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Joint Columba Declaration with Kirk approved

26 February 2016

Geoff Crawford

The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland

The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland

THE business of relations with the Church of Scotland got a bumpy ride in debate, but was passed by a comfortable majority after an amendment was carried.

The debate on the Columba Declaration and the associated report of a joint Church of England-Church of Scotland study group, proposing a new relationship between the two Churches, was preceded by an address by the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Very Revd Dr Angus Morrison.

Dr Morrison said that the declaration, if approved by the C of E and the General Assembly, “will symbolise and give expression to a relationship which has grown and developed in recent years and which, in the providence of God, may yet deepen more fully to our mutual, but not exclusive, benefit.

“The strengthening of the bonds that already exist between us can only serve the advance of the gospel, which is our united desire and aim.

“The relationship between the Church of England and the Church of Scotland is one embedded in the DNA of both Churches, given the common context in which they were shaped: that of the Reformation of the 16th century. That the subsequent journeys taken by our two Churches thereafter have been somewhat different owes something to a variety of factors, including, no doubt, matters theological, liturgical, political, and climatic.”

The report, he said, “proposes nothing ground-breaking”, but instead served “to remind, recall, and to reaffirm what we already do together in partnership and in concert with one another as ‘national Churches’, and as Churches within the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church, of which we are both part, and in virtue of which we are related to one another, and related to other Churches within our communions and beyond.”

He recognised that there had been “some misunderstandings” about the report, because of the way it had been reported in the national press just before Christmas, and that “those misunderstandings have resulted in some hurt and dismay on the part of the Scottish Episcopal Church in particular.

“We have been working hard since then to address those misunderstandings and to focus on how responding to the report can be a positive opportunity for building relations with the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Church of England.”

He said that the way the report had been made public had “engendered intense and remarkably productive engagement between the Church of Scotland and the Scottish Episcopal Church with respect to how both Churches might give expression to our journey together within the specifically and, rather different, Scottish context.

“Equally, I believe that recent events have actually significantly strengthened the determination within both Churches to give appropriate expression to that relationship.”

Returning to the content of the report and Declaration, Dr Morrison said that the report “offers, for the very first time in our history, the opportunity for both Churches to formally affirm each other. . . I cannot imagine why we have not done this before. Here, today, we have the opportunity to do so. We owe no less, I believe, to our common Lord, and we owe it to the world to which he has sent us in mission and service.”

The report contained no prescription, he said, but “an opportunity . . . to renew and consider how we might deepen the relationship which we share, a relationship expressed carefully, yet confidently, in Growth in Communion, Partnership in Mission, and in the terms of the Columba Declaration.”

Dr Morrison’s speech was greeted with warm applause from Synod members, and the chair of the session, Geoffrey Tattersall QC, thanked him.

Introducing the debate, the Bishop of Chester, Dr Peter Forster, said that the report, and a predecessor report — Our Fellowship in the Gospel — set out “the rich history of formal contact between the Church of England and the Church of Scotland”. But, he said, “there has never been a formal doctrinal statement of what we do, and do not, agree upon. Today, we seek to remedy that.”

He described the report as “a modest document [that] does not seek to break substantial new ground in ecumenical theology”. It was based on existing bilateral agreements, such as Meissen, Fetter Lane, and Reuilly, between the C of E and the German Protestant churches, Moravian Church, and French Protestant Churches. “In our discussions, we were also very conscious, from the Church of England side, of the Covenant between the Methodist Church and the Church of England.”

He said that the working group “don’t claim to have made any specific progress towards a resolution of [the] difficult and challenging matter” of the interchangeability of ordained ministers, “although during our talks we were able to remedy one practical deficit by designating the Church of Scotland under the provisions of the Church of England’s ecumenical canons.

“This has regularised and extended the participation of Church of Scotland ministers in Church of England services in England and Europe. The contexts for this are limited, but not insignificant.”

He continued: “The dialogue and partnership between the Church of England and the Church of Scotland is shaped by our particular calling as ‘national’ Churches, which have a parish structure covering the nation, and a recognition by the State and wider society.

“As our country has become more secular, we find ourselves drawn together as we face common problems and opportunities. For all the ways in which our recognition and calling as national Churches have had very different histories and legal structures, we have found that we actually have more in common, in our common tasks in mission, than we might have supposed.”

Commenting on the initial response of the Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC) and suggestions that it had not been properly consulted, he said: “The SEC observer attended all meetings, and played a full role in the discussions. As the report was finalised, we explicitly asked for, and received, the assurances that there was nothing in the report and proposed Agreement which would cause any difficulty for the SEC.”

He said that the SEC had now published an official statement that said that the report “provides an opportunity to build on the warm relations which the SEC already enjoys . . . and looks forward to continuing discussions”.

The Revd Stewart Fyfe (Carlisle)said that he had been raised in the Church of Scotland but ordained in the C of E. He welcomed the report and the “healing of a rift” that went back to the Reformation. The priority should be to resolve the issue of episcopal authority, he argued, which was a live issue in his parish, as a Kirk minister had to undergo a “tortuous” process before he could preside at holy communion. “We cannot be satisfied with a theology that gives a closed door to those seeking to serve alongside us,” he said.

The Archdeacon of Barking, the Ven. Dr John Perumbalath (Chelmsford), who has a background in the United Church of North India, said that, despite his ecumenical links, he was not enthused by the Declaration. Any agreement outside England must involve the Anglican Church there; in this case, the SEC. Although the SEC had generously permitted the C of E to proceed without them, the C of E should respond to this by pausing to consider the Episcopalians’ pain and concerns.

The Very Revd David Arnott (Church of Scotland) said that there was already excellent co-operation between Kirk and C of E parishes. The unique territorial responsibilities of being national Churches bound the two together, he said. “This dialogue encourages both parties to look beyond themselves in ecumenical context, and to look afresh as unity in the gospel. Whatever happens in the years ahead, it does not take away the truth that you and I are neighbours, and always will be.”

Dr Christopher Angus (Carlisle) commended the report. The Church of Scotland did function south of the Scottish border, he said, and the relationship between the Churches was “very good and active” in terms of mission and outreach. The Church of Scotland already worked with Churches Together in Carlisle, and was very active in the ecumenical activities in the city, and with young people, he said.

He went on to commend a notion in the report that the “new possibilities will energise us” and would help the Churches to “grow in communion and partnership and mission”.

The Revd Andrew Foreshew-Cain (London) said that, as a “proud Episcopalian”, he was in support of the amendment put forward by Mark Russell. The mistakes made in the formulation and distribution of report were a case of “cock-up, not conspiracy”, he said, but that was “not a reason” to approve it: “There is a real sense of offence in the Scottish Episcopal Church, our sister Church, about this report, and what it is suggesting.” The continued exclusion of the SEC was “sowing seeds of ecumenical distrust”, he said.

He agreed with the Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow, who had said that he “knew no one” in the SEC who believed it appropriate for the Church of England to negotiate an agreement with the Church of Scotland. It would be “premature” to pass the report without an official response from the SEC, he said.

Canon Dagmar Winter (Newcastle) welcomed the report as a “great opportunity of affirmation” between the Churches. Many years of good work had gone into the Declaration, and members should not “throw it out completely”, but embrace “our Scottish brothers and sisters, Episcopalian and Presbyterian”. The Synod should not be thrown off course by an early press release, she said. Mr Russell’s amendment was “well-intentioned but misguided”.

Mark Russell (Sheffield), speaking to his amendment, said that he had “felt acutely” the way in which the report had been handled. He said that the press release published by the SEC was the result of being between “an ecumenical rock and hard place”, and that the Synod should wait for a formal response to the report. “Ecumenical relationships are supposed to help, not make things more complex, and they are already complex in Scotland,” he said. His was not a “derailing” amendment, he said, but put “breathing space” into the process of Christian unity and to rebuild trust between the Churches.

The Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Tim Thornton, said that he was being “pulled in two directions” over the report, which, he said, was good and modest, because it took “one more historic step towards Christian unity”. But it also left the SEC feeling “confused, threatened, hurt, and ignored”.

The Church needed to accept its share of the responsibility for this in the public domain, he said, before extending his apologies to the SEC. He opposed Mr Russell’s amendment, and urged members to support an amendment in his own name. The Church must make sure that the SEC heard loudly and clearly that concerns had been heard and hurts addressed, and that they could “take confidence” that the approval of the report would not cut them out of decision-making.

The Revd Dr Miranda Threlfall-Holmes (Durham), a former member of the study group, supported the motion and also the Bishop of Truro’s amendment. “Most of us don’t get excited about ecumenical statements, but this is a very historical document,” she said. “This document gives us an opportunity to make an historic statement about our recognition of each other.”

She said that the reason the SEC had decided to withdraw from the agreement was that it could not see the logic of entering an ecumenical agreement with the C of E, as it was already in full communion with the C of E, but was fully supportive of the two national Churches’ doing so.

The Bishop of Peterborough, the Rt Revd Donald Allister, who chairs the C of E’s Council for Christian Unity, said that the agreement was “all about mission”. It was about “being united so that we can present Christ better to the world. And we need to do that clearly with the Church of Scotland.”

He was sorry for any misunderstandings and miscommunication and for the hurt that arose from that, and so welcomed Bishop Thornton’s amendment.

The discussions had reported regularly to the Council for Christian Unity and the Faith and Order Commission, “and, each time, we sought assurances that the Scottish Episcopal Church were fully involved and happy with this.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury said that there was “a difference between what is seen and what is heard”, and was concerned that if Mr Russell’s amendment was passed it would be seen that the Synod had “kicked [the report] into the long grass” in “a turn against ecumenism and a turn against walking together”.

The announcement about the agreement in December had been “cack-handed, deeply discourteous, and badly handled”, he said. “I don’t know how that happened, and I would add my apology to that of the Bishop of Chester and the Bishop of Truro. It was not done as it should have been done between Christian sisters and brothers.”

He said that he deeply regretted “the hurt that has been caused inadvertently by poor communication”. Having seen the report, the SEC had been able to see that “it was a much more moderate agreement than had been reported. It initially seemed like a BMW. It turned out to be a Morris Minor.”

He said that, with the Agreement, “half a millennium of disagreement should be overturned. . . Underlying all this is that when we are seen to be walking in unity the world sees that Jesus Christ came from the Father. That is what John 17 says to us again, and again, and again. That call should overrule everything else.”

Mr Russell moved his amendment.

Dr Forsterurged the Synod to resist the amendment. Responding to Mr Foreshew-Cain, he said that the Faith and Order Board of the SEC had given a formal response.

The Dean of Guernsey, the Very Revd Tim Barker (Channel Islands), said that he had discussed the report with his Kirk colleague in Guernsey, and looked forward to working it out in practice. “We believe this is important for our common life and mission in Guernsey with our other ecumenical partners. It will be a great shame, I believe, if this were delayed.”

Peter Hart (Chester) said that he opposed the amendment, but in a positive way, to “progress this debate, not to destroy it”. More time was needed to develop the good sides of the report, and address other issues, such as episcopacy and the concerns of the SEC. “Let’s resist creating a disunity in our rush to create another unity,” he argued. “To reconsider is not to kick it into the long grass.”

The chairman of the House of Laity, Dr Jamie Harrison (Durham), said that they had heard three speakers who were the nearest neighbours to Scotland, each of them very supportive of the mood in favour of bringing the Churches together. “We should hear their voices, and wonder perhaps they know something us in the south don’t know about how best to resolve these sorts of issues.”

Mr Russell’s amendment was lost, and Bishop Thornton moved his amendment, which Dr Forster was happy to accept.

Dr Rachel Jepson (Birmingham) wanted the Synod to vote overwhelmingly for Bishop Thornton’s amendment and the motion, to give a clear signal that the Church of England wished to move towards visible unity. “I would like to reassure members that the process that has led to this point has been thorough and fair,” she said. She was also particularly enthused by the “golden opportunity” to work together on social and political issues.

Bishop Thornton’s amendment was clearly carried.

The Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, said that recognising the Kirk formally was the right and proper thing to do, and was long overdue. Relationships had been damaged, he conceded, but Bishop Thornton’s amendment should address that, he said.

Tim Hind (Bath & Wells) said that his initial reaction had been that they should go with Mr Russell’s amendment, but he had been reassured by the Archbishop of Canterbury. He urged care in the choice of words. “This is an average report — because not all of the words are fully explained. The phrase that we have been battling with is a throwaway phrase that ‘the SEC didn’t want to go in that direction.’ If we are not going to be in the same situation on other reports, we need to be much more careful about the words we use.”

Graham Caskie (Oxford), a former member of the Kirk, whose father is a retired minister of it, wanted to support the motion, but was concerned that the Kirk’s General Assembly had allowed parishes to permit clergy in same-sex relationships to minister. “It grieves my heart that I’m not able to stand in solidarity with the Church of my youth. Good Christian folk have left and good Christian folk have remained. I want to stand with them both; so for that reason I have to abstain.”

The Synod as a whole divided to vote on the motion as amended. It was carried by 243 to 50 votes, with 49 recorded abstentions. It read:


That this Synod,

(a) welcome the report of the Joint Study Group of the Church of England and the Church of Scotland (annexed to GS 2016) as a significant development in the relationship between the two churches;

(b) approve the Columba Declaration, consisting of mutual Acknowledgments and Commitments, as set out in paragraph 39 of the report;

(c) request the Council for Christian Unity to oversee the implementation of the Commitments contained in the Columba Declaration and set up the Contact Group proposed by it; and

(d) grateful for the Church of England’s valued relationship with the Scottish Episcopal Church within the Anglican Communion, request the Council for Christian Unity to ensure that the Scottish Episcopal Church is invited to appoint a representative to attend meetings of the Contact Group.

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