By John Martin
Cross-border relations between the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland and Anglicans have always been sensitive. In the 1960s an ecumenical commission of high-profile theologians drafted a union plan between the Church of Scotland and the Scottish Episcopal Church that said the two churches should be episcopally led. It triggered a storm in the land of John Knox. Nay Bishops in the Kirk, thundered a headline in the Scottish Daily Record. The proposal came to naught.
While the Church of Scotland has for years been a constituent of ecumenical bodies such as Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, only now has a bilateral practical working agreement been achieved with the Church of England. The Columba Declaration, unveiled Dec. 24, commits the churches to “grow together in communion and to strengthen their partnership in mission.” It will be debated by the ruling bodies of both churches in the new year.
The declaration is the work of the Rev. John McPake, a retired Kirk minister, and the Rt. Rev. Peter Forster, Bishop of Chester. In a joint statement, the authors said they hoped it would “affirm and strengthen our relationship at a time when it is likely to be particularly critical in the life of the UK.”
They hope it will “enable us to speak and act together more effectively in the face of the missionary challenges of our generation.” The agreement will clear denominational borders between the churches, with visiting clergy and lay people fully welcomed.
In no small measure the pact is a response to the potential breakup of the union between England and Scotland that was the subject of a referendum in 2014. While Scotland voted to stay in the union, talk of Scottish independence has not gone away.
“We face the common reality that constitutional change could have a significant impact on our own identity and relationships,” the 15-page declaration says. The authors told the media they hope the pact would “affirm and strengthen our relationship at a time when it is likely to be particularly critical in the life of the UK.”
Both churches were formed separately during the 16th-century Reformation. The Church of Scotland was deeply influenced by the Protestant Reformation in northern Europe. Its founding leader, John Knox (1513–72), lived in exile in Geneva and Frankfurt, where he became a close associate of the continental reformer John Calvin. Under Knox the Reformation was more radical than south of the border.
While the governance of the two churches is distinct, ecclesiological differences are not great. The Church of England has more vestiges of Roman Catholicism, has Catholic and evangelical wings, and is led by bishops. The Church of Scotland is governed by a combination of local presbyteries and a General Assembly, and has no bishops.
Policies approved by the General Assembly do not require royal assent, whereas “measures” passed by the Church of England’s General Synod do. The Church of England is moreover, entitled to representation by 26 bishops in the House of Lords. By one of those very British quirks the Queen is a member of both churches.
One joint initiative this year was the launch of Churches’ Mutual Credit Union, a bid to help low-income families without access to inexpensive banking and loans.
Archbishop Justin Welby jokes at General Synod, which the Church of Scotland’s moderator, Angus Morrison, attends as an honored guest. • Andrew Dunsmore