Monday, 26 November 2012

A Friend of the Poor and the Oppressed

Dr Thomas Guthrie’s statue in Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh epitomises what many of us involved in Christian social action are seeking to achieve; with a Bible in one hand and his other hand resting protectively on a ‘ragged child’ Guthrie’s life combined the two great priorities of the church; truth and love.  Despite his great achievements, Guthrie is almost unknown today either as a preacher or social reformer.  While there were a number of wonderful books of sermons published in his lifetime none are readily available today except through ‘print to order’.  The lack of knowledge about Guthrie is surely a tragedy and the study of Guthrie’s life and ministry reaps a rich reward for anyone who takes the time and energy to find out more about this great man. 

Early Life and University
Born in July 1803 in the town of Brechin to the son of a local merchant and banker, Thomas Guthrie went on to study at Edinburgh University at the tender age of 12.  As he himself comments in his autobiography ‘beyond the departments of fun and fighting I was in no way distinguished at college’ (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 40).  After 4 years of philosophy and literature and then a further 4 of theology, Guthrie undertook a further 2 years studying chemistry, anatomy and natural history.  It was during this time that Guthrie attended the lectures of the famous Dr Knox connected to the Burke and Hare murders. 

Hope Postponed
Despite clear ability, Guthrie had to wait 5 years for a charge.  These years were not wasted with Guthrie enrolling in the Sorbonne in France to study during the winter of 1826/7.  He certainly saw another side to life in Paris and sums it up by saying ‘Paris is the best place in the world for pursuing any science, saving those of morality and religion’ (Autobiography and Memoirs, 1896, p 243).  Returning to Brechin in March 1828 Guthrie worked in his father’s bank (The Dundee Union Banking Company) for several years before finally being called to Arbirlot, Angus in 1830.  The Manager of the banks head office in Dundee said to Guthrie on one occasion; ‘if you only preach, sir, as well as you have banked, you will be sure to succeed’ (Autobiography and Memoirs, 1896, p 258).  During this time he became an accomplished platform speaker and as well as regular preaching, became involved in the Apocrypha controversy which was particularly fierce in Brechin.

Spending nearly 10 years at university and then a further 5 without a church prepared Guthrie in a unique way for the challenges ahead.  His sons comment in their Memoir of their father ‘these five years of hope deferred, however, afforded Mr Guthrie a profitable though peculiar training for the eminent place he was afterwards to fill.  His scientific studies in Edinburgh, his residence abroad, his experience of banking in his father’s banking-house, the leisure he enjoyed for enlarging his stores of general information, had all their influence in making him the many sided man he became’ (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 225).

Evangelist and Preacher
Guthrie was no ivory tower theologian and his common touch made him unconventional (but very successful) in both his approach to social reform and his evangelism.  He says in his autobiography; ‘If ministers were less shut up in their own shells, and had more common sense and knowledge of the world, they would cling less tenaciously to old forms, suitable enough to bygone but not to the present times’ (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 89).  He went on to prove this in his first charge in Arbirlot (1830-37) by abolishing two Sunday services.  They were replaced by a longer service at noon and an evening Bible Class for young people aged 15-25.  At the ‘Minister’s Class’ Guthrie would work through the Westminster Shorter Catechism, give a shorter, simplified version of the earlier sermon (‘abundantly illustrated by examples and anecdotes’) and test the knowledge of his students.  As Guthrie says in his autobiography; ‘None of the services and ecclesiastical machinery at work did so much good, perhaps, as this class’ (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 127).

Guthrie’s reputation grew rapidly and after 7 years in Angus he was called to Old Greyfriars in Edinburgh and was inducted in September 1837 as assistant to Rev Sym.  Guthrie preached to huge congregations of the middle and upper classes in his new congregation but many of the poor were kept out due to pew rents.  An afternoon service in the Magdalen Chapel was where Guthrie connected with the poor and marginalised in the infamous Cowgate district of Edinburgh.  His great desire was to communicate the redeeming power of the gospel to those who were often shut out of the Scottish Church in 19th century Scotland.  When he eventually planted the new church of St John’s in 1840 he reserved 650 seats for the people of his parish regardless of their ability to pay pew rents. 

Guthrie combined solid reformed theology with a simple, accessible (if somewhat flowery) style.  He says ‘…I used the simplest, plainest terms, avoiding anything vulgar, but always, where possible, employing the Saxon tongue – the mother tongue of my hearers.  I studied the style of the addresses which the ancient and inspired prophets delivered to the people of Israel, and saw how, differing from the dry disquisitions or a naked statement of truths, they abounded in metaphors, figures and illustrations.  I turned to the gospels, and found that He who knew what was in man, what could best illuminate a subject, win the attention, and move the heart, used parables and illustrations, stories, comparisons, drawn from the scenes of nature and familiar life…’ (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 130).  Like Thomas Chalmers Guthrie followed the parochial or territorial system of church planting.  This is defined by his sons in their Memoir of their father as; the church at the door of the poor, the church free to all, a properly equipped school in every parish and elders, deacons and district visitors used to make regular contact with parishioners.  As soon as Guthrie planted St John’s he outlined his vision for 30 elders and 15 deacons to actively pastor a relatively small area of central Edinburgh.  His evangelism was relational, low key but always with a long term vision for the transformation of the local community.

Social Reformer
While Dr Guthrie was one of the finest preachers of the Free Church in the 19th Century, his greatest legacy was surely as a social reformer.  This is summed up on his statue in Edinburgh which declares he was ‘a friend of the poor and the oppressed’.  This started in his first parish in Angus.  Guthrie established a savings bank and library; ‘The success of the bank and the library I attribute very much to this, that I myself managed them.  They were of great service by bringing me into familiar and frequent and kindly contact with my people’ (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 113).  Guthrie believed that the minister should live and work amongst the people.  Writing while still in Arbirlot he said to a Mr Dunlop; ‘I have discovered from my own experience that the further the people are removed from the manse, the less influence has the minister over them: and if a man won’t live among the scum of the Cowgate I would at once say to him ‘You can’t be my minister’ (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 309). 

When Guthrie arrived in Edinburgh in 1837 it was growing rapidly with the industrial revolution.   With large scale immigration from Ireland and large scale movement within Scotland from the country to the cities, Guthrie found extreme overcrowding combined with the most heart rending poverty within central Edinburgh.  Drunkenness was a widespread problem with many children being forced out to beg, borrow and steal to feed their parents habit.  There is a famous story told in Guthrie’s book ‘Out of Harness’ that describes how Guthrie stood on George IV Bridge just after he arrived in Edinburgh.  Looking down on his new parish known as the Cowgate he describes ‘a living stream of humanity in motion beneath his feet’.  A hand was laid on his shoulder and he turned around to find the famous preacher and reformer Dr Thomas Chalmers.  Standing in silence for a few moments Chalmers eventually exclaimed ‘a beautiful field sir; a very fine field of operation!’ (Out of Harness, p 126).  This was the field that Guthrie was to labour in for the rest of his active ministry.

Ragged Schools
Guthrie was appalled by what he saw around him on the streets of Edinburgh when he arrived in 1837.   Writing in 1872 Guthrie says; ‘Five-and-thirty years ago, on first coming to this city, I had not spent a month in my daily walks in our Cowgate and Grassmarket without seeing that, with worthless, drunken and abandoned parents for their only guardians, there were thousands of poor innocent children, whose only chance of being saved from a life of ignorance and crime lay in a system of compulsory education’ (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 438).  Inspired by a cobbler from Portsmouth called John Pounds who saved 500 ‘ragged children’ from a life of neglect and delinquency, Guthrie became the Scottish ‘Apostle’ of the Ragged School movement.  There was already an Industrial Feeding School in Aberdeen pioneered by a Sherriff Watson in 1841 but the key difference was that Guthrie’s Ragged Schools were always attended by choice rather than coercion or as an alternative to custody.  Inspired by the Aberdeen school, and a similar school in Dundee established in 1842, Guthrie began to gather those of like mind to rescue thousands of children who, as he says of one poor boy were; ‘launched on a sea of human passions and exposed to a thousand temptations…left by society, more criminal than he, to become a criminal, and then punished for his fate, not his fault’ (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 440).

The ‘Ragged School Movement’ was galvanised by the publication of Guthrie’s now famous book ‘Seedtime and Harvest of Ragged Schools’ which was revised and republished three times.  His great skills as a communicator were put to excellent use in this book and Guthrie powerfully put forward the compelling social, economic and spiritual arguments for Ragged Schools.  Guthrie rises to his greatest heights of language in lambasting the money wasted in prisons and the inaction of the general (and particularly the Christian) public; ‘God forbid that I should judge any! Only I cannot comprehend the humanity of the man who stands on a stormy beach with a wreck before him, drowning wretches hanging in its shrouds, their pitiful cries wafted to his ears their imploring hands stretched out to the shore, and who does not regard this dreadful scene otherwise with cold indifference’ (Seed Time and Harvest of Ragged Schools, 1860, p 161).  Guthrie argues that the schools harmonised the views of two of Scotland’s preeminent philanthropists; ‘Our scheme furnishes a common walk for both.  They meet in our school room.  Dr Alison [William Alison, Professor of Medicine at Edinburgh, who advocated social and economic measures to alleviate poverty] comes in with his bread – Dr Chalmers with his Bible: here is food for the body – there for the soul’ (Quoted in Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 457).   

The Ragged Schools were ingenious in that they didn’t take the children out of their homes but gave them a solid education and structure during the day.  The children attended for 12 hours during the winter and 11 hours during the summer.  The school day started at 8am with ‘ablutions’ followed by work, breakfast and play, calling roll and Bible lesson, work, walking, dinner, education, work or education, work and supper.  Interestingly there was a good balance between work, play and education and Guthrie often stresses how the children needed to be broken with Christian kindness rather than the lash of corporal punishment; ‘punishments are rare.  We work by love and kindness; and, though on entering our school they are as foul as the gutter out of which they had been plucked, unbroken as the wild Arab or wild ass of the desert, ignorant of everything that is good, with rags on their backs and misery in their looks, such change comes over them that better-behaved scholars, sharper intellects, happier faces you will see nowhere (Seed Time of Ragged Schools, 1860, p 165).  The results of the ragged schools were remarkable.  The Edinburgh prison population in 1847 (the first year of the Ragged Schools in Edinburgh) consisted of 315 under 14’s (5% of the prison population).  By 1851 the figure was 56 out of 5,869 (1%) (Autobiography and Memoir, 1896, p 459).  Guthrie and his fellow philanthropists had proved that prevention was indeed better than cure.

Guthrie was an outstanding preacher, a faithful pastor, a winsome evangelist and one of Scotland’s finest social reformers.  Guthrie’s legacy lives on in the provision that there is both in terms of welfare and education for rich and poor alike.  While Guthrie would be saddened at the secularisation there has been in the public school system, he would surely be pleased to see education being offered to every child free of charge.  Few would deny that Guthrie and others like Thomas Chalmers, James Begg and Dr William Alison paved the way for the modern welfare system

Rev Tomas Guthrie died in the early hours of Monday 24th February 1873 with his faithful Highland nurse and his family at his bedside.  It is said that with the exception of Dr Thomas Chalmers and Sir James Simpson, Edinburgh had not seen a funeral like it in a generation.  It was reported that 230 children from the original ragged school attended his funeral and sang a hymn at the grave. One little girl was overheard saying ‘He was all the father I ever knew.’  Amongst Guthrie’s last words he was overheard to say ‘a brand plucked from the burning!’  His legacy was that through his vision and love for his Saviour, the Ragged School movement was established which in turn plucked thousands of little brands from a life of poverty and crime, and brought them to know the ultimate friend of sinners.

Guthrie on Early Intervention

Recently I was asked to speak to some business people on social transformation.  I was only too happy to use Guthrie as an example.

The Lions Clubs International Convention Aberdeen
17th November 2012

It’s a real pleasure to be with you all today.

In his memoirs, Geoffrey Cox who was a Director with ITN for many years talks about his time in the army as an Intelligence Officer and how, during WW2, he gathered all his commanders around him each morning.  Cox says of his commanders; ‘The lives of the men they commanded and, indeed their own would depend on the accuracy of the information I imparted…It developed in me a relish for establishing the truth, which is an end in itself.’ 

We can ever get to the root of an issue we need to establish the truth. 

Why do we need social transformation in Scotland today?

  • In 2011/12 45,322 households presented as homeless to Scottish Local Authorities
  • 17% of adults and 20% of children in Scotland live in poverty
  • 60% of young people leaving care have no formal qualifications
  • The Scottish prison population is expected to rise to 9,500 by 2019
  • Reoffending rates within 2 years of release stand at 47%
  • 222,000 people are unemployed in Scotland with youth unemployment currently at 23.7%.
  • Foodbanks – The Trussell Trust have now established 180 foodbanks across the UK with 18 in Scotland. 
  • Suicide rates amongst young men in Scotland are 80% higher than in England and Wales.
  • Drugs – there are 60,000 people in Scotland with serious drug issues.
Whether we would agree that we live in a ‘Broken Britain’ or not, we are certainly facing some huge challenges. 
So how to we bring about change? 
  • More investment? 
  • More government? 
  • Better systems? 
  • More rights? 
  • Better legislation? 
  • Better leadership?
All these things are critical but the main issue is much more fundamental.

Bethany Christian Trust’s main focus is on homelessness although it is impossible to take this in isolation.  The truth about the reason for homelessness is clear from the statistics that every year show relationship breakdown within marriages, partnerships, friendships and communities is the main cause of people finding themselves without a home.

Services which focus on housing and health and infrastructure, while they will all help, are not going to get to the crux of what is primarily an issue of interpersonal relationships.

We know homelessness is mainly caused by harmful and by broken relationships. What we need in Scotland is a radical improvement in the quality of our relationships with each other and the importance that we place on them; whether they are in marriages, friendships, companies, churches or communities.

We need to purposefully and concertedly work on our relationships if we are to overcome the issues that lead to people becoming homeless in Scotland.

I’ve been asked to speak today on social transformation.  But let me ask another question – what do people need to thrive?  
Let me suggest three things; 
  • we all need people around us who we can love and turn to in a crisis
  • we all need somewhere we can call home
  • we all need a sense of purpose.
How can we achieve these things?
1.       By intervening early
2.       By working together

1.  Early intervention
There is increasing evidence that prevention is better than cure.  We can think of many examples of this.

The Scottish Council Single Homeless estimate that the cost of a failed tenancy is anything from £25-45,000.  The work that Bethany is doing at our Community Projects here in Aberdeen and across Scotland helps people before they get in to crisis to avoid all the human misery and cost that comes through eviction. 

This holds true in almost every area;
  • If we invest in budgeting and financial management we can help young people to avoid debt
  • If we invest early in wellbeing we can cut down the rise in mental health issues
  • If we are trained to recognise the symptoms of somebody contemplating suicide we can intervene and avoid needless deaths.

Similar evidence is available with regard to early intervention with children at risk of abuse and neglect.  It is estimated that for every £1 spent on prevention £20-30 is saved on acute services.

As the report Early Intervention, Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens by Graham Allen MP and Iain Duncan Smith MP says;

Suppose that we help a young mother and a toddler with a £1000 worth of health visiting at the time she and her baby need it most: that makes more sense than waiting 16 years in order to pay £230,000 to incarcerate that baby in a young offenders’ secure unit for a year when he has gone astray.

One of my great heroes pioneered early intervention over 150 years ago.  Thomas Guthrie’s statue looks very lonely in Princess Street Gardens with hardly a soul knowing who he was or what he achieved.  But there is a clue in the statue; Guthrie holds a Bible in one hand and his other arm is protectively wrapped around a little orphan or ‘ragged child’.  The inscription beneath reads ‘a friend of the poor and the oppressed.’ 

Guthrie was no ivory tower theologian and preacher.  After a his first Parish in Fife where he established a savings bank and library for his parishioners, Guthrie was called to the rapidly industrialising city of Edinburgh where after three years at Old Greyfriars he built a new church called St Johns in one of the poorest and degraded parts of Edinburgh between the Lawnmarket and the Grassmarket. 

Guthrie saw all around him the need for social transformation.  Children slept rough, begged and stole to exist.  Drunken parents threw them out on the streets and wouldn’t let them back until they had collected enough money to pay for the next round of gin. 

The ragged schools movement, which was started by Sheriff Watson in Aberdeen where they were known as Industrial Feeding Schools, became Guthrie’s life’s work.  Countless 1000’s of children were rescued from a life of abuse and neglect and given love, a place to call home and a sense of purpose. 

The facts speak for themselves;
  • The Edinburgh prison population in 1847 (the first year of the Ragged Schools in Edinburgh) consisted of 315 under 14’s (315 out of 5743 or 5%).
  • By 1851 the figure was 56 out of 5,869 (1%).
Guthrie preached a transformational message.  Just like the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 he saw many younger brothers in the pigsty of life but told them about a God who could offer forgiveness and transformation through grace.  There were many in the Scottish Church in those days who were horrified at what Guthrie was doing.  Even his elders at St John’s were frightened at the prospect of feeding little street urchins in the basement of the church.  They were like the elder brother in the story of the prodigal son; proud, angry, superior, condescending and ultimately unable to love the broken and filthy that this world puts before us. 

Guthrie is a great example of the power and effectiveness of early intervention.  As with everything, early intervention has gone full circle and it has become the political flavour of the month.  In his speech to the Local Government Association in 2007 the Prime Minister David Cameron said;
…ask a primary school teacher with a class of 5 year olds, which ones are likely to be in trouble with the law in 5 or 10 years’ time – and chances are, the teacher will be able to tell you with total accuracy. So given this, why do we wait until kids are 10 or 15 before we try to intervene? Why do we wait till the problems have got worse, and the kids are bigger and more angry and more upset?…There is a depressing journey too many of our young people take – a journey of three letter acronyms. From an EBD unit to a PRU. From the PRU to a YOI. And finally to an HMP. Early intervention is the best hope we’ve got to get people off this journey.

As Guthrie showed and as a mountain of research proves early intervention works.

2.  The second way can achieve social transformation is by working together
Four years ago rough sleeping and homelessness in general was a huge issue in Aberdeen.  Over 2008/9 Aberdeen City Council were turning away many people due to lack of suitable temporary accommodation.  While many turned to relatives for accommodation for others the streets became their home.  Begging was very visible along Union Street and around the city centre. 

Over the last four winters Bethany coordinated a Winter Care Shelter for rough sleepers in 10 church venues in Aberdeen city centre with 21 local churches providing a two course hot meal at 9:30pm each night.  Over 250 volunteers worked alongside Bethany staff.  The impact of this project has been incredible as the rough sleeping figures have decreased year on year. With homelessness figures falling, services redesigned towards prevention rather than emergency response and the volume and quality of temporary accommodation having been increased, there are no plans to run a rough sleepers shelter this year.  That’s what I call social transformation.

The Winter Care Shelter is an example of good partnership working between Bethany and Aberdeen City Council.  Most of all it proves the power of community involvement and how 100’s of volunteers were only too willing to give up their time and respond to a huge need in their community. 

Only last week a private company in Aberdeen decorated the flat of a woman who had been run out of one area by anti social behaviour.  About a dozen employees took 2 days out of their work to decorate and furnish a flat for a woman who had nothing in life and nobody to turn to.

Another example is our befriending project.  Six years ago we saw the need for community support for people leaving our services.  Bethany trains up very ordinary people to get along side isolated people.  The results have been staggering.  Over the last few years we have worked with 133 people and only one person has not maintained their tenancy.  This is real social transformation; ordinary people getting alongside other people and helping them to integrate and assimilate into the community. 

Social transformation is complex.  There is no silver bullet, no one size fits all and no easy strategy for every area. 

I have outlined what I believe are some important principles; intervening early, and working in partnership.  But none of this will happen unless we have a long term vision.  Some of our communities almost have to be rebuilt because all sense of community and responsibility has completely broken down. 

As with almost every of life, relationships are key.  Strategy, legislation and government can do so much but it is people who make the difference. 

Imagine if everyone in the conference resolved to do one thing to make a difference.  If everyone here decided to befriend somebody who is isolated, mentor an offender, train a young person regarded as unemployable?  Imagine the impact you could have collectively. 

For those of you have watched the short film on Bethany in Aberdeen available on our website you will have seen and heard an interview with David.  Two years ago David stood on Union Bridge deciding the most effective way to kill himself.  After police intervention and several nights in a Bethany Christian Trust Winter Care Shelter, David got accommodation with Aberdeen City Council and is now settled in a flat.  During the film David says ‘rough sleeping, it’s a misnomer.  You don’t sleep, you doze…if you’re lucky.  Later on in the film David shows us his new flat.  He says ‘After a couple of weeks I stopped saying I was going back to my flat and said I’m going home.’ 

This is the vision that we have in Bethany Christian Trust.  Not just that we see people accommodated but that people find a place where they belong, that they have a sense of purpose and where they can play a full part in their community. 

If we work together, we can create a more caring and compassionate society. 

Thanks for inviting me and enjoy the rest of your conference!

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Unity and Diversity

During my research on Thomas Guthrie I have been reading old 'Free Church Magazines' from the Free Church College Library.  The 1850 edition has an article on 'Dr Chalmers Territorial Church, West Port, Edinburgh, by Rev W Tasker'.  Sometimes we think opposition to church planting or evangelism is a new thing!  Perhaps not;  

We remember of having the seventh successive door slapped in our face ere we had time to tell our message, and of then going to another tenement and entering house by house only to find men and women rolling on the floor of a desolate dwelling in indiscriminate drunkenness; whilst, mingling with their curses and their blasphemies, the heart piercing looks and cries of their infant children assailed us with irresistible appeals for bread to allay the cutting pangs of hunger.  We have given them bread and seen, before our own eyes, the mother take it to the nearest dram shop and sell it for whisky.  We have gone to the funeral of men and women of this class, and have found the whole of their friends drunk around the corpse, so as to be compelled to go ourselves to beg as many neighbours to come as would carry the body to the burying ground, that it might be any means laid in the drunkard's grave. 

The issues confronting men like Dr Thomas Chalmers and Thomas Guthrie are not unlike many of the issues facing us today.  Perhaps we could replace (or add) drugs to the problems we are particularly facing but the similarities are all around us.  The Free Church, which grew out of the Disruption of 1843, had a huge impact on the spiritual, social and political life of Scotland in the 19th Century.  Scotland in the 1840's was a country that was rapidly growing and industrialising.  Cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow grew hugely as families moved to work in the new factories.  Plagued with a variety of social ills including homelessness, drunkenness, crime, vagrancy, poverty and poor education, men like Guthrie and Chalmers created a holistic Christian vision to rescue thousands from a life of poverty and misery.

One of the best books on Free Church history in recent years has been Sandy Finlayson's Unity and Diversity published by Christian Focus Publications.  The book is a series of biographical sketches on some of the founding fathers of the Free Church including Thomas Chalmers, Thomas Guthrie, James Begg, William Cunningham, Andrew Bonar, John Kennedy and John 'Rabbi' Duncan.  These men, as well as being amongst the foremost preachers of their day, also included radical social reformers, outstanding academics and wonderful theologians.  

If you know little or nothing about Free Church history I can't recommend Unity and Diversity highly enough.  It is readable, informative and spurs the reader to a very different type of Christianity than the one we have today.  It is a Christianity epitomised by Guthrie's statue in Princess Street Gardens.  With a Bible in one hand and an arm round a little ragged child we see the two great priorities of the Church - truth and love.  Guthrie represented an active Christianity not content to preach from an ivory tower but one which stooped down to the very lowest and neglected members of society and offered them the love and mercy of God in a very practical way.

A sample of the book (the chapter on Thomas Guthrie) can be viewed by following the link below.

“This article is a chapter from "Unity and Diversity: The Founders of the Free Church" by Sandy Finlayson, published by Christian Focus Publications, Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland and is used with their permission.”