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Scottish Parliament Speech: Decision Time: Reformation (450th Anniversary) (April 2010)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

I, too, thank Nigel Don for lodging this timely motion. The 450th anniversary of the reformation falls this summer. It was a great religious change from Catholicism to Calvinism and a diplomatic change away from the auld alliance with France and towards an entente with England that broke down only in the wars of the three kingdoms between 1639 and 1653.

The anniversary is one of three events that we should celebrate - the others are Catholic emancipation, which took place just over 180 years ago in 1829, and the tercentenary in 2011 of the birth of David Hume, who is the greatest philosopher to write in English. He was not exactly an ornament to the kirk, but he did not take faith lightly.

Today, only a tenth of Scots are active churchgoers, which is probably average for western Europe and is nearly double the rate in England, yet dogmatism is increasing in our materialistic world. There are even dogmatic atheists and celebrity atheists these days. Church establishments of all sorts are plagued with behavioural and doctrinal conflicts and by revelations of bullying, crime or closeness to terrorism.

However, a kirk that is rooted in consent, which one celebrates in our reformation - which was carried out in the Scots Parliament and not by the fiat of a ruler - can greet the visit of Pope Benedict XVI between 16 and 19 September with dignity and friendship. The commemoration initiative must not pass to sectarians or the profound theologians of the terraces. We could use the occasion to assess the relationship between faith, ideas and government and the ways in which the diplomacy of a semi-independent nation might advance that.

Scotland's reformation - of which see my friend Harry Reid's excellent account - was bloodless in comparison with that in England and most of Europe. It placed self-government and theology, rather than greed or political power, at the centre of the church. That was the aim of the earlier conciliar movement in Rome. It emphasised covenants - federal Calvinism - and co-existence by agreement. As Nigel Don said, it started the move to create an authorised version of the Bible in English. In 1601, the authorised version was settled on in my constituency, in Burntisland, and its influence affected all religious traditions.

The reformation had an enriching if ironic European input. For two centuries, my Scottish university - Edinburgh - in the Calvinist tradition has exchanged students with the evangelical Lutheran Stift in Tübingen. After the reformation, colleges of Scots Catholics were established in Douai, Salamanca, Regensburg and Rome.

Scotland's Episcopalian tradition, which is separate from Anglicanism and has a democratic culture that is derived in part from the Calvinists' supervisors - their name for bishops - was crucial in creating the American Episcopal Church in 1786, as the Anglican clergy were not allowed to lay hands, in the theological sense, on their American brethren.

We should also think of what Scots Calvinists have done for other world religions. The first great translation of the Chinese classics, including the teachings of Confucius, was produced by a Huntly man, James Legge, in the late 19th century. Another north-eastern clergyman, Robertson Smith, wrote the classic "Lectures on the Religion of the Semites", on Mohammedanism.

Our commemoration ought to be not just a religious commemoration but a commemoration of what religion has done for reason in Scotland and of its power to bind people together. I would like to think that sometime in late June we could have a session, under the patronage of the Presiding Officer, at which MSPs could be joined by religious and civic leaders and for which a programme, narrative and declaratory, could be devised. Interestingly, when I mentioned the idea to Cardinal O'Brien, I received an enthusiastic letter in support of it. With that sort of open agenda, we could do something to enhance the value of the intellectual nature of theological argument. I remember hearing from a man in telecoms that the industry needed not more engineers to tell it how great systems work but people such as theologians, because they provide an amalgam of logical strength and awareness of the role of the human animal in such systems.

As we approach the 450th anniversary of the reformation and a papal visit, let us think again of the values that underlay federal Calvinism: the values of respect, concord and covenant.

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