In the increasingly fierce debate over Scottish independence, the Church of Scotland is casting itself in the impeccably Christian role of conciliator.
Reverend John Chalmers, moderator of the church’s general assembly, this month announced plans to hold a service of reconciliation a few days after the September 18 referendum, aimed at healing political wounds inflicted by the bruising battle over whether to leave the UK.
Mr Chalmers says he is worried about a tone of bitterness, hostility and name-calling that he sees creeping into the debate. “I’ve seen it on both sides,” he says.
Yet the church’s intervention has hardly been universally welcomed. Some commentators say the need for reconciliation is overstated, given that apart from an unruly internet fringe of “cybernats”, Scotland’s independence debate has largely been civil and democratic. Other observers question the Protestant church’s credibility as a conciliator, citing the strains of its own doctrinal divisions.
The Church of Scotland is embroiled in longstanding argument over the appointment of gay ministers, a dispute that has seen a handful of its congregations split away in recent years.
A leading minister of the estranged Free Church, which split from the Church of Scotland in 1843, even denounced the idea of a service as a “cheap publicity stunt” by a “declining national church”.
Mr Chalmers waves aside such criticism, saying working for national unity after the referendum will be a task for all people of “goodwill”, religious or not.
How best to salve national political strains is not the only challenge facing the church, which is still widely known by the old Scots name “the Kirk”.
During a spirited debate on independence this week in the Kirk’s grand wood-panelled 19th-century Assembly Hall in Edinburgh, its former moderator the Very Reverend Lorna Hood voiced concerns about the implications for the church itself.
The “white paper” vision for independence published by the Scottish government last year contained only a single line on religion, Ms Hood complained.
Its bland statement that the government did not propose any change to the legal status of Scotland’s churches was far from sufficient given likely pressure from secularists to keep religion out of the written constitution that would govern an independent nation, she said.
“Surely we need more assurance than one line in a 600-page document,” she added.
The Kirk has seen itself as the nation’s church since the 16th century, a status reinforced by formal protections for its independent Presbyterian government written into the 1707 deal that united the Scottish and English parliaments and by later UK legislation.
Yet the Church of Scotland’s ability to assert its centrality to Scottish life has been hugely weakened in recent decades by the general decline in religiosity.
The Kirk still claims nearly 400,000 members out of Scotland’s population of 5.3m, but numbers have been declining at a rate of 3 per cent a year and only two of its nearly 800 ministers are under the age of 30.
Hopeful calls the Kirk made last year for the constitution of an independent Scotland to recognise that “human realms are under the authority of God” – and to include particular reference to the Church of Scotland – have won little political traction.
Church leaders hope that working with other religious groups, including a minority Catholic community that the Kirk once viewed with outright hostility, will help enshrine special status for religion if Scotland votes Yes in September.
Some in the Kirk saw this week’s independence debate among its leaders as an example of the leading role they feel it can still play in Scottish society.
Some ministers said independence was a chance to improve democracy, promote social justice and nuclear disarmament. Others fretted it would threaten ties of solidarity and identity across Britain. But all made their cases civilly and to polite attention.
“We have an opportunity to demonstrate a different way of conducting difficult conversations,” said John Sturrock, the professional mediator called upon to sum up.
“I think this afternoon has been a model.”