James Mitchell, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, along with two colleagues, questioned the entire membership of the SNP between November 2007 and June 2008.
The results of this exceptionally thorough survey (there were 64 questions) were not readily available till very recently.
At the time of the survey the SNP had just over 13,000 members and over half of them completed the survey. More than half of these respondents said they were either very religious or fairly religious. The days of mass membership of political parties have long vanished in Scotland, whereas belonging to a religious organisation, and in particular to one of the two main Christian churches operating in Scotland today (the Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church), is much less of a minority activity.
Although some regard these two organisations as being less in the mainstream of our national life than say the Labour Party or the SNP, they have memberships which should make the political parties weep with envy. These two churches have together well over half a million members in Scotland and that alone should give them an influence that they do not currently have.
The Church of Scotland seems to have more or less given up on any attempt to be Scotland's national church. Its great annual gathering, the General Assembly, takes place each May in Edinburgh, but less attention is paid to it by much of the Scottish media. As recently as the 1960s and the 1970s it was regularly claimed that the General Assembly was more or less a substitute for a Scottish Parliament. Then the Kirk took itself seriously as a national institution.
Now it finds it increasingly difficult, if not downright impossible, to provide a minister in every parish and it seems to be slowly but surely giving up on being a national church. Soon it will be more realistic to regard it as a loose federation of congregations. Many of these are large and flourishing; by that I mean individual congregations that have several hundred members and are capable of raising many hundreds of thousands of pounds. Again, these are figures that should make our leading political parties jealous.
Yet when a prominent Scottish cleric speaks out on just about any topical issue, self-appointed censors rush to claim that he – or she – has no right to do so. In this climate the Church of Scotland has lost confidence and its leading figure (who changes annually), the Moderator of the General Assembly, is a much lower profile figure than was the case just a few years ago. Moderators rarely speak out publicly, and when they do few notice; it's as if they have been cowed by the aggressive secularism which is all around them.
Quite the opposite applies to the Catholic Church in Scotland. The late Cardinal Tom Winning was not a man who was afraid to engage with the media. I can recall some withering phone calls from him when he objected to something in The Herald. Equally I can recall many positive and pleasant conversations with him.
It was Cardinal Winning who in effect gave Catholics a voice in civic Scotland, who ensured that the leader of the Catholics was given a place at the top table, or in the front row, as of right.
The current leader of Scotland's Catholics, Cardinal Keith O'Brien (who is, though the English media do not seem to understand this, also the most senior Catholic in Britain), is personally a less abrasive figure than Cardinal Winning – he is a notably gracious man, and his fierce public pronouncements sometimes do not reflect his own gentle personality.
He has every right to speak out, and he does so clearly and bravely. But I sometimes think he speaks out just a little too frequently. Perhaps he feels he has to make up for the silence emanating from the Kirk.
I certainly think that if the Moderator and the Cardinal could issue more joint statements, that would carry yet more authority.
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