The Independence Debate

The Church Times published this piece from me this week

It is now a question of identity

Church Times 2 March 2012

Scottish independence is about much more than economics, says David Chillingworth

I listened to the First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, on 1 July last year, as he responded to the Queen’s speech after she had opened the fourth session of the Scottish Parliament: “So there is much we share, that is a given. But the nations of these islands are also distinctive, with our own unique history and culture, our own economic chal­lenges and our own opportunities. Some of us be­lieve the best way to articulate that unique­ness and tackle those chal­lenges lies with­in ourselves — and shoul be fully expressed within the work of this Parliament.

“However, whatever constitu­tional path that the people of Scot­land choose — and it is their choice to make — we will aspire to be, in your words, ‘firm friends and equal partners’.”

Nobody should underestimate Mr Salmond. Warm and respectful, he played back to the Queen her own words from her recent historic visit to Dublin. He sought to be trans­formative, and risked being cheeky at the same time.

On a visit to Sussex last month, I handed the taxi-driver at Haywards Heath Station a Scottish banknote. I didn’t catch the whole of what he said. But it wasn’t kind, and it in­cluded the word Salmond. Suddenly, the Scottish independence debate is a live issue across the UK.

Scotland has been a good place to be for me these past seven years. In contrast with my past experience in North­ern Ireland, constitution and identity are largely uncontested. There is broad acceptance that devolution has been good for Scotland. People like the idea that the Scottish government at Holyrood is accessible.

There has been a refreshing lack of the negative imaging of “the other”, which so easily grows. England is spoken of as a non-specific “down south”. Scotland is diverse and in­clusive. For the most part, people manage not to be unpleasant about England in order to feel good about being Scottish.

But suddenly it is different. No longer a slightly whimsical idea, Scot­tish independence has become a mat­ter of serious politics. And not just politics — it is about identity and belonging as well. That is why it is important for Churches and other faith groups to be involved in the way in which this debate is shaped.

I believe that Churches should be firmly agnostic about matters of flags, emblems, and jurisdiction. Our concerns should be human rights, values, inclusion, culture, and ethos. The Nobel laureate John Hume re­called the words of his Scottish Presbyterian great-grandfather: “Al­ways remember. You cannot eat a flag.” Nationalist passion can be an expensive luxury. It carries risks for Churches: they can all too easily find themselves becoming markers of division.

This is the stuff of my family story. My grandfather ministered in the 1930s in Dublin among Southern Irish Protestants. Dispossessed of their political identity by Irish Parti­tion in 1922, they invested their identity in the Church of Ireland. The resolving of that pain was one of the things that the Queen’s recent visit to Ireland accomplished.

In the 1980s and ’90s, I ministered among Ulster Protestants who couldn’t understand why British in Portadown didn’t seem to be the same as British in Finchley. They in­vested what too often became a sectarian-shaped sense of loss in their Churches.

Scotland is different — blessedly different. But it is part of the task of Churches and other faith groups to help people to manage shifts of ident­ity. The critical question in all of this is who “we” are — and indeed, who is “not us”.

I believe that Churches should be agnostic about the choice that will be the subject of a referendum. But we are already involved — not least because of our history. The Church of Scotland is the national Church. Before devolution, it was probably the most significant institutional ex­pres­sion of Scottish identity. The Roman Catholic Church is parti­cularly strong in the west of Scotland — much of that coming from those descended from 19th-century Irish immigrants.

The Scottish Episcopal Church has a long and difficult history. It represents important strands of Scottish religious, political, and cultural history. But it is colloquially known in some parts of Scotland as the “English Church”. There is his­toric warrant for that label — but most of those who use it are outside the Episcopal Church, and probably see it as a marker that says simply “not belong­ing in the same way as others belong”. We need to ensure that we do not become unhelpfully defined or con­fined by that label.

The independence debate has many aspects. Some, such as attitudes to the monarchy, are constitutional: these describe the nature of any new Scottish state and its external rela­tion­­ships. Others are political — such as any future defence policy. But most questions are eco­nomic, and range from issues of cur­rency to the more everyday mat­ters of health, education, and pen­sions.

What should matter most to Churches and faith groups is the identity dimension. Inevitably, the desire to affirm a new expression of Scottish identity will lead to a sharp­ening of the distinction between that identity and others. But Scotland is already a place of multiple identities. These arise from the richness of Scottish history. They also grow naturally in any modern and mobile society, where people’s belonging arises from intermingling of family, place, and culture.

To see the ques­tion of Scottish independence simply as a political and economic debate to be pursued between now and 2014 does not do justice to these deeper ques­tions.


  1. Bishop,

    Very interesting times indeed. Although on the other side of the world (Oz), I am what my mother refers to as a ‘Scaussie’ – an Australian born Scot. Having a very strong soft spot for Alba (actually it is like having a massive rubber band around my waste that is pegged into Scottish soil – I feel the pull to return constantly), I watch with great interest the independence issue.

    A Scottish woman in town asked me what I thought. I said that emotionally I say yes, though logically I am not so sure.

    I believe that Churches should be firmly agnostic about matters of flags, emblems, and jurisdiction

    I agree as Christian unity flows from the person and work of the Lord Jesus, and he smashes all barriers to fellowship (race, gender for example). What I remember also is that nations rise and fall (I remember as a teenager when the USSR fell – did not see that coming. I remember when East Germany and West Germany United.

    What am mindful of bishop is that God is sovereign over the rising of nations, and that whether Scotland becomes independent, our mission to see the lost know Christ does not wane. After all people in Scotland (whom I love) need to know Christ, regardless of whether they have a British Passport today or a Alba passport tomorrow. 🙂

    Grais agus sith gu maillie rith!
    Rev. Joshua

  2. Lots for us Scottish Episcopalians to think about. But to bring something cuddly to the discussion, I’ve heard it said “No matter what happens, we’re keeping the pandas.”

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