SHAFAQNA – Despite its predominantly secular and increasingly rancorous tone, the debate about Scottish independence has not been devoid of theological reflection and Christian engagement. Scotland’s main churches have sensibly not taken a side on the independence issue in the run up to the historic vote on September 18, but rather suggested that the pre-referendum debate provides a good chance for people of all persuasions to think about what sort of society they would like to see. A report published by the Church of Scotland’s Church and Society Council on the basis of feedback from more than 900 people in 32 community events over the course of last year identified priorities such as building local communities on the principles of fairness, justice and sharing resources; fair access to the criminal justice system; and a welfare state where all people had their basic needs met. In contrast to the emphasis in the national political debate, individual prosperity came low on people’s list of priorities at number 53.
The Doctrine Commission of the Scottish Episcopal Church has produced a pamphlet: The Church and Scottish Identity. Drawing largely on Scottish history, it challenges the assumptions of an increasingly selfish and secularist society and points to the complexity of the phenomenon of identity. While avoiding coming down on either side in the independence debate, it includes a substantial chapter by William Storrar, a Church of Scotland minister known for his pro-independence stance.
A more academic contribution comes from the latest issue of the International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church which is devoted to perspectives on the Church in Scotland. While largely confined to historical themes, it contains assessments of the current ecumenical scene, the secularisation of Scotland and the inter-related questions of church-state relationship, establishment and national identity. These last are, in fact, far from academic questions. The Church of Scotland’s position as a national church, with quasi-established status (although in a weaker form than the Church of England’s) is constitutionally defined by an Act passed in 1921 by the United Kingdom Parliament which would cease to apply after independence.
Concern over this issue has provoked one of the few high-profile Christian interventions on the “No” side of the debate. A former Moderator of the Free Church General Assembly, John Ross has warned that a successful “Yes” vote would result in Christianity “being deprived of state recognition as Scotland’s national religion” for the first time since the Reformation. Significantly, the Scottish Secular Society backs separation, arguing that the British state gives unfair protection to certain forms of Christianity.
Aside from this intervention, overtly Christian involvement in the debate has been overwhelmingly on the “Yes” side. There is a “Christians for Independence” group, first set up in 2009, and led by two SNP MSPs, John Mason and David Thompson.
Last month 34 Church of Scotland ministers, including a former Moderator of the General Assembly, Andrew McLellan, and the leader of the radical Iona Community, Peter MacDonald, issued an open letter advocating independence as the way to remove nuclear weapons and to create a more socially just Scotland.
The “Yes” campaign’s pledge to rid Scotland of the Trident nuclear submarine base has loomed large in the thinking of many left-leaning Scottish Christians and shifted them from their traditional allegiance to Labour. It has been a dominant theme in the pages of Coracle, the Iona Community’s magazine which has been accused by several community members in its latest issue of taking a one-sided pro-independence view.
The most substantial theological case for independence has been made by Doug Gay, principal of Trinity College, Glasgow, in his book Honey from the Lion: Christianity and the Ethics of Nationalism. Drawing on Catholic social teaching, reformed Christianity and the more radical Anabaptist tradition, it sets out a “narrative of the common good” springing out of a Christian vision for transforming Scotland.
Gay argues for a Scottish constitution which begins by “recognising the value and wisdom of the Christian tradition” and acknowledges “the belief of many of Scotland’s people that the state is accountable to God”.
The other theologian who has engaged substantially in the debate, Donald Smith, director of the Scottish Storytelling Centre, takes a more agnostic view on nationalism, saying in his book Freedom & Faith: A Question of Scottish Identity that “there are no presumptions in Christianity for choosing independent statehood over other forms of political order” although his sympathies lie with independence. Noting that the last census showed a considerable rise in the number of Scots stating that they have no religious belief (now 37 per cent of the population), Smith advocates a wholly secular independent Scotland without any state privilege for a particular church or religion. For him, such an arrangement would be “a liberating one for Scottish Christianity, which is trapped within its traditional institutional forms”.
It has been left largely to Labour politicians to argue the Christian case for Scotland remaining within the United Kingdom.
Significantly, Douglas Alexander, shadow foreign secretary and himself a son of the Manse, was put up against Doug Gay as the “No” speaker in the debate on independence held at the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly. He made the case on the basis of the biblical injunction to love your neighbours and on Christian principles of solidarity and building systems of support based on need, not nationality.
Another son of the Manse, Gordon Brown, has also appealed to Scotland’s Christian heritage and to his own Presbyterian roots in his passionate speeches in favour of maintaining a dual Scottish-British identity and in his book My Scotland, Our Britain.
Perhaps the most important task for Christians and the churches in Scotland will be to assist in the process of healing what seems certain to be a very divided and fractured country in the aftermath of the vote on September 18 whatever its outcome. John Chalmers, moderator of the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly, has already invited political leaders to attend a service of reconciliation at St Giles’ Cathedral three days after the Referendum. It will be badly needed.