Advent 1: Waiting In Darkness, Longing For Light

 On Advent Sunday in 2013, I wrote about beginning this season of watching and waiting and longing in a place where only a couple of days earlier a helicopter had fallen out of the night sky. The tragedy that took place in the air above the Clutha that night and then on the ground rang through the consciousness of Glasgow and her people. The cheerful decorations and the bright shop windows were out of place, in a place that was the voice crying out in the wilderness. A place that needed an Advent God more than ever.

I thought about that tonight.

I don’t think I can say this year that what we need is an Advent God.

It’s what we might want, I guess. The benevolent and twinkly man who comes down to Earth to put the world back to rights, quietly fixing all the things that we messed up. Or else a holy reset button that God can push on Christmas Eve and we all get another chance. It’s tempting. It’s not what God is about, though, and that makes Advent difficult.

And then tonight I went to the Advent Carol Service and heard it said that maybe, maybe this year, this Advent is about the voices of the people who are crying out into the wilderness. And without knowing that that would be exactly what I needed to hear, that was exactly what I needed to hear.

There is pain and anger echoing around the whole world.

We feel it ourselves. We hear it.

Indeed, it sometimes feels like this year there’s been nothing but helicopters falling out of the sky.

In these last weeks of 2016, we live in a world that is less tolerant, less giving, less loving, and scarier than the world many of us had thought we lived in, and we are less and less sure of what the future looks like. In every corner of the world, from the Middle East to the cradles of Western democracy, there are people who no longer know if they have a future of any kind.

Orlando. Nice. The outcomes of the EU referendum and the US presidential election, and the legitimacy that has been claimed by people who want to reverse the tides of social justice and global inclusion. The rise of fascism and the rise in hate crimes across the Western world. Aleppo. The role that the Church continues to play in maintaining the inequality of women and LGBT people. The lives taken by natural disasters. Brussels. The increasing difficulty of speaking truth to power in a time when the act of speaking truth at all seems more and more to be that desperate cry into the wilderness of a world that doesn’t care.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in darkness – on them light has shined.

The light looks very dim, doesn’t it?

There is no benevolent twinkly gentleman coming to set it all quietly to rights. That isn’t what God is about, nor is it what happened.

In a few weeks, a child will be born in Bethlehem, homeless and the son of a poor unmarried couple. He will live under threat of ethnic cleansing and he and his parents will become refugees. He will have a dream of changing the world. He will grow up and try to push back against oppression and injustice, working hard and under difficult circumstances. He will be persecuted and ignored and derided. His story will end with condemnation and crucifixion. But he will try to change the world anyway.

That’s our Advent God.

If we, the people crying out into the wilderness, are to be his Advent people, that is the responsibility that we take on.

It’s not to wait, not to watch, not to hope that someone else will come and fix it. It’s to accept that the world is as it is and then to get on and try to change it anyway, be that through taking political action, or giving financial support, or acting as an ally to people who have less systemic privilege than you do.

And in honestly working to change the world, that’s where we’ll find God and where we’ll find that light in the darkness.

For I can look out and see a great number marching into the great eternity, because God is working in this world, and at this moment. And God grants that we will get on board and start marching with God, because we got orders now to break down the bondage and the walls of colonialism, exploitation, and imperialism, to break them down to the point that no man will trample over another man, but that all men will respect the dignity and worth of all human personality.

Martin Luther King, The Birth of a Nation
(extract from the Advent Carol Service, St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow)


Letter to America, The Morning After An Election

I haven’t slept and I don’t think this is going to be very articulate.

But, first thoughts.

For most of the night I’ve been watching the coverage of the presidential election. This morning, I am scared. I’m scared for women, and for people of colour, and for disabled people, and for poor people, and for people who need hospitals, and for LGBT people, and for the literal planet. I’m scared because of issues of social justice and self determination and the economy and the environment and foreign policy. It’s not just about the presidency; it’s about the vice presidency and the House and the Senate and eventually it’s about the Supreme Court. It’s not just about America; as America goes, so often so goes the world. It’s not even just about last night, it’s about the last two years and the turning political tide that has led us to this point where never in my lifetime have so many people across the Western world held such a fragile grasp on their civil liberties.

I suppose there are people who are not frightened — people who wanted this, or who think they did, and they apparently represent half of the United States. BBC News interviewed a man this morning who represented an organisation called American Muslims for Trump, a first generation immigrant born in Pakistan who loves America and was prepared to swear blind that when Trump talked about Muslims he didn’t mean people like him. He is thrilled; I am terrified for him. I am prepared to believe that some of the people who voted for Donald Trump are not bad people, but are people who have been disenfranchised and lied to and I think maybe he is one of them. I do, though, think some of the people who voted for Donald Trump are bad people. And what’s more important is I think the person they have voted for is a bad person. I don’t believe that he is someone whose ideas are worthy of consideration or whose opinion I happen to disagree with; he’s just wrong.

Today, I live in a world where a xenophobic misogynist with no knowledge or experience, multiple active accusations of sexual assault, a history of multiple bankruptcies, and by all accounts the attention span of a fruit fly is president-elect of the United States. In a world where that man can be pitted against a smart, articulate, qualified woman with a work ethic that I can only gape at, and she still loses that fight. This, in a country that thinks of itself as the most advanced democracy in the world.

I know that there are also people who are not frightened enough. They are the ones who keep saying things about checks and balances, and about him not being able to do that much harm. I think those people are drastically underestimating the power of the executive.

I’ve been thinking about that night, eight years ago, watching that speech in Grant Park, that night when I really believed that the world had changed for the better, and I’m wondering what the hell happened.

It isn’t just about America, and it certainly isn’t just about last night. This election has been a defining moment, for sure, but it comes at the end of two years when right here at home and on a global scale we have seen the rise of the radical right and it is going to get worse before it gets better.

It’s tempting to curl up and lick our wounds, but we can’t do that.

Well, for today we can.

But the sun will rise on tomorrow, and, my friends, tomorrow we’ve got work to do, right across the world. It is time to protect the vulnerable, to speak out for the marginalised, to listen to the disenfranchised, and to fight back against oppression in whatever mask it happens to be wearing on any given day. It’s going to be harder now. It’s going to be more important than it ever has been before.

Every so often this year when I’ve looked at the state of the world and despaired, I’ve come back to something that was posted on social media by Lin Manuel-Miranda on no particular day in July.


Okay. Let’s go.


The Scottish Parliament has voted overwhelmingly in favour of the introduction of the Marriage and Civil Partnerships (Scotland) Bill with 98 votes for to 15 votes against with 5 abstentions, after three hours of civil and generous debate.

Crying. Laughing. Swearing.

Oh my God, we did it.

If you’re looking for anything more articulate than that, you could do worse than watch this video and this video, and you could also watch Kelvin, who is the Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral, talking about it on Scotland Tonight on STV at 10.55pm. I’m going away to cry and scream some more. I would go out and dance down Sauchiehall Street in my socks if it weren’t November. It’s that kind of night.

(Oh, prospective wives, the line forms to the right.)

It’s Time

A couple of years ago, I attended a forum on equal marriage at which the principal speaker was the Right Reverend Gregor Duncan, the Bishop of Glasgow and Galloway. If commitment to a political ideology were a thing that needed to be proven, voluntarily getting lost in Inverclyde on a Saturday afternoon in the coldest January in my living memory must surely qualify. A couple of days after that, I convened a forum on equal marriage at the LGBT Group at St Mary’s Cathedral at which our invited guest was the Bishop of Glasgow and Galloway. I tell you those things so that you understand that when he asked, with as much exasperation as Bishop Gregor ever asks anything, which isn’t much, why I was obsessed with being able to use the word “marriage”, he had in all fairness by that point spent a significant portion of his weekend being harassed by me.

It had been a little bit about microphones and thuribles — somewhere in the middle of it all, Evensong happened — but it was mostly about this.

I offered him the glib answer: “If it’s only a word, why are you obsessed with stopping me?”

And then I gave him a more serious one, but, honestly, just because that one’s glib doesn’t mean it’s not true.

It is an argument that I’ve heard a lot of in the nearly six years since I got involved with the equal marriage campaign. From friends. From family. From politicians. From newspapers. From the Internet. From my Church. You can have a civil partnership. It gives you (mostly) the same rights and responsibilities and protections as marriage. Why do you need to call it marriage? It’s just a word. And it’s an argument that I would consider a perfectly reasonable one if it weren’t that the people who ask that are the same ones who have said in the breath before it that the definition of marriage can’t be changed.

You can say that words mean stuff. You can say that words don’t. You cannot do both.

Me, I think that words mean stuff.

I think that marriage means mutual love and mutual respect. I think it means equality. I think it means in sickness and in health and with my body I thee honour. I think it means commitment, commitment to celebrate together in times of joy and comfort one another in times of tragedy. I think that “marriage”, as a word, means social legitimacy in a way that “partnership” doesn’t, not quite. I think that my definition of marriage probably isn’t the same as the Biblical definition of marriage, not because I don’t define it as between a man and a woman but because I can’t find any marriages in the Bible that are worth emulating. I think it means imperfection. I’d like it to mean to the exclusion of all others and until death parts us, but I know that it doesn’t always and that straight people get divorced too.

This week is an important week for Scotland. The Scottish Parliament votes on Wednesday on its equal marriage bill. It will not be the end of the story. If it passes, there will be time to debate and add and vote on amendments to the Bill and a statutory waiting period before Royal Assent. If that all happens, we can expect this to be an Act of Parliament sometime early in the New Year, and then there are those of us for whom that means more battles to be fought within our own communities. Whatever happens on Wednesday, it is not the end of the story, but I feel as if this is going to be the most significant moment of this extraordinary campaign.

When the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act was being debated in Westminster earlier this year, David Lammy said this. He said, “Separate but equal is a fraud. Separate but equal is the language that tried to push Rosa Parks to the back of the bus. […] Separate is not equal, so let us be rid of it.”

Why do I want to call it marriage?

Because it is marriage.

Because the same sex couples I know who represent to me the best of what I believe marriage to be are already married. I look at them, and I see the mutual love and respect and the commitment and the humanity that I talked about. There is no meaningful difference between their relationship and the relationships of the opposite-sex and legally married couples I know and love and admire. The law is not the thing that will change the definition of marriage. The people have already done that. And so if words really do mean stuff, it’s time to call it what it is.

A Way To Be A Person

The most measured and sensible and succinct response I’ve seen to the bin Laden news all day is this, from Eric Fidler on Twitter:

Remember on Sept 12, 2001, when you saw people in some places abroad celebrating death? Exactly. Don’t be like that.

I don’t defend the things that he did. He was a criminal. He was responsible for the deaths of countless thousands of people. His name became the watchword for the so-called War on Terror. His death comes as a full stop at the end of a chapter, a full stop that may represent a profound sense of relief to international governments and to the troops who have been fighting a war that was started in his name. All of those things are true. I don’t dispute any of them.

But we do not glory in the death of another human being. Ever.