The Church and State


by Fr Ross K Bell

“What was going through the Father of the Bride’s head?” quizzed the BBC royal correspondent Nicholas Witchell, as we watched Mr Michael walk his daughter down the aisle.  Could it possibly have been, “Thank heaven, I am not paying for all this …”?

Like Diana’s funeral I found the whole episode just a tad voyeuristic.  When I took weddings I would try to ensure that the kind uncle who had paid for everything to be filmed didn’t turn out to be a family megalomaniac version of D.W. Griffith.  So many wedding days are turned from a place of cherished personal promise and commitment into the modern day equivalent of ‘Birth of a Nation’.

What is important in any wedding, be it in church or anywhere else, is that encounter of love, which is enshrined in a deeply personal and intimate promise and troth between two lovers.  Surely this should happen between two people, regardless of their sex, where the focus is their love for one another and their willingness to become equal partners in the eyes of the law.  It should not be prefixed by a muscle Mary banging a gong with a promise of distribution by Rank.

So what was being spun today?   What was this nonsense of modernity?  The place built in the 12th century, the music was decidedly Victorian, the dress “a timeless Grace Kelly-esque number” i.e. 1950’s, the hymns and music 18th Century onwards and finally the service itself from the 1662 Prayer Book.  Please help me … how was this modern?

Then there is the reporting of the event by the BBC; the crowds of hundreds in Edinburgh’s Festival Square.  I drove past and noted a few dozen but not hundreds.  The scores of street parties; where were they?  The delight and joy of subjects, which may well, have been evident in London but that seemed to be far from the observable truth in Edinburgh.  Anyway, I don’t want to be a subject I want to be a citizen and therein lays my further unease.  

I am delighted for these two young people who are able to celebrate their love for each other.  I am just not sure how this should relate to me or us a nation.  And indeed a nation which seems to be moving into a time of mature political independence.

When I was ordained into the Church of England, I had to swear an oath to be an obedient subject to HRH (Brenda).  I had my fingers crossed and have always hoped that part of the service did not “take”.  I have always been uncomfortable with an established Church.  A great relief is that in Scotland we do not have such an institution.  The Kirk is the largest faith group and the General Assembly may pronounce opinion and seek to give guidance but unlike England we have no House of Lords where Bishops or Chief Rabbis sit and hold sway over the elected representatives of the people.  It is right that people of faith, and people of none, are able to ask questions of morality and ethics and of humanity.  I think it is also right that they are outside government.  It is right that faith groups have influence but not necessarily power.

What we saw today was a reinforcement of an ancient way of doing things.  We are being invited to support and buy into a worldview, “Here is the establishment, let us rejoice, all is well, for all is as it has always been.”  I think this may be government, church and establishment collusion.   

I would hope that we in Scotland eschew this chimera.  There is place for faith, it may direct us “to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God” but I fear that if religious faith gains sway directly over government then we are left with a theocracy and that is just too dangerous.  One only has to look at the way the “Church” falls about when confronted with the equality of Lesbian and Gay people, or watch Church of England Bishops get their collective gussets into a twist over women in the episcopacy and you are left wondering why these people are in government.  It is worth noting that the Scottish Episcopal Church has a woman named in the shortlist to be Bishop of Brechin, again, we lead the way by quiet example.

I hope in the months to come we see Scotland moving from ancient moribund establishment to an exciting modern place where there is a democracy of citizens liberated from the clutches of traditional institutions to a humble vibrancy of social justice and loving diverse communities that reach out to one another.

For that reason I will be voting SNP twice on the 5th May.  I want to live in a land that is not seduced by establishment froth and ancient frogs into prince fairy tales.  I want it to be a land where morality and ethics and humanity are held in the highest worth, and that understanding may be influenced for some of us by a faith.  I no longer want to be a mere subject; I want to be a citizen and part of something new, something real.