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A provocation to God

19 June 2012

1:00 PM

19 June 2012

1:00 PM

The notorious splitters in the Free Presbyterian Church are at it again. The Wee Wee Frees (who should not be confused with the more numerous Wee Frees) warn that Scottish independence is a risky ploy since the Act of Union copper-bottomed the protestant faith and any change to that, however well-intentioned, risks wrath and much else besides. It could be ‘a provocation to God’, no less.

It might be, you know. Though the SNP has devoted much time and effort to wooing the Catholic hierarchy, the fact remains that modern Scottish nationalism is an almost exclusively secular business. Indeed one could go further and suggest that though the nationalist revival has many causes, an oft-overlooked contributor to the SNP’s present ascendancy is the decline, indeed death, of religious Scotland.

It is not simply that the Kirk (that is, the Church of Scotland) tended to be Unionist by persuasion too. Rather that for as long as the Kirk was the chief embodiment and guarantor of Scottish distinctiveness there was less space and perhaps less need for a political movement predicated on protecting and advancing a distinct Scottish political identity or consciousness.

Of course other factors have made a contribution to the nationalist revival and one should always recall that correlation is not the same as causation. Nevertheless the Kirk’s decline has happened at the same time as the SNP’s long, slow rise to prominence. One might almost think of them as twin cable cars, one descending as the other climbs.

For years — centuries in fact — the Kirk was the most powerful institution in Scotland. It made Scotland a plainly, obviously, clear different place to England. Its decline must surely have created some kind of gap for a secular power to assert Scottish distinctiveness.

Indeed, viewed one way, one of Scotland’s greater achievements since 1707 has simply been to survive as a place apart. Linked to England and the rest of the United Kingdom, certain but a place apart nonetheless. The Church of Scotland was a vital part of that achievement.

Now we inhabit a secular country however, that distinctiveness (especially when the ties of empire frayed as well) became harder to discern. Indeed one can argue, plausibly I think, that Scotland is now more like England than it has been in centuries and that at least part of the nationalist revival is predicated upon a desire to retain a sense of difference and insist upon, if you like, a form of Scottish exceptionalism.

For a long time there was no need for this to be a matter of party politics since the presbyterian faith made this exceptionalism manifest. This is no longer so; hence the rise of political nationalism to fill a space vacated by the Kirk.

As I say, there are other reasons for the nationalist revival but the death of God is one of them too.

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