The shadow of John Knox…

We tried to visit Glasgow Cathedral again today. The last time we were turned away as the Cathedral was ‘about to close’. Today we were turned away again as there was a service ‘about to start’ (the service was due to start in an hour.) It is not really fair to generalise from this limited experience, but we certainly did not feel welcome.

Perhaps we look like heretics?

Above the Cathedral, on the top of the hill that is Glasgow Necropolis, stands the John Knox monument- a reproachful finger wagging against the sky.

The Cathedral only just survived John Knox’s reformation. Stripped of all it’s ancient finery- its statues and pictures, along with all objects associated with ‘Popery’, but still the mob tried to burn it down- held back only by the Guilds men.

So was unleashed a time of repression in the name of freedom and violence in the name of peace. Driven by fervency and ‘truth’- religion used as a political meat tenderiser.

Did anything good come out of reformation? Was it necessary? Was it inspired of God- commanded by his angels and energised by his Spirit? My current answers to these questions are- Yes. Not sure. Don’t think so.

We used to talk of reformation being constant- it was not a one off event following which we had achieved Christian nirvana, but was rather a process of constant engagement with the refiners fire. This always seemed to be an aspirational thing for the most part however- that moralistic therapeutic Deism thing again.

My ambivalence about the Reformation is more in relation to my hope for a new kind of gentle reformation- a change again in emphasis, away from right belief and correct religious practise, towards the…. other. A kind of faith that inspires us to be agents of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness. And none of these things should be subordinate to pious correctness.

John will turn in his grave.

Or perhaps he will look at the course of his own reformation, and agree with me.


6 thoughts on “The shadow of John Knox…

  1. I live in Glasgow and work next to the Cathedral. It has always struck me as place of little human warmth. Most of us are remembered by the bonds of love – husband, wife – sorely missed etc. However most of the memorials at the Cathedral recount positions of power or prestige. We’re dead, but man we made it – odd. Inside fares little better, that walls are draped in the battle flags of our Scottish regiments and recount our bloody victories. There may be a place for such pride – maybe – but its ill at home with Prince of Peace.

    • Hi Mark

      So it is not just me? I always find that little corner of the city slightly oppressive in a way I could not fully understand. I think it is a combination of hard, unyeilding, even bitter religion and the celebration of wealth and empire. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said ‘a place of little human warmth’.

      I have never lived in a big city, and so always visit as an outsider, and it may be that all such places carry a certain kind of pompous nationhood about them- although my experience of English Cathedrals has been different mostly (despite the same bloody flags that you mention!)

      The other interesting question is- what would change this feeling? I suppose we might hope for some kind of honest engagement with history. I love the St Mungo museum, but was rather surprised that there seemed to be very little in there directly concerning the Protestant/Catholic sectarianism that so dominates where we come from- although to be fair it might be said to be implicit in lots of the exhibits.

      I wonder though whether it comes down to people- and this word ‘kindness’. I have always thought that the Reformation subjugated kindness, compassion for the other, love of enemies etc to the fight against the demon doctrine of Catholicism. Oppression may need to be challenged wherever it is encountered but when we start to do this with a sword, we can no longer be said to be doing this in the name of Jesus.

      One interesting thing written on the Knox monument is this- “To cherish unceasing reverence for the principles and blessings of that great Reformation, by the influence of which our country, through the midst of difficulties has risen to honour, prosperity and happiness.” The reformation and industrial capitalism hand in hand- Marx and Engels would very much agree.



  2. That’s bad luck that you couldn’t get in. I visited my church from childhood last year, a beautiful place with lots of memories and affection felt. I couldn’t get past the porch because of the warning notices of CCTV and alarms. Problem is, there is some pricelss stuff in there and the church has suffered from vandalism and theivery, so everyone is penalised.
    ….I always thought the reformation really happened because ‘Bluff King Hal’ fell out with the Pope due to wanting to get married again (and again, to whoever took his fancy at the time, due to no heir being produced with Katherine of Aragon). Humans have always abused the name of the Lord to gain, no matter what they call their faith. Maybe the buddhists have been the most peaceful souls in history, despite being as persecuted as anyone else. Whenever I go to an Anglican mass, there are so few differences in the sentiment conveyed that I scratch my head as to all this competition between C of E and Catholocism, even to this day.

    • Hi Nik- my history is not strong enough to get into the detail, but up here in Scotland the politics of the Reformation are even more murky!

      Brian Mclaren talks about the difference between the ‘religions of the clenched fist’ and ‘the religions of the open hand’- and I find myself interested in the later, no matter which traditions it comes from, and repelled entirely by the later- whilst always drawn to Jesus…



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