Category Archives: Scotland

How the Church of Scotland justifies its unelected Education Committee appointees; assumption, presumption, and privilege

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Our petition to the Scottish Parliament seeking to remove these unelected representatives is still open for signature here

As regular readers will know, moves are afoot to remove the three Church nominees who sit, with no regard to the electoral process, on every Local Authority Education Committee in Scotland (you can help by simply signing our Parliamentary Petition here).

In England, the legal requirement is for two such representatives, one from the Church of England and one from the Catholic Church. Something ought to be done something about this, although the English educational system, disrupted and fragmented, is now largely out of the hands of the local authorities anyway. There is much be said about the situation developing in England, little of it complimentary, but that is not my present concern.

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Schisms and mergers among Scottish churches since the Reformation; Wikidwitch via Wikipedia. Click on link for clearer image

The requirement for three church appointees reflects the fractious history of Scottish Protestantism, and the presence of these representatives is a relic of the Churches’ historical input. The representatives exert power on local authorities’ most important committees, their Education Committees, over and above the power they would exert as citizens, and the Churches to which they are answerable thereby exert power over and above the power that they certainly exert, and in a democratic society must be free to exert, as associations of individuals. This is not about religion; it is about power. It is not about rights; it is about privilege.

Consider the Church of Scotland’s own code of practice for its religious representatives, which states: Read the rest of this entry

Clergy back call to remove unelected clergy from Council committees in Scotland

Petition “…to remove the constitutional anomaly that imposes unelected Church appointees on Local Authority Education Committees” (signatures still urgently needed; you can sign and comment here)

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Image from Clergy Letter Project website home page

This just in, to the Public Petitions Committee, from Michael Zimmerman, Executive Director of the Clergy Letter Project, which exists to promote the acceptance and celebration of science among believers. It states, more clearly than I could ever do, the reasons theological, educational, and ethical for removing the existing power of the Churches to nominate three representatives to Scottish Local Authority Education Committees; a large enough bloc to swing the balance of power on 19 of Scotland’s 32 such Committees: Read the rest of this entry

#ElectNotSelect; “Remove Church Appointees” makes front page of Herald

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From front page, [Glasgow] Herald, 7 Oct 2016; click to enlarge

You can sign here: https://www.parliament.scot/GettingInvolved/Petitions/ChurchAppointees

And you can see a fuller version of the story in the Herald online here.

Why sign? For the moment, I’ll just repeat what I said yesterday:

Three of the full voting members of every Local Authority Education Committee in Scotland are unelected nominees of the Churches, whether the voters or their elected representatives want them there or not.

And because this is Scotland, a country that regards its people with respect, the petition process means something. Enough, in this case, to actually change things. Read the rest of this entry

#ElectNotSelect; Remove Church appointees imposed on Scottish Education Committees

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Debating chamber at Holyrood. Photo Mogens Engelund via Wikipedia

Sign the petition here, and your signature will go straight to Holyrood, and help get rid of the absurd legal relic whereby

Three of the full voting members of every Local Authority Education Committee in Scotland are unelected nominees of the Churches, whether the voters or their elected representatives want them there or not.

The time is ripe for change. Our petition, Unelected church appointees on Local Authority Education Committees, has widespread cross-party support in principle among MSPs. But we need to show that there is public support for change, or timidity will triumph.

Click on link to see the full petition, and, if you agree, to sign. Remember that the Education Committees, on which these Church appointees sit, control a larger part of Council budgets than any other Committee. They are the ultimate employers of School Principals and teachers, as well as being represented on senior teacher selection panels.  They decide on the opening and closing of schools, and whether a school should be denominational or nondenominational, and control local practice in such matters as religious education, religious observance, and instruction about sex in human relationships. The Church appointees vote on these matters, and in addition discuss policy directly with Council officials. You will find a full listing of the appointees, how they came to be selected (e.g. only answer to a newspaper advertisement; nominated himself after losing an election), and which ones are known Young Earth creationists (half a dozen; many more probable) here.

Why are these appointees there? Because District Council Education Committees must, by law dating back to 1929, include three appointees of the Churches, nominated by Church hierarchies, and immune to the electoral process. These nominees actually hold the balance of power in 19 out of Scotland’s 32 Education Committees, whether anyone wants them there or not, and they don’t even need to declare their outside interests!

Who selects them? One is selected by the Church of Scotland, one by the Catholic Church, and one by a third religious organisation (it must be religious) chosen by the Council with regard to local demographics. Fringe creationist churches are overrepresented here, as are the Episcopalians, with a mere 25,000 communicants but ten allotted slots.

This blemish on our democracy is also a breach of our right to equal treatment under the law, because it creates positions of power within our system of government that are only open to certain believers. Believers, moreover, in dogmas no longer accepted* by most Scots young enough to have children within the school system.

Since we are dealing with the law on a devolved matter, education, the Scottish Parliament is the only body with the power to remove this constitutional anachronism, which is why the Scottish Secular Society is petitioning them to do so.

Our petition will initially be examined by the Public Petitions Committee, who are greatly influenced by the number of signatures, as well as by the content, and intellectual weight, of individual comments. They can close (i.e. kill) the petition, or write to interested parties, including the Scottish Government, and then forward it to the Education and Skills Committee. This latter Committee, on which we know we have support, can then require the Scottish Government to state and explain its policy.

This theocratic anachronism that has survived only because unexamined. Given the choice, we are sure that the present Scottish Government (any Government) would rather let sleeping dogs lie. Help us to deny them that choice.

Want to do more to help? Sign (obviously); showing professional titles and degrees will add weight, as will indicating if you have a special interest (e.g. parent, pupil, teacher, Minister).

Publicise on your social networks, using #ElectNotSelect, and sharing the petition link (here) and, if you like, the link to this blog post (here).

Write to your constituency and region MSPs. Keep it brief. The very fact of your writing is more important than the details of what is in your letter. Mention the petition by name and number, and the issue of democracy. Mention also any reason you may have for personal interest in the matter.

But keep to the constitutional aspects. Attacks on religion in general, or broadening the discussion to include its role in the educational system, gives ammunition to our opponents. And we will have opponents; no one gives up power without a struggle.

You can also send a comment to the Committee. Keep it brief, and we would ask you to stick to the issues of democracy and equality; see preceding paragraph. If you belong to any relevant professional organisations (e.g. teachers’ unions, parent-teacher councils), write to them as well.

When? As soon as possible. The more immediate support we can show, the more organisations will be willing to support us.

Notes: We will be accused of attempting to drive the Churches out of public life. On the contrary, our petition, explicitly, would leave Local Authorities free to consult or co-opt church representatives, much as they can and do co-opt representatives of parents and teachers, if they choose to do so.

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St Mary’s Edinburgh, seat of the Archbishop of Edinburgh and St Andrews. Photo Michael T R B Turnbull via Wikipedia

The Church appointees are non-party, but they are not non-partisan. Nor are they independent, since they owe their positions to their hierarchies.

The Churches have claimed that the system somehow broadens and strengthens the local roots of democracy. In reality, most Church appointments are made by remote hierarchies, with the Archbishop of Edinburgh and St Andrews making appointments from Highland to Dumfries and Galloway.

Scotland, we are often told, is a Christian country. To the extent that this is true, special representation of religion is unnecessary, because Christians vote, and are free to stand for election, just like everybody else.

The Scottish Secular Society is a faith-neutral body, and one of our Board members sits on Scotland’s Inter-Faith Council.

*Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2014, Tabel 2.4, downloadable here, shows 68 percent of 18-24 -year-olds and 56 percent of 25-39 -year-olds describing themselves as “no religion”

Church Appointees on Scotland’s Education Committees (as of Summer 2015)

Church Appointees on Scotland’s Education Committees (as of Summer 2015)

We give here the names, Church affiliations, and appointments procedure, of the Church Appointees on all of Scotland’s Council Education Committees, as determined by Freedom of Information requests during Summer 2015. Church of Scotland and Catholic appointees are appointed by their Church hierarchies and Councils have no chioce in the matter. Procedures vary by Council for selecting the Church allowed to nominate the third appointee.

Notes on appointment procedures:
(a) Church was sole applicant in response to advertisement (8 Councils)
(b) Position vacant, pending reply from nominating Church (2 Councils)
(c) No replies to advertisement. Sitting member agreed to continue in place (1 Council) Read the rest of this entry

Brexit, an ex-pat’s perspective

CarolineLynchThis from my good friend Caroline Lynch, call centre manager, who has been living with her family in the Netherlands for the past two years:

I’ve been listening to the Brexit fall out from outside Britain, which gives me a different perspective to some. I’m able to see the reactions both north and south of the border, and the reactions of the international media and other EU members. Some things are very striking.

North of the Border in Scotland, the reaction has been one of relatively short-lived outrage, which was quickly subordinated to pragmatic concerns for how to deal with this. Nicola Sturgeon had obviously seriously entertained this possible outcome and planned for it, putting her leadership head and shoulders above the rest of Britain’s politicians. In my estimation, she is the only prominent politician to have come out of this debacle looking competent, measured and calm. Her plans are being well received in Europe, and Scotland will, according to what I am hearing, shortly be independent and remain as an EU member without having to reapply [PB: I think this is optimistic].

South of the border, politicians have imploded. There is no leadership anywhere, no plan, no clue, and bickering is the order of the day. The public reaction is split into three; remainers who are understandably furious and only getting more so as no one steps up to the plate to deal with the problem, leavers who are struck with sudden comprehension and horror at what they did, and leavers who are perfectly happy with the result and now quite content to wait for their prize. My feed is filled with contradictory stories, some trying to claim that Brexit will never happen for a variety of reasons, some urging we get on with it, and some braying happily that the Federal Republic of Cuckoostan will be next and there will be no EU within 10 days. Such hatred for an institution which benefits millions is bizarre.

The international perspective is one of bridges burned. There is huge distaste now for Britain and a strong desire to divorce us as quickly as possible. Many wish to ensure that the EU gets all the china and the dog in the settlement so that no one else is this stupid in future. Having said that, excluding countries like Spain with an obvious self interest, Scotland is getting a warm reception and a general but vague sense of support.

As we sit in political limbo, waiting for someone to take control, the ironic position is building that if no one triggers Article 50, Britain will find itself a political pariah within the EU, diminished by the loss of Scotland which is now inevitable, suffering the loss of influence which occurs when everyone realises that we’re basically pretty dumb as a nation, and having placed itself in the position that our concessions, both existing and negotiated, might well be lost because of our own intransigence. All this clamour and pain, all the turmoil of Brexit, and the end position might yet be that we stay in the EU, smaller, less powerful, and immensely poorer for the hatred and divisions which now run rife in our once green and pleasant land. Brexit will go down in history, in Shakespeare’s words, as a Tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Brexit | Legally and constitutionally, what now?

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Note that withdrawal will require repeal of the 1972 European Communities Act. This may present an opportunity to preserve some aspects (human rights? CO2 reduction targets?) whether Boris the Busdriver wants it or no, given the rifts within the Conservative Party. Note also Mark Elliott’s legal opinion that “The brutal truth is that if the Scottish people — or the people of Northern Ireland — wish to be part of the EU, then they must leave the UK. Their hands will now therefore be forced, since however flexible the British constitution might be, the harsh reality is that the UK, and only the UK, is a State in international law” (Mark Elliott at Public Law for Everyone, via https://michaelroberts4004.wordpress.com/2016/06/26/brexit-legally-and-constitutionally-what-now/ )
And for more on why Scotland can’t block Brexit, see this more recent post: https://publiclawforeveryone.com/2016/06/26/brexit-can-scotland-block-brexit/

Professor wants faith-based Christian universities for Scotland

ProfJamesFraserProfessor James Fraser CBE,  has called for the establishment in Scotland of universities that teach within “the pre-suppositional framework of a Christian world view”, as opposed to the “radical secularist” position that he attributes to the existing universities, and holds up the network of Christian universities in the United States as a model. This demand is ill-conceived and presumptuous, and should be resisted. Professor Fraser is a philosophy graduate who has spent nearly all his career in university administration; he, of all people, should know better.

Remember that Scottish Universities are very heavily dependent on taxpayer money, since Scottish students have their fees paid for them by the Government. So the proposed Christian universities would be funded, in direct competition with the existing system, at the expense of a general population of whom now less than half are Christian. But that’s the least of it.

Self-styled Christian universities do indeed exist in the United States, and the problems that they pose should be enough to make Professor Fraser think again. They require their faculty to be Christians, and teach from a Christian point of view. But who is to say what point of view is Christian, and what is not? The Free Church, whose General Assembly he was addressing, adheres to a version of Christianity according to which the world was made in six days, the entire earth and life science content of the school curriculum must be wrong because it contradicts the Word of the Bible, humankind is “utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good”, and all those who do not receive God’s grace are condemned to miseries spiritual, temporal, and eternal.

Is this what Professor Fraser wants to be able to demand from his Faculty? There have been cases, in the United States, of distinguished Professors being sacked from these Christian universities, merely because they did not accept on faith the literal truth of Genesis. Is this what we are being asked to emulate?

presupapolocoverAs for a “pre-suppositional framework”, that is a technical term that Professor Fraser will not have used lightly. The pre-supposition involved is that all reasoning and all evidence must be interpreted in a manner consistent with the framework, which is itself sacrosanct. Such an approach to knowledge is the very opposite of everything that a university stands for.

And finally, the claim that existing universities are “radical secularist”. I honestly do not know what the learned Professor means. All points of view are represented within our universities, and that is how it should be. Religious viewpoints have, if anything, a privileged position. They have chapels for those who wish to use them, hold religious services, and provide facilities for chaplains of all faiths. And nothing could be more stimulating for believers and nonbelievers alike than to freely mix and to discuss their agreements and differences. Why would anyone wish things otherwise?

Image of Professor Fraser from University of Highlands and Islands news release

Then and now; Darwin, Agassiz, global warming, and lakes that vanish overnight

Glen Roy is a valley in the Western Scottish Highlands, just south of the Great Glen (home to Loch Ness), and draining through Glen Spean to Loch Linnhe, an inlet of the Atlantic. It is remarkable for the presence of the Roads, a series of parallel, almost horizontal, grooves in the hills on the sides of the glen. Clearly shorelines; but of what body of water? And why are there more than one of them?

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From Darwin, C. R., Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 129: 39-81, 1839. Observations on the parallel roads of Glen Roy, and of other parts of Lochaber in Scotland, with an attempt to prove that they are of marine origin.

Darwin thought the Roads represented vanished marine shorelines, one above the other as the result of vertical movement. Agassiz explained them, rather, as successive shorelines of a glacial lake, now vanished because the retaining glacier has melted away. If so, and if global warming is real, we might expect to see vanishing lakes today, as the glaciers retreat. We can, and we do, as my friend Peter Hess explains.

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Sedimentary (greywacke) erratic (approx. height 1 m) on glaciated slopes around Dunglass Crag, near Glasgow, transported from original location some 30 km to the North

Charles Darwin visited the Glenroy area in 1838, two years after his return from his round the world voyage on the Beagle. During that voyage, he had examined the geology as well as the plants and animals of the places he visited, and among them was the coastal area of Chile. This is marked by raised beaches inland where once had been shoreline, and Darwin correctly described these as the effects of uplift, which we now know to be driven by plate tectonics. So it was natural that Darwin should have applied a similar explanation to the Roads, suggesting that the Cairngorms, like the Andes, were a zone of uplift, and that the Roads were ancient beaches of the Atlantic, now some ten miles away. The alternative theory, that they represented shorelines of an ancient lake, ran up against a seemingly conclusive objection; such a lake could only have formed if there had been a barrier across the valley, but there was no trace of this.

Only a year later, the Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz visited the area. He had just published his Ice Age theory, and in the Highlands he found plenty of evidence to support it; scratches on bedrock caused by the passage of glaciers, erratics (boulders far from their parent rock formations),  and moraines (piles of rock rubble that had been carried by glaciers, left in place when the glacier melted).

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A glacier-sculpted landscape. The hard basalt of Dunglass Crag, an ancient volcanic plug, has protected the softer rock downstream (right in photograph) from erosion

Evidence of this kind is not difficult to find throughout much of Scotland. I saw some of it myself earlier this month a few miles from Glasgow as a student on Glasgow University extension course (see illustrations). Agassiz realised that his ice age theory also provided the correct answer to the mystery of the Roads. Yes, there had been a lake, and yes, the roads did represent the shorelines at different times, carved into the sides of the valley by fierce freeze-thaw cycles. As for the barriers holding the lake in place at different levels over the course of time, they were a series of long vanished glaciers.

We now know that Agassiz was basically correct. Indeed, we can trace a whole series of glaciations, not just a single ice age. And Darwin was right in thinking that the area has experienced uplift; it could not fail to do so as the weight of ice above it melted away.

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Poorly sorted rubble deposited by the glacier near the foot of the Crag

Later Darwin was to write of his paper on the Roads as his greatest blunder. He had visited Snowdonia in North Wales in 1831, as a student companion of the noted geologist Adam Sedgwick, who had been looking for fossils. In his Autobiography (p. 70) he laments how

“neither of us saw a trace of the wonderful glacial phenomena all around us; we did not notice the plainly scored rocks, the perched boulders, the lateral and terminal moraines. Yet these phenomena are so conspicuous that … a house burnt down by fire did not tell its story more plainly than did this valley.”

But it took Darwin several years to reach this point, and even then he persisted for a while with hybrid explanations, in which icebergs rather than retreating glaciers had deposited at least some of the erratics.

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“Darwin’s boulders” in Cwm Idwal, Snowdonia, North Wales. Darwin had recognise these as glacial by 1842

Agassiz rejected Darwin’s concept of evolution when it was published twenty years later, but this does not seem to have diminished Darwin’s respect for him. Belief in the fixity of species was, in the 1860s, understandable conservatism, even if now, 150 years later, it is no more than deliberately cultivated ignorance.

The present is key to the past. It follows that the past can increase our understanding of the present. And so it is in this case. The glaciers of Switzerland are receding. Those of the southern Andes are receding even faster. Among them is Chile’s Colonia glacier, which dams a lake, Lake Cachet 2, some 3 square kilometers in area. As the glacier shrinks and weakens, it becomes progressively less able to hold back the water of the lake, which now periodically bursts through; on one recent occasion, the lake emptied itself overnight.

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Lake to sandy valley overnight

The overflow channel through which the vanished Loch Roy must have drained can still be detected as an abrupt narrow valley in the surrounding hillsides. The draining of Lake Cachet II sent 200,000 tonnes of water overnight down Chile’s main river, and caused giant waves as far as the Pacific Ocean, 60 miles away.

Since Agassiz and Darwin examined the roads of Glen Roy, the earth’s mean surface temperature has increased by roughly 1oC, with another 0.5oC in the pipeline even if emissions were to be stabilised at the same levels as in the year 2000.

Which, of course, they won’t be.

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Global mean surface temperature change from 1880 to 2015, relative to the 1951–1980 mean. The black line is the annual mean and the red line is the 5-year running mean

Darwin’s drawing of the Roads from Darwin Online.  Dunglass Crag, photos by author. Darwin’s boulders photographed by Michael Roberts. Lake Cachet II images via NCSE. Global temperature anomaly graph from NASA GISS via Wikipedia

More on receding glaciers at World Glacier Monitoring Service  and the US Government’s National Snow and Ice Data Center

h/t Michael Roberts, Dana Nuccitelli, Peter Hess. An earlier version of this post appeared in 3 Quarks Daily.

LibDem Holyrood hopeful wants to keep Church nominees on Council Committees

I asked Robert Brown, top Glasgow Region LibDem list candidate, former Deputy Minister for Education and Young People, and current South Lanarkshire Councillor

Should we continue to leave in place the pre-devolution requirement for all Local Authority Education Committees to include three individuals selected by the Churches, sitting and voting alongside the Councillor members selected by the voters?

[Yes, I’m afraid that means what it says. Three of the members of your Council Education Committee were put there by the Churches, not the votersThis despite the fact that most Scots describe themselves as having no religion]

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Robert Brown: “on the whole valuable to have the Churches involved”

His reply [emphasis added]:

I am not particularly exercised by this. I think it is on the whole valuable to have the Churches involved but I have not sat on an Education Committee and don’t really know how it works out in practice.

It is linked to the broader question of the nature of religious observance and religious education in schools. As you may know, a new, more inclusive, Code of Practice on Religious observance was developed about 4 or 5 years back* which has, I think, proved satisfactory. I can’t say any of this is an issue on which I have had any representations from constituents over the years.

I should add that school communities are increasingly diverse in both religious and cultural background and this has to be reflected in the arrangements made on these things.

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Book handed out to all school assembly participants at Kirktonholme Primary, South Lanarkshire, during Robert Brown’s time as Councillor

I am appalled. Here we have a former Deputy Minister of the Education, and current South Lanarkshire Councillor, saying that “I am not particularly exercised” about this, and “… don’t really know how it works out in practice.” So he tells us that he doesn’t know and doesn’t care about this gross affront to democracy, despite its effect on the governance of the schools for which he formerly had Ministerial responsibility. This effect is real; the Church nominated members sit alongside the elected councillors, and hold the balance of power on 19 out of Scotland’s 32 Education Committees. He next attempts to distract attention from this highly specific issue by smothering it in the broader general context of religious observance in Scottish schools. Finally, he states that in his view the situation in recent years “has … proved satisfactory.”

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The Creation Museum, Kentucky, where Dr Iskander has lectured, presents Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis) from a biblical standpoint

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From Truth be Told, Chapter 7, Dinosaurs and Man

This despite two major 2013 scandals in the schools of the very region for which he had then just taken his seat as Councillor. First we had the exposure of Nagy Iskander, then a member of the Chaplaincy Committee at Calderwood Academy, as an internationally recognised six-day creationist, Then, a few months later, we had the scandal at Kirktonholme, where an Alabama-based US fundamentalist sect distributed in School Assembly their own textbooks, showing humans using dinosaurs as farm animals; it was subsequently discovered that they had been influencing the school curriculum for eight years. That sect is no longer active in South Lanarkshire schools, but Dr Iskander continues to sit on South Lanarkshire’s Education Committee, having been appointed by his own Church, the biblical infallibilist Westwoodhill Evangelical.

The Scottish Secular Society will be seeking action on the issue of Church seats on Education Committees during the life of the new Parliament. We have collected data on how the Church nominees are appointed, and find arbitrary and inefficient recruitment mechanisms, gross overrepresentation of Noah’s Ark hellfire creationist churches, and bizarre cases such as that of North Lanarkshire, where an outgoing Councillor, having been soundly defeated at the polls in 2013, now sits on the Education Committee as representative of the Boys Brigade.

More in due course

*Mr Brown seems to be referring to the 2004 report on Religious Observance, and subsequent (2011) Government guidance, which recommends that Religious Observance be non-confessional. The recommendation is non-binding, generally ignored, and did nothing to prevent the Kirktonholme scqndal of which he seems strangely unaware.

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