Scottish Independence. What’s it all about?

Scottish Independence. What’s it all about?

I am a Scot living “south of the border” as folk in Scotland say. In 16 days from today, the people living in Scotland will decide whether or not to end a 307 year union between the nations of Scotland and England. The polls today show that 48% will say “no” and 42% will say “yes” with 11% undecided. It’s a close call, either way.

Money, power and personal ambition?

The question which perplexes lots of people is; why would the Scots want independence? Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling focused in their TV debate on economics and government policy. People living in Scotland are being asked to decide whether they will be financially better-off united with England, Wales and Northern Ireland or by going it alone. This is an impossible question to answer. It’s like betting on how much rain will fall in September 2036. No one can really predict whether or not Scotland will be richer or poorer after a divorce.

Scots are also being asked to give more power to Scottish politicians so that they can choose between spending money on nuclear defense or on helping the poor, for example.  The question here seems to be, “how far should power be devolved?”  Will regions, towns and even families want power to choose how to spend their money?

And then there’s Alex Salmond. His personal ambition to be the president of a new republic, or king of a new nation, needs to be considered.  What really motivates him?

And so money and power, and quite possibly personal ambition, are highly motivational factors in this debate. But this is not what’s really driving the move for independence.

I will argue that the most powerful motivator is a question of identity.

Identity. Who are we? Scottish, English, British or something else? The power of identity to unite or divide.

Growing up in rural Scotland was wonderful for all sorts of reasons and I was given a strong sense of being Scottish. A strong Scottish identity is developed, in part, by being defined as “not English”.  And so, for a large part of the Scottish population, it’s said that “the Scots don’t like the English.” Amanda, my English wife, moved to Inverness in her twenties and was surprised by the number of Norwegians with Scottish accents were in the pub when Norway played England at football.

Another part of growing up in Scotland is being told great stories of battles between the Scots and the English. William Wallace (Braveheart), Robert the Bruce and the battle of Bannockburn in 1314 is a favourite, when Scotland secured independence from England. There was the execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587 at the hands of Elizabeth I. And Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Young Pretender, who led the Jacobite rebellion in 1745 but was beaten by the “English” at Colluden in 1746. All these stories are told with, dare I say it, a nationalistic passion. This passion was strengthened by poor journalistic practice by the BBC. London based news reports often overlooked Scotland as I was growing up. Britain was referred to as England or the British as English, which annoyed us in Scotland and served to increase our sense of being Scottish, not English.

A good reading of history is important if we are going to understand this question of identity. 400 years ago, England and Scotland wanted to be united, though of course not everyone wanted the union, and the desire to be united was created by a sense of identity which was greater than being simply “Scottish” or “English”. History shows where this greater identity came from.

Before James VI of Scotland became James I of England (whilst remaining James VI of Scotland – he was king of two nations at once not a united kingdom) there was a complex movement in Europe called the Reformation, which started in Germany in 1517.  Within the space of 100 years this movement had spread to affect the ruling classes in Switzerland, Holland, Scotland, England and the Scandinavian countries. In England, the movement affected the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. During this time, the Church of England was born and became separated from Rome. At the same time, the teaching of the Reformation had a massive impact on Scotland. And so, as the two nations grew in a new sense of identity, which was being Christian and Protestant, the choice to be united was made possible, in part, by this new shared sense of identity.

So, the people of England and Scotland, by and large, shared the identity of being “not Roman Catholic”. This does not mean that the new sense of Christian Protestant identity made matters easy, or that the labels are really that helpful.  As the union tried to make life work, problems were substantial, but the will and desire to unite enabled problems to be overcome.  Charles I attempted to make the Church of Scotland the same as the Church of England. Scottish theologian Samuel Rutherford wrote a big book called Lex Rex, which argued for democratic church rule, not the rule of bishops under the king. Then there was the Civil War, the establishment of the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell, the restoration of the monarchy and eventually the union of the two parliaments in 1706, which made Scotland and England two countries under one government. Great Britain was born.

At this time, 1706, there were all the same problems with money, power and personal ambition which exist today, only they were much smaller problems then, because everything was smaller and less complicated 300 years ago. The economy and populations were much much smaller.  And so, the making of the union was very difficult but divorcing the union will be far more difficult, complex and hugely expensive. Like all divorces, everyone will be hurt, it will cost a fortune, take years and only the lawyers will make a profit.

And so arguments about money, power and personal ambition have not really changed but one thing has changed. Under the influence of the Reformation, two nations could say “we are different but the same.” Jesus Christ gave us a shared identity as human beings, made and loved by God, fallen from grace and redeemed by Christ. This shared identity gave Scotland and England the will to be united. This unity was still displayed powerfully only 61 years ago, in 1953, at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Abbey. The Moderator of the Church of Scotland gave the Queen a bible and saying “Our gracious Queen: to keep your Majesty ever mindful of the law and the Gospel of God as the Rule for the whole life and government of Christian Princes, we present you with this Book, the most valuable thing that this world affords. Here is Wisdom; This is the royal Law; These are the lively Oracles of God.”

The far greater human identity, shared through faith in Christ, overcame the lesser identity of being Scottish and English but this greater identity is fading fast in our nation’s life. Britain is now a largely secular nation. One of the symptoms of losing our God-given identity is that we are left to grapple for another uniting sense of identity. Something bigger than individualism. Something that creates community and belonging. The question facing the Scots is this: does your desire to feel more Scottish make you willing to pay high the price of divorce? Or we might ask another question: do you think you might be missing something about what it means to be truly human and so united with other human beings, even if they are English?

(This article first appeared in Holy Trinity Parish Magazine in September 2014 – From the Vicarage.)

Posted in From the vicarage | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

From the Vicarage July 2014

IMG_3577There are lots of fashionable or popular teachings of Jesus Christ in our culture and community. These are sayings which everyone agrees are good, even if we don’t manage to do them perfectly. Love your neighbour. Do unto others as you would have them do to you. Do not judge. You can probably think of more.

There are also unfashionable or unpopular teachings of Jesus Christ. Jesus explains clearly that we will be judged for how well we have loved our neighbour, or whether we have treated others as we have treated ourselves. And if we have judged others, Jesus says he will judge us. Jesus said “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” Matthew 7:1

“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:44-46)

Jesus speaks clearly and plainly about where you and I might spend eternity. We all know what to expect on that day. I want to give you seven reasons why this teaching is good and why we should be confident as we speak to people about judgement to come.

1. Knowledge of judgement puts us all in the same boat. We could ask, who do you know who does not deserve God’s judgement? The answer is no one.
2. Knowledge of judgement draws people to Christ as Saviour. Some people today have a tatoo which says “Only God can Judge me.” We all need another line which says “Only Christ can Save me.” John 3:36 “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” What we really need is not a tatoo but belief in Christ as our Saviour.
3. Knowledge of judgement satisfies our internal sense of the need for justice. When we know that evil people will be judged, it brings us peace. Psalm 36:12 “See how the evildoers lie fallen– thrown down, not able to rise!”
4. Knowledge of judgement restrains evil. Everyone who knows that judgement is coming thinks twice about doing something naughty. We don’t need CCTV cameras when a society knows that God sees everything and God is our judge. Jeremiah 12:3 Yet you know me, O LORD; you see me and test my thoughts about you.”
5. Knowledge of judgement stops us retaliating or fighting back, as God tells us to leave judgement to him. Romans 12:19 Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.
6. Knowledge of judgement gives power and authority to the meek. Jesus said, the meek shall inherit the earth. Wild and ruthless governments are tamed by the gospel. The armies of America and Britain have been shown to be powerless in Iraq but the gospel of the Lord is his power. This is why Paul was frequently imprisoned and why many Christians are persecuted. However, once the gospel spreads to the hearts and minds of government officials then they rule their people with meekness.
7. Knowledge of judgement motivates our mission and evangelism. If we truly love our neighbour and want to see meek governments, then evangelism is the obvious thing to do. If you know someone is in danger and do not warn them, then in what way do you love them? If you know that those who have been humbled by Christ make good leaders of the nations but don’t tell them that Christ is king and judge, then how do you expect the peace of the Lord to rule?

Psalm 2:10-12 Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

As we speak plainly about God’s judgement it might be unpopular but I hope now that you can see that it is good teaching. I hope by reading this letter that your fear of the Lord is increased, your love for the Lord Jesus swells in your heart like a balloon about to pop, and your confidence in Christ grows so that you can speak about the goodness of God’s judgement, which is lovingly turned from us by Christ on the cross.

With love


Posted in From the vicarage | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Stuart Townend for Pogues fans

So here’s Shane McGowan and the Pogues singing “If I should from grace with God…where no angel will receive me” which I guess is a song about drinking yourself into oblivion (I saw The Pogues live in the Glasgow Barrowlands in 1988 or there abouts) and Stuart Townend with his song “Vagabonds”. I just love the Traditional Irish melodies, with slight punk overtones in both. Townend imagines all the vagabonds who are invited to the heavenly feast (by turning from sin to faith in Christ) in contrast to McGowan’s nihilistic hopelessness. Compare, contrast and enjoy.

Posted in Grace and Works | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

From the vicarage June 2014

IMG_5002Psalm 2 begins with a question.

Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One.

This simple question wonderfully describes the ways of the world. In the news this week there have been great examples of nations conspiring and peoples plotting in vain. The European elections have turned the tables on the European project. European voters are clearly not happy with the way Europe is being run, with massive and growing public debt, rising youth unemployment, the breakdown of communities caused by the free movement of people across Europe. Europe isn’t working.

Then the World Economic Forum has met this week and has pondered why the 85 richest people on earth own as much as the poorest 50% of the worlds population (US$ 1.7 trillion). Capitalism is working and not working, at the same time. Goods and services are being produce and offered but money making ventures have favoured some and not others. So the nations wring their hands and plot in vain.

And yet, Psalm 2 ends with the answer to our problems. This answer does not make all the problems go away, we still need to work through situations. But the beginning of getting things right is found in our attitude to the LORD and his Anointed One.

Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

Our heart attitudes are set right when our relationship with the LORD is right. Psalm 2 reveals four heart attitudes which result from knowing the LORD. These are fear, rejoicing, trembling and true intimacy. They don’t seem the most likely four. How are we to fear, rejoice, tremble and enjoy intimacy all at once? That doesn’t seem possible!

Yet it is possible to have mixed emotions. I can celebrate a great golf shot and be sad that no one else saw it, at the same time. I can stand on the top of a cliff, looking out to sea, silently amazed by the view whilst suffering a jelly-legged fear of falling off the cliff. And so, I can fear God and rejoice in him, at the same time. I should tremble at God and have true intimacy with God.

These four attitudes of the heart are the right response to Jesus as he died on the cross for my sins. I should, all at once, fear the Lord’s justice and judgement for my sin and greed. I should rejoice that he loves me enough to die for me. I should tremble at his feet, knowing that he is the Lord of all and so I should do as he commands. And yet, I can enjoy true intimacy with him, as my loving friend and Saviour.

Once the Lord Jesus takes his right place in our minds, our hearts are sure to follow. Blessed are all who take refuge in him. Leaders of the nations must then fear, rejoice, tremble and enjoy true fellowship and so put HIS plans into action, as they work through situations in life. By doing this, they will no longer plot in vain.

How will this be? Well we can’t expect the rulers of the nations to make Jesus their focus if we don’t make him ours. As more and more people are coming into a right relationship with with the Lord, then this will show in the way we choose our rulers and what we do with our money.

Have you taken refuge in the Lord? If you have, then you are blessed. Now, let’s pray for our mission as a church, that the LORD will prosper our work in this community and the rulers of the nations will follow him too.

With love, Neil

Posted in From the vicarage | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

From the vicarage from before and after A Passion for Life

IMG_5002Here’s April and May’s copies of “From the Vicarage”.  The first was a plea for prayer for A Passion for Life and the second a review of how God answered those prayers.

From the vicarage (April 2014)

It’s here. A Passion for Life. May all glory and honour and praise be to Jesus.

Will you pray for every act of kindness, every word of encouragement, every thoughtful invitation, every person who walks with their friends or family or neighbour or colleague through events and beyond? Will you pray for every time the bible is opened, for God to speak? Please pray for the gospel to be proclaimed clearly and loudly, but humbly and with love. Pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven and for his kingdom to come, in this generation.

Pray for wisdom and the will for all at Holy Trinity and the Calvary Church to see others share in the glory to be revealed. Pray for hell to be plundered and heaven to be populated. Pray for peace in our time in our community. Pray for gospel ripples to spread beyond West Bromwich to every nation represented at the mission. Pray for peace for the nations as Christ rules in individual hearts and minds.

Pray for Cake ‘n’ Make, An Impossible Mission, An Audience with Cyrille Regis, open air, prayer tables, open church, door to door, CrossTalk, The Passion of the Christ film evening and for A Feast for All Nations. Pray for the right number of people to come to each event and for the event to perfectly meet the needs of those who come.

Pray for our follow up as a whole church. Pray for a welcome to all who come to know Christ. Pray for generous hospitality and new fellowship. Pray for the SOUL course that many will come to know Christ as personal Saviour and Lord. Pray for all of us to grow in knowledge, godliness and love in Christ.

Bring in on.

With love


From the Vicarage (May 2014)

Our Easter events are over and they have exceeded all expectations. All praise and glory to God! We have seen the expected fruit of mission appear at unexpected times. We have been strengthened in faith and fellowship by doing mission together with Calvary Church. We have held events to appeal to all sorts of people and so many have been blessed. There is a sense of God’s pleasure with us as we stepped out to proclaim the crucified and risen Christ to all peoples.

I said some things were unexpected. The mantra on the back of a leather jacket of a girl a few years above me at school said “Expect the unexpected.” This phrase has stuck with me all that time. We expected God to do unexpected things, and here’s some of the highlights people have shared with me.

There was the drunken trio of Polish men at our first day of open air, shouting to disrupt us. But one was handed a Polish tract “Me, a Christian?” and he immediately sat down to read it. He was so engrossed he failed to notice his two friends being moved on gently by the police. Holiday Bible Club had between 40 and 50 kids every day and it was fantastic. Helen pulled out all the stops to create a wonderful blend of fun, craft, games, song and bible teaching. Jon Evans led the warm up dance and his comic timing and posture won lots of fans. We had an unadvertised silent meditation service designed for church members on Good Friday to focus us on the cross. One lady made a sure profession of faith in Christ and two others were deeply moved and may also have been drawn to faith. We did not expect anything like that in that service!

Cake ‘n’ Make, An Audience with Cyrille Regis, Crosstalk (the youth led worship and testimony evening) and the Passion film night all attracted many visitors. Over 25 guests asked for “How can I know God?” booklets and “Believable” DVDs at the end of the sports quiz.

Some of our events were jointly planned and delivered by teams from Holy Trinity and Calvary Church. Our open air mission, Holiday Bible Club, Crosstalk and door to door have all served to strengthen ties and faith across the two congregations. We have seen what God can do when we work with brothers and sisters from different cultures. We did this in obedience to the word of God, as Paul wrote in Ephesians, God’s purpose is to unite all things under one head who is Christ.

One the greatest pleasures I have had, as we have moved through from prayerful planning to preparation and into this week, has been the way our various people in word ministry have carved out a mission event to suit their talent, our mission context and the resources we have of time, money and people. Everyone had a chance to be involved as there were so many very different opportunities to serve. Confidence in each other and the gospel has risen as a result.

As I write on Easter Sunday evening, we had the climax of the week, the Feast for All Nations, this morning. 142 adults and 44 children joined in heart and voice to praise the risen Christ. Around 40 of the adults were not regular members of church, but came as a result of the mission. The Lord provided a great blend of testimony, worship and word. The feast which followed had just enough food.

Now that the feast is over the hard work of follow up begins. New believers will need help to find their feet, to be nourished on the word of God so that his blessing can enter their lives and the gospel flourish in the next generation. As a church we must be prayerful and deliberate as we pick up and continue where Easter week ended. We hope to see small groups flourish, people step up to serve in church life and for our Frontlines, the places God has put us during the week, to be changed by our being faithful there.

Thank you for your part in the mission. May God bless us and may the good news of Christ as Saviour from sin and hell continue to spread through the work of our church and Calvary Church.

With love, Neil

Posted in From the vicarage | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Real story. God’s work in Deb’s Life

Striking, joyful and real story of the way God pierced a hazy heroin high and brought new life.

SOUL Course runs at Holy Trinity at 4:30pm on Sundays.

| Leave a comment

Andrew Wilson on Rwanda and the justice of God

This morning I read Andrew Wilson’s chapter in “Incomparable” on the justice of God and today happens to be the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan massacres.  The chapter opens with the words:

In April 1994, an untold number of Rwandans were hacked to death with machetes.

Wilson describes the events of the early days of the genocide in a measured way without masking the true horror then asks, how did we respond and how should we respond? He answers those questions by reminding us that we tend to suspend reality because we are bombarded with tales of human evil and we could not live a normal life if we felt appropriately shocked and angry.   Yet, we could try to feel like God feels about every act of injustice and cruelty.

Or, we could read the psalms, to know how God feels and what he will do.

Wilson reflects on Psalm 10 and draws three points about the justice of God:

1.  God is not slow in bringing justice.  Like a thief running through the casino with arms full of cash who is stopped by the doormen, we live in God’s world and there is only one exit, which God has covered.

2.  God feels the injustice and fury infinitely more greatly than we do.

3.  God uses his people as instruments of justice, so cases where injustices prevail and go unchecked, the church has or is failing (Amos 2:6-8).

Therefore, God’s people are both to preach the word of God and act to stop injustice according to that same word.  That’s Plan A and there is no Plan B.


Posted in Growing Christians | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment