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Scottish Episcopal Church concerned about cross-border ecumenical agreement

Posted on: January 5, 2016 2:33 PM
The agreement between the Church of England and the Church of Scotland has been called the Columba Declaration, after Saint Columba, an Irish abbot and missionary who was credited with spreading Christianity in Scotland. Saint Columba is pictured here in a stained glass window at Iona Abbey, which he founded in the sixth century.
Photo Credit: Vegansoldier / Flickr

[ACNS] The Church of England and the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland have reached “an historic agreement that recognises their longstanding ecumenical partnership and lays the groundwork for future joint projects,” the two churches have announced, but the (Anglican) Scottish Episcopal Church has called for a rethink, citing concerns about shared worship and the exchange of ministers.

The Primus of Scotland, Dr David Chillingworth, said: “The question here is not whether the development of ecumenical relationships is desirable – for of course it is. The question is about whether that development can take place respectfully and in good order.”

The discussions which led to the agreement – dubbed the Columba Declaration – were carried out as both churches have national church status in the UK. The Church of Scotland was afforded “national church” status in 1690; but unlike the Church of England, which is the national church south of the border, is not established and is independent of the State.

The report will be discussed by the Church of England’s General Synod next month and the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly in May.

“The Columba Declaration recognises the strong partnership that already exists and will help encourage and support new initiatives,” the Revd Dr John McPake, co-chair of the study group and one of the authors of the report, said.

“We believe that approval of the Columba Declaration by our two churches will represent a significant step in the long history of their relationship, one that affirms the place we have come to and opens up new possibilities for the future.”

The report’s four chapters sets out the history of partnership between the two churches and the shared beliefs that allow for close cooperation between the churches, before exploring how the partnership could grow.

The two churches already work jointly on public policy issues and last year established the Churches' Mutual Credit Union as a response to concerns that low-income families needed access to low-cost banking and loans. They also co-operate in areas including poverty to refugees.

In a joint statement prefacing the report, joint study group co-chairs Dr McPake and the Bishop of Chester, the Rt Revd Peter Forster, say: “Our hope is that joint affirmation by our two churches of the Columba Declaration would affirm and strengthen our relationship at a time when it is likely to be particularly critical in the life of the United Kingdom; provide an effective framework for coordinating present partnership activities and for fostering new initiatives; [and] enable us to speak and act together more effectively in the face of the missionary challenges of our generation.”

The report emphasises that joint ecumenical work should also include other churches and especially the Scottish Episcopal Church and the United Reformed Church; while it acknowledges the “distinctive partnership in the gospel to which our two Churches are called within the United Kingdom, rooted in our shared history and in our parallel and overlapping roles as the churches of our respective nations.”

In a statement, the Scottish Episcopal Church welcomed “the opportunity for . . . further ecumenical discussion” and say that they “fully understand the desire of the Church of Scotland and the Church of England as national churches to discuss and explore matters of common concern”; but they express concern that “certain aspects of the report which appear to go beyond the relationship of the two churches as national institutions cause us concern.”

The Primus of Scotland, Dr Chillingworth, elaborated on these concerns in a series of blog posts, in which he said that there were two particular areas of concern.

“The first is the commitment that the Church of Scotland and the Church of England will ‘welcome one another’s members to each other’s worship as guests and receive one another’s members into the congregational life of each other’s churches where that is their desire’”, he said.

“People will of course make their own choices. But the fact that such a statement is made at all suggests that the Church of England will respond warmly to the idea that its members will worship in Church of Scotland Churches when they visit Scotland. Yet the Church of England’s Anglican Communion partner in Scotland is the Scottish Episcopal Church

“The second – and far more serious – provision is that the partners will ‘enable ordained ministers from one of our churches to exercise ministry in the other church, in accordance with the discipline of each church.’ This is in the context of an earlier acknowledgement that the partners ‘look forward to a time when growth in communion can be expressed in fuller unity that makes possible the interchangeability of ministers’”

He continued: “The Scottish Episcopal Church now seems to be faced with the possibility that Church of England clergy will minister in Scotland under the authorisation of the Church of Scotland and without reference to the Scottish Episcopal Church. Yet the Church of England and the Scottish Episcopal Church are partner members of the Anglican Communion. The Anglican Communion in Scotland is expressed in the life of the Scottish Episcopal Church.

“The Church of Scotland and the Church of England seem to have decided that their commonality as National Churches justifies them in setting aside other ecumenical relationships and etiquette. What would really help this situation – mitigating the damage already done to long-established relationships and avoiding further damage – would be for the two churches to decide to delay publication of the full document to allow time for consultation.

“I appeal to them to do so.”

Responding to the criticism, a spokesman for the Church of Scotland told the Independent newspaper that the Scottish Episcopal Church had been part of the discussions, firstly as an active member and subsequently as an observer.

“The joint study group report and the Columba Declaration are the outcome of ecumenical work that has been under way since 2010,” a spokesman told the newspaper. “The Scottish Episcopal Church was a full partner in the joint study group until it chose to withdraw from active participation in 2013. From that point on, the Scottish Episcopal Church continued to attend as an observer.”

If approved by the churches’ General Synod and General Assembly, the Church of England and the Scottish Episcopal Church will appoint co-chairs and members to a new “Church of Scotland - Church of England Contact Group” to “coordinate the different activities that make up our rich relationship and develop new initiatives where these may be needed.”

The text of the Columba Declaration can be read here.