Norman Shanks: theology and social engagement


Before becoming a Church of Scotland minister Rev Dr Norman Shanks was a civil servant at the then Scottish Office and from 1975-77 served as Private Secretary to the Secretary of State.  Following his ordination he was Chaplain to Edinburgh University, Convener of the General Assembly’s Church and Nation Committee, lecturer in Practical Theology at Glasgow University (where he taught your interviewer), Leader of the Iona Community, and parish minister in Govan.  Now retired, he sits on the Board of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde.

Much of your life has been spent bringing together matters of faith, society and politics. How do you see religion continuing to play a part in public life?

I think the state of the church at the moment is interesting and complex.  I notice in my own children for example, brought up in it, a disconnection with church.  There’s no hostility; it’s just not regarded as relevant.  On the other hand there is deep concern for, and commitment to, social and political issues, matters of social justice, global concerns, fairness and equality.  They care about these things and I think that describes a lot of people in our culture at the moment.  Formal church may have little or no place in their lives but many of the human concerns we may broadly describe as ‘Christian’ do.
I also think people always experience a need to belong and identify with some sort of belief or values system.  Religion has provided that for a lot of people through generations and it is hard to see how it will just disappear.  If the church isn’t doing it something else has to. The problem with political or philosophical belief systems is that they don’t take us beyond ourselves. There is a lot to indicate that many people still experience a need for that too, a ‘spiritual’ search if you like.
For all those reasons I think the church, religion, will continue, in some form, to have a role in public life and debate but it won’t be as it has been for generations.  It is changing radically, at least in our culture, as the institutional aspect of religion dies out in its current form.
The future in that sense for religion in the West is uncertain but I see that as creative rather than deadening.  In a strange way the weakening of the institutional churches may provide for greater freedom in theological discussion, for groups like the Iona Community and publications like this one to create space for public debate.  Catholic Social Teaching, for example, is a rich resource for all traditions to draw on in terms of faith and practice, social justice and community, and the institutional church to date hasn’t done it justice.  It also provides us with a call to vocation in the broad sense which much modern ‘spirituality’ does not.  What I mean is we run the danger sometimes of what Bonhoeffer called ‘cheap grace’.  We get the good God stuff without the cost!  It seems to me that the Christian gospel always asks for self-sacrifice and we don’t always want to hear that.  That might be where church in some form remains necessary.


You’ve had a career at the heart of government in Scotland.  Everyone agrees this is a time of change politically in the UK as a whole.  How do you see Scotland developing politically in the next few years, independent or not?

Well, like many people I voted Yes in the referendum and was also astonished by the extent of the SNP gains in the General Election.  Without doubt Scotland is certainly shifting in its political allegiance and the view it takes of itself.  I think the relative closeness of the referendum vote has created a tension that, like all tensions, has the power to become very creative.  So much that was vibrant and positive came out of the whole referendum campaign: the grassroots movements, the local gatherings, the energy and sense of possibility across communities.  At the moment it looks as though the surge of support for the SNP is partly a way of holding on to that. The greater hope would be that the Labour Party in Scotland finds some energy and renewed identity of its own so that it becomes a full participant once again. That’s vital for the political health of Scotland I think. One party dominance is never good and it is still Labour who can provide a meaningful alternative to the SNP for most Scottish voters.  At the moment I think we’re in a place of re-adjustment and the outcome is not clear yet.
The big questions facing the whole of the UK will impact hugely in the immediate future I think. The referendum on Europe will be very significant and either way the outcome of that will create a different mood within the UK and in terms of Scotland’s relationships within it. I’m sceptical about the idea that’s put about that Scotland is more left wing than England.  I don’t really think we are but I do think we are a more coherent nation, perhaps just for being smaller and less diverse.  I think there is a greater sense of what you might call community in Scotland.  It’s not about being left wing or right wing: it is just a sense of being part of something together, shared.  In that respect I think a principle such as ‘the common good’ has a greater kind of clout in Scotland and that is something we need to work hard to nourish and preserve, however we vote.


You’ve mentioned the global challenges. In Europe at the moment the impact of a global refugee crisis is causing unrest and would appear to have difficult and complex implications for the future.  As a grandfather how do you look upon that and the other global problems likely to be inherited by younger generations?

(Groans!) Well, you certainly are forced to think we haven’t made a great job of much of it and will leave them with a lot to sort out. I do observe what many other people have said that mine is probably the first generation that has left things more difficult for our children and grandchildren.  I see that.  On the other hand I also think we have all prospered enormously at the expense of other parts of the world and that too, at some stage, has to be changed.  The fear of course is that with that comes violence and destruction because generally people don’t give up what they’ve acquired very easily.  The question makes me think of a very particular period when I had a sabbatical while I was leader of the Iona Community.  My wife, Ruth, and I went to Atlanta where I was attached to a seminary for a semester and we also volunteered in a homeless centre downtown.  I made links there with the universality of the kind of issues the Iona Community has always tried to address:  poverty, discrimination, injustice, migration, homelessness.  I saw these in a new way as the flip side of so much of globalisation. These are the issues we share across the world and need to find a global as well as local ways of addressing.  I suppose what I’m saying is we see the impact of things among our own families first but then quickly see that they connect us with families everywhere and that we are still among the very privileged.
There’s a positive too for the younger generations.  My children had travelled and experienced so much more of life by the time they were in their twenties than I had.  My grandchildren, one of whom is half Peruvian, have so much more of a relaxed global view.  Partly this is a result of technology and their ease with it and with so many forms of communication.  There are opportunities ahead for them that I couldn’t have imagined so it’s by no means all gloomy and they have the chance to make something better again of the world and their own lives.


Finally, as someone who seems always to have brought together theology and social engagement, who has influenced you most in terms of reading, meeting and thinking?

Oh that’s very difficult.  There have been so many and in lots of different ways.  I would find it hard to single people out.  I mean my family, friends and colleagues in the Iona Community for sure but I wouldn’t like to pick individuals – my wife of course!  And my father in law, the Very Rev Dr Hugh Douglas, was a big influence on me.  And my own parents.  That’s a difficult question.  Let me think…’s maybe easier to think just professionally.  If I go back to my days in the Scottish Office I would name both Willie Ross and Bruce Millan. Not because I always thought they were right but because of their commitment to public service, the way they worked and listened.  They seemed to embody a different kind of politician to many of the ones we have now.  I learned a lot from them.  At the moment, in terms of reading, I’m feeling quite influenced by Gerry Hughes’ book, Cry of Wonder.  I’ve recently enjoyed too the theologian Eugene Peterson and the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald whose own religious background provides an interesting angle to her fiction.  But it’s really hard to select people.  I think I’m quite eclectic in that sense.  Anyone can have an influence and many have.


Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.