Of a Covenant and a Referendum: A (Baptist) Theological Reflection on Scottish Independence

At the bottom of our village is a wood containing two monuments, symbolically separated by a wall. One commemorates Archbishop Sharp of St Andrews, and is erected on the spot where he was murdered by Covenanters in 1679; the other commemorates six Covenanters, almost certainly not the murderers, who were nonetheless killed in revenge for Sharp’s death. The Covenanters, for non-Scots readers, were militant Presbyterians who gathered illegally and occasionally resorted to violence in the face of the attempt by the London regime to impose episcopal church order on the Scottish church.

I knew little of the Covenanters before moving up here; my first encounter with their story, as far as I recall, was in a short narrative recorded by way of a preface in a book, Hamish MacKenzie’s  Preaching the Eternities, which I had been given as a gift by a member of my first church when I moved on. He highlighted this narrative to me when he gave me the book; it told of a Scots minister at the time of the Covenanters, who was visited by an angry group of his peers who demanded to know why he did not ‘preach up the times’; Who does preach up the times? he enquired, to be told that they all did, all of them. ‘Well then,’ came his reply, ‘you must forgive one poor brother who can preach only Jesus Christ and Him crucified.’

The story moved me, not because I knew the context, but because at least one member of my church had identified this confession sufficiently with the ministry I had conducted amongst them to make the gift of the book seem appropriate. Knowing more of the Covenanting cause now, however, I genuinely wonder which side of the debate recalled in the narrative I would want to have been found on. The Covenanting cause was just and important: as a Baptist, the protection of freedom of conscience is close to the heart of my ethical convictions, and this was precisely the issue the Covenanters struggled, often died, and sometimes killed for; I hope I would not have been prepared to kill an Archbishop – or anyone else – but I hope I would have found the courage to stand and perhaps suffer with them in their struggle.

Thankfully, the current discussion of the question of English involvement in Scottish rule is very unlikely to involve the shedding of blood; this does not exempt the churches from attempting to think Christianly about the question, the more so as each of us who are members of a Scottish church, in common with all other residents over the age of 16, will have the right and responsibility to vote in the referendum when it comes.

I have seen a number of comments recently to the effect that the churches in general, and perhaps we Baptists in particular, have been inappropriately silent on this question; I do not know whether this is true, but here for what it is worth is my attempt at moral reasoning. Like everyone else, I approach it from a particular context. First, I am, as already noted, a Baptist; alongside a deep conviction concerning freedom of conscience (and not unrelated to it) my tradition also sits fairly lightly to questions of nationhood: we look to governments to preserve certain freedoms, but otherwise are unexcited about the powers of the magistrate; lawmakers will not enact holiness, and so their existence and deliberations are not of first importance to us.

Second, I write as someone born in England and presently resident in Scotland. As such, I have no particular sense of Scottish identity – we have been here long enough that I sit down to watch the Calcutta Cup with mixed loyalties each year, but that is as Scottish as I get. I know that I reside here to some extent as a foreigner, and that there is an immigrant’s duty to conform to the culture that has welcomed him, and a Christian duty to pray for the peace of the city, or polity, in which one happens to reside.

Third, I am a resident of the St Andrews area. This is relevant in two ways: on the one hand, St Andrews and environs is, because of the university and tourist industry, much more cosmopolitan than most similarly-rural parts of Scotland; we are an international community; our local village school, which all my daughters have attended, has fewer than eighty pupils who are nevertheless at any given moment drawn from six or more nations. On the other hand, St Andrews is just far enough outside the ‘central belt’ (the Glasgow-Edinburgh corridor) to be detached from the mainstream of Scottish politics that is so focused there.

(Fourth, full disclosure requires me to note that I am a member of the Labour Party, which of course has a position on independence; I joined the party on the basis of issues of social justice, and – rightly or wrongly – do not feel any particular loyalty to its position on this issue.)

All that said, how do we think well about Scottish independence from a Christian point of view? The witness of the pastor in MacKenzie’s narrative is that events that seem of great moment in the world might be judged to be of comparatively little importance to someone whose values are formed by the gospel; I have already indicated that I suspect he was wrong in his own context, but the possibility of the view is important to note: if our national discourse is dominated by independence for the next eight months, that does not necessarily mean that our pulpits and prayer meetings should be similarly dominated; it may be that the question of whether we are ruled from Westminster or Holyrood is one of some indifference to our Christian discipleship.

Indeed, it seems that something like this position has been dominant in the nation at large, whatever the churches may have thought or not thought. There is a story around of an opinion poll that suggested that many Scots would vote for independence if convinced it would make them, personally, £500/year better off, but against if it would make them £500/year worse off. I have not tracked this poll down, so cannot confirm the truth of the story, but it indicates an attitude that is certainly there. The location of government, and questions of national identity, appear (at least at the current distance from the actual vote) to be of far less moment to some people than a very modest shift in their personal finances.

As I have indicated, for a Baptist (as opposed to someone who is committed to a mainstream Reformation state church position – cuius regio, eius religio) this indifference could be theologically appropriate. We have nothing invested in statehood, or in the location of government. We have much invested in the activity of government, by contrast: a government that acts well to ensure freedom and to protect people in poverty, orphans and widows, and asylum seekers (or more generally people in acute need, but this is the standard Biblical list) is a government Baptist Christians will welcome. Second to that, but still relevant, is a question of competence: a government that governs well is a good thing, to be welcomed.

Can we apply these principles to the current independence referendum? On the first, we need to beware a trap: the current Westminster administration is not every Westminster administration – ditto Holyrood – and so, even if we acknowledge (as I do – and as every public utterance by a British church in the last two years has insisted) that it is not just true but obvious that the record of the present Westminster administration on questions of social justice and the protection of the poor is rather woeful, this is not a good reason to judge that Holyrood will always or generally be better placed, or more disposed, to protect the most needy than Westminster. An argument to this effect might be essayed: there is little doubt that the long-standing political instinct in Scotland is somewhat to the ‘left’ of that of England (in particular); that said, the difference in my estimation is somewhat subtle, and has to do with a greater willingness in Scotland to assume that government is better placed than any private actors to deliver certain social goods (a more European, less American system if you like). I tend to agree with the Scottish consensus on this, but this consensus seems to me to be at least as much about mode of delivery as about duty of care; the latter might be an issue significant enough to make constitutional decisions on for a Baptist; the former, I am fairly sure, is not.

Turning to the second, the same point applies: whatever our views of the relative competency of the two current administrations, new administrations will be different – perhaps better; perhaps worse. Again, there is a more lasting form of the argument: suppose that Scottish society, and/or the Scottish economy, is sufficiently different from that of the rest of the UK that it needs different policies to flourish; that would be a good argument for independence, or so it seems to me, in that any Holyrood government would be better able to govern well. That said, the supposition is far from obvious: the faultlines in the UK run not along Hadrian’s Wall, but around the M25 (crudely speaking); in Scotland, a Highland crofter might well feel that Edinburgh is no less remote than London, in terms of understanding of her cultural and economic context and needs.

All of which is to say that there are, it seems to me, good Baptist arguments that could be made in both directions, but that none of them are particularly strong. These arguments, however, all depend on a reading of the political, cultural, and economic differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK – which is to say, they depend on matters of judgement, not matters of theology. Baptists might with good conscience feel strongly on either side here on the basis of their differing political judgement; they may also criticise partisans on the other side as being simplistic, ill-informed, or wrongheaded; they may not, on this analysis suggest that their opponents are unChristian or unBaptist, however.

For myself? As I have indicated, I find these judgements finely balanced, and so I do not see this as a pressing issue in terms of moral reasoning. I fear that rather too many questions concerning the settlement of an independent Scotland have been unanswered, or unconvincingly answered, to make independence at this point a convincing option – of course, that may change over the course of the campaign; more generally, I think that the sorts of analysis I have sketched above suggests that, unless one has the sort of commitment to political expression of national identity that would be foreign to a Baptist, the gains of independence are extremely unlikely to outweigh the upheaval of dissolving the Union. But these are all relatively fine judgements; there is little of real matter at stake here, as far as I can see. Having thought about the issue, and pending further arguments, I want in this situation, if not in his own, to stand with MacKenzie’s preacher; if everyone else should preach up the times, then you must forgive this poor brother too for wanting to preach only Jesus Christ and Him crucified.

3 Comments

  1. Stuart Blythe
    Feb 19, 2014

    Having dropped past earlier as ome of those who has commented that ‘the churches in general, and perhaps we Baptists in particular, have been inappropriately silent on this question’ I felt I should drop passed again.

    It seems to me that non-Baptist engagement on any issue including issues of the ‘State’ is a choice.

    Although a choice it is not of course the only one which has been taken historically by Baptists including on issues of the nature of ‘how things are governed’ e.g. democracy preferred over over forms and I was interested to note the other day the support by Baptists including John Clifford for Irish Home Rule as a ‘moral issue’.

    So yes one valid ‘Baptist’ response would be to say that the issue is of little ultimate consequence though an other Baptuist response might be to argue that it is of great consequence.

    Does this mean then that it is simply up to each to decide – perhaps but are we not even going to talk together about that or a priori has someone decided that is the case?

    In part what I have been arguing is that I am not aware of many congregational conversations which have been held to discuss even that subject and to ask it not simply on the basis of some of the arguments you have made but in terms of : what sort of response best helps us bear faithful witness to Jesus Christ in context. So it is a mission issue a discipleship issue.

    Such discussion may result in your conclusion but may not or it may result in us coming to the decision that it is indeed a personal matter but one that we should make informed of the views of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Would this not be a Baptist process?

    You see I do not think that we are avoiding these discussions because it does not matter but because we know that it does and that such discussions will challenge our unity in Christ. Contrary to this approach I wpould argue that modelling such discussions on difference are the only way to model a unity in Christ and mature as a body and demonstrate that our claimed forms of governanace are actually worth anything.

    I defend the above assertion on the grounds that most people who says that it does not matter still intend to vote – how interesting – a sort of dualism – as a citizen I am concerned and have an opinion but as a Christian I don’t think it matters. If the discipleship choice is that this is not an important matter the citizen choice should be non participation because it is felt that this is the way best to bear witness to Jersus. I think that this would be Baptist consistent. I don’t agree with this position but at least it would be consistent and may be the one you are advocating?

    • steve
      Feb 20, 2014

      Hi Stuart, Thanks for this.
      Yes, to most/all of what you say – as I said in a follow-up post, I’m going to write some more about this. I think the trajectory will be: 1. Are their good Christian arguments for nationalism (engaging with Doug Gay, William Storrar, and some others)? (Answer: yes, but they are weaker for particular nationalisms than for the concept in general) 2. Do they work for Baptist Christians as well as ‘constantinian’ Christians? (answer: less well, but still to some extent) 3. Given all this, what does the balance of argument look like to me (answer – not sure yet!); 4. What is the proper role of the churches in this national debate? (answer: some of the stuff you’ve said, and some other stuff). So I’m planning to get there…

      I don’t promise, however, not to deviate either from the proposed plan or from my tentatively-indicated conclusions!

      All that said, I don’t want to say of anything – well, not of many things, at least, that ‘as a Christian, I don’t think it matters’ – I want to say of some things that ‘I don’t think it matters (very much?) Christianly (or ‘theologically’).’ It mattered to me who won the Arsenal-Bayern match last night (it was never a red card…) but this is not a theological opinion.

      Why is this distinction important? For two reasons, I think. One is that theological opinions can or should be church-dividing; other opinions never. So I am (painfully and provisionally) separated from my brother, Bishop Pete of Willesden, because of our views on baptism, church and state, and, well, bishops; that he supports Tottenham would not be a reason for me to be out of fellowship with him. The second is my – and the institutional churches’ – expertise. I am a professional theologian, but an amateur (at best) economist; a church can speak with some authority about the call of the gospel, but not with any authority (qua church – it may have incidental expertise) about constitutional arrangements; knowing which side of this line an issue falls is actually quite important.

      • stuart blythe
        Feb 22, 2014

        Hi Steve – I appreciate that you are going to write more – but at the moment can only converse with what you have written but thanks for the heads up.

        Are you suggesting that between the obviously ‘doctrinal’ other matters are of lesser significance to the gospel and that issues of political governance are the equivalent in terms of importance to the team you support?

        I appreciate that the football comparison was only an analogy but to work it has to be analogous.

        I appreciate that not everything is of equal importance. I don’t think that Jesus cares about what colour churches paint their hall but will often spend considerable time discussing this. I do worry about your declared starting point which is that this issue is not a matter or ‘moral’ (theological) reasoning. This has been stated but I don’t think defended but this may be what is to come in the future.

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