Church of Scotland General Assembly to debate independence

Scottish National Party Leader Alex Salmond is pushing for Scottish independencePhoto: PA

The annual General Assembly of the Church of Scotland is set to debate independence this afternoon, Tuesday 20 May.

Though there will not be a vote, some 800 representatives from across the Church will listen as different strands of the debate are bought before the Hall in Edinburgh.

The Yes campaign – advocating full Scottish independence – will be spoken for by Rev Dr Doug Gay of Glasgow University, while the Better Together campaign will be represented by Douglas Alexander MP.

Gay has expressed his delight at the opportunity to open up the conversation on the referendum, saying that he is "looking forward to seeing the Church model of respectful dialogue...and to listening to friendly debate from all sides of the issue".

On Saturday, following the installation of Rt Rev John Chalmers as the latest General Moderator of the Assembly, a letter from the Queen was read out in which she underlined the importance of the Church in encouraging peace and reconciliation throughout Scotland, no matter what the decision in September.

"In this important year of referendum, we pray that whatever the outcome, people of faith and people of good will, will work together for the social good of Scotland. We recognise too the important role the Church can play in holding the people of Scotland together, in healing division and safeguarding the interests of the most vulnerable," she wrote.

"In this year in which Scotland will host the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, we commend to you those who will come from around the world as competitors and spectators," the letter continued.

"We are confident that the Church will play its full part in welcoming, supporting and extending the hand of friendship to the diverse peoples of the Commonwealth."

First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond commended these words, noting that "Her Majesty is right to highlight the importance of everyone working together for the social good of Scotland, regardless of the outcome of the referendum, which is something I heartily endorse and should be welcomed across the political spectrum".

He also praised the Queen's comments as "typically gracious".

During the debate today, Alison Elliot – formerly a Moderator of the General Assembly – will offer some of the most significant questions surrounding the consequences and impact of independence, while John Sturrock QC is expected to round up the discussion at the close of the day.

The Church of Scotland has committed to remaining neutral in the independence debate, though it has welcomed discussion and a report entitled 'Imagining Scotland's Future: Our Vision' published in February noted that "being impartial does not equate to passivity".

The report also expressed a Church-wide commitment to "making theological, ethical and spiritual contributions to public policy and decision-making with a bias to the poor".

"The Church believes that it is vital to encourage public participation in this momentous decision about Scotland's constitutional future by creating space for people to think about what values they want to underpin Scottish society and what shared vision we aspire to," an accompanying statement read.

"We cannot tell people what Scotland would be like as an independent nation or how that would compare with remaining in the UK. However, we can seek to understand the values that our communities hold and reflect them in to the public debate. We can be part of a movement across Scottish civil society to revitalise our democracy."

The Assembly, also expected to discuss gay ministers and how to encourage young people to join the Church, will close on Friday 23 May.