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The Independence Debate

The Independence Debate

Thursday August 29 2013


A year from now, voters in Scotland will be asked to consider whether we should become an independent nation. In the first of a two part series, two leading Christian commentators present Christian cases for independence and for remaining part of the United Kingdom.


The case for independence

I intend to vote YES. Given my Evangelical roots, it’s tempting to mischievously (mis)quote 2 Corinthians 1:19 at this point: “For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you… was not ‘Yes and No’; but in him it is always ‘Yes.’” Mindful of Bob Dylan’s warnings, I will not be claiming that we have “God on our side”.

As Christians we are not free to espouse just any political position; as Calvin says ‘we are not our own’. Our primary political allegiance is to the Lord Jesus Christ, our highest sovereignty is the sovereignty of God and our primary political community is the one holy, catholic and apostolic church, because it alone of all human communities is intentionally centred upon Jesus Christ. This means that certain ways of understanding human society and community are forbidden to us as disciples. As Christians, our understanding of ourselves and one another as created, as members of one human race, ‘trumps’ every particular ethnic or national attachment, as does our baptism into Christ. For Christian people, water is always thicker than blood.

We are also called, without exception, to love our neighbours as ourselves, so any political stance driven by enmity or hate is also forbidden us.

With that clear and I hope 99% of the Kirk will be agreed on those very basic principles, two key questions remain. The first is whether there is a form of ‘nationalism’ which is compatible with those key confessions. The second, which can exist separate from the first, because not all who support a YES vote identify as nationalists (e.g. Scottish Greens), is whether independence is desirable.

I am also still by history and tradition in some sense British. I don’t want to deny or refuse that identity completely, but I do want to see what it means evolve and be transformed.

As someone who supports independence, I also recognise that our political future must be about interdependence – within the British & Irish isles, within Europe and within this fragile, unequal and conflicted world which is beloved of its Maker.

I find in scripture, in both the Creation narratives and in the Babel story, a mandate to be stewards of cultural diversity, loving and tending the land and the cultural traditions which are our particular (but not exclusive) concern – just as our own families are our particular but not exclusive concern.

The political choice we are faced with is the Goldilocks dilemma: what size of independent state is too big (only Europe or also the current UK?), what would be too small (I don’t support independence for Galloway where I hail from) and which would be ‘just right’?

While still remaining good neighbours and loving our neighbours national identities as we love our own, which constitutional arrangement would best allow us to pursue the common good within Scotland and to seek peace and justice furth of Scotland? I believe independence would and I plan to vote YES. Not in a spirit of pride or enmity towards England, but as someone seeking to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. I respect those who think differently and I intend to listen carefully and thoughtfully to their arguments for a NO vote. Within the Kirk, we can be a force for good in this conversation if we model practices of civility and hospitality to one another as we debate the issues and pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The Rev Dr Doug Gay is lecturer in Practical Theology and Principal of Trinity College, Glasgow.

The case for the Union

My protagonist in this debate, Doug Gay, has described me in print as ‘the house theologian of unionism’.  I should say at the outset that I do not regard the prospect of Scottish independence  as by any means the greatest potential disaster facing our people or planet.

What saddens me is that so much of the pre-Referendum debate has so far been couched in entirely secular terms and often at the level of rather shallow self-interest.

I am also very happy to make what I believe to be the Christian and the theological case for the maintenance of the United Kingdom.

For me the theological case for the maintenance of the Union  is based on an application of the central Christian doctrine of the Trinity which proclaims that relationality, community and diversity lie at the very heart of the Godhead and that God does not just exist in one form but in the wonderful plurality of three persons. For me the United Kingdom as a political entity and Britishness as a concept are embodied paradigms and expressions  of this theological doctrine, and especially of that key Trinitarian concept of  perichoresis, to use the technical Greek term, which denotes the mutual indwelling and interpenetration of the three persons of the Godhead, the exchange of energies between them and their essential sociality. Central to the Christian understanding of the Trinity is a sense that the whole is greater than the parts yet the parts are all essential and contribute something vital.

Nationalism is by no means always incompatible with the expression of  Christian values in politics. Some have seen  Jesus as a nationalist, associated with the Zealots who wished to overthrow Roman rule over first century Palestine. The Gospel evidence seems to me to be inconclusive at best on this issue. But in the context that it is made, neither is it a warrant for nationalism.

As well as believing that staying in the United Kingdom is in the interests of Scots, I also believe that that it greatly enriches the inhabitants of the rest of these islands, not least those who are disadvantaged and marginalised. This outward-looking, altruistic argument seems to me a key one for Christians.

The contribution of Scots to the Empire is often commented on. There has also been a  disproportionate Scottish contribution to making Britain a fairer and more egalitarian society.

As a committed minister and member of the Church of Scotland, I am well aware that our Reformed and Presbyterian heritage has cut both ways in the debate over independence in the 450 years since the Reformation. For some Scots Reformers it fuelled animosity against England.  More commonly, however, it led Scottish Protestants to support union with England.

The concept of Britishness is, indeed, in large measure  a Scottish Presbyterian invention.  Rule Britannia was written by the staunchly Presbyterian James Thomson, a son of the manse, who like many of his countrymen favoured the appellation ‘British’ because it included  Scots as well as the English. 
This year’s General Assembly showed the Church of Scotland to be a broad church seeking the unity which Christ teaches but also living out the diversity manifested at the heart of the being of our Trinitarian God. The United Kingdom is a similarly broad constitutional, social and cultural entity which embodies unity through diversity. I believe that it is well worth supporting and remaining in.

The Rev Dr Ian Bradley is Principal of St Mary’s College, St Andrews, Reader in Church History and Practical Theology at the University of St Andrews and Associate Minister of Holy  Trinity Parish Church, St Andrews.


These are abridged versions of the original articles. The full text of both can be read in the September issue of Life and Work. Subscribe here

Part two: the historical context, the Church of Scotland's role in the debate, and a young person's view