British Methodists watch Scottish independence vote
In the days leading to the Sept. 18 vote on independence for Scotland, “the level of activity and debate has become frenetic,” says the Rev. David Easton, chairman of the Scotland District for The Methodist Church in Britain.
The most recent polls show the vote over this proposed breakup of the United Kingdom as too close to call, Reuters and other news media are reporting. British politicians are making last-minute efforts to entice Scotland to stay within the fold.
Scottish proponents of independence, led by the Scottish National Party, point to the need for national identity and autonomy. Those opposed to the move, including British Prime Minister David Cameron, worry about the future of the UK and dire economic consequences for Scotland.
The Methodist presence in Scotland includes just over 2,000 members in 41 churches and seven circuits scattered over a wide area. However, no churches are close to the border with England, Easton told United Methodist News Service in an email interview.
“None of the denominations have taken a stance for or against independence, but at our Spring Synod we debated the issue and its implications for society and the church,” he said. “Local churches have also been involved in the process.”
Through Action of Christians Together in Scotland, a nine-member ecumenical body that includes The Methodist Church, Christians have participated in discussions of the referendum’s significance and implications, said the Rev. Lily Twist, a retired minister who lived in Scotland for six years while serving as district chairman.
Some of the questions and concerns involve issues of health, education and finance. “It is difficult to weigh all the factors with so many questions, which are impossible to answer at this stage,” Twist said. “Mistrust of motives and validity of information being circulated adds to the uncertainties.”
Twist said she was concerned about the absence of consideration of the negative effects of Scotland’s withdrawal from the UK.
“I am keenly supportive of the celebration of national identity but believe that is not undermined by remaining in union,” she explained. “The purposes of God for a united world do not seem to be furthered by the proposed split, the prospect of which is already threatening fragmentation elsewhere.”
Action of Christians Together in Scotland — a member of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland and the World Council of Churches — hosted a two-day conference on independence at the University of Edinburgh in March, attended by church representatives from throughout the United Kingdom.
The organization, as it points out on its website, has remained neutral “but not uninterested” on the question of independence.
“Scotland’s churches have sought to urge respectful dialogue in the independence debate and consideration of the most vulnerable and marginalized in Scottish society (irrespective of the result of the referendum),” the group said.
Impact on Methodism
On Sunday, Sept. 14, many churches used special prayers prepared by Action of Christians Together in Scotland to reflect on the situation and will do so again the Sunday following the vote.
Any change in status of The Methodist Church in Scotland as a district of the British church would be “impractical and undesirable,” in Twist’s opinion.
“Independence for Scotland might create administrative complications with regard to stationing of ministers in what would be a foreign country,” she acknowledged. “Dealing with finance in a different currency … could be another potential area of challenge.”
Easton believes the Methodist connection will hold, even if the vote is `yes’ for independence.
“The Methodist Church in Ireland operates in two different countries quite successfully,” he explained. “Personally, I think that a number of the dire warnings about what will happen if the country votes `yes’ have been over-hyped by those who want a No vote.”
The system used by The British Methodist Church in placing ministers allows presbyters and deacons “a fair amount of say in where they are willing to be stationed,” he added.
Traditionally, Scotland has had difficulty attracting ministers, he noted. “Last year, not a single minister wanted to be stationed here. Whether or not a `yes’ vote would make finding ministers even more difficult it is difficult to say. Time will tell.”
Easton said he hoped United Methodists would remember The British Methodist Church in their prayers during this time.
“Either result of the vote will lead to changes here (in England) as well as there and ongoing prayer will be needed to bring out the best in the situation,” Twist said.