Scottish Reformation crucial in country's history, says historian

By Ecumenical News International
May 20, 2010

Scottish historian and professor, Tom Devine, who is a Catholic, and Harry Reid, a former editor of a leading newspaper in the country, have described as "scandalous" the low-key way the 450th anniversary of the Reformation in Scotland is being marked in 2010 - writes Trevor Grundy.

In an interview with ENInews, Devine, a professor at Edinburgh University, said: "Two of the greatest legislative events in Scottish history are the Reformation of 1560 and the Act of Union [when the Scottish and English parliaments merged to form the Parliament of Great Britain] in 1707.

"The [300th anniversary of the] latter was almost ignored in Scotland. Now, there appears to be reluctance on the part of both the Scottish government and the Church of Scotland to mark the 450th anniversary of the Reformation, which was an event which changed the face of this country and paved the way for a Scottish enlightenment and a new relationship with England. I think this is scandalous."

Still, the Rev John Christie, incoming Moderator of the Church of Scotland, told ENInews on 14 May 2010: "I believe that the Reformation helped pave the way for the Scottish Enlightenment. It is a very important event in our country's history, and its importance will be recorded during a special session of the general assembly."

Christie was referring to the next annual meeting of the Church of Scotland, which begins today (20 May).

"We all recognise the importance of the [Reformation anniversary] event. It is not something that should cause any sectarian ill will, and is being widely recognised by all denominations. I believe that the Pope will be given a very warm welcome when he visits us later this year. I would hope that welcome would be from all Christian denominations, all other denominations, and those with no denomination."

For his part, Devine noted, "Politicians are concerned that a high-profile marking of the 450th anniversary could relate to Scotland's old sectarian problems. Bigotry in Scotland is on the wane. The Reformation in 1560 is part of our history and our culture."

He added, "After the Reformation, the Church of Scotland (the Kirk) came to control all aspects of life here - welfare, moral discipline, education. Why is the Church of Scotland not prepared to push the boat out and do something on a large scale to mark this great event in Scotland's history?"

Harry Reid, a former editor of Scotland's newspaper The Herald and the author of Reformation: The dangerous birth of the modern world (St Andrews Press, 2009), asserted: "There seems to be a curious caution around, even some kind of misguided embarrassment."

Reid said, "Surely we have matured enough to have grown away from the nonsensical caricature of John Knox as a demented fanatic who we should be ashamed of. I agree with Tom Devine. This situation is scandalous."

In August 2009, Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond said that requests to the government for support in marking the 450th anniversary of the Reformation in Scotland would be considered. Still, he said that it was not for the government to tell churches how the landmark anniversary should be remembered.

Catholics, who numerically make up the second largest Christian tradition in Scotland, have shown their support for the Reformation commemoration with a statement from the Archbishop of Glasgow, Mario Conti, which declared: "I believe that the Reformation anniversary should be marked and remembered because it was such an important event in the history of Scotland, and one which is not well understood. As a Catholic archbishop, I can hardly say that the event should be 'celebrated' but I do believe that it needs to be better understood to recognise its impact over the centuries on the life of our country."

Andrew McGowan, founding principal of the Highland Theological College from 1994 to 2009 and vice-president of the World Reformed Fellowship, told ENInews in Inverness that people who want a high profile marking of the 1560 events are largely in the evangelical wing of the denomination.

"For this group, "he said, "the doctrines of the authority of scripture, justification by faith, regeneration, and so on, remain vital to the life of the Christian and the Church. For those not in the evangelical group, much of this is regarded as 'arguing over doctrines' which they hold to be irrelevant. Their main focus is on socio-political matters."

Church of Scotland spokesperson Gordon Bell confirmed that there would be a special service in Edinburgh to mark the 450th anniversary on 23 May, four days before the end of the church's general assembly.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]


Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.