On 6 January 1977, the outgoing Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Reverend Thomas Torrance, took to his feet at a lunchtime meeting of Edinburgh's Rotary Club in the city's well-heeled West End. A prominent theologian and formidable Professor of Christian Dogmatics at the University of Edinburgh, Torrance was charged with giving the Rotary Club's Keynote Address on the issue which had perplexed Scotland throughout the decade – devolution.
Despite nearly two decades of decline, which had seen the Kirk's flock fall from just over 1.3 million in 1956 to nigh over 900,000 a few years after Torrance's address, the Church of Scotland remained one of the country's most prominent public institutions and was well placed to bring a sense of perspective to the often rancorous debate on the constitutional question.
In keeping with the Kirk's longstanding support for Home Rule, Torrance expressed his backing for the creation of a Scottish Assembly, albeit as a prelude to a federalised Britain. For the outgoing Moderator, the creation of the first Scottish legislature in nearly 300 years would 'take the political pressure and the heat' off the Church of Scotland, whilst still allowing it to 'care for the soul of the Scottish people' by ensuring that 'it might impart spiritual and moral cohesion' to both the assembly and the country at large.
Although R D Kernohan, a self-styled Christian 'political conservative' and the former editor of Life and Work
, was downbeat about the Kirk's supremacy – remarking that 'only at the graveside, or more often now by the unseen fiery furnace, is the Kirk still in any definable sense the religious institution of the Scottish people' – the Church of Scotland made a significant contribution to the country's first devolution referendum.
Politically, the Church of Scotland instinctively supported devolution in March 1979 – as it did two decades later when it supported the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 – although its primarily pro-assembly advocacy rankled with many 'No'-supporting parishioners. As would be the case during the 2014 independence referendum, the Kirk had to balance the personal politics of the clergy and its faithful, with its responsibility to nurture tolerance, compassion and neighbourliness.
Whilst the Kirk was unable to instruct its ministers to recommend a 'Yes' vote, the Church and Nation Committee did release a statement to be read from the pulpit on Sunday 18 and Sunday 25 February 1979, which urged Scots, regardless of their stance on devolution, to make the effort to vote. Although the statement did not directly tell Scots to vote 'Yes', it recalled the 1978 General Assembly's insistence that the government must ensure that the establishment of an assembly be 'pressed forward with all speed' and concluded by stressing that 'it is vitally important that everyone who has a vote should use it'.
Although the Church and Nation Committee was keen to foster a high level of democratic engagement at the referendum, it was also seeking to counteract the effects of the Cunningham Amendment which stated that 40% of the electorate must vote 'Yes' for it to take effect. Put simply, the statement was emphatic that any 'failure to vote will be treated as a "No" vote'.
Although 'No'-supporting clergymen (including Andrew Herron, a prolific 'No' campaigner, who became chairman of the 'Scotland is British' campaign in November 1977) believed that the statement gave the 'Yes' side a significant advantage, some devolutionist ministers agreed that the Kirk should not have intervened in such a contentious party-political issue. Despite his own strength of feeling that Scotland should have an assembly, Reverend Crawford Anderson, of Aberdeen's Ruthrieston West Church, argued that, whilst he believed it was 'the Christian duty' to vote on 1 March, 'the Church should not take party lines from the pulpit'.
One minister in Aberdeen's West End (who was supported by Reverend Peter Davison, the Clerk of Aberdeen Presbytery) even made a formal complaint, claiming that the Church and Nation Committee's statement tarnished the sanctity of his pulpit. Another retired minister in East Whitburn, who produced and distributed 5,500 letters around his hometown urging his fellow residents to support the assembly, told the West Lothian Courier
that 'I would not have abused my position by sending such a letter when still an active minister'.
In recent years, as its run-ins with Scottish Conservatives during the Brexit negotiations demonstrated, the Church of Scotland's interventions in heated political issues have become increasingly contentious. Although, like Alan Alda's Hawkeye Pierce, I remain what M*A*S*H's
'resident celibate' Father Mulcahy once called 'a crazy agnostic', I believe that churches of all denominations continue to be well-placed to bring fellow feeling and a sense of our collective destiny to today's increasingly fractious public life.
Although many Scots revel in the nobleness of this country's ideals and the moral authority with which we conduct ourselves, the pandemic and the 'Salmond Inquiry' have highlighted our lesser angels. Two decades after the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, politics north of the border is a zero-sum game, where success is all too often measured by whether or not we've got our noses in front of England, with scrutiny and proper accountability being seen as little more than an illegitimate infringement on a governing party's right to act without hindrance.
In a sense, whether Scotland becomes an independent nation or not remains immaterial, if we continue to conduct our national conversation in such a frenzied manner. As Gerry Hassan
put it in last week's Scottish Review
, 'somehow we have to reset our public conversations to rise above the noise and overblown rhetoric' and forge an atmosphere 'informed by generosity, exchange and listening' in which we can engage with those we disagree with with dignity, kindness and an appreciation of the sincerity with which they hold their however misguided opinions. For the more cynical among us, trite and twee – perhaps, but surely essential? Politics has never been gentle and conciliatory, but few observers could have missed the increasing fractiousness in recent years, where every issue descends into a shouting match, shredding one's nerves and testing everyone's patience.
In an increasingly secular society, many would, understandably I think, question the right of religious institutions to pronounce on matters of policy. However, 42 years on from the abortive assembly referendum, Scotland's civic society could and should play a greater role in moderating public life, helping to temper its worst excesses, calm tempers and inform debate. Whilst the Prime Minister and the First Minister set the tone of political mêlées and should be looking to conduct themselves by example, civic organisations of all stripes, from churches to trades unions and even patients' groups, bring light and lived experience to our exchanges.
In June 1977, a report by the British Council of Churches sought to lessen the divisions that the constitutional question raised, by reminding Christians that their 'first loyalty is to a man who died for all mankind'. Whilst its counsel that Scottish Christians not become 'simply, uncritically, nationalists' may raise eyebrows today, as we approach the next round of elections to the Scottish Parliament, its desire that we foster a more Christian approach to politics remains an unfulfilled but noble ambition for the 2020s.
Tom Chidwick is a contemporary historian, who splits his time between London and Edinburgh. He is currently writing a history of the 1979 referendum on the creation of a Scottish Assembly