It comes as no surprise that the leader of the Scottish National Party, Nicola Sturgeon, should have called for a new referendum on the issue of independence and that the prime minister, Boris Johnson, should promptly have said no. This issue will not be resolved soon, but it could gain fresh traction if the next general election results in the SNP holding the balance of power in Westminster.
The last referendum in 2014 was a rancorous affair. In some cases, Catholic clergy were open in expressing pro-independence sympathies. Afterwards, when the referendum was defeated, the Church was less visible and vocal than it should have been in reconciling the two sides. This must not happen again. The Church does have a role in politics, but it emphatically does not have a party-political identity in respect of this divisive question. The role of the clergy is to unite communities, not to divide them. Scotland has a proud Catholic past and the Scottish Church has a strong and distinct Catholic identity, but this does not translate into support for one side on this vexed issue.
There are more pressing concerns that the Scottish Church must face. It has had, like other Churches, to weather a bruising series of sexual-abuse scandals. It has also witnessed an astonishing – and not unrelated – increase in the number of people distancing themselves from Christianity and from Catholicism. In 2020 there were more humanist than Christian wedding ceremonies in Scotland – 23 and 22 per cent respectively. Even more worryingly, far fewer people now identify as Christians at all. In 2011, over half of Scots said they were Christian; ten years later barely a third did so. The figures will be more obvious once the results of this year’s census are analysed, but a poll by the Humanist Association suggests that 70 per cent of young Scots aged 18-34 say they have no religion.
This is nothing less than a crisis of identity. Scotland, like Ireland, is now mission territory. Scottish bishops cannot reconcile their apostolic mandate with managing decline and closing churches. The young need to be catechised better; congregations need to be attracted back to worship, not just reminded of their renewed obligation to attend Mass. The Scottish Church needs new missionary zeal, a fresh sense of the beauty and vitality of the Gospel message. Much of the possibilities for renewal lie in its own traditions, especially the revival of pilgrimages to sites associated with the country’s monasteries and saints. Fifteen-hundred years ago last year, St Columba was born and went on to spread the word of God in Iona and beyond. That legacy must be honoured in the gift of Christ to new generations of Scots.
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