Ian Bradley: Kirk strength heals referendum split

Ian Bradley. Picture: Contributed
Ian Bradley. Picture: Contributed
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THE church’s neutral stance puts it in a good position to act as an instrument of healing, says Rev Ian Bradley

As the temperature rises in the pre-referendum debate it is clear we are going to need considerable healing and reconciliation post-18 September, whatever the outcome of the vote.

Last week’s report in The Scotsman of a Labour MP facing abuse from rogue supporters of Scottish independence, and the SNP MSP for Kirkcaldy being pinned to the bar of a Fife pub by pro-unionists highlight rising levels of animosity, which are unlikely to disappear when the referendum is over.

Polls suggesting the two sides are edging closer together in terms of support further increases the likelihood of angry division persisting well after the vote.

It is not too early to be thinking of who might be able to help provide some national healing and reconciliation. The churches could find themselves with a crucial role. It is significant that one of the first public warnings about the dangers of an angry backlash from the losing side came at the launch of the Church of Scotland’s report Imagining Scotland’s Future at the end of February, where Dr Alison Elliot, former moderator of the General Assembly, expressed her anxiety for the future of the country after a divisive campaign and suggested that it was important to initiate a process of nation building.

Along with other churches, the Kirk has sensibly not taken any side on the independence debate but rather suggested that it provides a chance for people of all persuasions to think about what sort of Scotland they would like to see. The report, compiled by the Church and Society Council on the basis of feedback from more than 900 people in 32 community events, identified the priorities for most people as building local communities on the principles of fairness, justice and sharing resources; fair access to the criminal justice system; and a welfare state where all had their basic needs met.

In contrast to the tone and emphasis of the national political debate, individual prosperity came way down the list of priorities at number 53.

This exercise and the Kirk’s neutral stance put it in a good position to act as an instrument of healing in the aftermath of the referendum. Together with other churches and faith bodies, and using all of its pastoral and bridge-building skills, the Church of Scotland can perhaps muster the moral authority and credibility to lead the process of rebuilding trust and healing divisions. At least it has made a significant start by reminding Scots that there are bigger and more important issues than gaining independence or breaking up the UK.

Are there other institutions which might have a role in a post-referendum national healing process? I wonder if the monarchy could have a contribution to make. Barring some republican rumblings in the pro- independence camp, both sides support a crowned head of state. Whether continuing her current position as sovereign of the United Kingdom or as Queen of Scots in a newly independent nation, the Queen has the potential to act as a focus of unity. Like the churches, the monarchy has not taken sides in the independence debate and has retained its traditional stance above party politics.

The appeal of the monarchy is more evident on the unionist side and it is certainly possible to conceive of it helping to reconcile and reassure No voters in the event of a victory for independence. With some judicious re-focusing and extra care and attention to Scotland, might the monarchy also be able to play a part in healing wounded nationalist feelings in the event of a No vote?

We might also look to sport to help heal a fractured Scotland. How good it would be if the Commonwealth Games, instead of being hijacked by either side, becomes an event around which unionists and nationalists can coalesce and begin to lose some of their animosity. It may be asking a lot for the Games not to be used as a pawn by either side in the referendum campaign but if the SNP is serious in what it says about wanting to build bridges with unionists and heal rather than divide, then declaring the Games a referendum-free zone would be a good place to start. «

Rev Dr Ian Bradley is principal of St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews, where he lectures in church history and practical theology, and a Church of Scotland minister