Here Rev Chris Knights speaks about his experience of how the Church can support the community whilst staying neutral during the lead up to the Independence Referendum in Scotland. These are his thoughts on what the church role should be and how he organised and hosted a hustings for his local community.
Here in Scotland, much of public life is currently dominated by the forthcoming Independence Referendum. On September 18th people North of the Border, including those aged 16 and 17, will be asked to say whether or not they agree that Scotland should be an independent country. And both the Scottish Government and the Westminster Parliament have said that they will be bound by the outcome of that Referendum vote. If a majority of the residents of Scotland vote ‘Yes’ to Independence, Scotland will leave the UK and become a separate nation in Spring 2016. If a majority vote ‘No,’ Scotland will continue to be a member of the broader UK, albeit still with considerable differences in many aspects of life from how things are in England – as has been the case for many years. The Scottish legal and educational systems have been quite different from those in England since well before Devolution and the re-establishing of the Scottish Parliament in the late 1990s, and Devolution has brought further differences – we don’t pay for prescriptions, students from Scotland at Scottish Universities don’t pay tuition fees, and so on. In the case of a ‘No’ the main Westminster political parties have committed themselves to even greater Devolution for Scotland, though precisely in what way is yet to be completely spelt out.
The current SNP government at Holyrood was elected on a clear promise to hold a Referendum on Independence, and the time for that Referendum to take place is almost upon us. All the mainstream Christian Churches in Scotland have deliberately remained avowedly neutral on the Independence issue, and rightly so. It is impossible to discern which is the more ‘Christian,’ which will best further the Kingdom of God, or which will do the most for the poorest and most marginalised in our communities between Scotland becoming and Independent Nation and remaining a part of the UK.
However, while remaining neutral, and containing within their memberships both people strongly in favour of independence and those strongly against it, the Churches have been extremely concerned to help ensure that the people of Scotland (and not just Scottish church people) are as fully informed as possible about what the issues are around the question of Independence, and what the likely consequences will be, both of Independence and of remaining in the wider UK, and have been concerned to offer opportunities where people can hear what the issues are and can seek clarification by asking genuine questions and by getting genuine answers.
The Churches have also been concerned to offer safe contexts where these things can be done with dignity, with courtesy and with respect for others, even when people strongly disagree with each other.
So, it has been the case that, over the past few months, Churches in quite a lot of places in Scotland have hosted and have staged Independence Referendum Hustings events, open to all in their local communities, where speakers from both sides of the debate have been able to present their case and to answer questions.
It hasn’t been an entirely straightforward or risk-free process to stage such Hustings events! Firstly, it’s been important to give equal weight and prominence to each side. That has included getting speakers from each side who can obviously be seen to be ‘on a par’ with each other. Here in Musselburgh, I was in the good position of having an MSP from the SNP (so in favour of a Yes vote) and an MP from Labour (and in favour of a No vote) who were willing to come and be in the same place at the same time as each other. But I did make bit of a faux pas with the publicity poster! I included the logos of both the ‘Yes’ and the ‘Better Together’ campaigns, which sounds most equitable, except that the ‘Better Together’ campaign’s logo is blue wording on a blue background – and it couldn’t easily be recognised and so some people thought that the Church was promoting the Yes campaign! I changed it as soon as it was pointed out to me, but ….
Then there was the issue of publicity being given out at the event by each ‘side’ – one speaker asked if he could bring leaflets to give out, and it was only once I had got the agreement of the other one to also bring leaflets and both to agree that everyone attending would be given a copy of both leaflets by Church people that I allowed it to happen.
I also had to face a few Church people who were determined that the Church should stay out of politics and so shouldn’t be holding such events at all! If it was an event that specifically supported one particular side or party I would have agreed, but not for an even-handed Hustings event. However, this is part of the challenge for we who are committed to Christian community engagement – some of our brothers and sisters in Christ view us as somehow compromising the Faith by our work in, with and for ‘the world.’
And there was a risk of disruption. At one Hustings event in an adjoining town, some of those attending had started booing one of the speakers, another had been threatened with disruption by a group of local militant Orangemen! I had to alert the local police, and also to make clear in my opening remarks that it was important for all of us to treat others, especially those with whom we disagreed, with respect and courtesy and to conduct ourselves with dignity. I was helped by the fact that my two speakers get on well with each other, which I was able to acknowledge in my introduction – at which point they shook hands with each other! That set the tone for the whole evening – and there was no disruption, either from sections of the audience or from outsiders, thank God!
It was a good evening and many people, Church folk and non, have expressed their appreciation for it. It showed the Church(es) in a good light, as interested in and concerned about the key issues of the day, and offered a neutral and safe context for the arguments for both sides to be presented and for genuine questions to be asked, and answered. But it was tiring – for the speakers and for me. I was exhausted by the time I got home! But it was most definitely worth it, for the Church, for the local community and for the relationship between the two.
The next challenge for the Churches comes immediately after 18th September. For whatever the outcome of the Referendum, there will be many who will be disappointed and many who will be jubilant, and a way must be found to enable all to work together for the future of Scotland, whether that is as an independent nation or as a continuing part of the UK. And while it might be too strong to speak of the need for ‘Reconciliation,’ for Scotland is not South Africa and not Northern Ireland, with their historic and tragic and violent divisions, there will be a need to help people to relate to each other and work with each other and to bridge the divides that have grown up in this country in the past few years. And already some Scottish politicians are saying that they will be looking to the Churches to help with that. So our job is not done when the Referendum day comes. It will be only just beginning.