Church responds to second referendum request

The Church of Scotland has responded to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement she will ask for permission to hold a second referendum on Scottish independence between the autumn of 2018 and the spring of 2019.

The First Minister said she would ask the Scottish Parliament next week to request a Section 30 order from Westminster.

The order would be needed to allow a fresh legally-binding referendum on independence to be held.

Rev Dr Richard Frazer, Convener of the Church and Society Council of the Church of Scotland, said:

“Today, the First Minister has declared her intention to seek the authority for a referendum on Scottish Independence. And with a majority of MSPs in favour of independence it is likely that such a vote will be passed. The UK Parliament will have the final say on whether to grant the right to hold an Independence Referendum. It would be wrong if it was withheld.

“In 2014, rather than taking a position on either side of the independence debate, the Church of Scotland consulted individuals and communities on what sort of Scotland they wanted to live in. It also hosted, and encouraged others to host, respectful conversations where people expressed their position passionately but with courtesy and a strong commitment to listen.

“Individual church members will always be entitled to their own views but the Church retains a position of active neutrality on the matter of Scottish Independence.

“In the 2016 EU Referendum, the Church of Scotland spoke out in favour of continued membership as being in the best interests of Scotland, the UK and Europe. This has been the Church of Scotland’s policy since 1996 and it remains the Church’s current position.

“As with the UK’s membership of the European Union, Scottish independence is an issue on which there are many strongly held positions. There are justifiable concerns that the debate could be bitter, divisive and divert attention away from the hugely complex negotiations which are taking place as the UK prepares to leave the EU.

"Some will also point to the instability which referendums can cause and of their inability to address deeply complex matters with a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ response. Others will point to the 2014 debate which encouraged a fresh generation of people to become active in political debate and re-engaged many others in the discussion.

“Whilst these risks are real, there is nothing inevitable about this debate being divisive and acrimonious. All those who take part in this debate about Scotland’s future – and the UK’s future as well – must be committed to holding a positive and informative debate.

"The Church of Scotland will contribute to this debate in creative and inclusive ways. It will also seek to call to account those who exaggerate their claims or who move from committed debate to inappropriate ways of treating one another.

“On all sides people hold their convictions with honesty and integrity and they must be treated as such. As we continue to grapple with these complex, contested and important decisions it is important that we do so with as much grace as we can muster and in a way that recognises the humanity of all concerned.

"All those who take part in this debate about Scotland’s future – and the UK’s future as well – must be committed to holding a debate which informs and inspires and not one which derides and dismisses.”

Rev Dr Richard Frazer’s statement has received a mixed reception in the media, particularly from the Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser who issued his own no holds barred response.

Dr Frazer issued this further clarification on the basis in which his statement is founded.

“In 2014 the Church of Scotland was neutral on the question of Scottish independence and this remains the case today. Two years ago the Church was recognised for the part it played in encouraging and facilitating a considered debate working to enable people to contribute with conviction and grace whatever their affiliation.

"The Church of Scotland recognises the “Claim of Right” which acknowledges “the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs”. The Church was a signatory to this statement in 1989 as part of the Scottish Constitutional Convention and has repeatedly reaffirmed this position at the annual General Assembly. The Church therefore recognises the right of the Scottish Parliament to hold a vote on an independence referendum and will respect the outcome of any vote as representing the democratic will of the Scottish people.”