How would you describe your personal beliefs and identity in relation to religion?
I would certainly describe it as Presbyterian and as belonging to the national Church of Scotland. I wasn’t brought up in in the Church of Scotland but I now understand more about what it means to be a national church by constitution. My parents were more Non-Conformist than and as they moved from location to location they simply looked for a church that they regarded as lively enough and became part of its fellowship. And that, by and by, when I was about 8 or 9 took me into a Church of Scotland congregation and from there settled within it. And I suppose I’ve pretty well moved through the structures of the Church of Scotland, becoming a member as a teenager,at university taking up a call to the ministry and entering the vocation, of ministry, and never thought for a moment that I would be anywhere else than the Church of Scotland.
Would you say that GB/Scotland was an equal and tolerant society, especially in relation to HR?
There’s undoubtedly a history of discrimination for instance in some areas of employment, where companies would rather employ people from the Protestant tradition or people from the Catholic tradition, and that’s stronger in some parts of the country than in others, and we’re still doing quite a lot of work on what we would describe as anti-Sectarian research and development. And the Church of Scotland is involved in that, and the most recent piece of research, actually unearthed some of the more hidden aspects of that kind of sectarian view of the world, for instance in Edinburgh where in polite society, it’s not so obvious.There was for instance in some law firms the exclusion of Catholic employees or in some of the gentleman’s clubs, it look a long time before they entertained membership from Catholics. But it would have to be said that now we’re getting on top of that, but it’s not completely gone. I have heard that even one of the big employers, not far from here, who to make life easier, that while they’re a mixed employer they tend not to mix the employees, so they to have a shift that of Catholic workers and a shift that of Protestant workers. So in 2015,there is still a little bit of that, it’s isolated now, but it’s around. Janette’s right to say that a lot of it has been driven by football loyalty rather than religious loyalty. The great football teams of Scotland – Rangers and Celtic, are openly Protestant or Catholic in nature, and the support in the songs they sing and in the historic roots they have.
There are no doubt what some people believe there are privileges, that come with being the Church of Scotland, for instance we have the right to representation on local education committees, and other denominations and the Secular Society see that as a privilege too much, we play down the idea of it being a privilege and play up the idea of it being part of representative democracy, and we are the biggest player and we earn a right to be there. Similarly we have what some people would call the privilege to be present in prisons, appoint chaplains in health care and in spiritual care and we are the predominant player. But again, we say we earn our place because of the social good that is provided by us and by our voluntary force. If you’re asking me what is the biggest problem that being Presbyterian or Presbyterianism faces within the church itself it is that we are becoming (by the day) more and more congregational in the way in which we act and yet we take our vows of loyalty to courts of the church and to play our part in them.
But we subscribe to a set of constitutional statements, we subscribe to, amend and enact laws which are recognised as laws within the legal jurisdiction of the church and then people think they can ignore then because they don’t apply to them.
Are there any ways in which the Church of Scotland has a practical influence on HR?
When you drill right down to where we’ve got a Poverty Truth Commission within the Priority Areas. We’ve identified the 59 poorest parishes in Scotland by all the indicators, by all the demographical survey work that has been done through the census, and we have decided that we need to double our investment in these places over and above our investment in other parts of our work. We can’t abandon the poor, the Gospel priority is to the poor and so every single council of the church, every single committee of the church is supposed to see the world through the lens of how their work makes a difference to the life of the poor…so when you drill right down to what is happening on the ground we have seen and still see human trafficking on the streets of Glasgow, children being sold, families being sold into prostitution and so forth, and the complete abuse of human rights in areas of our country where actually the Rule of Law has pretty well broken down and people don’t have access to the protection of the law and the law doesn’t have access to enforce the law because society is happy to see it contained within certain isolated communities. As long as it doesn’t spill over into some of the comfortable suburbs and we collude to isolate these areas and in my year as Moderator I’ve been trying to highlight this in the areas where I’ve seen it first hand. But these are very difficult to pin down and address nonetheless we’ve published reports on human trafficking and the abuse of human rights on our doorstep – never mind what we see across the world.
Do you think that public authorities respect HRs?
Migration is the other thing which has caused unrest and difficulty sometimes in applying fairly some of the principles of human rights. There’s a force that’s in human nature that says these people are taking our jobs or these people are taking our houses and you’re not quite sure what’s happening a layer beneath.
Do public authorities get the balance between freedom and protection right when it comes to intervening in the lives of citizens?
There’s a feeling within some quarters that religious tolerance doesn’t extend to Christianity, (I’m not subscribing to that [view]), but David Cameron [the Prime Minister] has sometimes described Britain as a Christian country, but a Christian country that tolerates the presence of people of other faiths – he isn’t ashamed to describe Britain as Christian and has his Easter reception at Downing Street for church leaders and then he has all faith leaders at other times and in other places and it seems to some people that there’s an unusual amount of criticism of Christianity or of the promotion of Christianity while everyone is more guarded in relation to what they might want to say publically about the practice of Islam or any other faith. The Paris killings for instance, where Charlie Hedbo could publish as many critical cartoons as it liked of the Pope or of other Christian figures, without there being any likely threats of annihilation and so when you analyse that mix you do find people within the Christian tradition saying, “why is it that you get away with saying what you like about Jesus and you have to be guarded about Mohammed – so it’s a strange one.
When should public authorities intervene in the expression of religious beliefs?
You cannot have violent threat outside an abortion clinic just because somebody is running a perfectly legal operation, so there are places where it’s “this far and no further”. I couldn’t answer the question as to whether authorities intervene at the right level and at the right time.
Is living in a Parliamentary democracy a positive thing? Is there is any kind of government which you would prefer?
Benign dictatorship with me in charge! [tongue in cheek!]
Democracy isn’t about having elections, democracy is what happens between elections really….and I suppose the biggest issue for most people is whether you’ve got access to the systems – that you can influence them – that you can converse them….that you’re consulted when changes are in the offing. I would like to think if I give them [politicians] the benefit of the doubt the Scottish Parliament has been quite good at that [consultation]. We’ve had very good cooperation with the civil servants, particularly and especially for instance around changes in the marriage law, they’ve worked with us on it and we’ve no reason therefore to say that any other form of government would have made that any better or any easier, I think it’s been good. I think there’s room for improvement, I don’t think that our committee system in the Scottish Parliament has worked as well as it should….nor has it been as democratic as it should be. Too much political party influence over the memberships and so on.
They need a revising chamber, some of the law making processes have been weak. Probably good civil servants have saved their bacon more than once.
Do your beliefs mean that you feel an obligation to vote?
Yes, I think that it’s one of those sort of things that whether we know it or not is kind of theologically embedded in the civic duty part of the way in which Church and State are separate but not separate, they depend on one another and hold one another to account in all sorts of ways.
Is it a good or a bad thing that Parliament has the final say in making and changing law? Would you like to see judges empowered to strike down legislation?
Yes, and it could be achieved.
Is majoritarian democracy a problem for minority groups? Are there some sections of society which face barriers to participation?
I think that the UK should be looking to (let’s not call it an experiment) the way in which the Scottish Parliament is elected. I’m not a fan of first past the post, it leaves people like me, who’ve voted all their lives for parties that never get elected…..because I’m more of a sort of Liberal Democratic type of person…..and so and for people who can often see both sides of an argument, it’s a frustration to always be asked to determine the future of a nation on one side or the other of a philosophical political divide, when things that we deal with nowadays in public life are much more complex than that, and I’d like to see complexity reflected in the way in which we’re represented in Parliament.
How do you feel about the presence of Church of England bishops in Westminster?
I think that we’ve got to accept what [history has given us] and we start from where we are. And I think that we actually depend on them in some ways to represent our religious and philosophical position and we have a good relationship with the Church of England. But I think that given what I’ve already said about complexity and needing complex representation to deal with the complexity of modern life, it’s OK. But we’re not where I would start if I was starting again!
If Church of Scotland is established, would you like to see it represented in Parliament in the same way as the other established church?
Again in my Liberal Democratic way of seeing the world, I’d say and what about the rest? And you know ideally I’d like to see some sort of second chamber that was representative of different areas of expertise and different groups across the country. Not just a place where you recycled old politicians…that know the ropes. I think one of the… (this is to digress) but I think that one of gravest errors that Scotland made when it established its new Parliament was that it decided to establish it around so called full time politicians, there was an opportunity at the time to establish a one hundred day parliament and to have those who run the country be those who ran businesses or ran hospitals or ran charities,. People who had proper jobs and knew how to manage things and make things happen and represent the nation in a different way in its democratic structures and a second chamber that was representative in that way of such wide ranging expertise including religious representation is the kind of chamber I’d like to see.
Do public authorities try to respect the will of Parliament as expressed through legislation?
Possibly the opposite in some ways, some fairly radical changes in law where people said, “you’ll never enforce that”…for instance smoking in public places and the new alcohol limit, I think that’s dramatically changed the way in which people are viewing [everyday life such as] their night out at the restaurant.
How do you feel about the EU and Devolved institutions?
I know when we talk about church law which we want to implement I could come up with a number of laws that I would like to see, and that the majority of people in the church would like to see on the statue books, but we know that they’re not implementable that it’s simple not possible to police them and there does seem to be a lot of “unpolicable”law coming out of the EU. And as you travel around you see it being ignored in some parts of Europe and applied in others. And we seem to apply it quite vigorously.
I can buy goat’s cheese in a French market that probably wouldn’t pass any of the European guidelines but my Lanark Blue is banned because it doesn’t meet EU standards.
Do you think that Scotland is more pro-EU than England?
The face of politics has changed radically in the last five years or so, there’s now a third alternative around or even a fourth alternative, in Scotland that’s the SNP and they’ve taken up a particular political position with a view to Europe but I don’t think it’s one that was necessarily reflected in the mind of the people. And in England it’s UKIP, which is a one issue party which has taken up the voice of those who think that Europe is to blame for everything. And so I think if you cleared away some of the political noise my guess is that there are as many Scots ambivalent about Europe as there are in England, or as many that are in support of it as there are in England.
What does your faith teach about people who exercise power? How should they be held accountable?
I had an extraordinary experience in Nigeria last week, where the state Governor turned up at church and the Moderator of the East Central synod asked me to pray for the Governor and for success in the election. And he had cornered me in front of a congregation of a 1000 people, it wasn’t on the order of service that I was to do this. I knew that in all conscience, (and everything which I had learned theologically about the way in which Church and State remain separate) that I wasn’t going to pray for his success in the election, but for humility for those who have great power, honesty for those who handle great resources, integrity and wisdom for those who will be voting. I don’t think he liked the prayer but that is what he got. What we expect of people in public office is that they have integrity, are collaborative and listen to the people. And we will support them with our prayer and commitment to the democratic process. But we wouldn’t expect to hold them to account in any other way.
Do you think that your group is appropriately and proportionately represented in public life?
I think that the proportion has changed. We now live in the age of the career politician. As a result of that it has changed and there are fewer people [who operate] from any faith perspective, because they are coming from a secular understanding of the world, a political arena which is meant to be more and more separate from any of the institutions which effect modern life.
Would you say that there is enough distance between the judiciary and politicians?
There is sufficient distance, but Scotland is a small country and there are places where people meet. If you are a member of certain clubs you will find these politicians and others mingling, and sometimes I think that there is more business done in the “smoke filled rooms” of these clubs than is prudent or safe.
What checks and balances should we have on the power of the government and Parliament?
The free press is terribly important, no democratic society operates well without it. In the heyday of newspapers, there was quite a spread of editorial view, which held each side to account, but now that newspapers are almost a thing of the past – and the blogosphere and an online news stream has changed the way in which politics are influenced, the jury is out on how that will work out over the longer hall. But you could also argue that in the old days when Lord Beaverbrook (newspaper proprietors in general) had so much influence, that wasn’t very healthy either. But at least we knew then how it worked, now we don’t.
How does the Church of Scotland seek to challenge decisions in public life which it sees as problematic?
We will make representations to Parliamentary Committees for instance. This week the Assisted Suicide Bill is rumbling its way through the system in Scotland, we gave evidence against it (as did the other churches). To get the authority to do that we take a report to the General Assembly. Then we will do what we can to lobby and encourage our members to write to MPs and MSPs. And sometimes an issue will crop up half-way through a year, which we didn’t deliberate on at a General Assembly, but if we can trace the trajectory which a General Assembly would have taken, if given the opportunity, then a Council can stick its neck out and address the issue.
Do you think that public authorities have a good understanding of the needs of Christians, and meet them appropriately?
It is hard for us to live with the way things are now because they weren’t that way once. We [The Church of Scotland] established a school in every parish, it was the Church of Scotland that was responsible what he have now and it’s hard to see ourselves being more and more marginalised in an institutional sphere where we were instrumental in its origins. But it is probably right that as society matures and becomes more tolerant and inclusive. We probably have a lot of people who don’t feel that, so we have got to be careful, in a broad church, about what we say.
Is it important for you personally to always act within secular law?
Successive Moderators of the General Assembly, not all but a few, have been arrested protesting about Trident and have been taken off and charged by the police. By and large the membership of our church would say good on you for bringing attention to what we think is morally wrong. So there are extremes where people would lie down in front of the tanks and feel that it was right to defy the law.
Are there any active issues where the Church of Scotland is campaigning for legal change?
We’ve had an extraordinary episode of discussion over same sex marriage, which we opposed with other faith groups and if you had held a referendum on this matter the government probably wouldn’t have got a majority. So what we had to do was negotiate strongly to protect those who, in all conscience, refuse to carry out these ceremonies. There would be amongst our membership people who would want to campaign to reverse this decision, but the Church of Scotland would never entertain going down that road.
Do your beliefs require you to speak out against injustices effecting third parties?
Do you think that the Rule of Law is applied equally? Do some groups receive preferential or prejudicial treatment?
I suspect that there are more cases than we know about. I was very shocked by the story about sex abuse in Bradford came about, and it was obvious that the police had been turning a blind eye, and weren’t prepared to listen to these girls from poor background. I don’t think that Scotland is any different, there will be these pockets of injustice.
There are migrant groups that are at the very bottom of the pile. The mix in a place like Govanhill in Glasgow, densely populated, the most multi-ethnic part of Scotland whereI think that there are 3000 Romany people living there (out of 5000 in Scotland). Some of them living 15 to a room, exploited by all of the other ethnic groups, they are the ones who will work for £1.95 an hour at the car washes. They are the lowest of the low and not even on the ladder. And the protection of the law just doesn’t belong to them. Some of the streets in these places are run by gang masters not the police. We do better than most countries when it comes to the Rule of Law, but we can’t pretend that it is perfect.
How do you feel about the gradual increase in police powers over the past 15 years?
I think that it is less prevalent in Scotland as we are less multi-ethnic than the rest of Britain. There are places in our big cities where there are issues, but it is not widespread.
Are there any legal rules which you find restrictive?
I am trying to think of bigger things……….there are some aspects of pension law and taxation that I would like to see change. If we are now a people who are going to have to make serious plans for our future in old age and care, there just aren’t the tax breaks for the kind of investment that requires. I would allow people tax breaks in the last few years of their working life. Since Gordon Brown applied tax on pension funds, there have been a sequence of events that have made it very difficult for people to plan for their future and not be a burden on the State.
In terms of big law, I think there needs to be a discussion about drugs and illegal substances, because the current law is not doing enough to address the high-end crime behind it. You can tell that I am an old liberal! I wouldn’t say that in the General Assembly. Also there are issues about Constitutional change and the devolution settlement, if we are not going to have another round of talks about breaking up the UK there needs to be another round of discussions about the Constitutional settlement between different parts of the UK.
Is there anything which you would like to add?
The thing that is left over for me, is one of the false dichotomies of today is the dialogue between science and religion. There is a pervading sense in some modern institutions of education, the media, the BBC, that you can drip feed the idea that if you are religious you are somehow anti-scientific, or if you are scientific you are someone who believes in the absenceof God. There is an area to have teased out. It is true that theological dogma has to be reframed, because not all of it works with a Darwinian understanding of life.
Rev John Chalmers was appointed as Principal Clerk to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 2011 – previously he was the Pastoral Adviser and Associate Secretary of the Ministries Council, responsible for the pastoral care, support and development of Ministers and Deacons throughout the Church.
John was ordained in 1979 and he first served as Minister of Renton Trinity Parish he then moved to the Edinburgh City Centre Parish of Palmerston Place before going into the Church’s central administration at the end of 1995.
In 2013 he was appointed a Chaplain to the Queen in Scotland and in 2014-15 he served the Church of Scotland as Moderator of the General Assembly.
He has wider interests which include having been a member of the Board of the National School for the Deaf for more than 20 years and having served as its Convener for 8 years. In his spare time his interests are DIY projects, golf, travel (especially travel with golf clubs) and beekeeping.