Tomáš Bísek, Part 2: Language made ministering in Scotland tough

Tomáš Bísek's family before emigration to Scotland, photo: archive of Tomáš Bísek

Tomáš Bísek spent 11 years as a clergyman in Scotland before returning to his native Prague in the mid-1990s. An early signatory of the Charter 77 protest document, the Protestant cleric had been a victim of Operation Asanace (Clearance), under which the Communists used mental and physical pressure to force dissidents to leave Czechoslovakia. Mr. Bísek had studied in the US and – in the second half of a two-part interview – told me the secret police may have expected him to return there rather than opting for Scotland in 1985.

Tomáš Bísek,  photo: Milena Štráfeldová
“Probably they were surprised that it was Scotland not New York. How could they know [laughs]?

“They pretended that they knew everything. They probably didn’t recognise that we had a very staunch friendship with the only female student who had studied at the faculty in Prague in 1966, 1967.

“It was probably so shortly before the Prague Spring that they didn’t have her name in their records. Later they had.”

How was it adapting to life in Scotland?

“The friendliness of the Scots and the way they relate things to others, their natural inclination to behave socially in terms of social awareness, and the congregation…

“The invitation was excellent. I never spotted any prejudices regarding my origin.

“But there was a serious problem with my language. It would always be that way.

“To have the courage to enter a different language and cultural scene and to act as someone who has to use his tongue – it was awful.

“I spent 11 years in Scotland, five in Cumbernauld and then in Glasgow. After those 11 years I remember saying farewell to the folks who I still love. I said to them, After all these years you could immediately enter into your Glasgow tongue and I would be in deep trouble.”

The accent is very difficult. Also one thing that I think many Czechs don’t know about in Scotland, and when they get there are surprised to learn about, is its sectarianism. It’s something like Northern Ireland without the violence, with very strong differences between the Catholic and Protestant communities. Is that something that surprised you?

Tomáš Bísek's family before emigration to Scotland,  photo: archive of Tomáš Bísek
“I think it’s weaker and weaker. And our involvement was in something very different and something perhaps that people wouldn’t know: the Iona Community movement.

“I think people may know about Jean Vanier’s L’Arche. The Iona Community is her smaller sister.

“It’s an ecumenical movement which was started by George MacLeod, a minister who gathered unemployed folk in Glasgow and elsewhere and rebuilt the Iona Abbey on the little island and established a community.

“They are not monks but families who spend part of their holidays or other times there. As I say, it’s not just Protestants but any religion, or atheists.”

So you weren’t in the Church of Scotland?

“I worked for the Church of Scotland. I was involved additionally… in fact, the Iona Community reports every year at the Church of Scotland assembly about its activities.

“They are actually working under the umbrella of the Church of Scotland, but that doesn’t mean they are responsible to it, financially or otherwise. But they have the platform to relate to the church in general.”

In the mid-1990s you moved back here full-time. How did you find the new Czech Republic that you came back to?

“It was exciting. Already the country had split into two halves, which till now is still very painful.

“I felt that the integration would be as difficult as it was in Scotland – lasting for years.

“But there were friends who made it much easier. Also it was my mother tongue. Plus the fact that through the years, and through my BBC involvement [Mr. Bísek contributed to the BBC’s Czech service] they knew something about me.

“The invitation was straight to act as a minister in Prague South [Jižní Město], where we built a new church, in fact.”

The church in Prague's Jižní město,  photo: archive of Tomáš Bísek
I know it’s a big question, but generally how do you view the way that Czech society has gone since the revolution?

“It’s more and more complicated. I would say it’s like the Old Testament Exodus.

“People were full of enthusiasm but now they are looking back, thinking that in Egypt it was all clarified – the cabbage was here, the pork was here, the sausage was there and the authority was there.

“Now I see, particularly with the problem of refugees and the way [the problem] was stopped on the border, so that everyone from Syria would know that the Czech Republic is like a country full of lions and tigers or whatever.

“It’s very sad. Regarding our president and the leading authorities, I’m very disappointed.

“But I’m very happy with the position of our western neighbour, Germany: Angela Merkel, President Gauck – that’s something we would need here.

“From the days of Václav Havel, the pendulum has gone far too far to the other side. Who knows? I would love to think that we had touched the bottom and were climbing to a more humane approach to strange faces and so on and so forth.”

If we could end on a personal note, I was reading that your four children all live in Scotland.

“When we emigrated we were stateless, my wife and I. But before leaving there was an official trial of our children – the reason being that we said to the authorities that they were old enough to recognise what it means to be Czech or not, so without their passports we wouldn’t go.

“So they could keep them and they could travel back every so often. And though we were warned, even officially, by the British side, they never stopped visiting.

“When the doors were opened, one of the boys came back [to the Czech Republic] and stayed seven years.

“But after seven years he said that the culture, the social culture of the people on the streets, and their relationships were so much different from what he recognised in Britain, so he went back.

“And one girl married a Czech minister – and they also after some years went back to Britain.

Glasgow,  photo: John Lindie,  CC BY 2.0
“Now they are scattered in a way that is interesting but tedious for us [laughs].

“The youngest boy in London. The older brother is in York. The daughters are in the Scottish borders in Yarrow and in Sterling, which is between Edinburgh and Glasgow.

“They love Scotland. So do I of course, as does my wife. But we are Czechs and we love this country too. And hopefully people will make a change and change the system.”