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The legacy of John Ogilvie PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter Johnston   
Saturday, 31 March 2012 13:16

St John Ogilvie by Peter Howson (cropped)

On Thursday evening Carolyn, Sophia, Katherine and I travelled into Glasgow to St Michael's Roman Catholic Church in the shadow of Celtic Park for the ninth of eleven performances of the play "The Martyrdom of Saint John Ogilvie" written and directed by Stephen Callaghan, who also played the main part, St John Ogilvie. My hat is doffed to Stephen, it was a fantastic performance, which I know he had to take on at short notice when the actor who was due to play the part could not do so.

The play is just part of Lentfest with many different arts events taking place across Glasgow during the season of Lent organised by A.G.A.P. (the Archdiocese of Glasgow Arts Project) where my sister works with Stephen as administrator for the project.

I'm not sure if I can say I really enjoyed the play, as it casts light on a time of our history that is bedevilled with fear of the other and abusive power games that turned once well-meaning, goodly and Godly people into tyrants. If it doesn't make you uncomfortable as you watch an account of events that took place just near us, then I don't know what would. But I was moved and impressed by the dedicated performances put in by all the players. [There's more...]

Adding a very personal dimension to the play was that Robin (pictured with his grandchildren) was playing the baddie in the story: Archbishop Spottiswoode. A role he clearly rather relished, they say playing the baddie on stage is always the juiciest part to play!

Robin Green as Archbishop Spottiswoode

It has encouraged me to look at the life of John Ogilvie, which you would think I would know well with a local church named in honour of the man, but I confess I did not know many of the details before hearing that Robin was going to be performing in the play.

Of course, with a figure who died in 1615, the historical Ogilvie is difficult to grasp as there are no contemporary biographies that satisfy our modern yearning for factual accuracy. But nonetheless, Stephen Callaghan attempts to make the story of Ogilvie relevant for a 21st century audience. 

The hook is the recent painting of St John Ogilvie by renowned artist Peter Howson that will be displayed in the renovated St Andrew's Cathedral in Glasgow. The play is bookmarked by contemporary scenes with a girl looking at the picture as research for an essay she is writing, being drawn in by someone she meets in the Cathedral to find out more of the story.

The main theme of the play is one that we in a modern UK now pretty much fully accept, that there should be freedom of religion for all people, as long as this freedom does not impact on the ability of others to practise their own religion. St John Ogilvie, as a Jesuit priest, was hanged at Glasgow Cross for refusing to swear the Oath of Allegiance introduced by James I after the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605, that included the demand that he deny his allegiance to the Catholic Church.

In the play, Ogilvie voices his objections to the behaviour of the fanatics behind the Gunpowder Plot, but asserts his calling to serve the remnant of Catholics left in the Glasgow area despite the full power of the leadership of the state and church (the Episcopal Church and the Kirk) seeking to forcefully convert those remaining to Protestantism. One has to remember that these were the days not long after schism, as Callagham writes in his notes on dramatising the story of Ogilvie:

When writing the play, I was all too aware of the sensitivities surrounding the story but I would not gloss over any of the difficult points that Ogilvie makes. The "heretics" referred to by him are not the Protestants of today; they are the first generation of those who schismed from the Catholic Church and Ogilvie longs for a return to Christian Unity.

Ultimately, of course, Ogilvie is arrested and tried by Archbishop Spottiswoode. Spottiswoode was once a minister of the Kirk, but then under the patronage of the King given far greater power as an Archbishop of the Anglican Church which found its expression in the cruelty of the hunter seeking out anyone who might threaten his position.

What I didn't know before seeing the play, was that Ogilvie had friends from across the different denominations who supported him. In particular, the presbyterian James Stewart defended the right of his friend John Ogilvie to practise his religion. A couragous stand in a fearful and fearsome time.

For me, personally, as I watched the play and reflected on events recently, the primary plea in the play was essentially an appeal for what we would now surely refer to as secularism. It was an appeal to live in a country in which people do not have to assent to one state belief system (whether that be religious, as in a theocracy at its extreme, or anti-religion, as in communism, for example) in order to be considered full and equally valid citizens. In the play, we saw the horror that comes when one tribe has both the power and the will to exercise that power to demean and destroy anyone who belongs to a different tribe.

I completely and wholeheartedly agree with this appeal, and I have previously on this blog praised secularism for this reason. It is the antidote to the petty-mindedness of people who use their belonging to a particular group as a reason to diminish other groups. Certainly, I cannot quite understand when people within the church point to secularism as a reason for their woes. The alternative, as the story of John Ogilvie shows us, is far, far worse. Indeed, if you are a follower of US politics, and the current race to pick the Republican nominee you can see the evidence for where a Christianist (which is not to be confused with Christian) state would lead - and it is not a little scary.

That being said, within Scotland in the 21st century, we now live in what might be called a highly secularised state, where relgious freedom is protected. The downside for the large denominations such as the Church of Scotland is that we no longer have advantages over other groups in the way that would have been the case in the past. We are not taken for granted any longer. While we can lament this, and frequently do (it was a common thread in the recent "Reverse Missionaries" programmes), one has to balance this with an understanding of the bigotry and division that has led us to this point.

A possible exception to this is the link between denominational schools and the Roman Catholic Church particularly in the West of Scotland. It is hard not to see that as anything other than a state-sponsored "advantage" to that particular denomination. The angst that this produces for many people (both those who question the situation and those who defend it) rather proves, I think, the point.

Within Callaghan's play, there is frequent reference to the desire Ogilvie had for unity amongst Christians. Yes, I can support that, but I think I would prefer to use the word 'equality' rather than unity. Unity implies that we all are united in what we think and do as Christians. While this may be a great hope for some, I do not think it is likely to be a reality this side of the pearly gates. What we can aspire to, however, is equality: a kingdom come on earth where all people are treated equally, respected and loved - as I believe the gospel shows us.

If we can get our heads around that one, then the legacy of St John Ogilve shall surely endure for our own country and be a witness for other nations where inequality, in all its many forms, exists as a crushing denial of life in all its fulness.

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