As I write this, I am visiting a friend who is a Presbyterian minister in the Shankill Road in Belfast. The paramilitaries may have declared a truce but the evidence of the sectarian divide is there for all to see. There are only two options: everyone is either Protestant or Catholic. It reminds me of my childhood just outside Glasgow where, from our earliest days, we understood that one was either a Protestant who supported Rangers or a Catholic who supported Celtic. I did occasionally wonder about those poor benighted atheists who presumably supported Partick Thistle.
This sectarian division was and is maintained, in part at least, by the separate schools to which children are sent. This was something I never questioned, it was simply a fact of life. When I went as minister to Mallaig and the Small Isles in 1980, however, everything was very different.
The community was probably about equally divided between Protestants and Catholics but the children all went to the same school. As a result, there was nothing of the bitterness, even hatred, that one often encounters in Glasgow and Belfast. The people in Mallaig held to their religious views with conviction and dignity but saw no reason to be sectarian.
When I returned to Glasgow in 1988, I was shocked (although I should have remembered) when I took my youngest son to school. There was a school, a large fence and then another school. The very structure of these two state-funded schools, Protestant and Catholic, almost guaranteed rivalry, bitterness and division. The message we were sending to our children was clear: after all, why would we need a huge fence between us if we weren't enemies or if there wasn't some danger?
The logic of all that I have said so far is that I should speak out for an end to separate education or at least for an end to state funding of separate Catholic schools. The problem is that I have considerable sympathy and admiration for the position which the Roman Catholic Church takes on this issue. I, too, believe that Christian parents have the right to have their children educated in a Christian environment where it is understood that God is creator and redeemer and where children are taught to develop a God-centred world view.
When Catholic schools were established, it was because state schools were perceived to be (and, in fact, were) Protestant, teaching the Christian faith from a Reformation perspective and even inculcating the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Paradoxically, in our increasingly secular state schools, parents who are Catholic have rights denied to Protestant parents.
Today the non-Catholic state funded schools, even where they are not avowedly secular, often discourage or actively resist the expression of distinctively Christian views. This is supremely the case with religious education. The very form and content of the subject leads children to believe that, whereas maths, science and history are subjects with a clear basis in fact and knowledge, religion is a matter of pure choice and opinion, with no absolute truth involved.
We ought to have schools in which the Christian faith is at the centre and where our convictions as parents about the reality of God and the truth of Scripture are not regarded as "add ons" to be attempted at home after the real work of education is done in school. It is vital that our God-centred world view permeates everything we say and do, especially the education of our children.
So I find myself in something of a dilemma. Separate schools can be a breeding ground for sectarianism and I would prefer to see children all going to the same local school. Yet there is a real need for schools where the Christian faith is at the heart and centre of teaching and learning.
Can I justly deny Catholic parents what I would want for my own children?
Professor Andrew McGowan is principal of Highland Theological College, part of the UHI Millennium Institute. This article first appeared in Life and Work, the magazine of the Church of Scotland.