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Civil religion in the UK, Canada, Australia and the Commonwealth

By Norman Bonney,
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Monday, 21 June 2010

Tackling Scotland's Religious Segregation

Published in the Scotsman p28, Monday 21 June 2010

The Pope’s first visit to Scotland since 1982 will shine a light on the Catholic Church in the UK and Scotland – and the role of religion in our increasingly secular society. The papal visit is an opportunity to instigate an important debate about the current religious inequalities in Scotland, including the thorny issue of continued state-funded religious segregation in Scottish schools and the anti-Catholic rules that govern the succession of the monarch to the throne. Brave and farseeing action will be needed from politicians of all political hues if Scotland is to overcome its historical heritage of religious sectarianism and give equal standing to all religions in Scotland.

Problematic religious sectarianism in Scotland, as reflected in the 2006 Scottish Executive/ Government action plan on the subject, is usually seen as an issue relating to football fan behaviour and street level disorder, but it is actually embedded at the highest levels of Scottish society in the laws affecting the throne, religion and education.

Consideration, for instance, needs to be given to the procedures that accompany the succession of the next monarch to the throne well in advance of the end of the current reign. The current discriminatory procedures are very out of date and reflect the religious conflicts of seventeenth century Scotland. Not only must the new monarch not be a Roman Catholic or be married to such a person but he or she is required to affirm that he is a ‘faithful protestant and will maintain and preserve the protestant religion and presbyterian Church Government of Scotland’.

The religious discrimination in the rules of succession and the primacy accorded protestantism and presbyterianism reflect the religious divisions of seventeenth century Scotland and are most inappropriate present day society. They reinforce sectarianism at the highest levels of society and ways ought to be found to abandon them.

There could be a major move towards religious equality in Scotland if the Church of Scotland were to agree that the next monarch would not be required to make the affirmations currently required of him or her.

While such matters are within the jurisdiction of the UK Westminster Parliament the Scottish Parliament, which has expressed opposition to the discriminatory aspects of the succession arrangements, could also contribute to a new religious settlement and equality among the religions in Scotland by moving to eliminate state funded religious segregation in Scottish schooling. Historically separate state funded schooling for Roman Catholics in Scotland helped raise the standards of its schools and assist, in particular in the west of Scotland, the children of Irish immigrants to integrate into Scottish society. The evidence is that these goals have been achieved and it is likely that segregated religious schools can only continue to reinforce old social divisions and prejudices in the population at large.

Scottish parliamentarians have been very reluctant to deal with the issue of religious segregation in Scottish schools for fear of possible electoral disadvantage to them due to the purported political influence of the Roman Catholic Church. The latest general election results demonstrate that, despite public criticism by that Church, the Labour Party in Scotland was not harmed in any obvious way by the outcomes of the election process with the former Scottish Secretary, Jim Murphy, who had been heavily criticised by the Bishop of Motherwell, actually doing very well in the election.

Courageous and principled action is required by UK and Scottish parliamentarians and religious leaders if Scotland is to achieve equality among its religions and do away with outdated procedures in relation to the inheritance of the throne and the educational system which reinforce ancient sectarian divisions in the population.

Norman Bonney’s article entitled ‘Monarchy, Religion and the State: Modernising the Relationships’ is published in the April/June 2010 issue of the Political Quarterly, vol 81, no 2. 

Norman Bonney is emeritus professor of sociology at Edinburgh Napier University.

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