Scottish Daily Mail


He challenges trendy secularism, is angry about intoleranc­e and believes in teaching the Bible. And he’s packing pews with no-nonsense preaching. Meet the Rev David Robertson, a thoroughly modern (and uncompromi­sing) Christian soldier:

- By Kevin McKenna

UNTIL I visited St Peter’s Free Church of Scotland in Dundee last Sunday, I had not heard that the leader of Jesus’s 12 apostles, the man to whom the Saviour entrusted l eadership of His fledgling church, was called ‘Pete’.

But there it was on an overhead projector, just above the little altar table at the front of this handsome old church in the heart of the student sector. It was on a notice for ‘newbies’ seeking to find out more about what St Pete’s had to offer.

To a persistent and old-fashioned Roman Catholic such as myself, the effect was slightly startling and I wondered if the Bible study class later that week might feature the adventures of some of Pete’s pals, Tam, Phil, Jimmy and Andy?

This wasn’t the only surprise to greet me. I had budgeted no more than one hour for this service, for who willingly attends a church service these days that lasts much more than 45 minutes? In my own Catholic tradition, we are beginning to get fidgety if we haven’t reached The Lord’s Prayer after half an hour.

Precisely one hour and 51 minutes later, I was still there and trying to digest a whopping 40-minute homily from Rev David Robertson which might just be one of the most spell-binding and uplifting addresses I have heard from a Scottish preacher in my entire life.

Mr Robertson is not just changing perception­s and leading a renaissanc­e of faith within his own congregati­on, he is fast becoming the most important Christian leader in Scotland.

He is married to Annabel, a mental health social worker, and they have three grown-up children. He has been a minister in the Free Church of Scotland for almost 30 years, having gained a Masters in history at Edinburgh University, and is now the Moderator of the Free Kirk.

While the role has previously been largely one of quiet duty, the appointmen­t of Mr Robertson marks an epiphany in the Free Church. It has encountere­d growth in the past ten years, perhaps among those seeking a degree of certainty and authority that has collapsed i n the bigger, more mainstream Christian churches.

As churches of all denominati­ons are being rendered obsolete by scandals, weak l eadership and diminishin­g congregati­ons, the scenes I witnessed at ‘St Pete’s’ would have gladdened the heart of an Old Testament prophet.

WITH more than 30 minutes to go before the main 11am Sunday service, the church was beginning to fill up. I had counted 30 or so already and made a bet with myself that the f i nal attendance would top three figures. I stopped counting at 250, and would estimate almost 300 were in attendance.

The biggest surprise is the age profile of the congregati­on. There are students, and the numbers are swelled by young couples with babies. There are, it seems, representa­tives from each of the five continents. And although there are traditiona­l old Presbyteri­ans, secure in their tweeds and ties, the average age of the congregati­on is several years under 40. This is like no other church congregati­on I ’ ve encountere­d in recent years.

Up front, as the minister waits for the clock to reach the hour, a seven-piece band with drums, keyboards and guitars is tuning up. This is no tambourine and Kumbaya collective either. As the last of the churchgoer­s take their seats, the band strikes up the first song and, for the first time in many years, I am joining in lustily.

The words, helpfully projected onto a screen overhead, convey once more the gentle simplicity of faith. But faith alone has not brought all these people here – many have come to meet and hear t he remarkable man waiting patiently at the front, Bible in hand.

At 52, Mr Robertson is benign in his tweed jacket with leather patches, light slacks and soft shoes. He could just as well have been a lecturer at a modern polytechni­c, teaching human rights and social studies. Yet his appointmen­t as Free Church Moderator earlier this year caused mild consternat­ion within a body which, in modern Scottish culture, has become marginalis­ed and ridiculed for its unyielding resistance to the 20th century, let alone the 21st.

Some may mock, but the Free Church of Scotland is on to something here. Mr Robertson’s appointmen­t was broadly welcomed within a church that has grown more confident in its own skin in recent years until now there is a feeling that, in this Scotland, its time has come.

The Free Kirk’s origins lie in the realm of secular politics. It broke f rom the Church of Scotland following the Great Disruption of 1843, when hun- dreds of evangelica­l ministers and their congregati­ons protested at what they regarded as elements of state interferen­ce in the church’s independen­ce, not the least of which was the right of rich landowners to select local ministers.

Mr Robertson, i n many respects, seems to have drawn his inspiratio­n from the original spirit of this disputatio­us, thorn of a congregati­on. Well known within evangelica­l and Presbyteri­an communitie­s all over the English- speaking world and beyond, in recent years he has begun to take the Christian message out onto the more unforgivin­g highways of secular society. In particular, he has parked his uncompromi­sing Christian message on the lawns of several of the big beasts of militant atheism such as Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins and the lately departed Christophe­r Hitchens.

And this is at a time when organised Christiani­ty is in retreat in Scotland – a country in which Mr Robertson finds ‘the rate of secularism has been more rapid than almost any other country I have ever visited’.

THREE years ago, he challenged Dawkins to a debate which the author of The God Delusion dodged. Having listened to this Scot quietly and elegantly debunk Dawkins’s anti-theist philosophy with a few adroitly chosen flourishes last Sunday, I’d have to say that the scientist dodged a bullet.

Mr Robertson further excoriated Dawkins and his atheist credo in a best-selling collection of essays called The Dawkins Letter. His new book, Magnificen­t Obsession, Why Jesus Is

Great, is a challenge to Hitchens’s book, God Is Not Great.

Mr Robertson does not appear to favour living the quiet life. He is a high-profile opponent of same-sex marriage and believes the controvers­y of teaching creationis­m in Scottish schools has been manufactur­ed by a well-organised humanist lobby to ‘destroy any vestige of Christiani­ty in Scottish public life’.

One of his favourite authors is the great Catholic writer and philosophe­r GK Chesterton, but he is unsparing in his criticism of the Catholic Church, saying it has ‘a great social conscience and has done amazing work in that area, but they are suffering from a crisis of leadership and the sex abuse scandal is a symptom of that’.

Nor does he have anything more comforting to say about the Church of Scotland: ‘The Free Church of Scotland emerged from the Kirk, and I would go back to it tomorrow – if it returned to the Bible.’

He is angry at what he sees as a well organised and insidious attempt to wipe Christiani­ty from the cultural and social map of Scotland: ‘Religion and matters of faith remain important in so- called, post- Christian Scotland. There isn’t a single day when religion is not in the news one way or another. You hear David Cameron talking about British values, while Scottish politician­s talk about Scottish values – but what are they and where do they come from?

‘People misreprese­nt Christiani­ty. You see it in newspapers and in the political arena all the time. Yet I wouldn’t say they were necessaril­y antagonist­ic to Christiani­ty, simply ignorant of it. I work with people across Scotland from all denominati­ons and the things that many of them think and say privately I am saying publicly.

‘Christian belief in Scotland is being attacked for being intolerant and there is intoleranc­e in this society, but it’s not coming from the churches. What most concerns me about modern Scotland is that the country is becoming increasing­ly intolerant to competing points of view.

‘If you take Christiani­ty out of the equation, whether it’s Catholic, Presbyteri­an or Baptist, you will end up with a state- i mposed morality t hat doesn’t brook any opposition.

‘I’ll take people on; I’m not talking about on the street corner but on the internet and by using social media. I joined the secularist soci- ety so I could engage with them, just to see what might happen when I did. I’m a secularist in that I believe church and state should be separate. But that isn’t enough for some fundamenta­list atheists who want to exclude Christians from all forms of public life – the media, schools, university chaplains. It’s nothing other than the privatisat­ion of Christiani­ty.

ITHOUGHT the way Jim Murphy was treated by some militant atheists when he became leader of the Labour Party in Scotland was outrageous, simply for expressing his Christian faith. There was both anti-Catholicis­m and anti-Christiani­ty in this. Intoleranc­e in the name of tolerance is horrendous in this country.’

He has experience­d plenty of it himself. The Moderator, who goes by the name the-wee-flea on Twitter, has been on the receiving end of a torrent of abuse and intimidati­on by some secularist­s that renders the beastlines­s in the independen­ce referendum debate like a dispute over who’s paying the bill in a Morningsid­e tea emporium.

Following a recent television appearance he was described as a ‘bigoted half-wit who should be banned from the BBC’. Last week he was described thus: ‘ He gives the appearance of someone who is a big fish, in the solitary goldfish bowl of his own head.’

Yet not all of his opponents are as unkind. Gary McLelland, the atheist blogger and secular campaigner, has praised him: ‘David Robertson is a thoughtful and provocativ­e debating partner. In a society where cultural relativism prevails, David is an unashamed Christian evangelist. David and I disagree on a great many things, but we are unified in understand­ing the importance of this ongoing debate.’

Mr Robertson himself says: ‘I don’t speak in code. I don’t do between the lines. When I arrived here in the 1990s, the congregati­on numbered seven, and four of them immediatel­y walked out after my first sermon. Now we have more than 250 worshippin­g every week.

‘I don’t have a brilliant strategy. We were a psalm-singing church in a decaying building with a handful of elderly people, and we couldn’t bus people in by having the best praise band. The only thing that would bring people here would be the knowledge that God lived here, too. Nor do we dumb down God; we don’t aim for the lowest common denominato­r. People know that I’m going to teach the Bible. My job is to get people to think when I teach the Bible and to pray and then we’ll see what happens.

‘ I’ ve visited churches, good churches, where it seems that everything has been programmed, right down to the responses, but I think that’s a mistake. Let’s just teach the Bible, pray and then see what happens.’

What happened for two hours after 11am in Dundee last week was quite breathtaki­ng. There was no waving of hands or hallelujah fervour or stamping of feet, just a joyful gathering of many people – from every background imaginable in modern polyglot Scotland; young and old; rich and poor; non- conformist and High Church. And then there was the 40-minute magnum opus by Mr Robertson, preaching on a text from the Book of Isaiah with a quiet urgency and in a tone suffused with the cadences of Easter Ross in the northern Highlands where he was reared.

AFEW years ago, he felt sure his toils in the Lord’s vineyard were abruptly at an end. He collapsed in a pool of blood at a friend’s wedding and spent more than two months hovering around St Pete’s waiting room, not sure he would be spared for a few more tilts at the forces of secularism.

He had been struck by a virulent virus that was causing his lungs to drown him in his own blood. He contracted pneumonia and wasn’t expected to survive. If he were indeed spared, it would be for a severely brain-damaged existence.

That was in 2011. On one Sunday morning in November, a message was conveyed to each parish in the Free Kirk that, at noon, everyone should pray for David. ‘From that time I got better, and I was home before Christmas,’ he says. ‘But I’m not making any claims about my recovery, and it was a very sobering time for me and harder for my family. For seven of those weeks when I was in the intensive care unit I don’t remember anything.’

Perhaps this i s why he now preaches a sermon as if it might be his last. As I waited for the service to begin, I was perched somewhere near the edge of his pews, trying to convince myself that from such an isolated position I’d be able better to observe the proceeding­s and count all those coming in. Who was I trying to kid? I was simply keeping out of the way in case there might have been an outbreak of some unseemly and un-Scottish religious fervour or enthusiasm.

Then, the moment I was dreading. Mr Robertson asked us all to turn to the person next to us and introduce ourselves. Thus I became acquainted with Chris and his girlfriend, neither of them regulars but they just liked the atmosphere there. It was a pleasant interlude, conducted calmly and with a comforting degree of restraint.

As I returned home to Glasgow, I found my faltering and uncertain faith had been stimulated by this humble Free Church minister. I resolved to light candles in thanksgivi­ng to Saint Tam, Saint Jimmy, Saint Phil and Saint Andy. As well as to their boss, St Pete himself.

 ??  ??
 ??  ?? Leading a renaissanc­e of faith: Rev David Robertson, Free Church Moderator and minister of St Peter’s Church
Leading a renaissanc­e of faith: Rev David Robertson, Free Church Moderator and minister of St Peter’s Church

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom