My dad and I have always enjoyed discussing faith. So, one evening I asked him if he’d be willing to answer a few burning questions whilst he made our whole family dinner. A totally stress-free affair, of course…
LAURA FRATER: You are a minister of religion. What exactly does that mean ?
ANDREW FRATER: It means that I am a spiritual leader, I suppose, of a mainstream Christian Church in Scotland, serving a small body of people in a geographical parish in the city of Glasgow. I was ordained in 1987, which means that I have spent nearly thirty years communicating the tenets of Christianity in a relevant and creative way. Hopefully, enriching the lives of those engaged in the stuff of human living!
In what ways, during that time, has institutional religion changed?
I suppose the word ‘decline’ covers it. Less folk attending worship, less baptisms, less marriages in church; and with this numerical fall, an inevitable drop in resources to sustain ministries and keep church buildings open. Although I must say, as a liberal Christian, the only area of growth that seems to buck the trend is an increase in those concurring with what I would call a conservative or fundamentalist religion.
Your latter observation is interesting. Why the growth in that kind of faith experience?
Because in some ways fundamentalism acts like a spiritual fire blanket! In a rapidly changing world it presents (wrongly I think) dogmatic, rocklike certainty; assurances gleaned from either infallible authorities or inspired texts – or both! It’s attractive because it provides a structured mindset of spiritual security that is both comforting and clear. Yes, that’s it! Clear cut, simple, easily believed! And because of that it is naturally suspicious of anyone choosing to dissent, or indeed, criticise.
Why do you think religion has tended to react this way?
Well, when religious paradigms shift (and let’s be clear, they always have!) such moments throw people into a state of flux. For example, think of a small primitive community burning sacrifices to the Sun God in order to secure healing for a local villager. And then one day, a 21st century medical doctor arrives with appropriate remedies of cure. With distressed villager now well, the community’s religious paradigm also shifts in order to accommodate the altered scientific reality. In a sense, the pieces on everyone’s chess board are on the move. But there again, is that not what the game’s about? Are the pieces not designed to move up and down the board? Is life different?
Of course, it’s not just medicine. It’s also astronomy, physics, biology, philosophy. Names like Galileo, Newton, Descartes and Darwin have all, in their own ways, generated seismic shifts in world thinking. And the result? A corresponding change in religious outlook. At first angry and antagonistic, but inevitably resigned to the fact that it must also evolve or die!
You talk about religious evolution in a creative and life-giving way. However, across today’s world religions seem more inclined to adopt the language of death and dogma. And some are determined to evangelise their cause with weapons as well as words. How would you respond to this frightening fact?
Someone once compared the church to a swimming pool! All the noise today is up the shallow end! I think that’s true. The loudest have least to say. In a time of decline, when people can’t see how old-fashioned religion relates to their lives, the spiritual vacuum is generally filled by those flogging creeds of noisy simplicity. One fixed formula, one holy unchanging text, one leader with one infallible perspective. All terribly limiting. No, more than that – a sheer denial of life’s rich meaning and colour.
And yet, the crowds gather. We hear their chants on the evening news. Because, you see, this kind of reductionism is attractive. It makes the complicated, less complicated. Or so it thinks.
But then you apply your mind. Truth is truth. There’s not religious truth. There’s just truth! And what we regard as true is always, at the end of the day, a believed reality borne of one’s own heart. Things are not true because some religious figure says they are. They are true, because you and I have the courage and audacity to embrace them, and more than that, run with them as free spirits. We then discover that truth, by its very nature, is self-authenticating. The purpose of religious bodies like my own is to share graciously the truth of their own stories. And to do this lovingly through signpost and symbol; in other words, kindly media through which friends in varied places can be spiritually encouraged rather than enslaved. At the end of the day, the freedom to hear, interpret and live belong to each of us. Nobody can rob us of that right.
So, is your concluding thought an optimistic one?
Yes. I believe in Resurrections! So I must be a person of Hope! However, to be serious again, religions, of whatever sort, must allow room for different theological stalls in their market places. My own church used to call itself a ‘broad church’. Historically, it was liberal. Therefore, there was room to accommodate folk of opposing views and perspectives. This was its strength. Indeed, the substance of any religious faith requires a rich cacophony of voices. Without them, religion dissolves into grey monotony marching its troops to a single drum beat.
A small example to finish may illustrate this. When I arrived at my present church in 1994, the worship area was laid out like a cinema. The seating was fixed and in rows – all pointing to the front, where the minister occupied a high pulpit, allowing him to look down on the congregation with an air of authority. During my tenure, the pews were removed and replaced with flexible seating, whereby the congregation was now able to sit in a circular shape. The pulpit has fallen into disuse. Wisdoms are now shared in the round. It’s risky, but at least it places authority back where it belongs – amongst the hearts and minds of us all. Because truth belongs to us all. And no religion worth its salt should canvas conviction in a way that deprives the individual of this sacred human gift. And I mean, NO RELIGION!