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By Jason Michael

ANTI-CATHOLIC SECTARIAN BIGOTRY, it seems, is the last line of defence for the union cause in Scotland. Time and again the “Ulsterisation of Scottish politics” – a dog whistle allusion to political polarisation along religious lines – is laid at the feet of the Scottish National Party and the movement for independence, but, and as the record shows, the only people in the British commentariat deploying these quasi-religious themes to advance of their political vision are Scottish unionists. My initial reaction to Alex Massie’s behaviour on Twitter yesterday, I will confess, was itself quasi-religious: “Mother of divine God,” I exclaimed, “someone didn’t just say that in 2019?!”

After sharing his latest opinion piece in The Times on social media, he added an afterthought, suggesting that “we might ponder how the decline of Presbyterian Scotland both made Scotland a warmer house for Catholics and independence.” Given his unhidden political bias against Scottish nationalism and independence, it could only be assumed that his linking of independence with Scotland becoming less hostile to Catholicism assumed his negative opinion of the latter. Sure, the last thing we need, we take from this, is Scotland becoming a more welcoming place for Catholics.

With the dander up, I decided to read his article – which meant, infuriatingly, having to register my details with The Times’ website. His attitude to Scotland becoming more pluralist and more tolerant towards Catholics didn’t improve. In fact, it got worse. It plumbed the depths of the very worst of Scottish sectarian hatred to an extent, thankfully, I haven’t seen since the early 90s. But what was more upsetting, for me – as a religious Scot and as a theologian, was how he attempted to veil his weak analysis behind a faux concern for the decline of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland; an institution he clearly imagines as the real and authentic expression of Scottish faith and national identity. And, ironically, much of what he had to say spoke of a type of national exceptionalism he and others of his ilk work hard to project onto the independence movement. “In the old days,” you know, the golden years of unchallenged Scottish unionism, he writes:

…there was little need, and perhaps little room for, an overtly political expression of Scotland because the culture of Scotland was so distinctly, undoubtedly, Scottish. The Kirk was a large part of that.

No traveller from foreign parts could fail to be impressed that the Scottish God was different from — and perhaps superior to — the deity worshipped in England.

Having graded my fair share of undergraduate Theology essays, and having written for quite some time and at quite some depth on Scotland and modern Scottish politics, I can say with a degree of certainty that Mr Massie here fails in toto to understand either. Firstly, and without any animus towards by sister and brother Christians who worship God in the Church of Scotland, when it comes to this golden age thinking of “the Kirk” as the locus of the Scottish spirit, it is worth bearing in mind that when the union began in 1707 the Church of Scotland – as a national church of the Reformation – was less than half the age than the union is now. In historical terms, the Church of Scotland is new, and it was even newer, even more of a religious and cultural novelty in 1707.

Yet, like other churches, my own included, the Church of Scotland is in rapid decline. Today there are fewer than 300,000 Scots who regularly attend Sunday services in the Kirk; a reality that provokes Massie to comment that “the Church of Scotland will soon cease to exist as any kind of vital going concern. It might not have more than 20 years left.” He right in this, at least. Christianity in the West, since I was baptised has accelerated to break-neck speed from a religious and cultural force that baptised the converted to a dying institution failing to convert the baptised. In Scotland the national state church, together with Catholicism, Anglicanism, and every other flavour of Christianity may not have 20 years left. But it is in explaining this decline, which is the result of many complex factors, that Alex Massie’s diatribe gets dark and ugly. It is striking, he suggests, “that the long, slow rise of political nationalism in Scotland coincides almost too neatly with the equally long, slow death of the Church of Scotland.” And there we have it: In one short sentence he has constructed a false relationship between the collapse of his golden age fount of true Scottishness with the rise of a political movement he wants us to believe is tainted with the disease of Catholicism.

By no means is his ire reserved for the Taigs, he’s a traditionalist. He has just as little time for “American Evangelicalism,” a rich religious tradition – one that long predates the simple analysis of it as a latter-day prosperity gospel – he dismisses as “a lifestyle disguised as religion;” an assertion which allows him to return to the popish plot SNP, labelling it “a religion disguised as a lifestyle.” But the truth outs the moment he begins to describe the SNP and the movement it has inspired. This is a “a party for all-comers: the barrier for entry is remarkably low” – you know, Catholics and Evangelicals are allowed to join! What self-respecting British exceptionalist and religio-nationalist wants a national party that lets any old ragamuffin in?

So, he concedes that the SNP “imposes no bars based on colour, accent, religion, gender, race or anything else,” but somehow manages to see this as a bad thing – and from his unionist standpoint it is a bad thing. Following the “spirit of the age and one perfectly suited to a soft nationalist government,” he sees in this an ideology that puts inclusion and the common cause and good of everyone over the insular, closed, and particular nationalism of British-Scottishness qua unionism. Not believing in the predestination of the Scots as a closed off and ethnically and culturally unique subset of Britishness, and having faith in “its people, but little else,” makes this movement dangerous to Massie and other unionists because their Scotland is only 312 years old, a subject nation with roots no deeper than 1560. This is their “organising theory of society,” a shallow and moribund museum of what some Scots used to think Scotland meant.

But nothing of his article was really about lamenting the decline of the Kirk, or about finding some way to link the SNP and the independence movement to this otherwise typical downward trend in Western Christianity. From beginning to end it was about stirring an old pot of grievance, an anti-Catholic grievance that is still very much latent in a country overcoming a long history of bitter sectarian division. Anachronistic, as it is, Massie knows that rallying unionist sentiment against a fictive Catholic threat and linking that threat to the SNP can still work. However much we have gone forward as a society, memories – even bad ones, especially bad ones – live long in small countries. What Massie has done in this is to retreat to the tried and tested backline of bigotry and sectarian hatred, a sure sign that the union is still on the run.

I believe in one holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Believe it or not, these words – the words of the early fourth century Nicene Creed – are professed by both Catholics and Presbyterians. We may mean them a little differently, and those differences may lead to real theological and ecclesiological differences, but in one understanding of the word Catholic we agree; universality and oneness. There is only one Church, broken and divided over the world, broken and divided even in Scotland – but one Church nonetheless. What Massie misses here entirely is the strength of that unity, that no matter what he weaponises of our differences, we Christians – those of us who still say our prayers – will always recognise in other churches our sisters and brothers. We are one Church. Whether you are a believer or not, this unity is analogous to our national vision of One Scotland. Tell me what you want about Protestants, Muslims, whatever – if they are Scots, then we are in this together.

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10 thoughts on “Alex Massie and Keeping Catholics Out

  1. I do agree to some extent that catholics in the past would not vote SNP as some of us believed that under an independent Scotland secteraianism would only get worse and Westminster provided some safety from it

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    1. The Corries prefered anthem, in front of Flower of Scotland, was The Scottish Breakaway. This set the SNP back at least a decade as it was set to the tune of The Sash.

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  2. As a practising Christian, Church of Scotland Elder, a Yes supporter but not in any political party, I find much of Allan Massie’s article offensive. In the past, many attended the church as it was part of the establishment and they could network business connections through the church. This has changed very much and most people choose to attend the church to worship. I have friends in all churches and in none. The Church of Scotland does excellent work through ecumenical and interfaith groups as well as supporting many of the most vulnerable in our society and in many parts of the world. Mr. Massie is talking through ignorance and fear. I am sure there will be many in the church today who will be really angry at this attempt to stir up hatred in our society.

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  3. For many years Labour in particular played the sectarian card depending on what area they were in.They are still doing it.
    Massie will always see the SNP as bad. The SNP and Scotland returning to her normal state are no threat to any religion expect the fanatics on the British nationalist side who tie their unionism up with protestantism and a sense of superiority.

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  4. An interesting article thank you. It may be helpful to better understand why the drift away from formalised religions, (with exceptions of course). Why do so many people no longer have faith in a Church? The answer can be gleaned in your article, bigoted, hating, divisive dialogue has had its day, most of us have more important concerns than a ‘take-over’ by any one sect.

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  5. I am Christian .I am no longer a bigot,maybe i have never been one, I am not the best specimen,for in times of need I ask for help in a bad or distressing situation,I was brought up Presbyterian.My family are of a mixed disposition, but i respect any ones religion it does not need to be it a country and trying to tie it to a party, So much hatred ,involving the worlds population in conflicts,many driven by greed and a lack of tolerance, it did not say weakness.

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  6. Massie has nailed his unionist bigotry firmly to the mast He is outed. n should be remembered as A hateful bigot. Nothing more.
    He has lost all claim to academia. He surely was a waste of education. And a perfect example of UNIONIST indoctrination.
    This the product of the UK `s jingoism and conformity that the UK hoped all Scots would have succumbed to by now… But they failed to realize their mask had slipped long ago. n is hurriedly attempting to slip it back on n play the righteous card.
    Absolute disgrace to his profession An insult to the intelligence of the SWITCHED ON MINDS of Scotland.
    We have been in the oubliette of English Unionism since 1707. and we as a nation Know that it is designed to maintain English rule. While attempting to create a division that expired Back in the 90`s. Alex Massie is a DISGRACE

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