A bold but difficult step closer to the Kirk

by
20 May 2016

The Columba Declaration raises tough questions, but is more of a problem for Scottish Episcopalians, argues Andrew Hayes

 

THE Columba Declaration commits the Church of England the Church of Scotland to working more closely together. The General Synod decided earlier this year to welcome it and to continue with the discussions (News, 19 February); it will be voted on by the Kirk at its General Assembly in the next few days.

Baptised and brought up in the Church of Scotland, but now training Church of England clergy and worshipping in the C of E, I have a foot in each camp. There are many reasons why this new Declaration matters, not least that it has been the subject of much careful thought, and represents a willingness to see common heritage. It is controversial, however.

There are three particularly important points established by the Declaration: first, the enabling of each other’s clergy to minister in each other’s Churches; second, the seeking of closer congregational partnerships; and, third, preparation to invest resources in moving “towards fuller communion”.

These might seem modest, but the two Churches have different polities, and the C of E is already in communion with another Church in Scotland: the Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC). The C of E and the SEC are partner-provinces among the 38 autonomous provinces of the Anglican Communion, independent Churches of the same denomination.

The Kirk has a Presbyterian polity — a four-fold ministry of ministers, elders, deacons, and doctors — in contrast to the Anglican three-fold order of bishops, priests, and deacons. These assume a different view of what the local church is, and of how ordination happens.

One is primarily collegial, and the other primarily hierarchical — not to deny that it is also collegial in its own way. These differences are real, but should not be exaggerated.

 

ALLOWING each other’s clergy to minister in each other’s churches as a normative assumption is the big shift here. Before, in England, a bishop’s licence would have been required, under ecumenical provisions, for a minister of the Kirk to preside in a Anglican church, and could have been refused.

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I have known this to happen in the past few years in the C of E — for example, a case where an incumbent was prevented from deploying in ministry a member of the congregation who was from the Kirk.

The Columba Declaration makes it conceivable that this would be presumed to be acceptable. This is a dramatic shift, because Church of Scotland clergy are ordained by each other rather than by bishops.

It is important to note, however, that direct interchangeability of clergy (a Scottish minister applying directly to be rector of a C of E parish, for example) would not be a result of the Declaration, but a potential fruit of it. The 15-page report that accompanies the Declaration is careful to state that this is some way off.

The point of the Columba Declaration here is to establish the mutual recognition of ministries, and to find ways to facilitate working together. The C of E has done this with the Methodist Church, and is exploring interchangeability with it in the future.

The aim is to find ways to accommodate members of congregations and clergy who find themselves in different ecclesiastical territory and who, for a variety of reasons, find themselves attached to a C of E rather than a URC congregation; or respectively, a kirk rather than a Scottish Episcopal congregation.

 

THE SEC has been unhappy about this because it is in communion with the C of E as part of the Anglican Communion. If C of E clerics now come to minister in Church of Scotland churches, in the view of the SEC, they could be seen as operating in a foreign diocese, without the permission of another province of the Anglican Communion which has jurisdiction in that area.

The discussions that led to this Declaration began in 2010 as a three-way dialogue between the SEC, the C of E, and the Kirk, with a view to establishing a formal agreement to work together.

From 2013, the SEC has withdrawn from full participation in these discussions, as it was unhappy about the formal agreement. At this point, the SEC was included in the talks, but with the status of an observer: attending the meetings and receiving the papers, so that it was still able to be involved and to comment on developments.

The Declaration was passed by the General Synod by a majority.

An amendment to seek further talks with the SEC to avoid such a situation was added, although in some ways it seems as if a rift has already opened up. Commenting on this, the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Most Revd David Chillingworth, said that the C of E was now in a “compromised position” with regard to the SEC.

 

MANY of these difficult questions are not, however, entirely new or shocking. Back in 1984, there was an Anglican-Reformed Commission, which examined what closer communion might look like. It was appointed by the Anglican Consultative Council and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.

After three years, it produced the report God’s Reign and Our Unity, partly promoted by the reality of overlapping territories and mergers between Anglican and Reformed Churches, chiefly in India as part of the Church of South India. This polity now has a Church of its own outside India, in North America.

The report recommended that Anglicans take the Reformed ministry of eldership seriously, and that Reformed Churches consider a personal supra-congregational oversight (similar to bishops) rather than a chiefly corporate model (that of the presbyter or the synod). The place of the moderator in presbytery was highlighted as being bishop-like, and those friendly towards bishops in the Reformed tradition have frequently made this connection.

Even more telling is that, between 1932 and 1970, there were four sets of discussions that proposed unions between the SEC and the Kirk. The first two of these included the C of E as part of the proposals. Although no fruit came of these, in principle, the notion of uniting an episcopal and a Reformed/Presbyterian polity is not of itself anathema.

The fact that many people might be surprised to learn that such discussions took place is testament to how much these Churches have changed, and perhaps grown apart. That such discussions were ever plausible tells us that the two polities are perhaps not as incompatible as we might assume from the present state of affairs.

 

PERSONALLY, I have learnt to appreciate the weekly eucharistic liturgy, and the pattern of its prayer. The episcopal system also has a strength in having personal representatives, who are able to keep channels of communication between parities open.

The Presbyterian system’s strength in its collegial decision-making is also a weakness, in that the need to vote on issues can be polarising (as has been in evidence in the votes on sexuality in the General Assembly in recent years). The congregation and its right to call its own minister — with no interference from patrons or others — is theologically and practically central to the modern Church of Scotland.

The Declaration matters because the two Churches have a shared history and responsibility; it will accommodate clergy and lay people who might otherwise appear to be crossing a border that seems be less porous than the dividing line between Scotland and England.

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The opportunity for closer creative collaboration will surely be welcomed by those congregations that are close to that border, or which already have links across it.

The position of the SEC in relation to the Declaration is delicate, but crucial. Ecumenical activity rarely comes with such a serious caveat. The SEC is a vital partner for the Kirk in Scotland, and for the C of E in the Anglican Communion. Its questions need to be taken seriously. Efforts ought to be taken to repair the damage done here, and to investigate ways in which the Kirk and the C of E can collaborate, without the C of E’s being seen to step on the SEC’s toes.

The Declaration is a bold step, but one that has had a long and committed gestation in Anglican-Reformed conversation. It should be welcomed.

 

Dr Andrew Hayes is a lay theologian who was brought up in the Kirk, but who now worships in the C of E. He is a Tutor in Ethics and Church History at the Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education in Birmingham, where he trains Anglican and Methodist ordinands, as well as independent students.

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