeen (not true, I’m actually Glaswegian) and that I didn’t know the words because I was a Scottish Protestant (quite brave, that). My clinching defence was that, anyway, I couldn’t sing.
This seemed just about sufficient to satisfy Brogan Senior, and the aggressive singing resumed. But it had been a dangerous and charged moment, and for me, it was also an eye-opener, a genuinely educative experience. Although Glasgow-born, I’d been bought up in Aberdeen, where there has always been a healthy contempt for both sides of the Old Firm – possibly Rangers slightly more than Celtic – and very little, if any, sectarianism.
Slowly, over the years, I was to learn all about Scottish sectarianism, and the past that informs it. What I became aware of that night exactly 36 years ago, and ever more so as I worked in Glasgow and mixed with highly educated and professionally successful Protestants and Catholics, was that sectarianism is not simply the solace of an underclass. It is not merely the prerogative of the deprived and the outcast, those who live in the unfortunate nether world at the bottom of the heap.
Indeed, there is a difficult, but in a way valid, argument that bigotry can almost be justified if it provides some identity and meaning in otherwise barren and impoverished lives. That may sound condescending but I don’t mean it to be; quite the opposite.
On the other hand I became aware that among people who really ought to know better – those who should be the enlightened and even the leaders in our society; the civic cream if you will – there still sometimes lurks atavistic bitterness and loathing. And worse, this loathing is carefully nurtured, so that it is handed, alive and warm, from generation to generation.
I have discussed this phenomenon more than once with Tom Devine, Scotland’s pre-eminent academic historian who is also consultant on anti-sectarian policy to the Scottish Executive’s justice department. Devine calls the kind of sectarianism I have been sketching “attitudinal”. He believes that structural sectarianism – the kind that, for example, stops people getting jobs because of their religion – is pretty well beaten, and I agree. But ominously, Devine thinks that attitudinal sectarianism might even be getting worse.
In the long and messy history of Scotland, there are admittedly plenty of readily available excuses for anger and even hatred on both sides. In 2001, I was commissioned by the then Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Dr Andrew McLellan, to write a book about the Kirk, its situation and prospects. I was also asked to explore the Kirk’s recent past, and the Faculty of Divinity of Edinburgh University gave me a visiting fellowship so that I could use their research facilities.
Well, the more I delved into the history of the Church of Scotland in the 1920s and 1930s the more I was, literally, horrified.
The Kirk’s most prominent figure in that era, John White, from Kilwinning, should have been a great man. He had many gifts. He was indubitably courageous; he was a magnificent orator; he was very clever. But instead of being a force for peace and reconciliation in the years following the first world war, when Scotland was spent and wounded, he instead bitterly divided the nation with his vicious anti-Catholic rhetoric and his racist campaigns against Irish immigration.
He asserted that a superior race (the Scots) was being supplanted by the inferior Irish.
He used the Kirk’s newly formed Church and Nation Committee to urge the mass deportation of all Irish-Scottish Catholics deemed undesirable. Kirk ministers were required to report on the numbers of Catholics living in their parishes. And White was not some marginal crackpot, whipping up hate and fury on the sidelines, but the Kirk’s central, leading figure.
We have here the complicating dimension of race. In Scotland, sectarianism is not just about religion. The Irish factor has made matters more complex. Nonetheless, I believe Scottish sectarianism is basically religious. It is undeniable that, thanks to demagogues like White, Catholics lived in fear for far too long in many areas of Scotland.
And we can go back much further. Scottish history is at least in part about the Covenanters, and about the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. I greatly admire John Knox, and his prescient vision of a Scotland in which the poor were looked after and everyone would be educated. I also admire Patrick Hamilton, that numinous and gentle young man, Scotland’s first Protestant martyr.
Tried for heresy in 1528, he refused to recant and was burned to death, very slowly and cruelly, at the gates of St Salvators College in St Andrews. His six-hour agony was watched by Cardinal Beaton. Far from ignoring such episodes, I think we should discuss them, and try to understand why and how they happened.
Some think the way to eliminate attitudinal sectarianism is to dismiss the past, and as it were delete any unfortunate atavistic memories. I think that is wrong-headed and immature. Indeed, I believe the opposite: the more we know about the past, and the more we seek to understand it, the better. That is not to say that we should glory in the sins of our fathers.
The moderator-elect of the Kirk, the Rev Alan McDonald, made a brave and noble intervention when he was convener of the (now defunct) Church and Nation Committee. He publicly atoned for the anti-Catholic wrongs that were done in the name of the committee in the 1920s and 1930s. That was a fine gesture, one of the best things done by a Kirk figure in recent years.
Thus I do not want in any way to smash or even diminish what might be termed the Protestant identity and the Catholic identity. I just wish there were more openness, more understanding, more respect between the two. In a way, this is the precise opposite of ecumenism.
I believe that much so-called ecumenism is glib and half-hearted. Instead of trying to bring two traditions together in some artificial unity, I think we should rather glory in the differences, and cherish them, in a spirit of friendship, understanding and – dare I say this in Scotland – love.
Unfortunately, it is becoming fashionable, in the context of race relations and the immigration debate, to suggest that multiculturalism is flawed and past its sell-by date. I disagree, just as I disagree with the notion that Christianity can easily be united. Indeed, the differences between Protestantism and Catholicism are very, very real, and there is little point in denying them or smoothing over them. In that sense and that sense only, sectarianism has a certain implicit validity.
One of the defining characteristics I admire most in the Roman Catholic Church is its sense of authority, and its concomitant hierarchical structure. The Church of Scotland is by contrast almost excessively democratic, to the point of near anarchy, a problematic condition in a church. The Kirk sometimes appears confused as it attempts to grapple with today’s secular world. Young people nowadays – in Scotland, though not in other parts of the world – often have scant understanding of the notion of legitimate authority and legitimate sanctions.
The Papacy, with an admittedly flawed and controversial record over the years, is probably the most significant popular institution in the world today. It may well be the most respected source of authority. It is certainly one of the oldest and most venerable. Around one billion human beings sincerely regard the Pope as their spiritual leader. The Papacy has seen off all the secular empires.
So instead of just saying to people that the words f*** the Pope are wrong, which of course they are, should we not make some effort to educate them as to the sheer global significance of the Papacy? Or is this impossibly naive?
The other thing that I, as an outsider, most admire about the RC Church is its constant nourishing of public beauty. In its liturgy, its music, and particularly its art and architecture, it makes the Church of Scotland seem pinched and mean. Every time I am lucky enough to be in Rome I am awestruck by the splendours of the baroque (and in particular the ubiquitous work of Bernini) in church after church after glorious church. I used to console myself in the bleakness of my Protestant soul that this art was vulgar. No longer am I so stupid.
ON the other hand, I believe the Reformation was necessary and that Martin Luther was probably the most significant human being of the past millennium. He paved the way for Calvin and Knox, so important to the Kirk. In some ways, like John White, he was a bad man, and he was a terrible anti-Semite, but he also had the vision, energy and titanic moral force to smash the dark ages of the mind.
He gave religion back to the people, and made it something that could be personally appropriated. In a way, the Reformation was anti-authority. It ushered in the centuries of individual freedom which have given us not just capitalism and prosperity but also a record of consistent technological achievement beyond the imagining of those in the dark ages of ignorance.
Maybe this individualism has gone much too far, just as Catholic authoritarianism has too often been abused. But the point is that these two great strands of Christianity have been central to the creation of our modern world and have touched every part of our lives – intellectual, material, cultural – whether we are religious or not. In this greater historical context, sectarianism seems spiteful, petty and altogether pitiful.
So what I am asking for in Scotland is a kind of grand educative cleansing. Let’s seek an enlightened understanding of the two separate traditions, and respect them equally. The people who can best kick-start this new approach are the religious leaders themselves, if only they had the courage and the vision to do so.
Of course sectarianism is practised by many who never go near a church or chapel, or pay attention to a churchman. And it will be said that in these aggressively secular times, nobody listens to church leaders anyway. Really? So nobody listened to Pope John Paul II when he visited Scotland in 1982? Nobody will listen to Pope Benedict XVI if he visits Scotland next year, as is being proposed?
And what about the leaders of the Kirk? The Kirk, lacking a hierarchy, finds it difficult if not impossible to provide leadership continuity. Yet over the past generation or so there have been some outstanding communicators. I mentioned that Alan McDonald is moderator-elect.
He is a man who could embrace this proposed approach with eloquence and understanding. But not only church leaders should be involved in this process. Teachers, lecturers, writers, even broadcasters and journalists – many can play their part.
It seems to me that this process would be much more useful than Uefa closing a stand at Ibrox, or indeed, the police moving into the Ibrox crowd and hauling out some aberrant songsters, making minor martyrs of a few sad miscreants. Such measures would not dispel the underlying malaise.
On the other hand, especially on the day of an Old Firm derby, it would be utterly wrong to appear complacent about the football manifestation of the problem. Rangers and Celtic provide the most readily available crucible for the working-out of the age-old animosities I have described.
Some argue that they provide a useful conduit for the release of tensions and hatreds that would otherwise take a more sinister form. There may be some truth in this, but it does not let the two clubs off the hook. They must work harder, much harder, to eliminate the deplorable chants and songs that shame all decent Scots. The clubs should also participate in the educational process I am proposing. (Celtic was in a way founded as a quasi-educational institution). These organisations must accept, once and for all, that they carry much offensive baggage; that they are far more than mere football clubs.
As a nation, we need to grow up, to learn to understand that there are differences, and that far from diminishing us, these differences give us diversity and strength. What we need is respect, understanding and compassion for both sides.
And we must not neglect our history. What we should not do is to trawl through it to justify expressions of bigotry and hatred. Where there have been errors and horrors, let there be atonement and expunging. For example, I understand that Pope Benedict may be visiting St Andrews next year. Should that happen, how marvellous it would be, if he could take part in a simple ceremony to atone for the death of Patrick Hamilton.
How marvellous, too, if Kirk leaders could tell the Pope, yes, we are different, and we disagree with you, yet there are so many aspects of the Catholic church that we envy, and it still has so much to teach us. This would be not ecumenism, but straightforward conciliatory realism.