Saturday, 13 September 2014

Scotland: a personal view from within the Church of England

Five days to go until the Vote. We have set up a candle stand in Durham Cathedral at the altar of Queen Margaret of Scotland and are inviting people to come and offer this momentous decision to God. 

I've tried to get hold of some 'official' statement from the Church of England about how we view the independence debate south of the border. As far as I know, the English church has confined itself to promising prayers in advance of the vote, and for the healing of divisions once we know the result, and to pledging the CofE's continued goodwill and partner and friend to the Scottish churches and people for the good of all in these islands.

I can understand this carefully measured, even-handed, typically Anglican approach.  I can see why the Scottish churches, which have to live cheek by jowl with the consequences of the decision whichever way it goes, have been scrupulous about not publicly taking sides. But when the Supreme Governor of the CofE says that the decision 'is a matter for the people of Scotland alone', I want to say 'up to a point Lord Copper'. For there is far more to it than people north of Berwick simply deciding whether or not to pursue self-determination. This is where England comes in. 

So what has it got to do with us in England?

The answer is: everything! The future of the United Kingdom is of concern to all its citizens, not just those who have a vote. And it seems to me that the Church of England could have contributed to the debate about the Union by offering some commentary, its own theological and spiritual perceptions, and not least its hopes and fears for next week and its aftermath. It would have been a way of demonstrating what we already acknowledge, that the future of Scotland is also about the future of England. Up here in the borderlands of Northern England, we are deeply aware of how a Yes vote could have a dramatic impact on life south of the Tweed. I believe this is true for the whole of England - and for Wales and Northern Ireland too.

If you regularly read this blog or my tweets, you will know that I am a firm believer in the Union. So I am praying with some feeling that Scotland does not decide to walk away from it (though I should add for the avoidance of doubt that our Cathedral prayers do not steer people towards one specific outcome or the other). I take this view not simply for historical, political or economic reasons, though I believe they all point in the same direction. I believe that it's fundamentally a matter of good theology too. And here is where the Church of England or its House of Bishops might have been more forthcoming in offering an official perspective. 

Running through the Bible and Christian thought is the conviction that the idea of covenant lies at the heart of God's relationship with human beings. It is therefore at the heart of how we as peoples relate to one another. 'Better together' is almost an echo of 'It is not good for a human being to be alone' in the book of Genesis. Therefore, any covenanted relationship based on mutual trust, fidelity, common purpose, interdependence and a care for one another's welfare is always better than being independent and alone. The breakup of the united kingdom of Israel and Judah was regarded as a disaster by the prophets because it flew in the face of a covenant between peoples. 

This is why I think that for Scotland to say no to the Union of which we have all been a part for 300 years would not only be a tragedy, but also a denial of a hard-won principle of human society that the United Kingdom expresses. The point is not whether Scotland could be a successful, prosperous nation on its own.  I am sure it could. But the Christian ideals of mutuality, partnership and service surely point in the opposite direction from narrow nationalisms and self-interest. The question for all the member nations of the UK isn't merely, what are we getting out of the Union? but, what can we put into it? What gifts and experience do we bring to it? What can we contribute to the flourishing of all our peoples? This suggests that we should be investing more in the relationships between us, not dismantling them. 

The United Kingdom is not a perfect union: far from it. The English have a long history of treating the Scots with disdain, even contempt. Durham Cathedral, 'half church of God, half castle 'gainst the Scot' in Sir Walter Scott's famous words, epitomises an often violent, destructive relationship. We English need to repent of this, and start treating Scotland as an equal partner in the Union. We should always have been celebrating the intellectual, social, economic, cultural and spiritual benefits Scotland has brought to the UK, not belatedly talking them up in the weeks before a referendum. 

A new covenant between Scotland and England would entail real devolution of power, something that many of us in the North East of England, also far away from London, hope for too. Here, the progress already made in Scotland could show us English a more excellent way. But if Scotland turns its back on the UK, it will, I fear, be a step back from a noble vision of what can bind nations and peoples together. Federation, commonwealth, and partnership are ideals that should inspire us to work for a good future for all our peoples in a proper, respectful mutuality and recognition of each other's dignity and worth. 

Something along these lines is I believe what the great 16th century Anglican theologian Richard Hooker, in his generous vision of an inclusive polity, would have urged us to pray for and work towards. I believe he would have argued that the welfare of both England and Scotland needs both to be part of a healthy, flourishing Union. In particular, the CofE has a duty of care towards the English. We in the CofE should be saying loud and clear that a future in a truncated UK, whatever it may mean for Scotland, would vastly diminish England. Unity is a value of the kingdom of God, and when a human society embodies it, however imperfectly, something of God's vision for humanity is expressed. 

So I hope the people of Scotland, especially its churches, are in no doubt that we in the Church of England care very much about what happens next week, not as observers but as those committed to the bonds that have tied us together for centuries. Our unity-in-nationhood and our common destiny matter to us. How could they not? This is why my impassioned plea to friends north of the border is: please do not leave us. You are fellow-travellers with us. Stay with us, and help us all to journey on together in peace and hope. 


  1. Well said. And come North to visit. Come with family and friends. Come with open eyes and an open mind to listen, learn, and laugh. Come and understand that not everything in the UK is done the English way... from a Pisky priest.

  2. I thought I had posted a comment yesterday, but now don;t see it?!? Anyway, it was to say that I found this a most thoughtful, helpful and sensitive post. Much appreciated Michael.

  3. You write: "Federation, commonwealth, and partnership are ideals that should inspire us to work for a good future for all our peoples in a proper, respectful mutuality and recognition of each other's dignity and worth."

    I agree. This is precisely what probably the majority of people in Scotland have been demanding. What we got from Westminster was banksters, the Poll Tax, illegal wars, Atos, forced labour schemes, the bedroom tax and areas of poverty such that life expectancies can be decades below average. I could, of course, go on.

    I wish the regions of England where there are majorities who also object to this also had the opportunity for self-determination but, in the modern world, such things are the preserve of nations, not regions. I hope, then, that Scottish independence will spur the progressives of England to resist those who have inflicted the suffering of unfettered Capitalism on them - but that is not up to me.

    I will vote YES on Thursday both in sorrow and in anger - anger at those who left me no reasonable choice (I do not believe their lies about further devolution, and believe it to be a poisoned chalice if it ever does come about), and sorrow that I cannot give the same hopes to the many ordinary, decent people south of the border, and in Wales.

    Should we vote Yes, as I hope we will, I hope you will remember that, should you wish to remain friends, we are just next door!

  4. Thank you, Michael, for a typically thoughtful reflection. I suppose I am left asking the question 'What is so terrible about being English'? Why can English people only exist and flourish under the banner of Britishness? Yes, I realise there is a complex history behind that question, taking us back well beyond a 307 year-old Act of Union; but it would be interesting to take a straw poll of answers to this question during a football or rugby World Cup tournament!

    However, I am a Church of England priest who is also an Irish citizen. I made up my mind some time ago that, when my British passport expires next year, I am not going to renew it and will travel on my Irish passport. Yes, Scottish independence will have an impact on Great Britain (just as the formation of the Irish Republic in 1922 had an impact); but Scottish independence may provide England with a long-overdue wake-up call. We will have to face the issues we have refused to grow up about, and Scotland will be able to redefine its relationship with its neighbours in England, Wales and Ireland as part of a wider union of European nations. As someone with an address in France, I am slightly surprised that you don't consider this European dimension more positively as part of the equation. It would be very interesting to have your reflections on this.

    In the meantime, the idea of the Church of England's House of Bishops providing any rigorous and rooted reflection on the question of Scottish independence is rather hoping for too much. The theological (and intellectual) vacuity in the House is a travesty. Of course, Rowan Williams would have been on to this like a flash. If Scotland votes 'Yes' tomorrow, one would hope that the bishops would lead the way in facilitating a national conversation about what it means to be English. Sadly, I think they're too busy with gay clergy, equal marriage, women bishops, financing a declining church, and generally focussing our missionary energy inwards. It's just another sign of how we have sleep-walked into becoming more sectarian and less concerned with our wider communitarian and national remit.