WHILE VOTING can often be tied to family, perhaps for generations, it is accepted that there has been a change in voting patterns in recent years. A political party can no longer take a vote for granted.
People have said there is a disconnection from the centre to the local. Brexit, and the supposed increase in separatist sentiment in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and perhaps Wales, is the political outworking of people sensing that decision-making is too remote, in Brussels, in Westminster.
Alternatively, the change in voting patterns may point to a generational difference in that older voters may prefer stability and certainties, disliking significant change, while younger voters question everything and are less attached to their communities – the social media sphere reaching far beyond streets and schools and replacing church and local ‘organisational’ groups that provide a root to a particular location. While church-going was already on the slide, this has accelerated in recent decades.
Decrying the fall in numbers of young people attending Sunday worship as “nothing short of catastrophic”, The Right Rev Dr Martin Fair, moderator of the General Assembly, said churches needed to ask themselves what they were doing to attract new worshippers or was the truth that some parishioners “like it this way”.
If young people are not joining the church, the general decline in the Scottish kirk is as much the drifting away of the regular and older communicants. Those that are left perhaps more prepared to stick it out than actually ‘like it this way’.
A former moderator, the Very Rev Albert Bogle, said it was “time for a new world order”, adding: “There is a longing in so many hearts today for the renewal of how we organise our world. We need to begin thinking about what the purpose of economy is and above all what is the purpose of church?”
In looking at process and hanging its hat on issues it believes to be of interest to ‘youth’ the Church of Scotland seems to heading to a rather temporal interpretation of divine purpose. Shadi Hamid in The Atlantic provides an insight on why that may simply be exacerbating societal schisms rather than offering hope or reconciliation:
“Religion, in part, is about distancing yourself from the temporal world, with all its imperfection. At its best, religion confers relief by withholding final judgments until another time – perhaps until eternity. The new secular religions unleash dissatisfaction not toward the possibilities of divine grace or justice but toward one’s fellow citizens, who become embodiments of sin – “deplorables” or “enemies of the state.””
The Church of Scotland has every right to fear its place in society on present trajectories. If it had any doubt it need only look at the fate of the Catholic Church in Ireland. Gerald Howlin in the Irish columns of the Sunday Times notes:
“Religion generally, and Catholicism specifically, is no longer reviled, nor even ignored; it is just absent from the public square. Change, so foundational that the Catholic culture of even the early 1990s can hardly be imagined, is embedded. Those still outraged by the Church are showing their age. There is a generation of digital natives, unchurched and apathetic, who have to ask Google what the Gloria is. It is certainly no longer an anthem for the ages. Ireland has moved on from angry rejection of religion to apathy. The issue for the Catholic Church is no longer its reputation but its relevance.”
Howlin observes further:
“We now have a neoliberal commodification of opinion on an industrial scale, just when opinion itself became the benchmark for morality.”
“Social media is an open forum for telling all, but there is no forgiveness and judgment is final. The confession box has been reinvented and moved on air and online.”
In a nod to the attraction of populism and the decline of the ideological left in politics Murtaza Hussain notes that the new codes of morality emerging in society aim at giving life ‘meaning’, but turning away from traditional religion, has obvious downsides:
“Finding new ways to treat each other terribly, or to tar each other with the shame of sin while denying the prospect of redemption, hardly seems appealing. Above all we should avoid falling into the trap of denying mercy and understanding to others, even when they fall outside our evolving ideas of virtue.”
The populist separatism of the SNP promises a new Jerusalem of endless peace and prosperity freed from the shackles of Westminster. That prospect offers purpose, and an elusive moral certainly. Its adherents argue facts are a distraction from the big, bright and beautiful future of Scotia. The dark underbelly of such fanaticism is found among the CyberNats, and Shinnerbots; the modern nationalist inquisitors, decrying those who dare question the faith. All but the pure are heretics. Independence offers the only temporal salvation on this earth.
The counter to this of course is the unattractive slog up the mountain to find the cairn of reality, a practical marker of what is required to find direction to a more grounded destination.
The Church has the easier task of centring itself back to the message of Christ, among those who still hold faith.
Unionist politicians have the greater challenge, that of bringing the public discourse back to reality, and the grim boring job of convincing the electorate that the possibility of competent government is achievable in the here and now. The romantic and spiritual allusions of nationalism can at times be somewhat stretched when the past is used without regard for the sunny progressive future.
The past, of course, need not be the preserve of nationalism. Unionism in Scotland singularly fails to embrace the enlightenment and those ideas that helped shape Scotland’s financial and industrial renaissance within the security and strength of the United Kingdom’s greater success – muscular liberal democracy.
Being grounded and promising a more modest earth might be an entirely better option for unionists than trying to undermine an idea that rests in the clouds of ethereal vision.
Unionism needs to concentrate on reality, with credible policies to address day-to-day issues. It needs to build that within a coherent idea of the role and purpose of state where all have opportunity to prosper – even if different political unionist parties present alternate policy options. Without taking that approach, Unionism will continue to languish as a shadow of its past and a mere echo of the potential it could share within a united, prosperous and outward looking United Kingdom.