Presiding Officer, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Before being bishop, I am a Benedictine monk. It was thanks to an Act of the Scottish Parliament of 1560 that the monastery I lived in became a ruin for 400 years! This Thursday its restored church will be re-dedicated.
It’s a privilege to be in this restored Parliament and to offer, simply, encouragement. Public service as a member of parliament, a legislator, as a member of government perhaps, is something worthy, generous, good. To use an old word, noble. I hope you hear this sometimes! Pope Francis has spoken of ‘nurses with soul, teachers with soul, politicians with soul, people who have chosen deep down to be with others and for others.’
Cicero was a senator with soul. Robert Harris’ novels have been recalling him. He laid the foundations of our political, legal and linguistic culture. He coined the word humanitas – achievement enough. His Republic is a summons to political engagement. ‘I simply state this..: nature has given to mankind such a compulsion to do good, and such a desire to defend the well-being of the community, that this force prevails over all temptations.’ Ignore the bugle of retreat, he says. Commit yourself. Don’t listen to those who say ‘that most politicians are worthless’. ‘The aim of a ship’s captain is a successful voyage; of a doctor, health… So the aim of our ideal statesman [or law-maker] is the citizen’s happy life – that is, a life secure in wealth… and honourable in its moral character. That is the task I wish him to accomplish – the greatest and best any person can have.’
2016 marks the 20th anniversary of the death of the Orcadian writer, George Mackay Brown. His poem, The Storm, begins,
‘For the Islands I Sing’
For Scotland I sing…
For workers in field
and mill and mine…
And at last: ‘Praise tinker and saint.’
Such was the scope of his poetry. A service of the common good. A way of being ‘with’ and ‘for’, kept to through battles with alcohol and depression. As a pastor, I’m encouraged by that. Perhaps parliamentarians can be too.
Culture, law, religion. Poets, parliamentarians, pastors. My hope is we can all be people of soul, can sing (even while quarrelling) for Scotland, for humanitas, for tinker and saint – and always honour what’s deepest and truest about us, what Cicero called the divine spark and the Bible the image and likeness of God.