Monday, May 19, 2008

Gordon Brown addresses the Church of Scotland General Assembly

As the UK parliamentary parties have a conference season in the Autumn, so Presbyterian churches worldwide have a season of General Assemblies during May and June.

And so the season has kicked off with the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh. They have a superb facility, a by-product of their building being snaffled by the Scottish Parliament for a few years while the Scottish Assembly was being built. So all mod cons like cameras and microphones are built in, and an ability to stream the proceedings online. They even put out a twice-daily update webcast by Rev Douglas Aitken (iTunes feed available).

Still from BBC iPlayer - General Assembly: 2008

(Update - And BBC Scotland are covering the event with a short series of General Assembly: 2008 programmes.)

Twenty years ago, Margaret Thatcher delivered her “Sermon on the Mound”, outlining her theological framework for the policies of market economy the Conservative government at the time was pushing through.

On Saturday, Gordon Brown got his chance to address the Assembly. Reading through his speech, I was disappointed by much of the content. While acknowledging his father’s ministry (he was a Church of Scotland minister), his memories of growing up in the manse, and endorsing the role of faith in society, he steered well away from too much personalisation of his message.

Photo of Gordon Brown speaking at the 2008 Church of Scotland General Assembly in Edinburgh - from Press TV

Perhaps unsurprising that there was no Blair-like statements of faith. No doctrine or exegesis from this Prime Minister.

However, near the end Brown did veer into the world of cyberspace. (Thanks to Simon at Puffbox for the tip.) Rather than throw in a few buzzwords, look distinctly un-cool, and retreat hastily, Brown’s speech had something to say. I quote (at length) ...

And now something else that is potentially transformative is happening for the first time too.

Let us go back for a moment to the world of those pioneers of globalisation, the early Church of Scotland missionaries.

Once we relied on just a lone missionary finding common ground with a few local people in an isolated community.

Today modern means of communication like the internet enable millions of us to link up, debate and organise across frontiers - summoning the moral sense of communities to shape the way we run our world.

Until a few years ago we would say to each other - 'if only people could speak to each other, could communicate across borders and boundaries, if only we could connect people would discover how much they had in common'.

Now we are in a new world divided - yes - by vast distances of space but united by instant ties of cyberspace.

A world without walls, borders, barriers and frontiers where we are neighbours not because we are on the same street but because we are on the same networks; meeting on Facebook if not face to face; sharing in the online world - the one continent that everyone can inhabit.

So contrary to received wisdom, the greatest arsenal of power today is not nuclear or biological or chemical but people --- the discovery of our capacity to come together across borders and oceans and to stand together as one.

And what I want to argue is that the joining of these two forces - the information revolution and the human urge to co-operate for justice - makes possible for the first time in history something we have only dreamt about: the creation of a truly global society.

A global society where people anywhere and everywhere can discover their shared values, communicate with each other and do not need to meet or live next door to each other to join together with people in other countries in a single moral universe to bring about change.

And the truth is that linked across oceans and miles, a chorus of countless voices - inspired by the strength of shared values - can now touch and move the conscience of the world.

Some dismiss the internet as a shouting match without a referee, but let us remember its power for change: that the monks of Burma with only a begging bowl and their blogs persuaded the world to bear witness to their fight against oppression - and now tell us of their struggle to survive in the face not only of natural disaster but an unnatural dictatorship that cares more about its survival than theirs.

On another continent we saw a million Filipinos were mobilised by text message to overthrow President Estrada - who complained bitterly that his rule had been ended by the world's first 'coup de text'.

And across many continents we saw how Live 8 rallied three billion people in 2005 to demand that we Make Poverty History.

And I believe that these vast and swiftly summoned movements of people coming together can now become the most powerful weapon for justice ever put in human hands.

In this connected world:

  • censorship may silence but the word will still get out;
  • repression may still suppress, but not forever;
  • force still has power to dictate but it will not ultimately decide.

And I believe that "no injustice will last forever", so people who are oppressed need not any longer journey without hope.

And with this most powerful peaceful weapon for change: of conscience linked to conscience - people with a shared moral sense and a capacity to communicate and organize; and the power that comes from calling, networking, marching for change, millions can now be moved to action - as with Make Poverty History - against the great injustices of poverty, disease and environmental degradation.

If anyone had said fifty years ago that the people of our world would achieve black civil rights, tear down the Berlin Wall, bring an end to apartheid, no one would have believed it.

But in the next fifty years think how much more can be achieved with this new great power at work in our world: the power of people united by conscience, armed with unprecedented means to communicate and mobilise, determined to turn moral values into common action and shared vision into a global reality: to 'undo the heavy burdens and let the oppressed go free'.

This is the irrepressible revolution of our time - a billion voices for change.

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