Scottish religious leaders urge reconciliation in wake of vote

Jim Murphy, a Labour Party member of the British Parliament, addresses a crowd in Edinburgh, Scotland, Sept. 2 as part of his campaign to keep Scotland as part of the United Kingdom. (CNS/Reuters/Russell Cheyne)
Jim Murphy, a Labour Party member of the British Parliament, addresses a crowd in Edinburgh, Scotland, Sept. 2 as part of his campaign to keep Scotland as part of the United Kingdom. (CNS/Reuters/Russell Cheyne)

by John Cooney

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The people of Scotland voted Thursday to stay in the United Kingdom with England, Wales and Northern Ireland by a comfortable 55 percent to 45 percent. The breadth of that margin belies the uncertainty Scots felt right up to the moment results were released.

At the height of an impassioned referendum, when it was unclear whether Scotland would vote to become an independent sovereign nation or to stay in the 307-year-old United Kingdom, the Presbyterian moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Rt. Rev. John Chalmers, issued a reconciliation message to a deeply divided nation.

Delivering his sermon Sept. 14 on BBC Radio 4's "Sunday Worship" at St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral in Edinburgh, Chalmers said it was time for the people of Scotland to make their choice but to remember they must continue to live with each other once the result was known.

The moderator told the congregation and those listening at home to join him in making their decision on Scotland's yes/no question the subject of their prayers -- just as all important life decisions should be decided upon.

"It will be hard, because I'm one of those people who has spent a lifetime trying to see both sides of every argument, trying to work out complicated 'middle ways' that keep as many people as possible content, but I'm not going to get away with that this week.

"On this issue, like the people of Israel standing before Elijah, I need to come off the fence," he said.

He urged people to be part of shaping their future, always guided by love, knowing then that they have much less to fear even if the outcome does not reflect their choice.

"For people of faith, [it should be enough] to know that God will go with us into that future," he said. Speaking of the neutral voice the Church of Scotland maintained throughout the referendum campaign, the moderator praised the tremendous engagement in the debate of the church's members.

"The real success of next Thursday will be that, whatever the outcome, every voice and every instrument continues to play its part in shaping the kind of Scotland that people in Scotland vote for. We cannot afford to lose the momentum and interest in Scottish civic life which this campaign has generated."

Similarly, the Catholic church in Scotland, which also remained neutral, urged its people to take their lead from Catholic social teaching but avoided taking the pluralist, pro-peace and anti-poverty stance taken by Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond.

The final result was 1,617,989 votes in favor of independence from the United Kingdom to 2,001,926 against. This was a gap much wider than pre-vote opinion polls had indicated. The turnout was one of the highest in the democratic world, with 84.6 percent carrying out their civil duties.

David Cameron, the prime minister of the United Kingdom welcomed Scotland's decision.

"Like millions of other people, I am delighted," he said, speaking outside 10 Downing Street in London. He added that he would have been heartbroken to see a break in the union between the countries. He paid tribute to both the "Yes" and "No" campaigns for their efforts.

The prime minister noted that it is time to change how the United Kingdom is governed, a chance to "change it for the better."

He said his government would deliver on promises to give the Scottish Parliament more devolved powers over public spending and taxation as part of a "new and fair settlement."

Salmond, who announced Friday he would step down as first minister, thanked the 1.6 million Scottish who voted for independence and praised the 84.6 percent turnout to the polls.

"Today of all days, as we bring Scotland together, let us not dwell on the distance we have fallen short. Let us dwell on the distance we have traveled and have confidence the movement is abroad in Scotland that will take this nation forward, and we shall go forward as one nation."

Scotland's Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Scots had "emphatically" not given "an endorsement for the status quo," especially her native city of Glasgow, which voted in favor of independence.

"It is absolutely clear that there has been a real demand for change and that change has to be delivered now," she said, adding that Scots will now "have to move forward together."

Now it's up to Cameron, Westminster leaders Ed Miliband of the Labour Party and Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats, and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown to deliver their vows to Scotland.

For me, a Scottish Catholic who has worked for the Irish media for more than 40 years and who campaigned and voted for a yes, the result is a disappointment, but it has been the most democratic experience of a lifetime.

Indeed, for those of Christian faith, the experience has been Pentecostal: Families and friends were divided, some trying to "convert" the other side. I believe it was a referendum for "the soul of Scotland" -- and that Scotland will continue on its separatist path from England.

[John Cooney is a Dublin-based journalist and historian.]

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