A FORMER moderator of the Church of Scotland is among nearly 40 Ministers to have signed a declaration of support for independence.

The Right Rev Andrew McLellan said leaving the Union was a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" for removing Trident, which he described as the "worst thing in Scotland".

However, Rev Ewan Aitken, a former Labour council leader, hit back by saying independence amounted to "dumping" Trident on England.

The signatures were collected by Christians for Independence (CFI), a group bankrolled by SNP donor Brian Souter.

In an advert in today's Sunday Herald, 34 ordained Kirk ministers put their names to a statement, which reads: "We believe that a Yes vote in the forthcoming referendum makes possible a more socially just Scotland."

McLellan, who was the moderator in 2000 and is also a former chief inspector of prisons, is the most high-profile supporter.

He explained his support for the policy: "The worst thing in Scotland is Trident. September 18 is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to remove the worst thing in Scotland. Speaking against nuclear weapons is good, campaigning against nuclear weapons is good, and praying for their abolition is good.

"But what will change everything is voting 'Yes' in the referendum. Living in a Scotland free of nuclear weapons will make everything else better."

Rev Peter Macdonald, the leader of the ecumenical Iona Community, is another minister to have signed the pro-independence pledge.

He said: "I was a member of the Labour Party for 30 years until last year. Now I no longer believe a Westminster government is capable of delivering the socially just and equitable society in which I want to live. The British State no longer serves the needs of all its people. Economic policies pursued have favoured the wealthy who have grown richer and stigmatised the poor and vulnerable who are paying for the failures of the private financial sector."

The Rev Norman Shanks, who was a former private secretary to the secretary of state for Scotland, said of his support: "I shall be voting 'Yes' on September 18 because I believe that, free from the constraints of Westminster, an independent Scottish government will be able to shape our nation's future in ways that are more sensitive to the needs, hopes and aspirations of Scotland's people."

The list is a mixture of retired and serving Ministers. It is understood a number priests may make a similar declaration.

CFI started as an SNP prayer group but spiralled into a cross-party body last year. Its key figures include SNP MSPs John Mason and Dave Thompson, while former Nationalist candidate, David Kerr, is employed as its director.

Other than campaigning for independence, CFI intends to ensure religious freedoms are enshrined in any post-independence constitution.

According to the Electoral Commission, Souter's £100,000 donation is the group's sole financial contribution.

However, Aitken criticised McLellan's pro-independence argument, saying: "I agree with the Church of Scotland that Trident is evil and must go, but voting Yes will simply mean we are dumping it on our own neighbours.

"This would not be a great start to nation-building."

Thompson said: "We've been overwhelmed by the number Church of Scotland ministers who are backing the Yes campaign - including such high profile figures as Andrew McLellan - and it's further confirmation that a consensus is emerging among all Christians across Scotland that a more socially just country is only possible with a 'Yes' vote on September 18."

The advert can be seen on page five of this week's edition.