The Rev Iain Greenshields, who thinks addiction should be treated as a public health issue.
By Cameron Brooks
A minister who personally believes that the possession of drugs should be decriminalised has been named as the next Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
The Rev Iain Greenshields, who thinks addiction should be treated as a public health issue, said he is “honoured” to have been nominated to take up the 12-month ambassador role next May.
The 67-year-old minister of St Margaret’s Community Church in Dunfermline, Fife, said locking up people who are often “self-medicating” to cope with psychological challenges did not work and instead they should be treated in high-quality residential rehabilitation centres.
Speaking for himself, the Moderator Designate believes that the approach would be of personal benefit to the individuals concerned and advantages society as a whole.
He said his views are based on his experiences over many years supporting people through church outreach projects and his role as a prison chaplain as well as work in psychiatric chaplaincy.
Mr Greenshields, who became a Christian at the age of 22 and was ordained in 1984, said: “I am honoured and humbled to have been chosen as Moderator Designate and I aim to represent the Church and God in a way that is positive, instructive and hopeful.
“There are a great many challenges facing our society today including climate change, poverty, mental health, social isolation, addiction and the Church is active in supporting those in genuine need.
“Ultimately the greatest need in our society is the spiritual vacuum that exists in the lives of so many.”
Mr Greenshields welcomed a recent announcement from Scotland’s Lord Advocate, Dorothy Bain QC, that the police will be advised to issue recorded warnings for possession of any illegal substances instead of referring offenders to prosecutors.
“Whilst I have the upmost sympathy for victims of crime who may have been targeted in order for people to get their hands-on drugs, this is a positive development,” he said.
“I really believe that prison is not the answer for the vast majority of people who are behind bars because of illegal drug issues and we have to find another way to recover their lives.
“When you look into the background of those who take drugs, you realise it is largely about self-medicating to treat some kind of trauma.
“They are in a desperate situation and what is needed is not criminalising them and sending them to prison but ensuring that they get the best rehabilitation support possible.
“This can only be for the betterment of society.
“It will require extensive investment in services but I firmly believe that if you can send someone to prison for a year, why can’t you send them to rehab for the same length of time as an alternative?”
Mr Greenshields spent eight years serving as a chaplain at the former Longriggend Young Offenders’ Institution in Airdrie, North Lanarkshire and nearby Shotts Prison.
“My view on decriminalisation is a personal one and it is not the official position of the Church,” he said.
“I realise that some people will throw their hands up in horror but I am not saying I support drugs, I am just being realistic and pragmatic about the situation.”
Mr Greenshields said St Margaret’s Community Church hosts addiction support groups in the building free of charge and employs a dedicated outreach worker, a role currently held by his son, Alistair.
He said the congregation could do much more to help people if additional public funds were available.
A total of 1,339 people died of drug misuse in Scotland last year, with the country seeing a record number of deaths for the seventh year in a row.
Official figures released by the Scottish Government last month revealed that there were 722 drug related deaths between January and June, 2021 and a separate set of statistics showed that the reoffending rate of people convicted of drugs offences within one year increased by 11% in 2018-19 in comparison to the previous year.
Born and brought up in the Drumchapel area of Glasgow, Mr Greenshields is married to Linda, a Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies teacher at Levenmouth Academy in Buckhaven, Fife.
The couple have six children – Alistair, 31, Ross, 30, Caitlin, 27, Eilidh, 18, Siona, 15 and Suisaidh, 10, and a grandson, Oran, who was born in August.
Their three youngest daughters come from different parts of China.
After adopting Eilidh in 2004, he and his wife set up a charity called Hope4China’s Children the following year and it has raised £1.2 million to provide education, support, medical care and foster care for around 800 girls in Guangxi Province.
The minister’s first-full-time position as a Minister of Word and Sacrament was in Cranhill near Easterhouse, a parish he served for nine years.
He was responsible for the formation of the Bellrock Trust, a community support organisation which grew to become the Cranhill Development Trust, which is based in the church building.
The minister’s second charge was St Machan Parish Church in Larkhall, South Lanarkshire and he oversaw major refurbishment of the sanctuary and halls and establishment of the Machan Trust, which works with children, young people and their families.
One of the significant features of his ministry was ecumenical relations whereby all local congregations worked positively together in mission.
Mr Greenshields and his family moved to the Isle of Skye in 2002 when he became the minister of Snizort Church, which was a sort of homecoming because his father John grew up in Camuscross.
During his five years there, he served as a hospital chaplain and the Moderator of Lochcarron and Skye Presbytery in 2003-2004 as a well as its finance convener.
Mr Greenshields moved to St Margaret’s Community Church in 2007 and over the years held various roles within the Presbytery of Dunfermline including Moderator and clerk. He was also a National Assessor for the Church.
The minister was heavily involved in the task group established to oversee the formation of the new Fife Presbytery, a merger of the presbyteries of St Andrews, Kirkcaldy and Dunfermline, which held its first meeting in February this year.
Mr Greenshields described it as one of the most “enriching” experiences of his ministry.
“It was inspirational because we were having to ask significant questions about the future,” he explained.
“When we asked people in the three presbyteries to state their priorities, mission and fellowship came outon top.
“This has to be at the heart of everything that we do and I think the Church, as a whole, needs to recover and rediscover what it means to be a missionary church otherwise it has no future.”
Chaired by the Moderator, the General Assembly is usually held once a year in Edinburgh and commissioners examine the work and laws of the Church and make decisions that affect its future.
Mr Greenshields said the Church is at a “crossroads” as it grapples with falling membership and minister numbers but said he is excited by the prospect of reformation because the Good News of Jesus Christ is as relevant today as it has always been.
“I think the Church needs to regain confidence in its core message which is powerful, life transforming and life changing,” he added.
“I have discovered through conversations with people in my parish that it is not because they do not believe, it is because we have not been clear and personal about our faith in Jesus.
“We have to find a way of communicating simply, effectively and with confidence what we believe.
“We cannot force people to believe but we can make belief relevant, understandable, attractive and real to people.”
Mr Greenshields said people throughout the Church have to be realistic about the future.
“We have to accept that if churches are not working anymore then we have to prune in order to free up resources to do things more efficiently and effectively,” he added.
“We have to make hard decisions about closing buildings and congregations that are no longer properly functioning but at the same time invest future resources in pioneering missionary churches.”
Mr Greenshields said that the COVID-19 pandemic has taught the Church a great deal about how it can spread its core messages, particularly online.
“I still see the Church as having an important, although changed role, to play in the life of Scotland and I am neither defeatist or negative about the future,” he added.
“I am willing to play whatever positive role the Church might ask of me as it designs its new future and we embrace the Five Marks of Mission.”
A lifelong fan of Partick Thistle Football Club, Mr Greenshields said he is a fit and active person who enjoys time with the family, learning and personal growth, reading, cycling, badminton and the very occasional game of golf.
The current Moderator of the General Assembly is Lord Wallace of Tankerness.