In just a few hours the citizens of Scotland will go to the polls to answer the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?” According to the most recent polls “No” still leads, but by a statistically insignificant 4 percentage points while “Yes” has been rising rapidly in the last couple of weeks. So in a decision that is too close to call we will have to wait until 6 AM Friday in Scotland to know the results.
While at first glance this may seem like a political decision, the results carry consequences and uncertainty for the churches. The referendum is essentially asking whether to repeal the Treaty of Union of 1707 as adopted by the Acts of Union by Scotland and England. The Acts have 25 articles, some of which have been repealed individually. But Article 25, by far the longest, is the one that guarantees that Scotland will have their own religious identity and adopts the Presbyterian form of church government. The Article says in part:
And Her Majesty with advice and consent foresaid expressly Provides and Declares That the foresaid True Protestant Religion contained in the above-mentioned Confession of Faith with the form and purity of Worship presently in use within this Church and its Presbyterian Church Government and Discipline that is to say the Government of the Church by Kirk Sessions, Presbytries, Provincial Synods and Generall Assemblies all established by the forsaid Acts of Parliament pursuant to the Claim of Right shall Remain and Continue unalterable and that the said Presbyterian Government shall be the only Government of the Church within the Kingdom of Scotland.
It was the place of the Kirk in the national legislation that initially seemed to hold the attention of the Church of Scotland and at their 2013 General Assembly three committees reported on various aspects of independence and possible implications for the Kirk. Maybe the recommendation, or interpretation, that got the most traction was the idea that future monarchs should have a second coronation in Scotland. But also coming out of that Assembly was the idea that the Kirk would be involved in fostering respectful debate on the topic without taking a position on independence itself.
It was in this spirit that the Church of Scotland General Assembly this year set aside an afternoon for a public discussion in the Assembly Chamber. In the debate the Rev. Dr. Doug Gay of the University of Glasgow spoke for the yes position, Douglas Alexander MP spoke for the no side, and former Moderator of the General Assembly Alison Elliot OBE represented undecided voters and asked some probing questions on their behalf. A fourth speaker, John Sturrock QC, had the unenviable task of summarizing at the end.
The afternoon was lauded as a model of civil and respectful discussion on the topic and the video of the event has been preserved on the Kirk web site.
From watching the event I was struck by how it dealt with topics and issues of concern to the whole of Scotland in both the civil and secular realms. Yes, issues of social justice and themes of church and society were certainly present, but this was a discussion about the national implications.
[As an aside, it is clear from the polling numbers that the vast majority of those in Scotland do not view this decision as one of nationalism but of finding the better system.]
That evening there was a similar debate held at the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland. Former Moderator of the General Assembly the Rev. Dr. John Ross presented the unionist side (no) while solicitor Mr. Neil D.M. MacLeod presented the nationalist (yes) side.
This debate formed a nice counter-point to the afternoon event as it focused on the religious implications of the vote. Among the points of discussion was Article 25 which I mentioned above and what would happen to churches and religious protections if a newly independent Scotland were writing a constitution from scratch. Here are a few of the arguments are presented in the article (here edited for length):
Setting out his position, Rev Dr John Ross said that in September “we run the risk of altering Scotland’s Christian landscape beyond recognition”.
The Glenurquhart and Fort Augustus minister explained: “Since the Reformation of 1560, Presbyterian Christianity’s place has been close to the centre of political and public life.
“For 450 years, through a formal compact between Church and state, Presbyterianism has helped shape our national destiny.
“Now in the name of inclusion and equality this ancient prerogative is to be repudiated.
“The fact of the matter is, that despite a majority of Scottish people considering themselves to be Christian, in a future independent Scotland, as a matter of public policy, and for the first time since the Reformation, Christianity is likely to be officially marginalised, deprived of its status as the national religion.”
On the other side…
Mr Neil DM Macleod responded: “Britain has promoted secularism, moral relativism and the cheapening of life.
“Abortion, Sunday Trading, the destruction of family life have led to a broken Britain.
“You have the choice of change for an uncertain future where a ‘no’ vote means the Church has no voice, where a growing pace of change will push the church to the fringe, and our influence is no better that a bowling club.
“Or you have the choice to vote ‘yes’ for positive change, where the church articulates a clear vision of the place it should have in the nation state; what other rights would we want to see, for example whether the church should advocate for protections for freedom of religion or freedom of worship.”
He concluded by saying change is coming to Scotland, and “the question is whether Church is willing to play its part in that process of change”.
As a follow-up the next morning the Assembly of the Free Church heard from Communities Minister Roseanna Cunningham who spoke positively of the place of religion in a post-referendum Scotland. She expressed her assurance that the government wanted to work with Christian groups and that “the Scottish Government recognised the important role of the Church and the wider Christian community, even if they took a different position on legislative matters.”
In the time since the General Assemblies there have been a couple of notable developments. The first was in late August when a group of Church of Scotland ministers signed an open letter endorsing independence. While completely within their right to do as individuals the Moderator of the General Assembly did issue a statement to clarify that they were taking a personal position and the official position of the Kirk was neutrality on the issue.
The second development was another evening of respectful dialogue sponsored by the Church of Scotland. This time it was in Glasgow and carried live on stv. Again, the video is available through the Kirk web site.
From here the Church of Scotland is focusing on reconciliation following the referendum. This includes the Moderator giving a prayer for unity and message of reconciliation last Sunday that was broadcast on BBC radio, An appeal today to use a “ONE” logo as a sign of unity (although its resemblance to the yes logo is hard to overlook). And a message from the Moderator discussing his vision for reconciliation and how others can help, including his plans for a major service of reconciliation at St. Giles this coming Sunday with the anticipation that many of the major figures in the debate would participate. With the vote likely to be close and 97% of the electorate – which has been modified to include those down to age 16 – registered to participate, there are likely to be strong emotions afterwards. [UPDATE: As the day gets under way there are also many signs of understanding whatever the position of the neighbour or the outcome of the vote.]
The Free Church is also officially neutral but they have issued a piece on “How should Christians vote in the independence referendum?” that does not take sides but presents some Biblical principles to keep in mind. They also issued a second piece today on “Praying for Scotland.”
Finally, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland has taken the stand, laid out in a position paper, that both alternatives are flawed and their recommendation is to abstain from the vote.
So truly our prayers are with Scotland for the referendum vote tomorrow (actually it is already the 18th in Scotland as I publish this). May God guide the citizenry to discern wisely in what will be a historic and unique moment in their history.
But to close with something a bit lighter, the Herald ran a political cartoon today that probably sums up the feelings of much of the population, one way or another, on this day before the vote.