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Press: ‘Wee Flea’ blasts LRB’s take on the Wee Free

31 March 2023


YOU could have made a lot of money had you gone round The Guardian last year offering odds that 48 per cent of the progressive SNP would vote for a candidate opposed to same-sex marriage, abortion, and gender reassignment. But this is what Kate Forbes, the Wee Free (Letters, 10 March), achieved in the election for the party’s leadership. The “continuity candidate”, the liberal Muslim Humza Yousaf, won, with 52 per cent of the vote. As we could tell them from south of the border, this margin is not a recipe for future harmony, especially as Mrs Forbes appears to have based her campaign on her own party’s pretty ghastly record in office, especially in those departments that Mr Yousaf had run.

That is the sort of argument that the secular press understands. But the other fissure that the election opened up was the one between the insiders’ and the outsiders’ understanding of religion. I quoted a couple of weeks back from a long piece on the Wee Frees by Fraser MacDonald, in The London Review of Books (17 March), which seemed to me unusually sympathetic, partly because it was written by someone who was raised in the Church, if no longer a member.

This was not how it appeared to one practising member, the Revd David Robertson, who blogs as “The Wee Flea”. He sent in a furious counterblast: “The piece is a polemic against Kate Forbes through an attack on her church . . . historically wrong, logically flawed and hysterically inaccurate in its description of today’s Free Church.

“Any person ignorant of the Free Church reading MacDonald’s article would come away with the impression that it is a predominantly Highland church, an inbred, reactionary, right-wing group of hypocrites, followers of American evangelicalism, threatening a theocracy, unstable, repressed, racist, slavery-defending, exclusive, wild, weird, disputatious, schismatic, anti-LGBTQ, Sabbatarian.”

I would have read such a piece, but it wasn’t the one that the LRB published. If nothing else, the letter suggests the rhetorical resources still available from a Presbyterian pulpit. Get that man doing Thought for the Day at once!

MORE moderate, and perhaps more illuminating because of its bewilderment, was a Substack blog by Alex Massie, who normally writes on Scottish affairs in The Spectator. He is interested in the outcast status of Scottish Presbyterians, and the compromises that this forces on them.

“Devout Catholics, like devout Muslims and devout Jews, may often feel marginalised and excluded but their beliefs are typically afforded more respect, albeit in an ogling kind of fashion, than the faith, literally, of our fathers,” Massie wrote. “Protestantism, and especially its evangelical sects, enjoys even lower status in modern Scotland — and Britain — than other religious affiliations.

“For her part, Forbes sometimes appears markedly less judgemental than her critics. Her faith-based convictions are a personal matter; theirs are a hammer for the suppression of dissenting voices. There are many reasons why secularism is necessary but, like most passions, it is best carried modestly. An immodest secularism may be as filled with pious cant as any believer overly convinced of his own special virtue.”

There is no hint in this that secularism and religious tolerance were themselves Calvinist inventions, or reactions to earlier forms of Calvinist thought, which they were. It matters that they did not arise from within any other tradition. But this is not the shocking part of Massie’s piece. That is his shock that the Wee Frees believe in original sin: “Forbes, after all, holds to the Westminster Confession of 1647. Man is inherently sinful, depraved since the time of Adam. This is no longer a common view, even in congregational circles.”

Yet original sin seems to me the one entirely realistic Christian doctrine, and a thing that anyone can verify from their own experience. Perhaps this is a matter of temperament; perhaps it is the natural consequence of years spent studying church politics. But I doubt these explanations. Once you make allowances for the non-existence of Adam and the non-occurrence of the fall, the fact of original sin is undeniable.

Progress was meant to preserve the virtues of Christianity without its superstition, but the SNP has, perhaps, reinvented its vices, but without the realism.

IN FACT, the only group to have abandoned realism as completely as the progressives are the Conservatives. Hugo Rifkind, in The Times, was one of the few commentators taking time off from outrage to laugh at the Rwanda scheme as it deserves: to point out that the problem is not so much that it’s offshoring the problem, but that it’s offshoring a fantasy that could never solve the problem.

But the preference for fantasy over reality, and for spectacle over sight, is so deeply embedded that the Telegraph reports about the forthcoming Coronation: “Traditionally, the most sacred part of the event — when the Archbishop of Canterbury pours holy oil from the ampulla onto the Coronation Spoon, and anoints the sovereign on the hands, breast and head — is hidden from the public with a canopy.

“The Telegraph understands that an alternative canopy, with a see-through top, is being made to give the King the option of allowing the anointing to be caught on camera for the very first time.” It’s difficult to think of anything more effective at destroying the magic.

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