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Respect, as demonstrated by the Kirk

06 June 2014

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 argument.

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 Scotland.

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