WHEN I was in Edinburgh as the Church of England delegate to the
General Assembly of the Church of Scotland last month (News, 23 May), I was
moved by the intensity over the coming referendum on independence.
Convinced Scottish nationalists have been around for years, but it
was a surprise to see the strength of feeling now generated among
people who were once indifferent.
Posters in charity shops announced that money raised in Scotland
would stay in Scotland. Demonstrators against Trident campaigned
for independence to ensure that there would be no nuclear
"deterrent" or weapons of mass destruction in Scotland.
Whether the issue was child welfare, transport, fiscal policy,
education, the arts, science, or culture, the underlying message
was the same: Scotland would be better, stronger, freer, and more
capable of good decision-making if she broke from the UK.
The "Better Together" campaign was also in full swing. A strong
desire to stay British, combined with concerns about economics, the
future of research, relations with Europe, and the funding of
science were expressed persistently. So, too, was the potential
loss of privileged access to many benefits of Union: the pound,
renewable subsidies, the BBC, even the National Lottery. "Better
Together" stressed interdependence, where a strong Scottish
identity and political authority could be fully expressed by a
Scotland firmly within the UK.
Whether for or against, the issue was not far from the minds of
voters. Many closet "federalists" came out to me, regretting the
absence of a third option on the ballot paper to save the day.
Yet, back home, and listening to the political wrangling between
England and Scotland, I find the focus wrong. It is too centred on
the concept of rival states confronting each other and vying for
power. It is embarrassing to hear the threats (and bullying) from
English politicians about the cut-offs for an independent Scotland,
and witness the defiant resentment from Scottish nationalists.
Whatever their statehood, Scotland, England, Wales, and Northern
Ireland are first of all a community of nations - and need to
relate as friends and neighbours.
The lead taken by the Church of Scotland General Assembly
demonstrated this wonderfully. Resisting the polarisation, and
committing itself to a neutral stance, it facilitated a "respectful
dialogue" between the two positions, allowing Christian principles
to shape the debate. The result was inspiring.
In presenting the case for Scottish independence and for "Better
Together", the theologian Doug Gay and the Shadow Foreign
Secretary, Douglas Alexander, steered well away from trivia,
misinformation, and fear-mongering, and offered mature Christian
Biblical humility was strongly in evidence. Mr Gay acknowledged
that in our political, economic, personal, and social lives, "we
are flawed and fallible people" - there is a great deal we do not
know, and a great deal we get wrong. His vision for independence
was not a narrow nationalism, but a generous, welcoming
hospitality, which enjoys a warm, respectful social and
co-operative union with the remaining UK and Europe.
Mr Alexander similarly drew on the biblical ethic of
neighbourliness - being our "brother's and sister's keeper" - while
acknowledging the culture, distinctive institutions, and nationhood
of Scotland. He felt that the future was not for Scotland to walk
away from neighbours, but to build networks of co-operation,
sharing together risks, resources, and rewards.
The contribution of the Kirk to the process of the referendum
debate is ongoing: starting with the opening of the official
campaign period this week, many events are being initiated by
Christians. Their witness to humility, respect, and love of
neighbours is crucial.
But, beyond the vote, the place of the Church of Scotland in
healing and reconciliation may be even more vital. If it can become
an effective peacemaker across the pain of division, the Church
will indeed both point to Christ, and help shape the future of