Where is God in all this?
This could be the last St Andrew’s Day Service we hold as part of the United Kingdom. It is possible that the Referendum vote next September will result in a ‘Yes’ majority. Unlikely - that is according to polls and pundits at the moment but no-one ever expected the SNP to gain an absolute majority in the Scottish Parliament. Even if the balance is against full political independence it is still worth asking the question ‘Where is God is all this’?’
Over the decades since the 2nd World War and certainly since the nineteen-sixties the Church of Scotland has voiced politicised views on a range of things. The former Church and Nation Committee enjoyed maximum publicity at every General Assembly. It claimed to speak for the whole Church membership even if it was only representative of a small number of central activists heavily influenced by the left leaning Iona Community. So throughout the latter stages of the cold war the Church of Scotland was against nuclear weapons without articulating how the country could be defended against countries which had nuclear weapons and would use them. The Church placed itself publicly and firmly against Margaret Thatcher and her governments. At New College in Edinburgh where ministers are trained there was a consensus to make Scotland a Tory free country.
The Church and Society Council succeeded the Church and Nation Committee and has climbed on popular bandwagons at every opportunity. It took a very one-sided view of the sectarian debate in Scotland and did not speak up for over 2,000,000 of Scotland’s residual Protestant population who are not sectarian. It lately endorsed climate change and global warming orthodoxy and it is presently against fracturing for shale gas. How much does the Church and Society Council know about fracturing for shale gas? We are sitting on top of a gold mine of shale gas here in West Lothian and at Grangemouth a new terminal is to be built for ships to bring shale gas from America. Work for men and women, training and apprenticeships for young people, reductions in energy bills for everyone is being denied, certainly by Scottish Government policy and backed by the Church of Scotland. You will have your own opinions on these matters and I raise the issues by way of illustration. Because there is something very curious about the Church of Scotland and the Church and Society Council at this time in Scotland’s history. It has nothing to say about Scottish independence. This self-proclaimed national Church has nothing to say to the nation about the most important decision that is to be taken in 300 years. How can this be? Where is the voice of prophecy? Where is the clarion call – ‘We will tell you the Lord’s will. This is the way – walk in it’. What is the role of a National Church in a referendum about nationhood? Is it to be silent? Why is it being silent? The Church of Scotland has not usually this quiet on controversial political issues – what has happened ?
The 2102 General Assembly agreed to this strategy. Church and Nation and Church and Society reports have usually been nodded through over the years. In section 13.8.3 of the Church and Society Report dealing with the Referendum on Scottish independence it says “We do not expect or wish that the Church of Scotland should take a position on the question itself, though we do hope that the Church can, at local and national level, engage with the issues, encourage informed and respectful debate and contribute our own vision for Scotland’s future, so that, whatever the decision of the people, Scotland might be a healthier, happier and more peaceful place in the years to come.” No reasons are given for taking this position. Can you image John Knox speaking like that from the pulpit of St Giles in 1560. “On the matter of the Reformation, we do not expect or wish that we should take a position on the question itself…”. Is there any explanation for this total lack of leadership at such a crucial moment in Scotland’s history?
I can only share my thoughts with you and I make no claim for them other than that they are my own thoughts. You may disagree and you are entitled to do so. What I don’t want to do is to duck the issue as we celebrate our national day. I don’t want to do what the Church of Scotland is doing and that is pretending to a remote and superior and spiritually arrogant impartiality. The truth is that the Church and Society Council gauges that opinion within the Church of Scotland membership is divided and that there is most probably a majority in favour of remaining within the United Kingdom. But why not say so? Because there is a possibility of a ‘Yes’ vote which would leave the Church of Scotland lacking credibility and influence for centuries to come. To come out against political independence would anger and alienate the powerful Scottish government at the present time. I have never known the Church of Scotland to be so afraid to express an opinion. Is there anything behind this and does it matter? The explanation is not straightforward but it raises interesting points.
The Church of Scotland has had a strange and contradictory history. There certainly was enough unity after the Reformation to form and organise and govern the Church successfully. It became respected for good reasons notably its promotion of education and then in succeeding centuries missionary work overseas. The battle for Presbyterianism in the 17th century took its toll of lives, perhaps as many as 10,000. Not to idealise the Covenanters too much, most of them carried arms and were prepared to use them. But there were cruel and unnecessary executions and deaths also, notably of the Solway martyrs. Over the centuries there were splits and fractions and secessions from the Church of Scotland forming new smaller churches; the largest of such departures was the Disruption of 1843 when one third of ministers and congregations left to form the Free Church. These disagreements were about the purity of the Christian Church – exactly the same reasons why in this last year a number of prominent evangelical congregations have left the Church of Scotland. The Church of Scotland was complicit in and with some of The Highland Clearances as Parish Ministers sided with landowners and so kept their livings.
The evangelical revivals in England touched but did not penetrate 18th and 19th century Scotland but there was certainly a clear distinction between moderates and evangelicals within the Church of Scotland, the same distinction which is present today under the names liberals and evangelicals. Moderates did not take Christianity too seriously. Liberals accommodate Christianity to current social values. Evangelicals seek to be faithful to the Bible and to personal and intimate Christianity. The post 2nd World War Church of Scotland was changed by the influence of the Iona Community. Its leader George McLeod, himself a wealthy and titled man thought it right to express political opinion loudly and clearly. Tom Allan the heroic evangelical minister of St George’s Tron Church in Glasgow thought it better to become a born again Christian and express the Gospel first and then only secondly to indicate political opinion. The Iona Community model gained significant power as the Church of Scotland centralised its governance at 121 George Street and evangelicals lost out in the power-broking. There have only been four distinctively evangelical Moderators in the last 50 years. And so the emphasis on public politics won the day as the Church of Scotland pronounced on political matters over the decades.
And yet, in spite of this state of affairs continuing – nothing is to be said about Scottish independence. Why? There is no simple answer. The strong left leaning political influences at the centre of the Church of Scotland power structures are presumably for the continuation of the United Kingdom as it is, following the policy of the Labour Party. And the established and establishment aspects of the Church of Scotland thirled to monarchy and unionism also want the United Kingdom to continue as is. There may be good reasons for this; the Queen is avowedly Christian and the 1707 Settlement guarantees the existence and protection of the independence of the Church of Scotland. There is concern that these rights and protections could be lost in an independent Scotland. There is also the career structure for ministers which gravitates towards royal appointments such as chaplaincies. Elders who become influential at the centre of the Church of Scotland have usually been successful in business and the professions and they are usually small ‘c’ conservatives and some may be large ‘C’ Conservatives also. Church members are thought to be socially conservative (with a small ‘c’) and so you can understand why the Church of Scotland is not coming out for Scotland to become an independent nation. But why are they not backing the ‘No’ campaign? How can a so-called ‘National Church’ go publicly against a campaign for a nation’s political independence? It can’t. It would be absurd and self-contradictory to do so. And so – it stays silent.
Who then votes for the SNP? Lots of people do. Does the silence of the Church represent the views of the Scottish people? Probably not. Most Scots are cultural nationalists. They are proud of being Scottish and like Scottish music and song and poetry and humour and sport and outlook on life. Perhaps most Scots are unsure of and even afraid of political independence. This for many is a matter of money. How demeaning it was to be told that Scots would vote for independence if it would make them £500 richer. Where is the vision? Where is God in all this? The Church of Scotland is keeping God out of it for the Church of Scotland does not know God’s will. But it should stand up to be counted. It is playing a longer game, hedging its bets. It has for decades loudly challenged the politics of governments but on this issue it is silent - condemning itself to further irrelevance.
How do I intend to vote? I feel betrayed and angered by the Scottish Government’s treatment of Christian opinion in respect of marriage law. The Scottish Government does not in my view deserve the votes of Christians – and that is a lot of votes. I suppose aspirationally I thirl to more but not complete independence. But that third option called Devo-max with more financial powers within the United Kingdom is being denied to the people even though polls suggest that that is what most want. Maybe that is where God is in all this. Ignored and side lined. As was Jesus. And look what happened next.