Friday 19 November 2010

Scottish Spirituality

This week we celebrated St Margaret of Scotland's day (a home communion on the day, eucharist on Bute the day after, eucharist in Dunoon the day after that - rural dispersed ministry!)

This particular saint's day has set me thinking about the nature of Scottish spirituality, as opposed to British, celtic, western or other forms of spirituality. Trying to define spirituality per se is a risky business, as it becomes very, very hard to define boundaries between spiritual, cultural, contextual (if that is different to cultural), traditional etc. etc.

But it is an interesting subject, for an Anglican priest, trained in England, brought up in Scotland and now returned home to an episcopal church, pejoratively referred to as 'The English Church' by many. And it IS an 'English' church*, compared to the Church of Scotland or the Irish-rooted catholic church. The history of the episcopal church is wrapped together with English government and church politics. Our liturgy is recognisably Anglican, while peculiarly Scottish.

Where to go with all this? I have spotted some work by Ian Bradley at St Andrew's (I await a book or two via Amazon) and some activity in the Scottish Baptist College, which looks a wee bit like nationalistic spirituality rather than Scottish, but that's from a cursory glance. There are yards of books on celtic spirituality, Iona and so forth. Future posts about what all that stuff looks like. I also note with great interest the primus of my own denomination blogging about an interest in the Scottish Episcopal spirituality that preceded the English dominated Oxford movement (well, really Cambridge Camden Society driven) revival in Scotland. The Oxford movement was really about authority in the English/Irish state churches, Cambridge drove the liturgical changes that are associated with the revival. I digress.

But what about ordinary, everyday, SNP-government lead, supermarket-shopping, soap-opera-watching Scottish spirituality? The nation that produced Hume must have some defining sense of the spiritual. Following Hume's empirical lead, I can share my own observations from my short time back north of the border. St Margaret is a useful aide memoire.

She was eminently practical, working for the well-being of the subjects of her nation, establishing education, charitable support, even a ferry to let people get to the capital city, Dunfermline. She is regarded as a philanthropist in a time when royal power was absolute and often self-serving. But she was also prayerful and pious, founding churches and monasteries. She reformed the church of her time. She exemplified a balance of the practical and the pious, a balance of maintaining tradition and reforming for the good of all.

That seems a good starting point for a contemporary Scottish spirituality. It must be practically rooted, because as a nation we stand for little or no nonsense (with the possible exception of the design of the Scottish Parliament). Words without actions will not impress a Scot or an incomer hardy enough to settle here. We are also inclined to change that which needs changing - hence why Scots led most of the technological and philosophical innovations that created the modern world (challenge that!). But we are also a people who can connect to God in a profound and deep way, finding divinity in the beauty of the landscape, the wonder of natural life, the excitement of the arts, the sacramental encounter of God in everyday things. Like bread and wine.

I'll leave it there - and I'm sure people of other ethnic/national roots might argue that the above applies to their own characteristics. To be honest, the real search here may be to discern what it is to be Scottish in the first place.

*I am ever conscious of the very large proportion of folk from south of the border that form part of our congregations, as well as the 18th century settlements with the English establishment that allowed this Scottish protestant church to be free. As well as the English driven worship innovation in the 19th century. And so on. Added 23 Nov 2010.


  1. Glad to have found you, old friend. I have some back-reading to do here! Love to you all!

  2. I look forward to following your search! Watched a TEDtalk vid at MRC yesterday that suggested that the Enlightenment came about as the result of the introduction of coffee shops in Britain - painted a picture of the lethargic thought that was the product of a people who drank alcohol (small beer, gin etc) instead of the (unhealthy) water!

  3. TEDtalk? I hadn't caught that aspect of enlightenment history before. An interesting line of thinking - allowing lines of thinking to develop. I personally think no longer executing people for blasphemy was also a contributing factor...
    Coffee shop enlightenment:
    Descartes, 'I think, therefore I'll have an expresso.'
    Hobbes, 'Life is nasty, brutal and short - of lattes.'

  4. Dear Kenny - thanks for the verbal comments and veiled threats over 'it IS an English church' above! There are many good debates to be had over being Anglican and where our accrued roots, Scottish and other lie. I blame Walter Scott, of course.