Father Ian Paton

by | Jul 14, 2017 | Faith / belief based groups, Interview | 0 comments

Ian PatonHow would you describe your beliefs and identity in relation to religion?

I would use words like traditional…orthodox….radical….progressive….liberal…..Epsicopalian.

What made you decided to adopt or retain this position?

I was born and Anglican and brought up by a not particularly devout family.  I came to my own practice as an adult and was ordained.  It fulfilled all of my religious needs and allowed me to express myself.  I appreciate the liturgical, spiritual and intellectual tradition of Anglicanism.  Now I am in the Episcopal Church I appreciate the freedom which being linked to the past gives you in relation to the present and the future.

Would you say that GB is an equal and tolerant society, especially in relation to religion?

Yes, it is trying to be.  In Scotland it is a more secular framework, there is no established church, the Church of Scotland is the national but not the established church.  In England, NHS chaplains are all managed by the Church of England, even non-Anglican ones, whereas here in Scotland they are accountable to the health service.  That illustrates how the churches are less in the centre than in other parts of the country.  Another one would be the Scottish Parliament, it doesn’t have prayers at the beginning of the session…..neither do most local authorities.  I’m not complaining about this, just observing.  I think that a secular framework is part of being a more tolerant society, religions are treated as being on an equal footing with non-religious views.  I don’t perceive hostility towards religion though.

Are there challenges to practicing your faith, and if so are they social, legal or political in nature?

No, not for members of the Church.  But as minister, some of the expectations which I have as an Anglican of being closely engaged with institutions like schools are very different.  It is much harder gaining access when you are just another religious group.

How does your faith regard HRs?  Has it contributed to our understanding of them?

Anglicanism has, like many faith groups, it has contributed to the Rule of Law and the rights of the individual.  In the past it hasn’t done much about non-violence, but today it does.  It was quite active in the Anti-Apartheid movement.  As a creed it believes in politics, being an established church in England is one expression of that.  In Scotland, this diocese was founded by Charles I, the Episcopal church here is not established because it supported the Jacobite cause.  Here we did believe in being a State church, we were just waiting for the right government to come back!  And we have always been very active in social issues and have had a number of bishops very actively involved in debates.  With the Referendum the church took a neutral stance, but was very active in setting up opportunities for debate.  It is part of our theology to be interested in politics.

Are HRs good for society?

In my view a good thing.  And most people in Scotland would want the ECHR as part of any Scottish constitution.  There is little agreement with the Westminster government’s suspicion of that.

Does the Episcopal Church in Scotland have a practical influence on HR?

Yes……immigration related issues are a big area…..issues relating to access to education and health care for Eastern Europeans.  Also the position of asylum seekers, although that it is a UK issue, not a Scottish one.

Are HRs generally respected by public bodies?

The present Scottish government have made lots of clear statements about HRs being central to their policies, of course some issues like asylum seekers aren’t within their remit.  HRs are central to Scottish political life and respected.  There are debates to be had about what that means and how it plays out on the ground, including with asylum.

Do you think that public bodies get the balance right between freedom and protection in intervening in the lives of citizens?

The referendum debate aired some of these issues.  The faith communities in general were concerned about the lack of explicit valuing of faith tradition within proposed Scottish Contribution.  But politicians have frequently stated how much they value faith groups, but in general for our social work and social cohesion.  They don’t want to talk about or understand our contribution to spiritual life, our whole reason for existing.  If politicians are going to take religion more seriously they must pay more attention to that dimension of human life, and there is a lot of common ground amongst faith groups there.

When should the State intervene in the expression of religious belief?

Where there is potential for harm, abuse or victimisation.  In parts of Scotland sectarianism is still very present in places.  The Orange Order is still active in places, for many of its members more as a social club than because they believe in its Anti-Catholic founding principles……but they can still feel very intimidating.  There are big marches here, but they are h2er in the West.  Sectarianism remains a problem because people have h2 identities in communities, expressed in things like football.  Even though the average Celtic and Rangers fans probably do not practice any faith at all.  The Episcopalian church falls in neither camp, and would be discounted by both of these parties.  Although Sectarian minded people are very much a minority, the issue causes problems.  Faith schools are part of this.  The RC church wants to defend its faith schools for non-Sectarian reasons, just religious community reasons, but other groups would prefer to integrate education as an answer to Sectarianism.  Another issue would be sexual politics issues, the legalisation of same sex marriage as in the rest of Britain.  With that change in law there have been issues with faith communities, and governments have to legislate carefully.

Is living in a democracy a positive thing, would you prefer another system of government?

No, I would not wish to live under another form of government.  In terms of making things easier as a religious community, in some ways it makes it harder as you have to earn the right to be heard and engage in debates in the public square and have no more right to be heard than anyone else, and sometimes lose arguments.  For example you could live in a country where the majority of people did not want there to be a welfare state.  But the values of a parliamentary democracy where everyone has a voice and right, clearly relate to core Christian values, even if the outcomes are not always good.  But things can always change, if this year isn’t good it can be better next year in a democracy.  You can make arguments and change minds.  And taking part in arguments is better, because sometimes secular society is more in touch with the Holy Spirit than the Church.  Homosexuality is a good illustration of that, as was the place and power of women in power structures in society.  The first woman bishop has just been ordained in England and for secular society there is puzzlement as to why the church is only now catching up.

Do you feel a duty to vote?

Yes, very much.  I don’t see how in this context I can love my neighbour without exercising my vote, that involves expressing my view and exercising my power as a voter to bring about things in society.

Would you say it is a good thing that Parliament has the final say in making law, would you like to see a judiciary empowered to strike down legislation?

I don’t know.  I haven’t thought enough about it. But in other contexts the judiciary have that job because there is a written constitution for the judiciary to interpret, and of course the legislature can always change the constitution.  If you are asking whether there should be a written constitution I can see the arguments for it, and few arguments against it.

Is a majoritarian understanding of democracy a problem for minorities?  Are there barriers to participation for some groups?

Recent experience suggests quite a contrast between the Scottish experience and the UK.  First past the post changes the nature of the body.  In Scotland, the PR system means that minority parties get represented in parliament, which encourages people to get involved with them. For instance, the Green Party has more of a voice in the Scottish parliament.  The referendum debate managed to draw in people from all walks of life, it was such an essential and dramatic question, people on the street and even school children could see that it was about them, it effected them.  The turnout of 80% bore that out.  The challenge now is to maintain that.  It is true that PR encourages a sense that minorities matter and should be heard.

Do you think it is problematic that members of the House of Lords are not elected?

Yes, completely.

How do you feel about Church of England bishops in the House of Lords?

I sometimes hear bishops voicing Christian opinions that I share sometimes, and I think that they have as a whole contributed well to political debate and legislation. I don’t think that that means it is a good set up.   I think the reform of the House of Lords is so overdue, it ought to be elected, quite obviously.  The only persuasive argument I have heard against it is that the public are rather fed up with elected politicians, but that would be an argument for abolishing the Second Chamber altogether.

Do public authorities try to respect the will of Parliament as expressed by legislation?

I can’t think of them deliberately ignoring legislation.

What does your faith teach you power and accountability?

Power is important, it really matters and has to be exercised and laid down.  Those are the Christian economy’s view of power.  The popular picture of Christianity saying that power is all about powerlessness, but the image of the crucifixion, you have the all-powerful God laying down power, which is itself an exercise of power.  Love is about the exercise of power for others.  Someone said ‘the tools of power are only safe in hands that have been pierced’.  I think it was W H Auden.

Would you say that Episcopalians are appropriately represented in public life?

Yes, members of the Episcopal Church are very present in public life, we are quite a middle class church and we very represented on the judicial bench, board rooms and the cabinet, more there than in miners’ clubs.  And I am sorry about that, it is our fault and should not be the case.

Would you say there is enough distance between the executive and the judiciary?

In Scotland there seems to be, that is partly because devolution came after……..the judiciary never ceased to be independent.  For a long time the government were in Westminster and the Scottish judiciary were here getting on with being the Scottish judiciary.  There was a literal distance. So the devolved administration came into this context.  In the UK, the creation of the department of Justice is having an interesting effect.  But an independent judiciary is a value inherent in British political life.

What checks and balances on power are effective?

Freedom of the press, the judiciary, all of those things.  The other way is access.  When the Scottish Parliament was set up they tried to create a sense of access for the public.  When there is a committee meeting about legislation, they advertise and members of the public can go along and give evidence.  Citizens or churches or other groups can make representations.  I think that is a good sign, I don’t think that applies in Westminster, I think that they only invite evidence.   I don’t know how things work in practice, it would take years to listen to everybody, but they did consult at length about same sex marriage and a private members bill on assisted suicide.

How does the Episcopalian Church seek to challenge decisions which it sees as problematic?

Partly through the consultation process.  In relation to the Scottish parliament, we know the people there, the bishop could invite the MSPs to dinner, and there is a lot of interpersonal discussion.  At the time of the same sex marriage legislation a lot of religious bodies were very opposed, we were neutral because we knew that we would need to have an internal discussion, but those who knew that they would have a particular opinion lobbied on it.  But they were just voices, they had no more voice than the Lesbian and Gay Christian movement, or the Trade Union movement.

Would you say that public bodies understood and were sensitive to the needs of practising Christians?

No, and these relates to what I said about spirituality.  They understand the private nature of faith needs, so for example the idea that people should be able to access the freedom to worship safely.  They will readily incorporate a place of prayer into a new hospital building.  But when it comes to the fact that different faith communities have subtly different needs in relation to these faith communities, they don’t want to know.  For instance, the understand that different churches need to nominate sort of honorary chaplains to visit on behalf of the community, but they don’t understand that Islam doesn’t work like that, it is the family’s function not, the Imam’s role.

Is it important to you to act within secular law?

There are times where I have gone against the law, where I believe that it must be changed and taking action with other people raises awareness.  So the whole thing with demonstrating against nuclear arms.  But that is breaking the law to show that this law is bad law.

Do you think that the Rule of Law is applied equitably, or do some groups experience prejudicial or preferential treatment?

I don’t know.  As a pastor, I am aware that some people can get what they need through the law and others cannot.  That is partly economic question, who can afford a lawyer.  Also it’s about knowledge of your rights and the possibility of enforcing them.

Do your beliefs require you to speak out against injustice effecting the vulnerable?


How do you feel about the general increase in police powers over the past 15 years or so?

As a Christian, I would say that part of the answer here is to do with the people exercising these powers, rather than the rules and rights.  If the power is exercised stupidly or corruptly the situation is disastrous.  But equally if the law operates perfectly but the criminal gets through the loophole every time, then that also is a disaster.  So I’m not sure that law can control this.  But given that law assumes that people are sinful, they must be framed on the basis that the police get things wrong.  But I’m not wise enough to have the answer.

Are there any legal rules which you find restrictive?

I would have been marrying same sex couples for years.

Is there anything else which you would like to add?

I can see that there is a legal and theological side to this, but maybe this is a cultural question.  You could have lots of legislation supporting faith communities, but if the cultural has totally privatised religion and given it no placed in the public arena, then all of those freedoms count for very little indeed.  But if you have a culture which values faith and spirituality, but gives them no rights then that is different.  At present we are in the former, the culture is diminishing or privatising religion, even though the law protects it.

Ian Paton – ordained as an Anglican priest in 1983, and serving in a both pastoral and academic contexts, Ian has worked since 1997 at Old St Paul’s Scottish Episcopal Church in the centre of Edinburgh. He also teaches Liturgy at the Scottish Episcopal Institute, and is Hon Anglican Chaplain to the University of Edinburgh.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *