Hard work for the kirk

GOVAN Old Church once symbolised Scottish Christianity at its most practical and socially engaged. Set in a gritty dockside area of Glasgow, the church was home to George MacLeod, a charismatic minister who recruited unemployed builders in the 1930s to restore an abbey on the holy island of Iona, where Christianity first came to Scotland. These days both faith and the social action it inspires are diminished in Scotland, as the Victorian church again suggests. Its ancient stone carvings attract tourists, but it no longer holds regular Sunday services.

That reflects a broader plunge in adherence to the national (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland, which has lost 50,000 members in the past three years. At the last census in 2011, 32% of Scots identified with the church, down from 42% in 2001, while 37% of Scots said they had no religious affiliation. The Catholic church has a smaller, steadier, flock but is in crisis because of scandals and lack of priests; Glasgow archdiocese might axe half its parishes.

As religious practice in Scotland is vanishing fast, so are old assumptions about the link between faith and political choice. Religion played some role in the referendum campaign, but old stereotypes were discarded. Catholics no longer fear, as they once did, that an independent Scotland would be too Protestant. Some polls even suggest they plumped for independence in greater numbers than Presbyterians or the non-religious. A majority of churchgoing Presbyterians probably voted against independence—though that may well flow from the fact that they are disproportionately elderly and female, suggests Steve Bruce of Aberdeen University.

More interestingly, the campaign saw a resurgence of something which does survive in Scotland, perhaps more robustly than faith itself: religiously inspired radical thought, which was largely in support of independence. Just as many secular leftists, who had always voted Labour, shifted to the “yes” camp, so, too, did many Christian socialists. (Gordon Brown, a former British prime minister whose barnstorming, last-minute intervention may have saved the union, is an exception.)

Christian-tinged radicalism, in which faith itself may or may not survive, lives on in Scotland’s anti-poverty campaigns, self-help communities, think-tanks and even theology faculties. As Simon Barrow of Ekklesia, a religious think-tank, puts it, “In Scotland the secular left respects the religious left, far more than in England.”

Although the Church of Scotland was officially neutral in the ballot and stressed the need for reconciliation, 34 prominent figures within the church caused a stir in August by calling for a “yes” vote. Many saw independence as a golden chance to get rid of nuclear weapons.

Doug Gay, a Presbyterian thinker who wants an inclusive and “penitent” patriotism, said that, among believers as much as among atheists, he saw a powerful trend away from traditional socialism to moderate nationalism. Still, in the Glasgow congregation which he serves, he had to deal with a more mixed reality: from elderly worshippers saying they were “sick with worry” over what a yes vote might mean to “grief and anger” among disappointed supporters of independence.

Where secular and religious radicals are highly likely to divide is in their attitudes to the role of the church in a future Scotland. Secular types want an instant end to the state “protection” enjoyed by the Church of Scotland. Mr Gay has floated the idea of a constitution that acknowledges Christianity as well as humanism and other traditions.

He also thinks all churches should prepare for a nationwide constitutional convention which the Labour Party has promised, if elected to power. With their traditions of activism, Scotland’s churches, however diminished in size, will doubtless have powerful contributions to make.