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.