It was on 1st July 1999 that the Scottish Parliament was opened by the Queen. It was, in the words of Ian Crichton Smith “the beginning of a new song for Scotland”. It was a day of rejoicing, redolent with possibilities and hope. There was a new sense of what it meant to be Scottish and a desire to make the Parliament work. There was a desire on the part of the new government to be inclusive of all faiths and none, indicated by the fact that the chair of the newly formed Council was present in Holyrood that day and took part in the joyful procession up the Royal Mile past the Queen and beaming new First Minister Donald Dewar.
Discussions about a national interfaith body had been taking place since 1992, encouraged by Brian Pearce of the UK Interfaith Network who probably foresaw the implications of devolution for interfaith relations in Scotland in a way that those of us engaged in interfaith at the time didn’t. The Interfaith Network had been launched in 1987 and as part of its work had occasionally held networking meetings of local interfaith groups in Scotland, of which at the time there were only four – Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee.
In 1994 I undertook to explore the idea a Scottish Network. I met with whole range of people from faith communities as well as a number of interfaith practitioners the length and breadth of the country. There was a lot of interest in this but a certain hesitancy because of a concern that a new structure might divert time and energy away from existing interfaith initiatives and faith community commitments, some of whom were setting up new initiatives to interact with the Parliament. It was about this time that the Churches Parliamentary Office, the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities and the Muslim Council of Scotland were established.
What emerged as a result of this research was a Scottish Interfaith Consultative Group located within the framework of the UK Network and formed by representatives of bodies that had membership in Scotland and were already affiliated to the Network. This was expanded to make sure there was a fair representation of all the major faiths in Scotland. Conversations tended to focus on the kind of Scotland we wanted to live in and what the new Parliament would mean for faith communities. One meeting I particularly remember showed that, apart from the Christians, religious freedom was a real concern among people of the other faiths – something that had never entered the head of the majority faith.
It was these discussions and the recognition that others were planning some kind of relationship with the Parliament that led in the end to a more formal organisation – called the Scottish Interfaith Council with representative membership from the major faiths and the established interfaith groups. Although it was formally recognised as a Scottish charity on 10th October 1999 it had actually been launched weeks before that in St Mungo’s Museum by Patricia Ferguson the deputy Presiding Officer of the Parliament. The link with Government was important and its support helped establish us. As happens so often things happen by chance. It was an encounter with Jack McConnell MSP and his wife Bridget, Head of Glasgow Museums, at a Royal Garden Party that we got the promise of a senior politician to launch the Council and a desk at St Mungo’s Museum from which to work. In the beginning we had to learn how to work together and how to develop this burgeoning organisation. Almost immediately problems of membership and identity arose – something that we in our naiveté had not foreseen.
Immediately after the launch of the Council we received a letter from the First Minister’s office saying that he would like to meet with the Council on an annual basis – an extension of the traditional meeting that the Secretary of State for Scotland had had with Church leaders. It was at the second of these meetings that the then First Minister, Henry McLeish, offered us funding which allowed us to employ a secretary and development worker. This meeting with the First Minister continues until today. Another significant moment was the request from the Moderator, the Cardinal and Episcopal Bishop of Edinburgh to organise a gathering of religious leaders as a response to the attacks of 9/11 2001. It took place in Scottish Churches House, Dunblane, and included a reflection on the values on the Scottish Mace: wisdom, justice, integrity and compassion as values that united us in our common concern for the future of Scotland. This meeting also continues until today.
There never was a master plan for the Scottish Interfaith Council – it grew gradually, eventually changing its name to Interfaith Scotland. But it has continued to flourish thanks to the involvement and commitment of so many people who participated in its development and continue to work for it today. It has made a significant contribution to interfaith relations in Scotland and to the well – being of our country. Long may it flourish!