2014 can enable churches to redefine their roles

For a vivid marker of how far and how fast Scotland has changed, look at religion in recent decades.
Picture: Neil HannaPicture: Neil Hanna
Picture: Neil Hanna

Two generations ago, 80 per cent of the population related to some form of church. Now, only 10 per cent have an active link with organised religion. Behind that dramatic shift lies a story of familial change, sexual revolution, and the abandonment of social deference.

Unlike our immediate ancestors, today’s Scots are not willing to be told how to think or behave, or to sacrifice personal choice to any church’s version of social duty and obligation. Consequently, religion has played little or no visible part in the independence debate.

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Yet the constitutional debate is strewn with ethical stances on nuclear weapons, international aid and social equality. The parliament of an independent Scotland would have outright legislative control over moral issues such as abortion, and the regulation of genetic research. There is no lack of ethical or spiritual fervour in 2014 and a widespread resolve that “£500 better or worse off” should not be the determining factor. What kind of society do we wish to be in the long term? And has the Scottish Parliament earned the right to be our prime forum for ethical debate and collective decision?

In the event of a Yes vote, there will be some tidying up of the constitution. Freedom of religion will need to be safeguarded as a fundamental human right. But no one religion or church will be guaranteed the present position of the Church of Scotland under Westminster legislation. Despite a half-hearted attempt by last year’s General Assembly to assert the Kirk’s position pre-referendum, the churches have wisely focussed on grassroots reflection and discussion.

But there is a significant opportunity for Scotland’s churches in this moment of change, regardless of the immediate political outcome. Renouncing outworn claims to national status and influence, churches can renew their commitment and purpose in local communities. A minority tradition released from burdensome expectations could be liberating and creative. 
•Donald Smith is the director of the Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh, his book Freedom and Faith (£14.99 paperback) is available now in bookshops or online www.standrewpress.com