The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has expressed scepticism about the feasibility and desirability of independence for Scotland.
The surprise intervention came in interviews with Scottish media this afternoon (23 May 2012), following the Archbishop's well-received address to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland - its governing body - in the morning.
Dr Williams, who relinquishes his post as Archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual leader of the 77 million strong worldwide Anglican Communion at the end of the year, told reporters he was not yet "persuaded" that a nation the size of Scotland could go it alone, and raised questions about whether Scottish independence was a solution to the range of questions currently facing Britain.
Dr Williams said he did not know what to make of First Minister Alex Salmond's assertion that England would be better off if Scotland were independent.
"Speaking as somebody who as a teenager was a great supporter of Welsh independence - I went to school in Swansea - I have instinctive sympathy with small nations," said the Archbishop.
"The problem is small nations in a small island have to live together in a sustainable way and that it why independence in itself is not a magic bullet.
"You have to find ways of working economically together even if there is a higher degree of operational political and fiscal independence.
"There has got to a way of pooling resources once again like the churches because it is too small an island to put up with rivalries - we tried that for several hundred years," he said.
Asked if he thought independence was a workable concept, Dr Williams said: "It depends what model you are looking for really... As it is there is an increasing amount of devolved power in Scotland and Wales which has been broadly a healthy development."
He went on to suggest that further devolutionary proposals might offer a way forward to bring people together.
"Whether it would help us to be separate states I really don't know. Personally I still have to persuaded about that," Dr Williams declared.
A spokesperson for the Church of Scotland, which welcomes the constitutional debate initiated by the independence referendum proposed for 2014, made it clear to Ekklesia and others that the Kirk wanted to be part of the debate but would not be advocating a particular way of voting on the question or questions posed.
However, there is a feeling in the Kirk and in other Christian circles that the deepest issues of social justice, peace and good governance for Scotland are not being adequately mapped by the kind of discussion oriented towards 'yes' or 'no' referendum questions.
The Convenor of the Church of Scotland’s Church and Society Council, the Rev Ian Galloway, said: “ The Archbishop is correct to say that independence is not an end in itself, but should only be the result of concluding that it is the best way of bringing about real social justice."
He continued: "This debate needs to be rooted in how best we care for the vulnerable, stand by the poor, nurture our children, protect environment and welcome the stranger rather than simply assume that one form of constitutional arrangements or another will be the answer to those questions ."
There is likely to be surprise that Dr Williams, as head of the Established Church in England, has been seen to comment directly on issues that will be decided by the Scottish people. But he clearly feels strongly about the need to maintain an effective relationship of the nations of these islands, while remaining agnostic on the precise constitutional nature of the changes involved.
Advocates of independence believe that scepticism or opposition from leading figures in the English establishment are likely to strengthen rather than weaken the domestic public appeal of their argument that it is those who live and work in Scotland who should shape its future.
Among the broader concerns that civic and religious groups, trade unions and others not directly aligned within the independence debate share are questions about economic options not confined by the assumptions of austerity, a more solidaristic approach to welfare and health, the need to rid Scotland of nuclear weapons, and different approaches to foreign policy.
In its response to both the Westminster and Scottish Government consultations, the thinktank Ekklesia has "welcomed a referendum on Scottish self-governance and the positive debate this can help create on the constitution, reformation and governance of the constituent nations and jurisdictions of what is presently designated the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland."
Its submission, which is based on a non-nationalist, internationally oriented case for modelling different ways forward on a range of public policies, declares: "Our underlying view - based on the moral principles of subsidiarity - is that these matters should be shaped and determined by the people of Scotland under the auspices of their elected Parliament, in consultation with Westminster."
* Scotland's independence referendum: response to UK Government consultation from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/16391