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Engaging with Scottish independence

Amid the confusion and frustration of party political wrangling, there is a greater rather than lesser need for Baptists to draw upon their own tradition of conversation and discussion, writes Stuart Blythe

Last Tuesday (26 November) First Minister Alex Salmond unveiled the White Paper on ‘Scotland’s Future’.  This is the Scottish National Party’s blueprint for an independent Scotland designed to encourage people to make a ‘Yes’ vote at the independence referendum next year.  I confess that at 649 pages it is a document I have not yet poured over in any detail.

In recent months several people outside of Scotland have asked me how I think the vote will go. For what it is worth, I think that at the moment the ‘Better Together’ campaign has the advantage in relation to matters economic through fear of the consequences of independence. On the other hand, the ‘Yes’ campaign is more inspirational in the vision it offers in relation to democracy and justice.

Theological engagement with this issue is not absent. In the past as in the present it has been offered primarily by people from the national Church, the Church of Scotland. Most recently I would highlight the work by the Revd Dr Doug Gay whose book on the subject Honey from the Lion will be published in January next year. Doug is a friend. His work has encouraged me to try and reflect from a specifically Baptist perspective. It has also made me aware of how little Baptist engagement with the issue seems to be taking place.

In talking here about Baptist engagement I am not primarily meaning spokespersons declaring on behalf of all Baptists a unified position. Rather I am referring to the more primal stage of Baptists intentionally discussing the issue with one another in the light of Scripture and in the presence of the Spirit.  Such is meant to be central to the Baptist way of being the church. Yet, I am aware of only a little engagement in this way at a national or congregational level.

Why the lack of engagement?
One reason given for this lack of intentional engagement on the subject of independence is a lack of interest. I am not convinced. Most people I ask intend to vote! Sometimes stated lack of interest means opposition to independence which is not the same thing. In the press, on social media, and in general talk, the issue is not simply often the content of conversation but is one that can animate it. It is a contentious issue among Baptists as well as among the general population. Why? Because people have opinions and it matters.

Rather than no interest I find interest but with a sense of some confusion, frustration, weariness and disillusionment with party political wrangling. Each campaigning side presents and reads statistics in their own way and confronts one another with questions that cannot be answered without cooperation between their arguing sides. We have something of a campaigning stalemate which the White Paper will not solve but intensify.

In such a context there is a greater rather than lesser need for Baptists to draw upon their own tradition of conversation and discussion. For such can offer to people an alternative space in which hopes and fears can be discussed with specific reference to Christian concerns.

'Not a proper subject matter for Baptist discussion and discerning?'
The above notwithstanding, I suspect that some feel that this ‘political’ issue is not the proper subject matter for Baptist discussion and discerning. This can, but need not, stem from reluctance to engage in all things political. In some circles the opinion seems to be that it is okay to engage on some political issues and particularly moral issues in order to influence governments, but not on the referendum issue itself which will determine the future nature of governance. Politics is essentially the way in which a society organises itself. Biblically and theologically I struggle to see the grounds on which we can justify placing this beyond the concerns of Christ or the witness of his Church (Col. 15-20).

Furthermore, historically when and where possible there have been Baptists who have not simply responded to matters political by trying to humanise their negative impacts, but by trying to influence the structural organisation of the political life, not least in the direction of democracy. The referendum vote is about the very organisation of governance marking it as a subject of importance and valid Baptist reflection.

What discerning together means - and its importance
Following on from the above, it may be, however, that Baptists are reluctant to engage in such discussion because they feel that discerning together must lead to a stated common opinion at least a congregational level. I do not think this is the case.  As well as emphasising congregational competence as Baptists we recognise individual conscience and accountability before Christ. To put that slightly differently: as Christians we exist as church gathered and scattered; we act as church gathered and scattered; we bear witness as church gathered and scattered. A congregational discussion may well decide, or even be predicated by conviction, but is an area where we act as the church scattered, each exercising our own 'vote' according to conscience.

Yet the conversation remains critical. For it ensures that we will exercise our own conscience, informed by the Scriptures and the hopes and fears of those people among whom we now confess through faith and baptism that we find our primary identity. Engaging in such conversation can also guard us as individuals from committing to notions of nationalism, British or Scottish, which are contrary to our now primary allegiance to the body of Christ. The process of discussing and discerning together need not, therefore, lead to a common opinion in order to be of value. The fact that it happens would also enable individual Baptists to comment on this issue as Baptists, not because they represent everyone but as those who speak informed by the conversation of others. This said, of course through the conversations, we may be surprised by the Spirit of God and find our minds and hearts changed not simply individually but together (Rom. 12:1-2).

Communal discernment - are we out of practice?
Of course a problem with all of the above may be that despite our claims we are actually not very good at engaging in these sorts of discussions and issues of discernment on any matter. Perhaps this issue is exposing a serious flaw, if not in our ecclesiology but in our practice of it.

We are not engaging because the truth is we don’t know how to do it in a constructive way. Group discussions and participation, let alone the sort that involves spiritual discernment, requires good facilitation and habits learned through doing. From education we can learn about group dynamics. From our own and other traditions we can learn about the spiritual dimensions. Some in Scotland are already experimenting with and trying alternative ways of communal discernment. Perhaps rather than abdicating responsibility on this issue it offers us an opportunity to engage and learn.

To put that differently, by paying attention to this issue and to the processes by which we engage, we maybe can become a bit more like people who ‘know how’ to engage better on other matters of ministry and witness. Baptist theologian Glen Stassen interestingly in discussing matters of democracy writes: ‘Churches that avoid controversial issues leave their members ill-equipped for faithfulness to Jesus Christ’ (A Thicker Jesus, WJKP, 2012, 76)

Of course, I have written the above from the perspective of a Scottish Baptist living in Scotland, although one who will be non-resident at the time of the referendum and not entitled to vote! Politically, independence is not simply a Scottish issue but has wider ramifications. I think it is regrettable as someone from South of the Border has pointed out that it was not discussed at the Scottish Baptist Assembly in October. I also think it could have found a valid space in the recent very good BMS Catalyst Live event. Working out Moltmann’s theology of Hope in relation to this matter would have been good contextual theology. Be this as it may, in the coming months I would like to see, at least at some levels, the type of conversations described above.

As part of them I would hope that they would include the participation of Baptists beyond Scotland as we model and bear witness to our primary identity in all of this – a new humanity in Christ. In this new humanity we can agree and disagree on the best governance for the societies of which we are a part. In turn, however, we can witness to an understanding that resists notions of ethnic and ‘hard’ nationalism that discriminates, dehumanises, or diminishes others from beyond our political boundaries. 

The Revd Dr Stuart Blythe is the acting Principal at the Scottish Baptist College and will take up the post as Rector of IBTS in Amsterdam in the summer of 2014. He blogs at http://politurgy.typepad.com/ where more reflections on Baptists and Scottish independence can be found

Baptist Times, 02/12/2013
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