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Scottish General Synod: SEC seeks to throw off the mantle of ‘English’ Church

20 June 2014

Pat Ashworth writes from the Scottish Synod

Exploring Scotland's identity: the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Most Revd David Chillingworth, addresses the Church's annual General Synod, in Edinburgh, last week

Exploring Scotland's identity: the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Most Revd David Chillingworth, addresses the Church's annual General...

THE forthcoming referendum on independence for Scotland is provoking much exploration of what it means to be Scottish - a debate that, for the SEC, is very much bound up with how others perceive it. It is viewed here as an opportunity to strengthen both Scottish and individual identity.

In his charge, the Primus, the Most Revd David Chillingworth, described the referendum as "a hugely important choice for this society. The question on the ballot paper is political and constitutional. Churches and faith groups have therefore felt that we should be impartial.

"We have within our Church people on either side of this debate. They are entitled to be so. We are a Scottish Church, deeply embedded in the story of Scotland. Whether Scotland's future lies inside or outside the United Kingdom, we shall remain a Scottish Church.

"We may be impartial on the referendum question itself, but not passive in our concern for the kind of society which Scotland will be in the years to come. There is an active debate going on about the place of faith in any new Scotland which may emerge - and in particular about the place of faith in a written constitution - and we are part of that conversation."

Assumptions were made that members of a particular Church would have particular views on politics or constitutional matters, he said. "That's why I am uncomfortable when people call us the English Church. The implication is that we may be less Scottish or less Christian than others, when, in fact, it is our desire to serve the community and all its people whatever the outcome of the referendum."

Synod members were asked to discuss how the referendum affected their thoughts about the role and identity of the SEC, and what it was able to offer; what values they would like to see embedded in Scottish life; and what the SEC could do to help embed these values.

Many thought that more must be done to accentuate the Church's Scottishness and emphasise the SEC as more than a brand of the Church of England: "We do things differently; we have our own saints" was a recurring theme. "We are a Scottish Church going back centuries - we have lost some of our Scottishness in recent years."

They felt that outside perceptions were often of a "bijou" Church: small and English. Some considered the words "English" Church to be as pejorative as the word "chapel" to describe the Roman Catholic Church. Others felt that, while the SEC was seen as English, it was inclusive, and could help in the aftermath of a divisive referendum.

An "English" Church was not necessarily a negative tag in an independent Scotland which sought to find its place in the world, and the SEC might "teach a lesson on how to hold different opinions without confrontation".

Many felt that the Church could have a civilising part to play in what was becoming "a vicious debate": a catalyst that brought people round the table, "modelling how we deal with this issue - not binary and adversarial". It could offer impartiality: "Our churches are communities where people can be safe, and after, can be spaces to express hurt or joy." It could promote values of tolerance, respect, inclusivity, non-sectarianism, welcome, and openness. All felt that significant work would need to be done to help the country hold together after the referendum.

One major resource is the Grosvenor Essay The Church and Scottish Identity, produced by the Doctrine Committee and launched at the Synod by Dr Harriet Harris. History shows that the issue of the SEC's Scottishness arose at the union of the crowns in 1603, so it is not new, it demonstrates.

The Act of Toleration of 1792 formally recognised it as a legal, Protestant denomination. It is part of the Anglican Communion, but, along with the Episcopal Church in the United States, was not founded by the Church of England.

The 2011 Census demonstrated confusion, the essay points out: 21,289 people in Scotland claimed to be Episcopalian; 8084 said they were members of the SEC; 4490 declared themselves Anglican; 66,717 regarded themselves as members of the C of E, 2020 of the Church of Ireland, and 453 of the Church in Wales.

Reference to the "English Church" is inaccurate, given its distinctive history, and irksome to Episcopalians proud of their Scottish identity, the essay suggests. It can be interpreted as being "not Scottish", and therefore, in a pejorative way, not belonging. The legacy of the history of Scotland is suggested to be "a binary way of thinking and living that defines Scottish identity fundamentally in terms of rejecting its perceived opposite".

Binary ways of thinking have too often defined its identity, it says: Protestant or Catholic; Presbyterian or Episcopalian; Juror or Non-Juror; saved or damned; Highland or Lowland; Nationalist or Unionist. "The holding of the 2014 referendum requires Scotland to make another binary choice: yes or no to independence. That is not a problem in itself. That's democracy. The problem arises when the process of making that democratic decision divides us as a society rather thanbringing us together for the commonweal."

The essay warns: "If we see Scotland in the binary terms of our duelling polarities - 'Scot against Scot' - then we are indeed lost."

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