Address to Free Church General Assembly

Neil MacLeod is a solicitor and former committee member of CFI.  Here is the full text of his address to the GeneralAssembly of the Free Church of Scotland on 19th. May 2014:

Moderator, fathers and brethren.

Thank you for your invitation to attend the General Assembly this morning and to address you as one minister to other ministers – each of whom has been called to serve the people of Scotland in our respective areas of responsibility.

You can see I’ve brought a copy of the Annals of the Disruption with me.  Just to be clear, I’ve had this for 20 years!  Obviously, I’ve been looking at it again and it does make fascinating reading.  I may have occasion to refer to it in the next 10 minutes.

I welcome this opportunity to speak to you on the theme of the ‘the place of Christianity in a post-referendum Scotland’.   I won’t be the first member of the Government to have addressed this issue.

In January the First Minister spoke at the  Scottish Church Theological Society Annual Conference in Crieff on the theme “The Saltire and the Cross: church, State and National Identity – A political view”.

In April, John Swinney, Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth delivered the annual Kirkgate Lecture in Linlithgow in which he consider the question “What has the Church ever done for us?”

Earlier this month Mike Russell, Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning engaged in a well attended public conversation on “Religion in Scotland” with Professor Mona Siddiqui of New College at the University of Edinburgh.

And last week the First Minister had his annual meeting with Church Leaders and Representatives, which was attended by one of your previous Moderators, Rev Alex MacDonald.

These meetings were in addition to the regular meetings government ministers have with all  church leaders.

Indeed, you might be interested to know that in 2013 government ministers had at least 24 meetings with Church leaders and Christian organisations, and this year alone there have been at least 17 such meetings.

And this doesn’t include meetings with civil servants!

This illustrates that as a Government we recognise the important role that the church and Christian community play in Scotland, and appreciate and recognise the importance of  regular engagement with Scotland’s churches even if sometimes we take a different position on particular matters.

As you will be aware the 2011 Census indicates that Scotland is becoming an increasingly diverse society with 54 per cent of the population of Scotland stating their religion as Christian, whilst 37 per cent of people stated that they had no religion.  Just over 2% of the population belong to non-Christian faiths.

As a Government we value and appreciate the contribution that all of Scotland’s diverse faith and belief communities make to enrich us as a country.

But of course we recognise and acknowledge, in particular,  the substantial and enduring influence of the Christian faith in transforming and inspiring Scotland’s people and culture and contributing to making us who we are as a nation.

As a Government we fully recognise and value the profound and historic influence of the Christian faith upon the people of Scotland – with its focus on such values as compassion, justice, personal and corporate integrity and a respect for education and learning – and we understand that the Church and Christian community has been pivotal in creating the identity and the values of the Scotland we know today.

Perhaps I can illustrate it in this way.

It is certainly the case that without the Catholic Church there would have been no Scottish survival in the wars of independence, and therefore, no Scotland.

The Declaration of Arbroath (1320) is a religious document as well as a national manifesto and includes this magnificent passage based on Paul’s letter to the Galatians:  “there is no weighing nor distinction of Jew and Greek, Scotsman or Englishman” in the eyes of God.

Scotland’s history thereafter is one where religious debate was central to our development as a nation.  That includes the significance of the Disruption of 1843 which brought to a head the “Ten Years Conflict” over relations between the Church and State and which ultimately fed into the 1921 Church of Scotland Act and Articles Declaratory of the Church of Scotland.

This action – of resisting the encroachments of the state on the legitimate and lawful liberties and activities of groups and organisations – remains important to the identity of the people of Scotland.

Scotland’s churches, including the Free Church, will continue to play a significant and vital role at the heart of many of our most vulnerable and disadvantaged communities in a post-referendum Scotland – helping to transform lives; promoting social justice; and supporting some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in Scotland today.

Such faith-based community service includes:

work to support, relieve suffering and meet the long-term needs of homeless and other vulnerable people throughout Scotland by Bethany Christian Trust – an organisation supported by many Free Church people;

  • the Road to Recovery project, which was developed in response to the increasing problem of alcohol & drug abuse in Inverness;
  • the Seeds of Hope community project based in Easter Ross; and
  • the Welcome and Bothy Projects in Govanhill, Glasgow

Turning to the question of a Constitution for Scotland:  there is understandably a lot of interest in the idea of a modern, written constitution for our country.

Regarding the areas of particular concern to you, the White Paper proposes no change to the legal status of any religion or of Scotland’s churches. (Q. 590). That is our position as a Government.

The months leading up to the referendum on 18 September have ignited a passionate nationwide debate about the future of our diverse and vibrant country which has, of course, involved the Christian and other faith groups and communities.

As a Government we welcome the churches’ engagement in the lead-up to the referendum, including the recent publication of What Kind of Nation? Manifesto for a future Scotland by the Evangelical Alliance Scotland, and Imaging Scotland’s Future: Our Vision by the Church of Scotland.

As you will be aware both of these documents  focus on the values which people want to see in Scotland, and both will provide a framework for continuing nation-wide debates.

I dare say that many of you will be involved in such conversations.

Equality and human rights will be at the heart of an independent Scotland, and will be enshrined in a written constitution – which will express our values and aspirations and will bind the institutions of the state and protect individuals and communities from abuses of power.

It will enshrine the fundamental rights and the values we hold, including Scotland’s existing strong commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights which covers important rights such as liberty; the right to a fair trial; and freedom of speech, association, conscience and religion.

 And  – following independence – all existing rights and protections will remain in force and may even be strengthened or extended in consultation with the people of Scotland.

That is why we want to make the drafting of our permanent written constitution an inclusive process involving all the people of Scotland.

We also believe that the right time for a written constitution to be drafted is after independence, not before, through the mechanism of a Constitutional Convention in which everyone will be able to engage fully in the process of planning for Scotland’s future.

Scotland’s churches and faith communities will be fundamental to that process.

After all, the churches played a major role in the establishment of devolution, and made significant contributions to the discussions of the Constitutional Convention during the 1990s.

As the First Minister said at the Scottish Church Theology Society Annual Conference in January this year:

“One of the first and most exciting tasks we will face in an independent Scotland will be to establish a process for drawing up a new constitution. This process will benefit from the direct input of the churches. It is inconceivable that it wouldn’t. … [The] churches and faith groups will be fundamental to that process.”

He also commented at his recent meeting with Church leaders and representatives that “it should also be possible to recognise Scotland’s Christian tradition … without excluding the contribution of other faith communities.”

The content of a constitution will, of course, be for the people of an independent Scotland to decide.

It is also important to note that from the time that Scotland becomes independent, in March 2016, the principle of continuity of effect will apply.

Nothing will change until and unless a new parliament decides that it should change.

That means, among other things, that the Church of Scotland Act 1921, will remain in force.

Conclusion

Now I see that last night you had a good debate on the implications of the referendum vote for Scotland’s future.

I encourage you to continue participating and contributing to the debate.

But I’m going to be a little mischievous and leave you with a rather provocative quote from

The Annals of the Parish.  This is by a Mr Wood from Elie, describing his visit to Dumfriesshire:

‘I was, I think, the last speaker, and after dwelling on the encroachments made by the Court of Session, confirmed by the final judgement of the House of Lords, and on the manner in which we had been treated in Parliament, where the voice of the Scottish Members had been overborne by the English majority, I said, on the spur of the moment, that such injustice was enough to justify Scotland in demanding the repeal of the Union.  With that, to my surprise, and somewhat to my consternation, the meeting rose as one man, waving hats and handkerchiefs, and cheering again and again.  No doubt the enthusiastic feelings of the people assisted our object, but I took care not to speak of repeal of the Union at our subsequent meetings.’*

 Moderator, if only, if only……..

Thank you.

* Rev Thomas Brown: Annals of the Disruption 1843, 2nd edition publ 1893, page 69