will be missed

Sorry to see the last post on Seraphic’s Scotland blog.

Seraphic is one of the sparkliest writers around. Smart, persuasive, observant, and very funny. Why she hasn’t yet been snapped up to write full time for the Guardian (or maybe she’d prefer the Spectator) remains a mystery.

Being Scottish, I can only say such things now that the blog is no longer with us, but the good news is that there’s ongoing seraphical goodness at Seraphic Singles (buy the book), not to mention her forthcoming and eagerly anticipated novel.

some weird objections

A post by Gordon Matheson here rightly identifies the Establishment Principle as central to the concerns that many Scottish Christians have about changing to a secular constitution if Scotland became independent.

But rather than concurring with this, the post goes on to make three observations on the relationship between Church and State which sit rather uncomfortably with a conventional understanding of the Establishment Principle – a principle so crucial to the witness of the heirs of 1843.

Observation 1.

Firstly, God doesn’t need the Establishment Principle to guarantee the place of the church at the heart of the nation. The suggestion that the church needs the trappings of Establishment is bogus. We need to remember, the Church started life as a few dozen people gathered in a room in Jerusalem. It flourished in the face of fierce persecution in its Jewish cradle, in the culture of the Roman Empire, and across the whole Gentile world. Even today, the Church thrives in counties where it is suppressed. The Establishment Principle, if anything, should urge us on to win and hold onto hard-won religious liberty. The American constitution, for example, guarantees that liberty, but wisely does not establish any religion or denomination – yet the Church does okay in America. Meanwhile, in the UK, where we have an Established Church, we’re peripheral – hardly at the heart of anything. Establishment provides no guarantee of a place – let alone a place at the heart.

The oddity of this observation is that establishment isn’t so much about the needs of the Church as the needs of society. Nor is it about what God “needs” so much as what God ordains – what God has revealed is his preferred way for how Church and State should relate. The Establishment Principle doesn’t force us to choose between religious liberty and the church at the heart of the nation – it’s about both. And legal provisions that the Church should be established are not so much fancy trappings that we can easily dispense with as simply the State’s way of expressing its acceptance of its obligation under God to give national recognition to the Christian religion. If it happens that, in spite of legislation like the Treaty of Union, neither the state nor the established body are taking their current legal responsibilities seriously, that’s not a problem with the legislation but with the flaws and frailties of the state and the body it currently establishes. It certainly doesn’t undermine the Establishment Principle, which is just our terminology for the relationship which should hold between Church and State when both are living up to their divinely ordained responsibilities.

Observation 2.

Secondly, the Establishment Principle has never guaranteed orthodoxy. In fact, Established Churches tend towards a sickness in doctrine. History is replete with examples – from the Church of England’s half-way reformation, to the Three Self Patriotic Church on modern day China. The Establishment Principle is supposed to lead to a healthy balance between church and state. But because we live in a broken, sinful world that rarely happens. Even when it does it rarely lasts long. Either the state exercises undue control over the church’s doctrine and affairs; or the church becomes grotesque in her demands of the state; or the church makes compromises to appease the state. This has already happened in Scotland. We need to ask, what’s worse for the nation – a sick established church, or a healthier non-established church? It’s strange that a Free Presbyterian minister has forgotten this has happened before. In the run up to 1843 the relationship between state and established church became unbearable for men like Thomas Chalmers, and he walked out. The “Free” in the Free Church, and her various offspring, is a recognition that Establishment is a great Biblical principle, (and we still call the state to her highest calling in this); but we realise we live in the real world, where great principles rarely work as desired.

In the Scottish context, it simply is not the case that historically the Established Church has tended towards a sickness in doctrine. Strange for a Free Church minister to forget, but in the run up to the Disruption, the “sickness” was on the side of the State, not the side of the Church. The Disruption was actually a manifestation of very robust health on the part of the then established Church, when they would prefer to forego the benefits of establishment than violate the principle of Christ’s authority in his Church. For that whole length of time between the Reformation and the Disruption, Scotland had in actuality enjoyed that same healthy balance between Church and State which Gordon claims is so rare and short-lived – the 1842 Claim, Declaration and Protest is a standing testimony to this (and it’s part of the reason why the state’s encroachments in the early 1800s were so outrageous and intolerable).

The scenarios on offer – a sick established church or a healthier non-established church – are a false dichotomy. The ideal, encapsulated in the Establishment Principle, is a healthy established Church – and it’s not some remote, fanciful ideal so noble as to be unattainable. It’s as concrete and attainable as the principle that souls are converted under the preaching of the Word, or that people shouldn’t go around breaking the sixth commandment – both grand Biblical principles and things we should be able to consciously work towards without a second thought.

Observation 3.

So my third observation is that things break. Scotland’s history is full of broken covenants – but times of refreshing have come.  Yet today, you would have to wear rose-tinted spectacles to think the church (sick or healthy) has a place to lose at the heart of the nation. The Church in Scotland is largely irrelevant, sick with errors in doctrine, and frequent misplaced emphasis in word and action. God has already been provoked – and has given Scotland the church she wanted. I don’t think we need the FPs to tell us that might happen – we need to open our eyes to what already is!

Despite that, God has continued to be faithful to us. There are still a lot of healthy parts of the Church. He does that because of his grace. While we can never assume grace, we cannot live without it. The assumption that Scotland will be cut off from God’s blessing if we revoke a man-made treaty smacks of a graceless, legalistic view of God. We have to rely on a God who is not like that.

Thankfully, the Synod resolution neither assumes that we will be cut off from God’s blessing for revoking a man-made treaty, nor entertains a graceless, legalistic view of God.

People who read the resolution itself rather than the version filtered through BBC reportage would see that the main concern is not with independence per se, nor with changing treaties per se, but with corporately adopting a secular(ist) constitution to replace the one where Christianity is given its (rightful) place at the heart of the nation. To the extent that secularisation is a rejection of God, God’s authority, and God’s kindness to us collectively in providence, there’s not much room for doubt that to that extent it’s not quite the loving respect we really owe him.

Legally and constitutionally, the Christian religion does have a huge place to lose at the heart of the nation. Our challenge today is not to pretend that the constitution is irrelevant to the church’s role in society, but to work together to ‘strengthen the things that remain and are ready to die,’ and see how we can best cooperate to shape a society where the gospel can be preached freely and lived openly, for the good of Scotland.

resolution on independence

Cath is of the view that Synod could work harder to make its resolutions less open to misinterpretion and misrepresentation by the Beeb and others.

Cath is nevertheless of the view that, given a bit of contextualisation, the Synod resolution on Scottish independence which has just recently reached the limelight makes a substantive contribution to the debate.

Read it here: Synod resolution on Scottish independence

1. Context

a) The Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland continues to understand the relationship between Church and State in terms of the Establishment Principle.

This principle has been entirely mainstream throughout the history of the Scottish church. It says that although Church and State have independent jurisdictions, they still have responsibilities towards each other. On the one hand, the Church has the responsibility of praying for all those in authority so that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and dignity. On the other hand, the State has the responsibility of ensuring that the conditions are in place in society to allow this lifestyle to flourish.

Contemporary challenges to this principle usually come either in the form that the Church doesn’t need to be recognised or established by the State in order to flourish (which is true, but irrelevant), or that a mutually supportive relationship between Church and State is not after all a scriptural principle (a position increasingly popular in wider British evangelicalism and some quarters of American presbyterianism, but not necessarily true).

To the extent that the 1707 Treaty of Union is consistent with the Establishment Principle, it’s hardly surprising that the Synod’s commitment to the Establishment Principle leads it to be concerned about undoing the Treaty of Union, especially when the pro-independence campaign has so far been strangely silent on the details of how the State’s commitment to the national recognition of the Christian religion would be reasserted in a brave new independent Scotland.

b) Although the Synod resolution comes out strongly against independence, this is not the same thing as telling people how to vote.

The resolution expresses the Synod’s understanding of the current legal and constitutional situation, and their associated concerns about what they see as all the disastrous implications and consequences of Scotland becoming independent now, under present conditions and in present circumstances. But a Christian voter would be perfectly within their rights to believe that an independent Scotland would be good for Christianity in Scotland (if they credit, for example, the SNP’s protestations of how respectful they are towards the role of religion in society). They could then vote yes in an independence referendum in all good conscience, Synod resolutions notwithstanding.

I don’t really know how the FP vote gets distributed across political parties – as in, if there’s any particular party that would reliably be favoured by the majority of Free Presbyterians. FPs vote for candidates across the spectrum, from the Lib Dems to UKIP, and although I wouldn’t be surprised if FP voters mirror the Scottish electorate at large in being predominantly unconvinced of the case for independence, that certainly does not mean either that FP voters take their political advice from a synod committee (the idea is laughable) or that Synod would even think to offer such advice.

2. Contribution

The contribution of the Synod resolution to the independence debate is not economic or political or (even) legal/constitutional, but religious. That’s after all what you’d expect, from a religious body.

The religious concern is: in an independent Scotland, what place would there be for Christianity? All you can go by, to answer a question about a hypothetical future scenario, is the trends you currently perceive, and these are not reassuring. The vision offered to us of a modern, vibrant, exciting new Scotland is rigorously secular, contemptuous towards the socially conservative, and hostile by default towards Scotland’s own traditional forms of Christianity. This is a problem for Scotland, and keenly felt by Scotland’s Christians regardless of denomination, right here and now. The worry that many of Scotland’s Christians have for Scotland would be that these attitudes would become more firmly entrenched in an independent Scotland, and that the social, cultural, moral, ethical, and religious changes driven by these attitudes would only become more far-reaching at a faster rate. Of course Christians in Scotland may take the opposite view – that somehow, independence would allow Christianity to flourish in Scotland as never before – that secularism and secularisation would become a thing of the past in an independent Scotland – but the Synod is far from alone among Christian commentators in Scotland in thinking we have little of hope this as far as the eye can see.

Two other contributions of the Synod resolution could be as follows. One would be to remind people that history matters, that we need to take treaties and covenants seriously, even if they were made a long time ago, and that we have to act accountably when we act collectively to make or break agreements.

The other would be to keep the doctrines of grace central to the witness of the Christian church in general, in such a way that everything becomes subordinate to the question how the gospel of Christ can be most clearly articulated in our particular context in this time and place. In the Synod resolution, this point is disguised under terminology that other people don’t tend to use any more – fighting talk about Protestantism and Presbyterianism and the dangers of false religion. But, translated, Protestantism and Presbyterianism mean a gospel of mercy – salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and a community devoted to loving God and our neighbour. Scottish Christians are free to discuss what the best constitutional context for this would be, but surely there can be unanimity that proclaiming the gospel is the main thing.

jubilee recap

Spent the Jubilee holidays in deepest, darkest Kent, where great swathes of Union Jack bunting flourished unashamedly and it only rained some of the time.

So, like, there was this beacon lighting ceremony in the village. Significant, but understated, in a reassuringly English fashion. As Scots, we sneaked in at the back and tried to look as British as we could, in a low key and self-deprecating kind of way.

We, er, sat out the singing of Rule Britannia and, um, Jerusalem.

But then – the National Anthem, and o what a profound moment of self-discovery then dawned, as I realised that I couldn’t in fact have joined in if I’d wanted to, since I didn’t know any of the words.

“La la la LAH la-la,” I mumbled instead. It wasn’t even the right /a/ vowel.

Oops.

But let me offer the whole incident as speaking to the tension between Scottishness and Britishness. I doubt I’d ever have attended the same ceremony in Edinburgh – Union Jacks in the window would be the first step to a monstrous bill for new double glazing – but nothing, nothing, would induce me to vote for independence. I barely know the first two lines of the National Anthem, but she’s still our gracious Queen.

It’s all so complicated.