A Free (but not privileged) Church in a Free (but secular) State

by Elias Blum

Today the Church of Scotland published a joint report of the Church and Society Council, the Committee on Ecumenical Relations, and the Legal Questions Committee, outlining its stance on church-state relations in the Constitution of an independent Scotland.

The report is in many ways a welcome contribution to Scotland’s constitutional debate. It shows that the debate is moving beyond ‘mere independence’ to consider questions of post-independence state-building and institutional consolidation. Organisations such as the Constitutional Commission, the Electoral Reform Society (Scotland) and So Say Scotland have been advancing these discussions for some time, but the kirk is the first of the major social and civic institutions of Scotland, outside of party politics, to engage in this process.

That alone should merit two (but not three) cheers. However, the content of the report is somewhat disappointing. There are three aspects of the report, in particular, to which I wish to draw critical attention.

Firstly, the report asserts that the Queen of Scots (who, under the SNP’s most recently published draft Constitution, would hold the largely ceremonial office of titular head of state under a democratic, parliamentary Constitution) should continue to be bound by a coronation oath to ‘uphold Scottish religious life and traditions’ and should maintain ‘her or his role with regard to the Church of Scotland’.

Secondly, the report argues that ‘the lawfulness of the Articles Declaratory should be acknowledged in any constitutional settlement’. These articles claim, amongst other things, that the Church of Scotland is a ‘national church’ – a position embodied in statute law by the Church of Scotland Act, 1921.

Thirdly, it claims that ‘in any constitutional settlement the relationship between church and state should be affirmed by recognising that the role of the Church of Scotland in civic life should be maintained, in particular the provision of prison chaplains, the conduct of marriages, and the appointment of Church Representatives on Local Authority Education Committees.’

Taken together, these proposals amount a defence of the status quo, which would serve to maintain the existing double-layer of religious privilege in Scotland. The ‘first layer’ is the the privileged position of the Church of Scotland over other Christian denominations, which is to be defended by special connection between the monarchy and the kirk and by the legal recognition of the kirk as Scotland’s ‘national church’. In the ‘second layer’, the privileged position of Christianity over other religions, and over the non-religious, is to be expressed in the maintenance of chaplaincies and sectarian education (and on this the Monsignor in all his finery and the Minister in his dark Geneva gown combine, to share between them the spoils of their condominium over the minds and souls of children).

I do not wish to portray the Church of Scotland as a villain. Although it has many blind-spots, its record of contribution to Scotland’s public life is, on the whole, quite beneficial.  Its support was instrumental in bringing about a Scottish Parliament, and thereby giving Scotland, for the first time in its history, a popularly elected legislative assembly of its own. Moreover, the kirk stood up for the values of Scottish society, and for humanity, at a time when Thatcher sought to turn us all into selfishly utilitarian economic units. It continues to do so today: the Report of the Special Committee on the purposes of Economic Activity provides an penetrating analysis of our economic woes; its articulation of a ‘Christian Left’ critique of neo-liberal capitalism outstrips anything to emerge from the secular left in the last three or four decades, and is well worth investigating.

The Church of Scotland, unlike the Church of England, can take this critical line against the dominant forces of economic power because of its unique form of establishment. The Church of England cannot do this. From the beginning, the Church of England’s raison d’être has been to prop up the rich and powerful; it has no other purpose but to dowse the throne in incense, to paint a veneer of religious legitimacy over the king and ‘all in authority’, and to whip up the simple into adulation on state occasions. Those who doubt this analysis may contrast the response of the Church of England to the Occupy St Paul’s movement with its response to Thatcher’s funeral. In one, the half-hearted (and ultimately futile) attempt of one brave cleric to support the people against the rich and the rulers was quickly stamped out; in the other, the ‘church’ played its role superbly, bringing all the wiles and pomp of priestcraft to the aid of the establishment.

The Church of Scotland, for all its faults, is spared from such embarrassments. Its established status and legal privileges are combined with – one might almost say alleviated by – the internal liberty of the presbyterian system. And yet, it remains wedded to the idea, intrinsic to all religious establishments, that the only way to exercise influence is to be entwined, at some fundamental legal or constitutional level, with the state. This idea is what motivates the kirk to defend its privileges (its liberty, on the other hand, is in no doubt, provided that we have a Constitution guaranteeing freedom of religion on equal terms to all). It is terrified that without privilege, without institutional recognition and authority, it will lose its voice, and will no longer be able to speak out on public affairs.

My contention is that this idea is false. A church without such recognition and privilege may still have an beneficial influence in society, when it speaks with genuine authority (and not as ‘the scribes and the pharisees’). To see the truth of this, one must only look at all the good done by non-conformist and dissenting churches, from the Baptists to the Quakers, during the 18th and 19th centuries. They enjoyed only the most limited and grudging toleration. Their members were, until well into the 19th century, excluded from Parliament, from all public and municipal employments, from the universities, and even from ‘polite society’. And yet they acted as the public’s social conscience in the face of slavery, war, child labour, squalor, and all the evils and horrors of industrialisation. They provided the moral foundations of the old Liberal Party and of every progressive movement from Trade Union organisation to Women’s Suffrage. All this was achieved without seats in the House of Lords, or oaths at coronations, or membership of Education Authorities. In insisting that privilege and legal recognition are necessary in order to have beneficial influence on society, the Church of Scotland is displaying a remarkable lack of faith in the authority and transforming potential of its own message.

An independent Scotland needs a written Constitution. It needs clear decision-making structures and authoritative procedural ground-rules for democracy that are endorsed by the people and are binding on the Government and Parliament. Alongside that Constitution, either explicitly as a preamble, or implicit in its substantive provisions, there is a case for ‘covenantal’ declaration: a statement, not of exclusive ideological beliefs, but of basic shared values, which sets out the ethical standards to which we hold one another as fellow-citizens.

What Scotland does not need, though, is a creed. Unfortunately, that is precisely what the Church of Scotland’s report, in seeking constitutional recognition of the idea that Scotland is a ‘Christian nation’ with an established national church, is trying to promote. It would divide citizens into those of the first class, who truly belong, since they share the creed of the established church, and those of the second class, who are citizens but not believers.

The kirk is right in recognising that church and state both have their role to play in the creation of a good society. But a good society, as judged by the standards of Christ’s teaching, is not created by having a legally recognised national church, nor by requiring the head of state to be a nominal Protestant, nor by allowing priests and ministers to get their hands on schools. All these things have the forms of godliness, but deny the power thereof. Rather, a good society is created by improving the lives of the ‘least of these’: by showing mercy and compassion to prisoners, by offering dignity and a worthy livelihood to the poor, by ensuring that everyone has a seat at the table of fellowship and a voice in public deliberations. The state’s role is to be the guarantor of freedom, justice and the rule of law, and the ultimate steward of the common good. The church’s role (alongside secular charities, trade unions, guilds, mutual societies, and a host of other organisations and associations in a pluralistic society) is to be a conscientious voice for the voiceless and a practical help to the helpless; the Son of Man, let us remember, came not to be served, but to serve. The service of the church to society requires no privilege, no recognition, no establishment, no entanglement, only freedom.