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Tim Bell

In Search of a Good Life


If you think that deserves a headline, you haven’t been paying attention for the last 450 years.

No institution could last that long without adopting and adapting as it goes, keeping pace with different cultures and economies and technologies. The Church of Scotland is keeping up to date with reality.

The present parishes of Leith St Andrews at the foot of Easter Road, Pilrig St Paul’s on Leith Walk, and St Margarets, Restalrig will form one new parish.

Likewise, South Leith in Kirkgate, North Leith on Madeira Street and Newhaven on Craighall Road will form a single new parish, running along the coast.

Leith St Andrews and North Leith church buildings are surplus to requirements and will be released from the Church of Scotland estate.

Change is happening in other areas too. Gone are the days in the 1960s when the rabble-rouser John Cormack finished off his rants at the Foot of the Walk with “One, two, three, no Popery.” In truth, he was no more than the street-level mouthpiece for some of the upper echelons of the Church of Scotland.

At this year’s General Assembly of the Church of Scotland the outgoing Moderator made a cheerful wisecrack about his ‘good friend’ the Roman Catholic Archbishop Leo Cushley who was there as an invited guest.

And finding common cause with others is not limited to Christian churches. The special guest was Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis - who could usefully work on better jokes – but used his speech to say, in essence: “Don’t just dwell on our agreements. Focus on differences. Open a dialogue. It sharpens our thinking.” Adding, “but don’t fall out about it.”

When I was a young fellow raking around the world, I lived for a year in a conservative Muslim country in West Africa. I experienced nothing but kindness and respect for a blond laddie from somewhere in the North Sea.

I developed a motto which has served me well over the years: ‘You be a good Muslim, and I’ll be the best Christian I can be, and we’ll get on just fine’. And of course that is adapted to people of any faith and none.

For years now, all the mainstream church traditions in Leith – Roman Catholic, episcopalian, reformed – have been meeting regularly and making a special effort to put on a joint Sunday morning church service to mark the beginning of Leith Festival.

This year it was at Leith St Andrews. Festival Chair Nick Gardner and Reverend Rob MacKenzie implicitly agreed that there are no clear dividing lines between religion and any form of art or expression of community.

Art forms are all in search of beauty and truth, and all community efforts are in support of our neighbours.

We were played out, with a spring in our step, by Steve Baird on tenor sax and Iain Matheson on keyboard.

Reports of the death of the Church worldwide are premature. People have not stopped believing in things. There are some seductive platforms for ‘believing’ in things with certainty. A conspiracy theory, by definition, conspires to select evidence to support a particular cause.

Questions and doubts are part of faith. Certainty is the opposite to faith. Religions develop their own ways to faithfully get as close to truth as possible. The job is never finished.

If you ask me “Do you believe in God?” I’ll ask if you understand your question. God is not some personage to believe in, or not, like the Tooth Fairy, or Santa Claus. God is an abstraction – everything about God is purer than anything we can imagine – and in order for us to relate to this abstraction we personify it into a human-like figure.

The image of God as an old man with a beard is unhelpful. God is a woman, generous, giving, doing. God is a child, vulnerable, to be nurtured, full of potential. God is a beggar, a drug addict, in need of love and help. God is everyone, and everywhere.

Richard Dawkins wrote (and said) that ‘all religion is irrational and therefore irrelevant’. His denial of God – atheism – only takes away. Leaving nothing to fill the void.

I firmly believe that going to church regularly - raising your eyes and ambitions above the daily routine, is a good habit. It’s good to be friends with people who are well aware of their foibles and are making a sincere effort to be better. And we try to make the world a better place.

Here’s a simple prayer for us all:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

In 1862 an ancestor of mine Miss Henderson, who lived in Kirk Street Leith, married a Mr Prophet. I’ve always been sorry that name was married out of my family line.

If I was Tim Prophet I would have felt fairly confident in finishing with this:

“Thus sayeth the Lord.” ■

North Leith Parish Church. Courtesy of


Don’t just dwell on our agreements. Focus on differences. Open a dialogue. It sharpens our thinking. Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis


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