General Assembly

Churchmen consider #indyref arguments

May 20, 2014

The Free Church General Assembly had a respectful and gracious debate on the independence referendum as two leading figures addressed commissioners giving both points of view.

Former Free Church Moderator Rev Dr John Ross presented a unionist perspective, arguing that the Scottish Government were offering an “independent secular Scotland” with a ‘yes’ vote.

However solicitor Mr Neil DM MacLeod, giving a nationalist point of view, said this was a “false dichotomy” in that the choice on offer was a secular Scotland or a secular Britain.

There was no vote held tonight, and the Free Church of Scotland will not be telling its ministers and members how to vote in September’s historic referendum.

Setting out his position, Rev Dr John Ross (pictured above right) said that in September “we run the risk of altering Scotland’s Christian landscape beyond recognition”.

The Glenurquhart and Fort Augustus minister explained: “Since the Reformation of 1560, Presbyterian Christianity’s place has been close to the centre of political and public life.

“For 450 years, through a formal compact between Church and state, Presbyterianism has helped shape our national destiny.

“Now in the name of inclusion and equality this ancient prerogative is to be repudiated.

“Am I alone in believing that the place officially assigned to Christianity in an independent Scotland will be very small and marginal?

“The fact of the matter is, that despite a majority of Scottish people considering themselves to be Christian, in a future independent Scotland, as a matter of public policy, and for the first time since the Reformation, Christianity is likely to be officially marginalised, deprived of its status as the national religion.”

Mr Neil DM Macleod (pictured above left) responded: “Britain has promoted secularism, moral relativism and the cheapening of life.

“Abortion, Sunday Trading, the destruction of family life have led to a broken Britain. 

“A Britain that cannot be fixed and a ‘no’ vote gives your permission to continue that process. 
“You have the choice of change for an uncertain future where a ‘no’ vote means the Church has no voice, where a growing pace of change will push the church to the fringe, and our influence is no better that a bowling club. 

“Or you have the choice to vote ‘yes’ for positive change, where the church articulates a clear vision of the place it should have in the nation state; what other rights would we want to see, for example whether the church should advocate for protections for freedom of religion or freedom of worship.”

The Edinburgh St Columba’s elder also highlighted that the Free Church was far better connected to Holyrood than Westminster, and had been trying to influence a variety of issues at the Scottish Parliament.

Mr MacLeod had recently consulted with Education Minister Mike Russell, who revealed that he did not wish to see the legal position of the Church of Scotland changed in any written constitution in the event of a ‘yes’ vote.

With this in mind, Mr MacLeod said that the real battle was not “secularism against Christianity’ but rather over the particular rights we wish to see enshrined in a future constitution.

He concluded by saying change is coming to Scotland, and “the question is whether Church is willing to play its part in that process of change”.

However Dr Ross disagreed: “For the sake of Scotland’s future generations we dare not discard our precious 450-year-old inheritance for an illusory independence.

“If it is to be safe anywhere, the establishment principle and its constitutional public recognition of religion ought to be safe in our keeping.”

There were a range of questions including the future of the 1921 Church of Scotland Act, whether it was the Christian faith or the Church of Scotland that is established, how can Scotland have an established Church that persecutes Bible-believing Christians, and potential advice to undecided Christian voters. 

Both men were thanked for their measured and constructive speeches to warm applause from the Assembly.

Earlier in the evening commissioners heard the final reports of the Personnel and Communications Committees respectively.

Communications convener John Morrison urged the wider Free Church to make better use of the excellent youth magazine ‘Free’ and also ‘The Record’.

Ullapool minister Rev Alasdair Macleod encouraged congregations to keep using the Free Church bookshop, and gave an example of a recent bulk deal arrangements to heavily discounted Bibles could be sent to every home in the Coigach area.

Tomorrow commissioners will consider the Home Missions Board report, and there will also be a speech from Scottish Government minister Roseanna Cunningham on the place of Christianity in a post-referendum Scotland.