Belfast Telegraph

Why our churches will never escape Scot-free from politics

By Alf McCreary

The referendum on Scottish independence has been one of the momentous decisions in the history of these islands, and one of the big surprises was that it took politicians outside Scotland so long to waken up to the magnitude of the situation.

Long ago, I believed it would be a close contest and that many Scots would obey their hearts rather than their heads. In the event, the No campaign gained a convincing win with a solid 55% of the vote.

We live in bad-tempered times, and some of the verbal clashes in Scotland were reminiscent of the worst of the bitterness of the Northern Ireland exchanges.

Significantly, the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, the Rt Rev John Chalmers, had expressed his fear that the public debate in Scotland had been permeated by "something ugly". However, one of the striking aspects of the Scottish debate was that the Churches there did not take sides on this issue. Nevertheless, the Moderator in Scotland has already called for reconciliation.

He said: "We will have to work together to ensure a better future for Scotland."

That may be easier said than done, because a "better future" for Scotland is what the whole independence debate has been about.

Overall, the Scottish Churches, like the Queen, were wise in opting to rise above the politics of the debate, but this raises questions as to what Churches in Northern Ireland should do about the deadlocked political situation here.

It has become so bad that the back-biting over Peter Robinson's remarks about Stormont not being "fit for purpose" showed the deep bitterness within the body politic. Talk of turning to the Americans for help is an admission of our failure to put our own house in order.

The ordinary people are not fools, and can see from the body language that there is an unhappy political marriage between our political leaders and their parties. Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness look like about-to-split parents who go to a school prize day just for the look of it, but we all need better from Stormont than that.

Historically, and tragically, the Churches in Ireland have taken sides and have been part of the problem. Protestants are generally unionists, and Roman Catholics are generally nationalists and republicans.

In recent decades, the Churches have done much to show their togetherness and to move back from what were perceived to be totally "sectarian" positions, but they still have a joint role to play in pointing our politicians to a better way forward.

Sometimes, I wonder if the politicians take the Churches seriously enough.

Earlier this year, I criticised a joint statement from the Church leaders who were all too lenient in their encouragement for the politicians to pick up the pieces after the failed Haass talks.

Our politicians do need understanding, but at times they also need a good kick up the transom. It is easier for the Scottish Church leaders to be magnanimous because, independent or not, Scotland has its own clear identity.

Here, we still don't know whether we want to be British or Irish, or the something-in-between which isn't working terribly well at the moment.

In that situation, I do have some sympathy for the Churches who have to try to face both ways.

They need to try to remain understanding, but also to remind politicians that community peace and prosperity here should always over-ride sectional party interests.

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