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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 21 September 2014


So the Union is safe – for now. I won’t pretend that I am not mightily relieved at the result of the Scottish vote. I was surprised to be moved by the news: perhaps I hadn’t realised how much I had invested in being a citizen of Great Britain. I am sure many of you share my gratitude that we have drawn back from the brink, but perhaps not everyone, so I am speaking personally. But we all agree that now it is time for healing and reconciliation, for the promises made to Scotland to be honoured, and for all the peoples of the United Kingdom to grow together. This is a great opportunity for our nation to flourish in a new way. We must not squander it.
Last week we installed a candle stand in front of the altar of Queen Margaret of Scotland and invited people to pray for this momentous decision. What did it have to do with an English cathedral? Our history tells us why we should have a special care and regard for the Scottish people. First, Cuthbert symbolises our long involvement with Scotland. He was born in what we now call the Borders, and entered the monastery at Old Melrose. He was not a Scot but a Northumbrian: the great northern kingdom at that time extended right up to the Firth of Forth. Only after the Conquest was the present border more or less defined. So Cuthbert has always led this Cathedral to look north rather than south.
Secondly, we know that the Scottish king Malcolm III was present when the foundation stone of this Cathedral was laid in 1093. I like to think that his wife, the saintly Queen Margaret whose confessor was Prior Turgot was there too. Thirdly, this Cathedral, next to the Castle on this acropolis, were built as a bastion against invasions from the hostile north: ‘half church of God, half castle ’gainst the Scot’ as Sir Walter Scott says in the lines etched on the parapet of Prebends’ Bridge. In these northern marches, relations with Scotland were always volatile. The great Neville Screen was given in thanksgiving for victory against the Scots at the Battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346. In 1513 Cuthbert’s banner was carried into another Anglos-Scottish battle at Flodden.

Finally, in one of the darkest episodes in our history in the winter of 1650-51, hundreds of Scots captured at the Civil War Battle of Dunbar were marched into England by Cromwell, and imprisoned here to die of cold, hunger or disease. I doubt that any English cathedral is as implicated in a long Scottish history as ours. But here in England, it is the future as well as the past that has greatly concerned many of us. It isn’t dramatizing things to say that the very existence of Great Britain was at stake. We need to be clear: a Union without Scotland would have made England a very different country from the country we grew up with within the United Kingdom. So when the Supreme Governor of the Church of England said that the decision was ‘a matter for the people of Scotland alone’, I’m afraid I needed loyally to dissent. A Yes vote would profoundly have affected everyone who is a citizen of this country, not least those like us who live so close to the Border.
But for me as a Christian, this debate has not only been about self-government, currency, immigration, Trident and oil, or even about social justice and welfare. It has raised deep theological and spiritual questions. We have heard surprisingly little about from the Church of England about is. So I want to ask: what light does a Christian mind shed on a decision that would always be divisive, even rancorous, where so much was at stake for England as well as Scotland? Running through the Bible is the idea of covenant which lies at the heart of God's relationship with human beings. God makes undertakings to his people; they in turn promise their fidelity to him as a response of gratitude and love. In the Bible, it is this insight about God’s character and what he asks from us that is at the heart of how we as individual human beings and as whole peoples relate to one another. ‘Better together’ is almost an echo of ‘It is not good for a human being to be alone’ in the book of Genesis. Therefore, any covenanted relationship based on mutual trust, fidelity, common purpose, interdependence and a care for one another’s welfare has to be better than being independent and alone. The breakup of the united kingdom of Israel and Judah after Solomon’s reign was seen as a disaster by the prophets because it flew in the face of a covenant between peoples. 
So I believed that for Scotland to say No to a hugely successful Union of 300 years would have been a tragedy. But it would also have been to turn away from the hard-won vision of what has bound our four nations together. The point is not whether Scotland could be a successful, prosperous nation on its own.  I am sure it could. But the Christian ideals of mutuality, partnership and service surely point in the opposite direction from narrow nationalisms and self-interest. The question for the UK’s member nations isn’t only, what are we getting out of the Union? but what can we put into it? What gifts and experience do we bring to it so that all our peoples flourish? I believe that we should be investing more in the relationships between us, not dismantling them, especially at a time when the world is hurtling dangerously in the direction of ever greater fragmentation and risk to peace. 

The United Kingdom is not a perfect union. We English have a history of treating the Scots with disdain, even contempt. We need to repent of this and start treating Scotland as an equal honoured partner in the Union. We should always have celebrated the intellectual, social, economic, cultural and spiritual benefits Scotland has brought to the UK, not belatedly talking them up in the last few panicky weeks. No doubt much will need to change in the way Scotland, and the United Kingdom are governed. A new covenant between Scotland and England will mean greater devolution, and this could blaze a trail for the regions of England too, not least here in the overlooked North East. The way ahead will be far from easy.  But I want to underline the words federation and partnership: these are the covenant virtues that should inspire us to work together so that all our peoples respect and celebrate one another’s charisms, dignity and worth. 

On St Matthew’s Day we remember a man whose imagination was stretched by meeting the Messiah. He saw that there was a larger future awaiting him in the company of Jesus and those who followed him. Through a life-changing relationship, he gave his life to the vision that so inspired him. He recognised that to join the community of Jesus’ disciples could only immeasurably enrich his life: better together than being held captive within the prison of self-absorption and self-interest. 

Is God calling the peoples of the United Kingdom to make a similar transformative journey? This is what we could model as we embrace newly-covenanted relationships among the rich diversity of its peoples. Scotland, thank God you did not leave. We need you as we travel together. It is not good to be alone. As they say on the Isle of Skye, ‘May all evil sleep, may all good awake as you walk the path ahead.’ God bless Scotland. God bless all our peoples.

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