David Robertson: Edinburgh is no ‘secular’ city

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Scattered throughout Scotland there are examples of what are termed “follies” – grandiose projects which serve no useful purpose – the Fyrish monument near Alness being one example, McCaig’s Tower overlooking Oban another.

There are those who would argue that Edinburgh City Council has managed to produce more than its fair share of “follies” in recent years, the grossly expensive and unnecessary trams project being the most recent. Still, it is good to know that our elected councillors are on the job and doing their best to save our money in other ways, the recent proposal to stop free Sunday parking being their latest brainwave.

When Rev Paul Rees, the minister of the 1000-member Charlotte Chapel Baptist Church in the centre of 
Edinburgh, pointed out the harm this would do to the Christian communities in the city, deputy transport leader Adam McVey replied by stating: “I think it’s worth mentioning that we’re a secular city.”

I would love to know what that actually means and when did it actually occur? Apparently, councillors are concerned that providing free parking for all on a Sunday would somehow contravene “equalities” legislation. If this is true, then Edinburgh City Council had better cancel Christmas. After all, it is a Christian festival and to celebrate one festival would surely be a breach of equalities legislation?

Perhaps councillors are unaware of Edinburgh’s motto “Nisa Dominus Frustra”, which is a rough translation of the beginning of Psalm 127: “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain.” Or they have forgotten that Edinburgh was once known as “the Geneva of the North” because of its “Godly” council?

If by “secular” Mr McVey means non-Christian then he could not be more wrong. Edinburgh was built and established upon the foundations of Christianity. That does not mean that Edinburgh does not welcome people of other faiths and none (indeed the Christian faith would require them to do so), but it does mean that councillors should not seek to turn this great city into some kind of secular utopia, without any awareness of the Christian foundations and ethos of the city.

The trouble is that without Christianity there is a danger that Edinburgh, and especially the city centre, will just become a closed community for the wealthy with a few beggars gathering for the crumbs. Take the example of car parking – having expensive car parking in the city centre is a good way of deterring the plebs – especially the religious ones. Never mind the fact that for generations of Edinburgh residents free Sunday parking is a tradition they have enjoyed, even if they would never contemplate using it to go to church. No, the “secular” council has its own god – mammon. Everything must be done for the sake of commerce and money.

But there is a different Edinburgh – an enlightened and caring Edinburgh. One that is exemplified by the statue in the West Princess St Gardens of Thomas Guthrie, the clergyman who founded St John’s church and then Free St John’s (now St Columba’s Free Church) at the top of the Royal Mile. He campaigned vigorously for the poor children of the city and matched his words with his actions, tens of thousands of children being helped through his ragged schools movement. When we are speaking of the churches in Edinburgh, we are not speaking primarily of the church buildings, wonderful additions to the architecture and skylines that they are. We are talking about the communities of worshipping, believing Christians, who live as salt and light in their communities.

Whether it’s Niddrie community Church or St P’s and G’s in the city centre, the churches are a vital part of Edinburgh’s lifeblood. We are talking about work amongst the homeless by groups such as the Edinburgh-based Bethany Christian Trust, the hundreds of youth workers, the numerous community groups. If these were all to be withdrawn then Edinburgh would find itself to be a much poorer city, in every way. And the cost to the city council would be beyond even the trams project budget.

But it is much more than the churches providing social services which the council is struggling to maintain. It’s about changed lives, leading to changed communities.

If some councillors were not so wedded to their own ideology, perhaps they would see that Edinburgh needs more churches and more Christians, not less. Instead of playing Scrooge with Edinburgh’s churches, councillors should be encouraging them. Not only will it benefit tens of thousands of people, but also it will save the council a lot of money.

David Robertson is director at Solas Centre for Public Christianity.