During his twenty-year presidency, Bishop John did not lack for things to do. He arrived at the height of Thatcherism and Reaganism. Neo liberal economics, with its policies of deindustrialisation and unemployment ran alongside the deregulation of financial markets in the Big Bang of 1986. Privatisation of public utilities and the sale of council houses was being rushed through on a tide of public cupidity and greed. The arguments surrounding nuclear defence were at their height over European and UK deployments (remember Greenham); while the UK’s ‘independent’ deterrent Trident was being brought into service. Forty years of apartheid was beginning to crumble in South Africa; and Central American states were slaughterhouses where ordinary people paid the ultimate cost of ideological and economic proxy wars.
Nor did Scotland have its troubles to seek. Culturally, Scotland was at odds with many of the political changes, but was politically under-represented at Westminster. The disproportionate effects of unemployment were only partly offset by using North Sea oil revenues. Perhaps the two major symbols of this alienation were the nuclear submarine base at Faslane and the imposition of the Poll Tax in Scotland a year before the rest of the UK.
Bishop John presided over the Commission’s initiatives with a genial and pastoral sense that cannot always have been easy. Justice and Peace commission members were a diverse group of deeply committed individuals not always characterised by the traditional deference accorded to the clergy. Sometimes the urgency of the issues seemed at odds with the available resources; but it is worth remembering that the Bishops were supportive, year on year, of the Commission and its work. Bishops are asked to be managers rather than social prophets and this has an effect on the ordering of priorities.
The Bishop was well aware of these competing needs. His pre-eminent gifts were pastoral and personal, in Scotland or on the many visits he made abroad (he was also President of SCIAF). He sought to avoid confrontation; and his demeanour was engaging and unfeigned. Yet in his later years as President he took a high profile stand against the policies that detained refugees and their families in Dungavel. Using existing international law and Catholic Social Teaching, he provoked discussion in the public arena. He emphasised the illegality of detaining children because, he said, if you start from one clear undeniable wrong, you are less likely to be sidetracked by diversions and misdirection.
It is one of the ironies, in some ways perpetuated by the church, that Catholic statements or marches or demonstrations are only valid if there is a bishop up front. Particularly with the media, but perhaps more surprisingly with other denominations, they want a bishop. As Bishop Moran, Bishop John’s successor pointed out, that’s easier in, say France, with over a hundred bishops, than in Scotland with only eight.
Certainly, Bishop John took all his responsibilities very seriously. He attended meetings faithfully. He once told me that if I needed to speak to him for briefing or questions on Justice and Peace matters, I could catch him on the phone before 8.45 in the morning or after 10.30 at night. In between he was likely to be out and about on diocesan business.
He liked to be given all the facts about any issue we were involved in. His memory for names and faces was prodigious - a great asset for a man in his position. But it went beyond mere recognition to engagement with everyone he met. I think he lived by the gospel principle that whatever you do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do for me; and he lived it successfully. May he rest in peace.