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Home  >  News  >  A Lively Engagement


A Lively Engagement

Monday December 9 2013

Michael Munnik takes in a discussion on the place of churches in the Scottish independence debate


WHAT influence should Scotland’s religious communities have in the debate on independence?

Donald Smith wrote Freedom and Faith to explore religion’s relationship to Scottish identity, with the referendum as a timely backdrop. He launched the book last week with a panel discussion chaired by Susan Mansfield, including feminist historian Lesley Orr and author and journalist Harry Reid.

The panel convened at Edinburgh’s Scottish Storytelling Centre, beneath John Knox’s historic house, and history was on Reid’s mind: he disapproved of the institutional churches’ absence from the current debate on independence. Whereas in the past, the Church of Scotland had demonstrated some of its greatest strengths in speaking to matters of the state, it was not ‘feart’, perhaps, but puzzlingly unwilling to declare itself.

Smith and Orr countered that a declaration from the institutional churches would be irrelevant – ‘a distraction’, Smith called it. Just the previous night, Orr’s son had attended an Imagining Scotland’s Future event at St Philip’s Church in Joppa, sponsored by the Church and Society Council, which was not about pronouncements from on high but a lively engagement with the values and the purpose behind the debate. This was, for her, a contrast to the sterile, polarised debate occurring in the public domain and indicative of the kind of contribution the Kirk ought to make.

Smith likewise advocated for a radical freedom - harking back to Scotland’s Presbyterian past, but only in the sense that it makes its decisions from the ground up, sending chosen representatives to make decisions. Reid drew closer to his fellow panellists in this regard, noting the vibrant social contribution of churches at the community (as opposed to the institutional) level, which were far more active than any political party or trade union: “We underestimate the collective power or potential we have in society.”

Smith, however, emphasised that the ethical qualities he praises in ‘Scottishness’ would not prevail automatically in an independent Scotland. They would require work and the commitment of politicians, who are simultaneously consumed with meeting neoliberal markers for ensuring the state is viable.

He also recalled the dark deflation of Scotland following the 1979 referendum, warning that Scotland would similarly need to work at protecting its values in the wake of a No vote. He appealed to people who want this moral character engrained in their state to vote not with their eyes on the political personalities and power balances of the next four to five years but imagining the Scotland of the next 50 to 100 years.

Freedom and Faith is published by Saint Andrew Press

Michael Munnik is past convener of the board of directors for the Presbyterian Record, a monthly magazine in Canada. He is currently studying in Edinburgh and worships at Canongate Kirk. A longer version of this article will appear in February's Life and Work.

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