The Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland, the British Constitution and Scottish Independence
Rev Kenneth Stewart
(Although this paper is a private production, it was received and approved by the Presbytery of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland as containing an accurate statement of the principles of the church and of the application of those principles to the issues under discussion)
On the 18th of September of this year (2014), all British, Commonwealth and European Union citizens aged sixteen or over and resident in Scotland or registered to vote in Scotland, will be entitled to vote on whether Scotland should become an independent country or continue as a constituent part of the United Kingdom.
The intention of this paper is to guide those citizens as to how to cast their vote in accordance with biblical principles – principles which can also be described as Reformed and Presbyterian.
It should come as no surprise to those who know something of the history of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland to discover that our position on this matter may well be rather different from that adopted by the other Presbyterian Churches in the land – insofar as those churches adopt a position on the matter at all. For reasons which we will articulate more fully below, the forefathers of the Reformed Presbyterian church were resolutely opposed to the Union of 1707 on religious grounds. Their opposition was a natural outworking of their principled opposition to the earlier Revolution Settlement of Presbyterian Scotland in 1690.
It was this opposition which led the Reformed Presbyterian Church to adopt a distinctive position in British politics as the only Presbyterian Church holding it to be the duty of the British citizen not to vote in national elections to Parliament.
This position had nothing to do with corruption in politics, the stifling nature of party politics or indeed apathy or cynicism. It was much more fundamental than that. The deeper problem lay in the Oath of Allegiance which all MP’s were and are required to take pledging allegiance to the Monarch as the Head of Church and State and as Protector of the British Constitution. Because the Reformed Presbyterian Church had a principled objection to that Oath of Allegiance, her members not only refrained from standing for government office in elections but refrained further from the process of voting for others to represent them – on the ground that these representatives would be required to take the same oath themselves.
Incidentally, this position has sometimes been misunderstood, and sometimes (wilfully) misrepresented, as though the Reformed Presbyterian Church encouraged disobedience to the Monarch but that was not the case. The Reformed Presbyterian Church consistently taught the need to be subject to the reigning Monarch (or indeed to a Republican government) insofar as the commands of that Monarch were consistent with the teaching of the Word of God – in much the same way as she taught individuals to obey their parents even if those parents were not professing faith in Christ themselves.
Accordingly, she encouraged her people to fulfil the duties of citizenship involving such acts as the maintenance of law and order, the payment of tax and the defence of the realm, but she drew a sharp distinction between such acts of obedience and other acts which required the promotion of the system of government as it then existed. According to this distinction, therefore, she taught that voting to maintain the system of which the Monarch is Head, and swearing to maintain that system, was not one of the duties of that citizenship.
This position, effectively one of formal and principled political dissent, is now so unusual in 21st century Britain that, on the morning of beginning to write this (20th May, 2014), there was a lively discussion on Radio 4 as to whether voting should become compulsory in the UK – as it is, for example, in Australia where failure to exercise the right to vote carries a fine. In the discussion, although a healthy number asserted their liberty not to vote, no-one even suggested that it might be a duty not to vote at all! One had the feeling that the very thought would be absurd. Indeed, to a generation brought up to view the democratic system as sacrosanct and the right to vote as a privilege dearly bought, it is seen as something of a crime not to use the vote – an abdication of a God-given responsibility.
And with that, all churches would probably agree: Although the Authoritative Standards and General Assembly deliverances of Scottish Presbyterian Churches have nothing to say on this issue, in a direct way at least, all of them seem to rest on the assumption that there is no serious problem with the British constitution and see no problem with exercising the right to vote – after all, the members of these churches vote freely, seek and accept the government offices for which they are eligible and, in accepting these offices, they swear Oaths of Allegiance to the Crown without scruple.
Where, then, did the position of the Reformed Presbyterian Church come from? What are the philosophical and theological principles which lie behind it? And on what ground was it modified in the 1960’s – when voting ceased to be made a matter of church discipline? These questions need to be addressed before the position of the Reformed Presbyterian Church can be fully understood and so, before turning to the issue of Scottish Independence, we will examine our current political system and where the RP Church stands in relation to it.
We need first, then, to consider the nature of our Government in the United Kingdom.