Tuesday 27 May 2003, 7.00 p.m., Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. With Peter Keirney (Scottish Catholic Media Centre), George Rosie (journalist, writer, broadcaster), Callum Brown (Professor of Religious and Cultural History, University of Strathclyde) and Alastair McIntosh (author of “Soil and Soul” and Fellow of the Centre for Human Ecology). Chaired by Harry Reid, former editor of The Herald.
There can be no question that Scotland’s past national identity rested on Christian bedrock. Our constitutional cornerstone, the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath, successfully invoked religious principles in establishing the claim of right to nationhood. Lord Stair, the greatest of our institutional legal writers, famously described the “absolute sovereign” governing Scots law as being “divine law”. And so on, all the way through to the Church of Scotland Act of 1921, that places Christianity in the form of an Established church at the heart of nationhood.
And there our opportunities arguably lie, and the difficulties most certainly begin.
Since the 1560 Reformation all this has applied not to diverse expressions of spirituality, but to Protestant Presbyterianism. Article 2 of the 1707 Act of Union is unambiguous in its entrenchment of such sectarianism. It says that “all Papists and persons marrying Papists, shall be excluded from and forever incapable to inherit possess or enjoy the Imperial Crown of Great Britain.” This is a state of affairs legislated to remain in place “in all time coming”. It is axiomatic to the construction of the British state; a religious hallmark that not even Tony Blair has managed to bomb out of existence.
We must, of course, tread carefully in critiquing our Protestant constitution, especially in its Scottish Presbyterian expression. Only a minority of Scots would now realise that “Presbyterianism” actually means government from the bottom up, rather than as imposed from the top down. John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion were called “the seedbed of democracy” precisely because he suggested that many heads might be better than one.
Today, however, few Catholics or other non-Protestants would disagree with that position. Protestantism may have helped deliver our democracy, but it’s no longer playing the wee Dutch laddie sticking his thumb in the dyke to save the whole show. And yet we’re lumbered with a sectarian constitutional settlement that, when you read the 1707 Act of Union, clearly carries the implication that all non-Protestants (thus, too, including people of other faiths) are unequal citizens. Protestants can marry their way into the highest ruling caste; others may not.
For a long time those who were able to turn a callously blind eye towards the Irish question were perhaps able to overlook the implications of this. They could speak in terms, supposedly reassuring and replete with “British compromise”, of our “unwritten constitution” being a “conventional constitution”; indeed, it was an “understood constitution”, because the conventions governing it were deemed to be understood by … well … it was never quite explained by whom.
Many British people were willing to tolerate such obfuscation for a long time. Yes, it entailed having what Lord Hailsham dubbed an “elective dictatorship”. But this was not incompatible with the heavily feudalised British psyche. Behind it, after all, was the ultimate feudal check and balance of God. And to this day all minted British money, including Scottish pound coins, are printed with the letters DG and FD to remind us that the sovereign is, by Divine Grace, Defender of the Faith. Thus, in Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens says:
We Englishmen are Very Proud of our Constitution, Sir. It Was Bestowed Upon Us By Providence.
Similarly, Walter Bagehot (who evidently understood “British” as code for English), said in his classic 1867 essay, The English Constitution:
If you ask the immense majority of the Queen’s subjects by what right she rules, they would never tell you that she rules by Parliamentary right, by virtue of 6 Anne, c.7. They will say she rules by “God’s grace”; they believe that they have a mystic obligation to obey her.
In short, elective dictatorship is underwritten by a feudal construct of God. Just where this can lead became clear in recent weeks: here we witnessed a presidentially-inclined Messianic prime minister fingering the arcane dictatorial trigger of “Royal Prerogative” as he hustled the country to war.
The iconic consequences now abound. We see them in concrete blocks turning the Palace of Westminster back into a medieval castle under siege. And we see them in the image of little Ali Abbas, whose arms were blown off by Anglo-American munitions.
So there we have it. One enquires as to the future of Christianity in Scotland - whether it is “more than just a lifestyle choice” - and what you find is that we’re lumbered with a 300-year-old fossilised settlement where “Christianity” has been co-opted as the legitimising backstop of a fig leaf constitution.
Whether we are constitutionally kosher Protestants or not, and whether Scotland moves down the path of independence or not, it is a matter of urgency to rethink such a relationship between Church and nation. As Iraq has shown, in the absence of so doing neither the British state nor the Scottish nation are defended against abuses of corporate, constitutional and military power. The present constitutional settlement allows hidden power to be invoked, and power denied is power abused.
One way out of this sham-accountability is to maintain, like the Mennonites, the Free Church of Scotland and secularists would do, that Church and nation should be entirely separate.
That may be an honourable position. And yet, something might be overlooked in the process. Not only has the Church of Scotland’s “lead church model” in how it uses its national position been widely appreciated by other churches (and even by Moslems), but we may be moving into an era where spiritual insight once again becomes important in political thinking. For example, during 1992 when he was President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors made a very interesting statement to the European churches. He said:
We are in effect at a crossroads in the history of European construction…. Believe me, we won’t succeed with Europe solely on the basis of legal expertise or economic know-how. It is impossible to put the potential of Maastricht into practice without a breath of air. If in the next ten years we haven’t managed to give a soul to Europe, to give it spirituality and meaning, the game will be up. This is why I want to revive the intellectual and spiritual debate on Europe. I invite the Churches to participate actively in it…. I would like to create a meeting place, a space for free discussion open to men and women of spirituality, to believers and non-believers, scientists and artists.
Whether applied to Europe, Britain, or Scotland, this reminds us of the need, from time to time in history, to carry out a fundamental process of discernment within the national psyche. As a peoples we need to ask ourselves (rather as Scotland did with the People and Parliament national values discernment process in 1998), what does it mean to be a nation in this day and age?
What does it mean to develop a sense of place? A sense of identity? A sense of shared values? And a sense of responsibility? In short, what does it mean to build and maintain that sense of community-writ-large that comprises nationhood?
Posing these question is the task of the democratic political process. But as Jacques Delors saw, it is also a spiritual function. Without spirituality there is no lubrication of the nation’s soul and things dry up and die.
How, then, might Christianity today offer its voice in shaping the future of Scotland?
It might start with some contrite confession. It might acknowledge, for example, that too many Scots have been spiritually abused by authoritarian religion in their childhoods. Today, people need the living vine of spirituality more than any rigid church of latter-day Pharisees run by men – nearly always men – who would hijack and pervert religion into a cudgel of worldly power.
In tackling sectarianism, Christians might additionally act inclusively towards non-Christians. We should remember that when Jesus drove the moneychangers out of the Court of the Gentiles, he was liberating the space specially set aside for worship by people of other faiths.
Language is another point to watch. Titles like “Lord” and “Son of God” can be patriarchal and domineering in today’s cultural context. They were mainly applied to Jesus by others. If we are to move beyond the man-made Paulianity and Churchianity of a Greco-Roman world, we must seek better to understand the qualified and mystical ways in which Jesus may have used such terminology of himself.
Lastly, the Cross was, above all, a testimony about love in the face of state-legitimised violence. Jesus stood for justice - for the wellbeing of women, outsiders and underdogs. He told Peter to have no more to do with the sword, and healed the wounded Roman soldier’s ear. Symbolically, and all these things ought to be understood partly as metaphor, he knew that violence stops people from being able to listen. That is why, if Christianity is to have a future in Scotland, it must speed the shift that it has already started away from blasphemous endorsements of military might. It must awaken to the power of the Cross and reveal the inner strength of nonviolence.
27 May 2003