The danger with the independence referendum is that few seem to have any idea of the scale of what’s envisaged. It’s not about what used to be called Home Rule. Nor is it a mere Devolution Upgrade. It’s about making England a foreign country. It’s about making Scotland independent in the same sense as Australia is independent: part of the Commonwealth, with occasional visits by HM the Queen as titular Head of State.
It’s October, the SNP party-conference is over, soon it will be September and any day now we should hear someone roll out the arguments for a Yes-vote vote in the forthcoming referendum.
The burden of proof lies on the apostles of negativity, who consistently disparage the last three hundred years of Scottish history as if the Union had prevented all progress and sapped us of all self-respect. Listening to them you would never believe that during these years we have successfully negotiated the industrial revolution, produced such world-class writers as Robert Burns and Walter Scott, nurtured cutting-edge scientists like Alexander Fleming, John Logie Baird and James Clerk Maxwell, and reared outstanding athletes such as Kenny Dalglish and Sir Chris Hoy.
Nor would you ever believe that since 1707 we have provided the UK with (at a quick count) seven Prime Ministers (and that’s before we count such other bearers of Scottish genes as W. E. Gladstone and Harold MacMillan); or that we have benefited from such social revolutions as free schooling, the Old Age Pension, universal franchise and the National Health Service.
Nor do separatists ever seem to notice that from the day of the Union Scotland has had its independent legal system, its independent kirk and its independent system of education; or that since devolution we have had control over health, police, housing and the environment; as well as a voice on all the matters still reserved to the Westminster Parliament, even when these are no concern of ours but impact the lives of only the South British.
Ashkar arrived in Edinburgh three years ago to begin his studies at the Free Church College: the second member of his family to join us (his brother, Aftab, is now a minister in Grangemouth).
Three months later Ashkar returned home. Britain’s misguided immigration rules (the concession of weak governments to mindless public clamour) forbade his wife to join him, and the thought of four lonely years in a cold, alien city was too much.
And so, two weeks ago he went as usual to his local church in Peshawar, near Pakistan’s north-west frontier, on Sunday morning. All Saints Church belongs to the Anglican Communion, yet clearly reflects its own location, even to the extent that its architecture resembles local mosques and all worshippers take off their shoes on entering the building.
But it was as they left that tragedy struck. While the congregation milled happily outside, greeting friends and exchanging news, two suicide bombers detonated their lethal vests. Packed with ball-bearings they wrought havoc. At least eighty five people were killed and over a hundred injured. Among the dead were Ashkar’s mother and his two nephews. Among the badly injured was his son, and such was the force of the ball-bearings that the church itself looked as if it had been riddled with bullets.
Three months have passed since Alastair McIntosh, by nature a generous spirit, sent me a copy of his most recent book, ‘Island Spirituality’, suggesting I might review it. I read it, and decided I couldn’t. Our views are diametrically opposed and had I been honest there would have been blood on the carpet. This was a New Age critique of Calvinism, repeating all the standard anti-Calvinist clichés while at the same creating the illusion of first-hand research by presenting a handful of selective quotations from one or two of the fifty-eight volumes which have come down to us from the Genevan Reformer. If future scholars adopt a similar procedure they will have no difficulty showing that I disapprove of Sgiathanchs; and that would be, at best, but a half-truth.
Last year’s Carloway Show was a washout. This year’s was bathed in sunshine, and that, added to the prospect of meeting people you hadn’t seen for years, plus the delights of burgers and candy-floss, was enough to attract some 2,000 visitors to what is now the best window on crofting in the Western Isles.
Historically, the Establishment Principle has meant (1) official state recognition of Christianity as the national religion (2) endowment of the church by the state and (3) civil government having a clearly defined responsibility with regard to religious matters. This responsibility extended to promoting the peace and unity of the church, ensuring the due observance of gospel ordinances and even the suppression of blasphemy and heresy (Westminster Confession, 23.3)
All this was possible in a world such as 17th century Scotland, where Christianity was the only religion, there was only one Christian denomination, and politicians and churchmen shared the same faith. But what can the Establishment Principle mean in a society where Christians are a minority, the church has broken up into literally thousands of denominations and political power lies in the hands of a determined secularism?
John Calvin probably never heard of the Western Isles, and many in the Western Isles certainly wish they had never heard of him.
There’s no point in re-traversing the old familiar allegations of his baneful influence on the arts; nor is there any point in defending him from the charge that it was his fault that in the 1970s a man from Barvas had to trudge the seven miles to Galson if he wanted a ‘Christian drink’. What really bugs me is that scarcely a day passes but the phrase ‘a narrow Calvinism’ walks across my computer-screen.
Today, Alexander Duff is largely forgotten, his memory eclipsed by his younger contemporary, David Livingston. Yet when Duff died in 1878, the Times contained a long obituary, Prime Minister Gladstone eulogised him and Scotland mourned as a nation that had lost its noblest son. Few then would have thought it possible that Duff would ever be forgotten, but forgotten he is, and nowhere more so than in the Highlands.
Modern Scotland usually has little interest in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. This year promises to be different. The Report on the ordination of homosexuals promises the media a heady mix of sex and splits, while evangelicals wait anxiously, wondering what kind of church will be left by the time the Assembly has done its business.
Meanwhile a mere hundred yards away the Free Church holds its own Assembly, and we have problems enough of our own. The most obvious is the recurring financial deficit. The Board of Trustees are quite rightly insisting that this cannot go on. The Church must match its expenditure to its income.
The Cambridge Companion to the Trinity, ed. Peter C. Phan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. xiv + 417pp. hb. £55).
This volume brought out the hidden statistician in me, and I found myself counting the proportions. Of the twenty-one contributors only one, Karen Kilby from the University of Nottingham, was working, at the time of writing, in the UK: a sombre reflection, surely, on the state of Systematic Theology in Britain. The provenance of the writers is not always clear, but at least fourteen are from the US. Three are from Korea; and the editor, Peter Phan, is originally from Vietnam, though now living in America.
Equally interesting is the denominational distribution. Nine appear to be Roman Catholic, with one each from the Lutheran, Greek Orthodox and Romanian Orthodox traditions, and another from the ‘Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)’. The stimulus given to Roman Catholic trinitarianism by the work of Karl Rahner has clearly not been matched by a corresponding stimulus to Protestant theology from the work of Barth and Moltmann. But then, the volume ignores both the late T. F. Torrance and the late Colin Gunton.