Speech before the Church of Scotland General Assembly, Edinburgh 2008
Gordon Brown (Labour)
For me, it is a special joy that evokes many happy memories to be invited to address you here this morning.
My father - in a Ministry that spanned more than four decades - served parishes in Govan and Dunoon, and then in Kirkcaldy and Hamilton — Presbyteries which I am grateful that you, Moderator, have chosen to visit this year.
So from my childhood onwards I have been aware of the deliberations of the General Assembly;
Of the breadth of knowledge, the tolerance and the seriousness which characterise your debates;
And it is humbling to know that over the centuries this institution has an honourable history of bearing witness to eternal principles:
of speaking truth to power;
and - as I continue to find sometimes to my cost and rightly so - you have never been swayed by powers temporal, rightly respectful of all but rightly also deferential to none.
And thinking about this day has brought back memories for me of the everyday life of a Scottish parish ministry:
the congregation, and its place in the community;
the manse, with its many visitors;
young people who had decided to get married - and their joy when blessed with children;
and the suddenly bereaved - with my father always there for them…to console and to comfort;
and of course those regulars of manse life - the needy - whom my parents ensured never left empty-handed;
that impressed me…so much so that they once came home to find me aged 12 innocently giving lunch to a well-known local housebreaker.
And all that I was taught then remains with me to this day. Like so many here today, my father lived on a ministerial stipend. But he also brought us up to study the great texts, to believe that the size of your wealth mattered less than the strength of your character; that a life of joy and fulfilment could be lived in the service of others; and that to be tested by adversity is not a fate to be feared but a challenge to be overcome.
And I have never forgotten the lessons I learned in the manse of a parish in a medium-sized town in a nation that has given so much to the world:
the sense of an interwoven fabric of life and the strands within it:
the powerful linkages that clubs and societies - many church-related - brought to those who joined them: boys and girls, men and women, young and old;
the spirit of neighbourliness - with the Church, for many, at the centre of it;
the recognition that, yes, we cooperate out of need but, yes also, we have a human need to cooperate.
And we all know how much the Church, while it is founded on parishes, has never been parochial — contributing, within Scotland and beyond her shores, in service of ideals over the centuries:
from the Church’s historic 16th century commitment to a school in every parish to the Make Poverty History rallies you hosted only three years ago;
from the brave stand of some local ministers against the highland clearances to the fight - led by Thomas Chalmers - against the evils of urban squalor;
and from the historic decision 40 years ago this year to lead the world admitting women as Ministers to, today, the work by the Guild with homeless Scots in London and against HIV/AIDS, and the countless hours of service not just by commissioners but by ordinary men and women members of the Church the length and breadth of this country.
It is a commitment to social justice that runs through the work and witness of this Church like a golden thread.
My father’s proudest honour was, as he retired, to receive a doctorate of divinity from his old university. And such is my reverence for the traditions of scholarship and learning in the Church that, notwithstanding the importance of the laity in church life, I am not here to presume a distinctive interpretation to scripture. Instead I stand before you today to affirm my personal commitment to the Church’s enduring vision of the good society - the good society of compassion and justice that today is needed more than ever, at home in our own country and abroad in our world.
And while I would respectfully suggest that our country is fairer today than in the past, I accept with humility today that our country is not yet fair enough and we must do more.
So just as twenty years ago this weekend the then Prime Minister was presented with the Church and Nation Committees’ deliberations and kindly invited to study a report entitled ‘Just Sharing’, I expect nothing less than for you to ask me and the Scottish Parliament to study in detail - and reflect upon - today’s report of the Church and Society Council —- to reflect upon your demands, your priorities, your call for action on homelessness, on child poverty, on the shortfalls in the care of older people. And I agree also with what you say about the misery caused by gambling and drug addiction, and the scourge of alcohol abuse.
And amidst all the challenges and headlines of recent months I have learned what really matters: that, for me, a life is best measured not by what office or title you hold but by what difference you can make by seeking to do what you judge the right thing, however difficult, and by the causes to which you dedicate your efforts.
As a son and now a father I believe in the Parable of the Talents my father taught me:
that everyone has a talent,
everyone should have the chance to develop that talent,
and everyone should be challenged to use that talent and given the best chance to bridge that gap between what they are and what they have it in themselves to become.
And so I believe in the power of opportunity to change lives.
And wherever I see - as I saw growing up with teenage friends in Kirkcaldy and now as its MP - ability wasted, potential unfulfilled, effort discouraged, enterprise untapped and talent underdeveloped, I believe in the interests of a fairer society that we have a duty to help. For me as an individual this is the burning mission that inspires me and to which I dedicate my work - enabling every child to reach high; encouraging every teenager to be the best they can be; empowering every adult to make the most of themselves; and to be able to say to every elderly citizen that their lives shall not be without the comfort and care each one deserves.
In the Church this work of building a good society has never been limited to the boundaries of the parish or the presbytery but has always stretched out across the world —- from the service and sacrifice of Scottish missionaries we were brought up to remember - David Livingstone, Mary Slessor, Eric Liddell, Jane Haining - to more recently Kenneth Mckenzie’s and then Robert Craig’s struggles for multiracial justice in post-colonial Africa.
And as the Moderator’s coming visits to Zambia, Nepal and Malawi will again show, the Church can honourably claim a global vision that long predated the modern concept of globalisation and perhaps even anticipated it too.
Today, to ask that simple searching question: ‘Who is my neighbour?’ is also to ask: how can we - facing as we do now such a range of urgent challenges:
threats to the global environment;
the rise - and evident fragility - of the global economy;
a crisis in feeding the world’s people;
gross injustices between the richest and the poorest nations;
and threats of nuclear proliferation, international terrorism, and new pandemics;
how can we discover right across the world common ground on which to act?
And we find that from the timeless wisdom of all the great religions - from which billions across the world derive daily inspiration - there is a consistent ethical core that propels us to act: encapsulated in the golden rule that informs not just Christianity and Judaism but also Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Islam - showing that we are not moral strangers but there is a shared moral sense common to us all:
that we are our brother’s keeper;
that we should do unto others as we would have them do to us;
the enduring summons to justice that echoes down the ages —- our belief deep down that when some are poor all of us are impoverished, when even a few are not free none of us can be fully free, when others are weakened in spirit and hope no one can boast our society is truly strong.
And from these common precepts of the world’s great religions, we can - perhaps for the first time - move from old battlegrounds where religions confronted often each other to a higher common ground where people of all religions can unite around what binds them together.
And now something else that is potentially transformative is happening for the first time too.
Let us go back for a moment to the world of those pioneers of globalisation, the early Church of Scotland missionaries.
Once we relied on just a lone missionary finding common ground with a few local people in an isolated community.
Today modern means of communication like the internet enable millions of us to link up, debate and organise across frontiers - summoning the moral sense of communities to shape the way we run our world.
Until a few years ago we would say to each other - ‘if only people could speak to each other, could communicate across borders and boundaries, if only we could connect people would discover how much they had in common’.
Now we are in a new world divided - yes - by vast distances of space but united by instant ties of cyberspace.
A world without walls, borders, barriers and frontiers where we are neighbours not because we are on the same street but because we are on the same networks; meeting on Facebook if not face to face; sharing in the online world - the one continent that everyone can inhabit.
So contrary to received wisdom, the greatest arsenal of power today is not nuclear or biological or chemical but people — the discovery of our capacity to come together across borders and oceans and to stand together as one.
And what I want to argue is that the joining of these two forces - the information revolution and the human urge to co-operate for justice - makes possible for the first time in history something we have only dreamt about: the creation of a truly global society.
A global society where people anywhere and everywhere can discover their shared values, communicate with each other and do not need to meet or live next door to each other to join together with people in other countries in a single moral universe to bring about change.
And the truth is that linked across oceans and miles, a chorus of countless voices - inspired by the strength of shared values - can now touch and move the conscience of the world.
Some dismiss the internet as a shouting match without a referee, but let us remember its power for change: that the monks of Burma with only a begging bowl and their blogs persuaded the world to bear witness to their fight against oppression - and now tell us of their struggle to survive in the face not only of natural disaster but an unnatural dictatorship that cares more about its survival than theirs.
On another continent we saw a million Filipinos were mobilised by text message to overthrow President Estrada - who complained bitterly that his rule had been ended by the world’s first ‘coup de text’.
And across many continents we saw how Live 8 rallied three billion people in 2005 to demand that we Make Poverty History.
And I believe that these vast and swiftly summoned movements of people coming together can now become the most powerful weapon for justice ever put in human hands.
In this connected world:
censorship may silence but the word will still get out;
repression may still suppress, but not forever;
force still has power to dictate but it will not ultimately decide.
And I believe that “no injustice will last forever”, so people who are oppressed need not any longer journey without hope.
And with this most powerful peaceful weapon for change: of conscience linked to conscience - people with a shared moral sense and a capacity to communicate and organize; and the power that comes from calling, networking, marching for change, millions can now be moved to action - as with Make Poverty History - against the great injustices of poverty, disease and environmental degradation.
If anyone had said fifty years ago that the people of our world would achieve black civil rights, tear down the Berlin Wall, bring an end to apartheid, no one would have believed it.
But in the next fifty years think how much more can be achieved with this new great power at work in our world: the power of people united by conscience, armed with unprecedented means to communicate and mobilise, determined to turn moral values into common action and shared vision into a global reality: to ‘undo the heavy burdens and let the oppressed go free’.
This is the irrepressible revolution of our time - a billion voices for change. And I’d like to think that acting together we can become the generation to address climate change;
Acting together, the first generation in the history of mankind to abolish illiteracy and give every child the right to education;
Acting together, the first generation to eradicate tuberculosis, polio, diphtheria, malaria on the way to eradicating HIV/AIDS;
And to honour the dream of the scriptures: that justice will roll like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.
So Moderator, today we can see clearly what our mission tonight is: that our neighbour is every person in every country.
Today we see clearly that we share the same global neighbourhood within the same moral universe.
Today there are millions of us who, however distantly, share the pain of others and who believe in something bigger than ourselves.
And our task now is extraordinarily complex and yet very simple: together we must make this world a better home - not just for some, but for all.