Scotland's religious future

Published: 14 May 2014

The big tent of an independent Scotland has space for a national church, according to the government’s education secretary. Mike Russell MSP spoke with University of Edinburgh divinity professor Mona Siddiqui about Scotland’s religious future on Wednesday, 7 May 2014. The choice of the secretary is not an idiosyncratic one: Russell’s current brief gives him responsibility for Scotland’s denominational schools; and whilst at Edinburgh, he studied theology at New College.

Although Russell noted at several moments—once, quite eloquently—his admiration for the Great Disruption of 1843 as a defining moment in Scotland’s history, his vision for a future potential independent Scotland is not disruptive to the status quo. The minister said he would prefer a continued role for the Church of Scotland, written into a constitution. Russell is a member of the Scottish Episcopal Church and therefore not Presbyterian in either its established or its dissenting expressions.

Later in the Q&A, Russell mentioned that the values of a nation are often expressed in lofty and almost meaningless terms in a constitution’s preamble; yet these, he said, are the parts that are most frequently quoted. Richard Holloway, in the audience, took the opportunity to suggest that the Church of Scotland’s legacy could be included in such a preamble, freeing the constitution proper to articulate a vision for Scotland without any preferment. Russell would not be drawn, insisting that such a tack would “take something away” from the Kirk, causing harm which he preferred to avoid.

Appeasement seemed a keen value for Russell. Siddiqui raised a recent report called Imagining Scotland’s Future, organised by (of all groups) the Church of Scotland, which asked people to rank the values they wanted to see in a future Scotland. “Equality” was number one, whilst “tolerance” was number 10. Russell supported tolerance, putting it closer to the top of his own list. This value was then tested in two seams of the evening’s conversation: religious diversity and equal marriage.

Siddiqui proposed that Scotland’s religious diversity makes the privileged position of the Kirk difficult if not untenable. In reply, Russell said the Kirk’s uniqueness rests on its past role in setting the foundation for how Scots envision government and the ethical underpinnings of citizenship. He would not call Scotland “a Christian nation” in the way Prime Minister David Cameron depicted Britain, but to remove the Kirk’s role from the future would be a deliberate act of relegation. In answer to those of other faiths who disagreed, he begged their tolerance, asking what oppression the Kirk’s “national church” status caused them.

Siddiqui, a Muslim with expertise in Islamic law, also asked whether Islam itself represented a limit to that tolerance, should its adherents express views counter to Scotland’s mainstream. Russell wondered how much of the challenge was due to representations of Islam in the media, mentioning his fellow cabinet minister Humza Yousaf, a thoroughly engaged Scot who identifies as Muslim. Siddiqui countered that Yousaf is not representative of many Muslims living here; Russell was not so sure he wasn’t. At any rate, he was not prepared to legislate against people’s thoughts and dispositions, though public acts were another matter.

This limit to tolerance was again put to Russell in the discussion on equal marriage. Holyrood’s recent legislation enshrined a power which Russell said he had long been fighting for. Nonetheless, he recognised that others in Scottish Parliament, let alone across Scotland, did not agree with the legislation. This is fine, said Russell, and moreover, he insisted that Scotland be tolerant enough to hear them when they give their opinion that equal marriage is wrong. His example was of a schoolteacher expressing her views.

Audience members jumped on this example in the Q&A, horrified that he would permit a schoolteacher to make such a statement in the classroom—perhaps in which one or several pupils were the children of a same-sex couple. Russell was sympathetic (tolerant?), but he suggested that to satisfy them, the only alternative would be to delimit teachers from making any statements whatsoever about their beliefs, and he found this stance profoundly intolerant. As education secretary, he said, he had faith that teachers are trained to discuss all manner of issues with their pupils in appropriate ways, and if there were problems of teachers upsetting students with strong statements, school administrators had the tools to deal with them.

Incremental change was his overriding theme. As progressive as Scotland has been, it must be tolerant of those who do not move as quickly or even want to move in the same direction. A lecturer at Edinburgh’s Free Church of Scotland College, glad of Russell’s admiration of the Disruption, asked whether he would acknowledge that the truth claims of Christianity were acceptable to the Scottish Government. Russell simply answered that no, he could not go that distance. So whilst he would not wish the Church of Scotland to be written out of a potential constitution, the claims it makes about God, the land, and its people would not be written in.

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