There’s a little museum in the small Cathedral Precinct area of Glasgow, the St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art. Towering next door is the medieval cathedral, where St Mungo (aka St Kentigern and Glasgow’s patron saint) is said to have established a church in the 6th century. Across the road is Provand’s Lordship, Glasgow’s oldest house. The museum is built in Scottish baronial style on or near where Glasgow Castle once stood, the site now largely covered by the massive tired-looking Edwardian Royal Infirmary. Were it not for the traffic coughing its way along Castle Street, the area could be an oasis of ancient tranquillity in the midst of this busy modern city. And there’s no doubt that the museum is a lovely building.
St Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life and Art is, according to its propaganda, ‘award-winning’ (though it neglects to say which awards it has won). It aims “to promote understanding and respect between people of different faiths and of none, and offers something for everyone.” Trying to please everyone can be a Bad Idea in my experience and suggests a certain lack of focus in their marketing; but who can argue with the aspiration of achieving understanding and respect between faiths? God knows we could do with some of that.
Notwithstanding a few fringe nutters, and the efforts of terrorists and the deluded PC brigade, the Britain I know is a pretty tolerant place. I’m very impatient with intolerance. But of all the locations in Britain to set up a museum dedicated to religious harmony, some might think that the choice of Glasgow was an ironic one. Or maybe it was inspired. It’s a city oozing with culture. Glaswegians are, with some justification, proud of themselves. They get on with things; they are, in the Scottish tradition, welcoming and amazingly hospitable; look at the way the city embraces international events, such as the 2014 Commonwealth Games. ‘People make Glasgow’ runs the slogan (unlike other places which are made of pink fluffy bunny rabbits). I have giggled at the dry, often self-deprecating, Glaswegian humour – which is not limited to comic geniuses such as Billy Connolly.
Yet one of Glasgow’s dark sides is a history of religious bigotry – known locally as ‘sectarianism’ – predominantly between a minority of Roman Catholics and Protestants. Glasgow’s Protestant/Catholic sectarianism partly manifests itself in rivalry between two football teams, Rangers and Celtic, known collectively as ‘the Old Firm’, that goes beyond any sane person’s concept of sporting competition as thug-like fans verbally, and sometimes physically, abuse each other. The ferocity of the rivalry has often escalated into awful violence and vandalism. ‘Protestant’ Rangers’ fans misuse the Union Flag as their emblem, whereas ‘Catholic’ Celtic fans wave a foreign flag, the tricolour of Ireland. The rivalry therefore has dangerous political undertones of unionist v republican and ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. The roots of the tedious religious hostility of course date back centuries. But there was a tidal wave of emigration from predominantly Catholic Ireland after the Famine of the 1840s, much of it to mainland Britain in search of jobs in industry, mining and the docks. In Scotland, many settled on the west coast and in the east end of Glasgow. It is said that traditional antagonism due to religious differences was exacerbated by competition for jobs and, later, discrimination by Protestant or Catholic employers.
So it was with some fascination that I coincidentally witnessed a march by the Orangemen past St Mungo’s Museum on the very day I visited. The Orange Order is a Protestant ‘fraternal’ organisation with roots in Northern Ireland and with various branches, or ‘lodges’. They stop the traffic on the streets of Glasgow to celebrate the victory of Protestant King William of Orange over the Catholic-leaning James II (VII of Scotland) at the Battle of the Boyne on 12th July 1690. Something like this should by now of course be a tourist attraction, but it does not come across as anything of the sort. Indeed, you may be excused for finding the spectacle of grim-faced men and women, many in paramilitary uniforms, still banging on in an apparently triumphal way about an event that took place more than 300 years ago, profoundly disturbing. I gather the Catholics parade too. According to an article in the Glasgow Herald in 2011, around 75% of Scots want all such marches banned. The whole thing is anachronistic and, to anyone fortunate enough to be brought up in a non-tribal environment, it is both alien and deeply puzzling.
St Mungo’s Museum covers sectarianism and was treated to its own dose of bigotry just two months after it opened in 1993, when a man claiming to act in the name of Christ damaged the museum’s statue of Shiva as Nataraja (Lord of the Dance). The Museum explores all of the world’s main religions, particularly Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and Judaism. It’s not simply some kind of show-case for different cultural mores, but really does try to embrace its aim of promoting understanding and respect between faiths. Good luck with that.
But you can get a cup of coffee there. And it has a Zen garden which, as everyone knows, is a harmonious arrangement of stones and gravel…
Whilst on the subject of religious tolerance, my reader may be amused by this clip on YouTube of Tom Lehrer singing his ‘VaticanRag’. Nothing whatsoever to do with Glasgow - or Britain really.
And you can check out a bit more about St Mungo’s Museum by visiting the Glasgow Life website.