In the wake of SNP’s apparently miraculous majority in the Holyrood election, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland has acknowledged that God works in mysterious ways and instructed its officers to investigate the consequences of independence for the Kirk.
The inquiry was outlined yesterday by the Rev Dr Douglas Gay, the commissioner whose proposal was endorsed in Edinburgh. It will report to a future assembly, spelling out the constitutional challenge of full independence, and providing a road-map for the church’s new role.
Politicians and economists may fret about the consequences of Scotland going it alone, but, said Dr Gay, the church had equal cause for concerns about the future. The Bible is its foundation, but the Act of Union and the Articles Declaratory are its biggest buttresses, helping to enshrine its unique position in national life.
To make matters worse for those who dislike radical change, Dr Gay, an SNP member, was inclined to believe the Lord does not favour “Devo-Max (a few more peers for the Scottish Parliament), but more inclined to confederalism (equal powers for equal nations). If He does, the constitutional implications for the Church of Scotland are immense.
“A confederal solution would recognise that an independent Scotland should be in structured relationships with other states,” said Dr Gay, “The Union of the Crowns would carry on. The Queen would send her annual letter to the General Assembly, but it might no longer say that ‘I pledge to uphold the Presbyterian nature of Scotland’, because that belongs to the Treaty of Union, and not to the Union of the Crowns.”
The Kirk’s standing as a national institution would be undermined in other ways by a new constitutional settlement. In the 1707, at the time of the union, Presbyterianism was a truly national religion, its values invading every corner of Scottish life. That had changed completely, said Dr Gay, a lecturer in practical theology at Glasgow University.
“Scottish society was remade in the 19th century by large scale immigration from Ireland,” he said. “If you only characterise Scotland as Presbyterian you also miss out the other religious traditions. The future has to be one in which we are all recognised.
“The Kirk is described as ‘a’ National Church not ‘the’ national church in the Articles Declaratory. That is a very important distinction. Whatever the recognition of the Church of Scotland within a future constitutional settlement, it can’t be one of privilege.”
Dr Gay’s approach requires substantial shifting of the Kirk’s mental furniture. Much of its ceremonial is tied up in its status, acknowledged by Queen, through the Lord High Commissioner, who passes her letter into general assembly as its opening ceremony. “These are interesting moments, they disclose something about the relationship between church and state,” said Dr Gay.
On issues such as the morality of nuclear weapons, the Church position already coincides with SNP policy, opposing the Trident base at Faslane. This could prove significant in building support for independence, said Dr Gay.
“If the Kirk continues to suggest that the favoured option is to get rid of nuclear weapons, and there is one party in Scotland offering people a means to do that, it is clearly going to have an effect on the climate of opinion in Scotland, and patterns of political support,” he said.
The Church been in the vanguard of political debate about Scotland’s future. Home Rule, championed by the Labour Party in the 1940s, became a cornerstone of Kirk discussion from 1947. In the 1980s, the General Assembly became a proving ground for the devolutionary ideas that flowered in the 1990s. For many in the Kirk, it was fitting that when the Scottish Parliament first met, it did so in the Assembly Hall.
Dr Gay conceded however, that many Church members harboured a deep-rooted hostility to nationalism, dating back to the struggles against fascism in the 1930s and 1940s.
“ This is a theological and ethical suspicion of nationalism; for some people it is a very toxic word and idea,” he said. “Any theological consideration of it has to address those very toxic things. The Church will make a great contribution to this debate. Instinctively we are continually guided to respect each other, by love thy neighbour – these are the key ethical that lie behind our stance on political issues.”
Ian Galloway, the convenor of the Church and Society Council said it was essential that the Kirk addressed in its deliberations the possibility of independence.
“The worst thing for the church would be to be unprepared for constitutional change,” he said. “Whatever the outcome, we have to work through the implications.”