Geoffrey Kirk looks at the difficulties raised by devolution, both political and ecclesial
It was a headline which produced predictable consequences: ‘Kirk Embraces Women. Both friend and foe alike took to their keyboards to email their reactions. I was inundated; but the Church Times was referring, as you will by now have guessed, to the Church of Scotland and not to the Vicar of St Stephens Lewisham. At my advanced age, the only women I have the opportunity to embrace are other peoples wives.
But enough of the personal.
I cite the headline only to introduce a genial rant – it is the current fashion – about the number of Scotsmen (and women, for all I know) in the present government. Tony Blair kept his Scottish ancestry a decent secret, but under Gordon Brown (any relation, I have always wondered, to the namesake who famously kept Queen Victoria amused?) North Britain has been unloosed on the unsuspecting South.
The Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, almost everyone in the Department of Defence… the list goes on. Only the Millibandini, gay icons to a person, and Jackie Smith (does she, I wonder, spell her name with a little circle over the T?) break the mould. The failure to address, much less answer, the West Lothian conundrum is a puzzle to us all. Most English people, I suspect, would wish Alec Salmond a fair wind and settle for a jovial band of Polish plumbers.
So why can the State not follow the Church? Anglicans have cheerfully embraced devolution – independence even – for the Churches of Scotland and Wales, with equanimity.
We in the Church of England cordially allow the Welsh (who had to have ecclesial devolution thrust upon them) their own space. True, they are forever looking over their shoulders, and over Offa’s Dyke, not least in their determination to show themselves more forward-looking than the English; but who cares? They have their own mistakes to make, and good luck to them.
It is slightly different with the Scots, whose little Church can claim a longer history, sadly embroiled in the constitutional crisis which made England what she is. But no faithful English Anglican would deny them the right to self-determination – or to hold their General Synod in a shoebox, if that is what took their fancy. We Church of England people are tolerant to a fault. Nobody complains when a body the size of an English dioceses purports to determine the doctrine of the Universal Church, or even worries much that in doing so it is seeking to put pressure on the rest of us. In the matter of tails and dogs, it seems we are happy to conclude that there is much wagging on both sides.
What the State needs is a little of this ecclesial tolerance. Let them all devolve! Let Scotland be its own Norway and Wales its own Switzerland. The benefits would be enormous. The Labour majority in Parliament would be reduced dramatically and English politics would revert to being about issues and not about subsidies.
But there are problems, which Anglicans ought to have seen but clearly haven’t.
For where – it is a question that American Anglicans are beginning to ask themselves – will devolution end, once it has begun? The abortive proposals for English regional assemblies are a case in point. And ecclesially, there is the demand for a third province.
The question about democracy (as well in the Church, once it has been introduced, as in the State) is at what level it should be allowed to operate. The region? The nation state? The federal agglomerate? The parish? The diocese? The province? The worldwide Communion?
Subsidiarity seems like a good idea until it threatens the dominance of a person or a group. So Labour politicians, who might be out of a job if Wales and Scotland no longer sent MPs to Westminster, have discovered an enthusiasm for the Union and for ‘Britishness’; and the advocates of the ordination of women as bishops, who did not care a fig for unity and the interchangeability of orders when they were arguing for women priests, have suddenly developed a high doctrine of the bishop as focus of unity.
In secular politics there is no answer to those questions, apart from an agreed geography and a sense of common culture. From Louis XIV to Talleyrand at the Congress of Vienna, France strove for les Hmites naturelles – the Rhine, the Alps, the Pyrenees and the ocean. Over disputed territory (Alsace-Lorraine, for example) the two sides fought culture wars which are still evident in the architectural dissonance of Strasbourg.
In Church affairs there ought to be general agreement that minor matters of day-to-day management and discipline should be relegated to an appropriate level. Matters of order and credal affirmation should be decided at the highest level and by consensus, not by majority. The Church is by its nature universal; it knows nothing of cultural antipathies or geographical boundaries. There are no limites naturelles beyond which the writ of the Gospel does not run. God is most certainly not English, Scottish or Welsh. He is not even (perish the thought!) an Anglican. He is the perennial outsider, who critiques every place and culture from his own serenity.