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Severed from England (and Kirk)?

23 May 2014

David Chillingworth reads about choices faced by Scotland

Matt Abraxas

Five Johns: John Knox and five other preachers, all named John, draw up the Scots Confession of faith in 1560. An illustration by Matt Abraxas from Simonetta Carr's John Knox, in the series Christian Biographies for Young Readers (Reformation Heritage Books, $14 from www.heritagebooks.org; 978-1-60178-289-2)

Five Johns: John Knox and five other preachers, all named John, draw up the Scots Confession of faith in 1560. An illustration by Matt Abraxas from ...

Freedom and Faith: A question of Scottish identity
Donald Smith
Saint Andrew Press £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50 (Use code CT193 )

Honey from the Lion: Christianity and the ethics of nationalism
Doug Gay
SCM Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT193 )

THE Referendum on Scottish Independence is less than six months away. The debate so far seems to be a disappointingly two-dimensional engagement between "Decisions taken in Scotland will be better for Scotland" and "Better Together". The importance of the choice surely demands debate that does justice to Scotland's long and complex history, in which faith, identity, and nationalism are intertwined. So these two books are a welcome and timely contribution.

Donald Smith is Director of the Scottish Storytelling Centre and works at the interface between Church, society, and the arts. Appropriately for his theme, the Centre sits just up the street from the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood and down the street from the building that houses the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

Noting the rapid changes in religion since the 1970s, he remarks that it is now credible to consider a separation of politics and religion in Scotland - but wonders where such a change would leave the moral dimension of politics and the political dimension of spirituality. Much later, he comes to what, I suspect, is the failure of the current debate: the reluctance to engage with issues of identity lest that should become a matter of identity politics in the narrower sense. Yet Smith affirms the vigour of current Scottish identity, and wonders in what way this sense of identity might carry spiritual resonance.

His book will be of interest to readers within and without Scotland. He charts the inexorable and rapid decline of the Church of Scotland and the challenges that the Roman Catholic Church faces since the resignation of Cardinal Keith O'Brien.

In two areas, I would have welcomed more. Secularisation in Scotland is fascinating - finding its roots both in the Scottish Enlightenment and in the Scottish Reformation. Yet Smith leaves these areas largely unexamined. Most of all, I longed to hear stories of faith and identity from Scotland's faith communities today - from the long-established Sikh community in Glasgow, from the Church of Scotland, the RC Church, and even from my own Scottish Episcopal Church, which is still burdened with the tag "English Church".

Doug Gay is a Lecturer in Practical Theology at Glasgow University, a minister of the Church of Scotland, and a long-time supporter of Scottish Independence. Honey from the Lion is a reference to Samson's slaying of a lion and the bees that colonised it. This cycle of stories describes Samson's complex relationship with the Philistines - the quintessential "other" that serves and enhances Israel's identity. This is a complex and sophisticated book - not always an easy read, but none the less rewarding for that.

Gay begins by taking on the challenge of rehabilitating the concept of nationalism. He repudiates the suggestion that a nationalist project "repudiates civility". He explores the development of the Scottish National Party and how it seeks to "mobilise, bind and loose" people in contemporary Scotland. But he believes that nations are "approximate, relative and provisional communities, which resist both entire denial and exact definition of their existence".

What will probably be much clearer to Scottish readers than to those south of the border is the political divergence that has steadily been opening up between Scottish and wider British politics. Gay claims that Scots have consistently found that their destiny on matters reserved from the devolution settlement have been determined by parties that they have rejected at the polls. Further, Scottish governments have consistently developed their own priorities, such as the abolition of university fees for Scottish students and free nursing-home care for the elderly.

What makes this book attractive is the scale of its ambition. Gay's vision for the Scottish Churches and for contextual theology is that they should "advocate a transforming vision of Scotland's future, in which constitutional change is embraced as a means to pursue virtue in Scottish society". Scotland may appear secular. But that vision places its historic tradition of spirituality at the heart of the evolving post-referendum future.

The Most Revd David Chillingworth is the Bishop of St Andrews, Dunkeld & Dunblane, and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church.

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