The St Andrew Declaration: A Shared History and a Shared Faith?

This is an article commissioned by the Scottish Episcopal Institute Journal and published in the Journal’s Spring 2022 issue. The journal is an academic periodical not a publicity sheet so it wanted a rigorous and critical reading of the St Andrew Declaration by scholars and clergy from the Episcopalian and Presbyterian Churches. The Declaration is still contentious as at the June General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church, while it was mentioned positively on a couple of occasions by those involved in it, one of our Bishops said it had introduced an unhelpful ambiguity into relations with the Church of Scotland as Ministers of that Church had derived from it the incorrect notions that our two Churches are in full communion and that a Presbyterian Minster of Word and Sacrament and an Episcopalian Priest are the same.

I thus stand by what I have written below and hope that future relations with our friends and colleagues in the Church of Scotland are marked by a greater honesty and love. Good relations are already here, my Church is planning children’s events in the summer with Cramond Kirk down the road, the service sheets for my Sunday service are printed by Davidson’s Mains Parish Church where members of my congregation volunteer in their cafe, and I have just had birthday wishes from many friends who are Church of Scotland Ministers. I suspect that the document produced by the Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, the St Margaret Declaration, is a better model for working together as it does not include historical and theological ambiguity and errors. I do, however, suspect that this sort of institutional ecumenism is largely irrelevant to the mission of our Churches in an increasingly secular Scotland. My article begins below, after a downloadable pdf of the article in the SEI Journal.

The St Andrew Declaration (SAD), which was signed by the leaders of the Church of Scotland and the Scottish Episcopal Church in Edinburgh on St Andrew’s Day in 2021, commits the two Churches to working together. It makes a mutual recognition of elements of Catholic unity in the faith and order of the two Churches while acknowledging that they are not in full communion.[1] Like many others in ministry in Scotland in our two Churches, I have friends in the other Church. I studied at undergraduate and postgraduate level with those who are now Ministers and even taught some of them at New College in Edinburgh. Socially our two Churches are intertwined and I am surely not alone in sometimes feeling closer spiritually and theologically to Ministers of the other Church than I do to some in my own. I might even, occasionally, agree with the Anglican novelist Rose Macaulay who wrote in 1953, ‘How nice it would be if each Church were to publish a pamphlet full of compliments to the other! Why should there be all this ill-feeling?’[2]

There are, however, fundamental differences in faith and order between our two Churches which were reflected in the less than fulsome welcome given to SAD when it was adopted at the 2021 General Synod of the Scottish Episcopal Church.[3] If SAD is to be anything more than ineffective mutual niceness between ecumenists, these differences and hesitations suggest that it needs to be subjected to critical scrutiny. I will do so from the perspective of history and historical theology and will make some suggestions as to how effective ecumenism might be done. The Lord prayed that we might all be one and this unity in our differences must be a reality rooted in honesty not a polite pretence based on falsehood.

The Preamble

The preamble is not part of the Declaration proper and it has two parts, one giving the historical background of the Churches and the other a description of the bilateral conversations of the Our Common Calling Working Group out of which it arose. The preamble says of the Group that, ‘in the course of our discussions we have acknowledged our shared history and have named past conflicts’. The problem is that the Churches in Scotland do not have a shared history but rather a series of conflicting denominational histories which I and others have explored and unveiled.[4] This historical sectarianism was first seriously undermined using modern historical scholarship by the Roman Catholic historians of the Scottish Catholic Historical Association and this task has been continued in the secular history faculties of modern Scotland and elsewhere. [5] Episcopalian – Presbyterian ecumenism has thus contributed little to a more accurate understanding of the ecclesiastical history of Scotland, whereas those who were deliberately excluded and those professionally detached from Christianity have contributed most. The legacy of the old sectarian history has, however, survived and is found in the preamble to SAD. It is unfortunate that a document that aims to reconcile Scotland’s Churches begins by perpetuating sectarianism.

The second sentence of the Preamble is: ‘For over a century following the Reformation, the church in Scotland, and Scotland’s monarch, wrestled over the order of the church: was it to be Presbyterian or Episcopalian?’ This seems a straightforward historical statement but it contains evidence of that sectarianism, so deeply rooted in Scottish society, which in 1999 the composer James Macmillan called ‘Scotland’s shame’.[6] To speak of ‘the Reformation’ in a Scottish context is a common popular way of speaking of the events of 1559-60 and it is clear that this is what the authors intend here. To do this, however, is to adopt a sectarian Protestant, and particularly Presbyterian, narrative which goes back to John Knox’s sixteenth-century ‘History of the Reformation in Scotland’. Historians speak of a ‘long reformation’ and there were in reality a series of attempts to reform the Church in Scotland including Catholic movements associated with Bishop Elphinstone, Cardinal Beaton and Archbishop Hamilton which explicitly used the language of ‘reformation’. ‘Reformation’ is thus not an exclusively Protestant activity. It can be argued that this Scottish Catholic Reformation continued after the political and religious coup of 1559-60 in the Catholic colleges on the continent. To say ‘the Reformation’ with reference to the Protestant coup is to make a sectarian statement cancelling the Catholic reform movements. That this was the (one hopes) unconscious prejudice of those who wrote the preamble to SAD is confirmed by the rest of this sentence. If someone writes that the church in Scotland after ‘the Reformation’ wrestled over whether to be Presbyterian or Episcopalian, it is clear that the author does not consider the large number of Scots who remained in communion with the Bishop of Rome after 1560 to be part of the ‘church in Scotland’ as they were clearly content to be neither of these options. Without explicitly saying that the Church of Rome is the Synagogue of Satan and the Pope is the Antichrist, it is unfortunate that the St Andrew Declaration begins by suggesting that Roman Catholics are not part of the Christian Church.

Serious ecumenism does not exclude a dialogue partner in this manner and nor does it misrepresent the history of one of the partners in the dialogue. As well as the double repetition of the smallness of the Episcopal Church (true but one wonders if it is necessary to mention it here), the preamble of SAD also claims that ‘English immigration saw the establishment of Qualified Chapels which used the English Liturgy’. This is not true as Qualified Chapels allowed Scottish Episcopalians to worship legally if they repudiated Jacobitism.[7] English people also worshipped in and established Qualified Chapels but the emphasis on Englishness here in the preamble is a hint of another aspect of Scottish sectarianism – the Presbyterian dismissal of Episcopalianism as ‘the English Kirk’.

It does not bode well for an ecumenical agreement if it begins with two major historical errors that reveal an underlying sectarianism. That two Churches which have many professional historians among their members could not avoid these errors, at least by having the text checked by experts in the field, does not reflect well on the seriousness of the endeavour.  I must declare an interest here as I pointed out these errors in an intervention at the 2021 General Synod, but no correction was made before SAD was signed by the Primus of the SEC and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the CofS. Although there may be procedural reasons for the lack of correction, that a means for the correction of factual error was not found does suggest that historical truth is not valued in the search for unity.

The Acknowledgements

One may attempt to dismiss error and hidden sectarianism in the preamble as not affecting the substance of the Declaration, and so it is worth looking at the Acknowledgements in section A. These confess a shared recognition that the essential elements of the Church of Christ are present in both Churches. They also recognize that the unity expressed in these elements is not sufficient and they look for a fuller unity which is qualified as ‘visible’. The Commitments in section B look to the future and in most cases reflect a partnership which is already active, especially at the local level, so the next part of this article will examine the affirmations of section A in the light of history.

I have a copy of a book by the non-juror Thomas Brett entitled The Divine Right of Episcopacy and the necessity of an Episcopal Commission for Preaching God’s Word and for the Valid Ministration of the Christian Sacraments proved from the Holy Scriptures and the Doctrine and Practice of the Primitive Church. Published in 1718 in London, this copy is covered in approving annotations by the Scottish Episcopalian Bishop, Alexander Jolly of Moray (1756-1838). This book teaches that the Presbyterian Church of Scotland is not a true Church because it does not have an episcopate and thus has illicit preaching and no real sacraments. This was a common view in the SEC in the past, as seen in the (re)baptism of John Skinner (1721-1807) in 1740 when he moved from the CofS to the SEC.[8] This view of the Church is expressed in a positive form by the moving words of the 35 year old Episcopalian priest and martyr, Robert Lyon, before his execution at Penrith in 1746 for involvement in the Jacobite Rising:

I continue steadfastly and constantly in the faith of our holy persecuted Mother, the Church of Scotland[9] (in the which I have the honour to die a very unworthy Priest)… It is a Church national and independent of any other, and every, power on earth, happily governed by her own truly primitive Bishops, as so many spiritual princes presiding in their different Districts, and in them accountable to none but God for the administration of her discipline : a Church whose Creeds demonstrate her soundness in the Faith, and blest with a Liturgy (I mean the Scots Liturgy) compiled by her own Bishops, nigher to the primitive model than any other Church this day can boast of. . . In a word a Church very near resembling the purest ages, and which, after more than half-a-century groaning under persecution and mourning in her own ashes, but all the while distinguishing herself not less by forbearance and charity to her bitterest enemies than by standing to principles and Catholic Unity.[10]

Whether put positively or negatively, this view of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland contradicts all the affirmations in the ‘Acknowledgements’ section of SAD. Such views are, however, rare or non-existent in the contemporary SEC. Today, helped by the twentieth-century ecumenical consensus that our unity is rooted in Baptism and the medieval recognition that lay people (including non-episcopally ordained ministers) can validly baptize, it is imperative for Episcopalians to recognize Presbyterians as being part of the one Catholic Church of Christ. For this, as for many things in contemporary Christianity even outside the Roman Church, the Second Vatican Council, and especially its decree on ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratio, is decisive. For Presbyterians the visceral horror of episcopacy, originally seen as satanic[11], still survived into the twentieth century, as seen by the General Assembly’s rejection of various schemes for unity with the SEC.[12] This no longer results in denying the ecclesial nature of the SEC, although a residual prejudice against episcopacy does linger. There has even been a novelty among some Ministers who, transposing the criteria of authenticity from ministry to sexuality, deny the authenticity of churches like the SEC which marry same-sex couples. For most members of the CofS and SEC, however,  recognizing each other as part of the Catholic Church (SAD A.i) is not problematic, if we take the affirmation in SAD A.vi that our communion is ‘imperfect’ to mean that some elements of the Apostolic inheritance may still be missing.

Moving to A.ii we find a recognition that ‘our Churches share in the common confession of the Apostolic Faith’. Again, this is not a problem if we understand the Apostolic Faith as that which is handed on in the Bible and the Catholic Creeds and Councils. There is, however, one problem. This is the status of the Westminster Confession as a ‘subordinate standard’ of the CofS and a document still signed by every office holder in the CofS. The status of the Westminster Confession has been under discussion in the CofS for a long time and adherence to the Confession has been weakened.[13] It is thus to be hoped that this outdated Calvinist statement can be disowned as a contemporary confession of belief, and perhaps be relegated to a merely historical document along with the Scots Confession of 1560, preferred by early Episcopalians. Reformed theology has a place in Episcopalian history, John Forbes of Corse (1593-1648), one of the Aberdeen Doctors, worked within this framework, but Scottish Episcopalianism moved firmly away from Calvinism in the eighteenth century and it has no serious presence in the SEC today. There are today strictly confessional Reformed Presbyterian churches adhering firmly to the Westminster Confession and they deserve respect, but the Church of Scotland must decide whether it is primarily of their number or a part of the Catholic Church with a Reformed heritage but not demanding assent to early modern Protestant statements of faith. I suspect that the latter is the view of many Ministers today and that, if a serious proposal for institutional unity is made, Episcopalians would only entertain unity with a Church holding this view. It is good to note that the 2021 General Assembly has asked the Theological Forum of the CofS to consider a way forward and that the Forum’s preferred option is an assent to the Apostles and Nicene Creeds and the basic statement of faith in the First Article Declaratory, with the Westminster Confession relegated to a separate collection of historical confessions.[14]

Sections A.iii, iv and v of SAD touch on the ‘outstanding issues hindering full communion’ mentioned in B.iv. A.iii claims that both sides ‘acknowledge that in our churches the Word of God is authentically preached, and the sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Communion are faithfully administered’. This is based on a Reformed version of the marks of the true Church which is found in Calvin and the 39 Articles of the Church of England and, with the addition of church discipline, in classical Calvinism.[15] The statement that ‘the sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Communion are faithfully administered’ can be understood in a number of different ways but, from an Episcopalian and ecumenical perspective, it is not unequivocally true of the CofS.

One of the great achievements of twentieth century ecumenism was a mutual recognition of the validity of Baptism in the various churches. Few today would doubt the authenticity of baptisms in the CofS or SEC, but a recent paper from the CofS Theological Forum concerning ministry in lockdown published on the official CofS website proposes a method of baptism which, to one formed in classical theology, does not seem to be a faithful administration of the sacrament.[16] It suggests that Baptism may be administered remotely with a Minister on screen blessing the water and saying the baptismal formula (the ‘form’ of the sacrament in traditional theology) while someone else pours the water (the ‘matter’ of the sacrament). I have noted elsewhere that ‘from a Catholic position this is not possible as, while anyone can baptize someone and the water does not need to be blessed, this separation of the ‘matter’ and ‘form’ of the sacrament drives a wedge into the heart of the sacrament’.[17] It can thus be argued that this practice commended by the CofS is not a faithful administration of the sacrament of baptism.

Another problem with baptism in the Church of Scotland, from an ecumenical perspective, can be seen in a comparison of the SEC and CofS Baptism rites. The SEC 2006 rite says ‘the president immerses the candidate in the water, or pours the water upon the candidate’. The Order for Holy Baptism in Common Order 1994, 2005 edition, says ‘the minister pours or sprinkles water on each candidate’s head’, two options for the administration of the sacrament which go back to chapter 28 of the Westminster Confession, ‘dipping of the person into the water is not necessary: but baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water upon the person’.[18] In Christian history the sprinkling of water is a relatively recent development. I suspect that its use in Protestantism may be a result of discussions in late medieval scholasticism on the minimum required for the validity of a sacrament, as in many ways classical Protestantism contains fossilised elements of late medieval piety and devotion. The use of sprinkling in baptism is, however, serious as it is seen by some churches as invalid: as not actually baptising someone. The Greek Orthodox Bishop, Kallistos of Diokleia, said plainly, ‘Baptism by sprinkling or smearing is quite simply not real Baptism at all’.[19] While abuses can happen in all churches, these two official statements raise the question of whether, in an ecumenical context, the sacrament of Baptism is faithfully administered in the Church of Scotland.[20]

There can be little doubt that the sacrament of Holy Communion is faithfully administered in the CofS according to its own principles, or at least it is for members of that Church to make judgements here. The affirmation in A.iii, however, which begins with ‘We’ and is offered in the name of both Churches, implies that Holy Communion in these two Churches is essentially the same thing. History and practice show is not the case. An Orthodox friend who has attended many Western services recently said that, to the outsider, the SEC Eucharist and CofS Communion look like completely different activities. Up to the present a Church of Scotland Minister needs to be ordained by a Bishop to preside at the Eucharist in an Anglican Church (except in certain defined local ecumenical partnerships but even here there is no suggestion that the general rules is changed). This suggests that the Eucharist celebrated before and after this ordination are two different things in at least some ways (otherwise there would be no need for the ordination). While many members of the two Churches may see their Ministers as interchangeable and equivalent, this is not the case and the officially stated Eucharistic doctrine of the two Churches is clearly different.

We can see this in practice by looking at the Liturgy and practice of the Scottish Episcopal Church in three areas: real presence, eucharistic sacrifice and reservation of the blessed sacrament. There are a wide variety of views held by members of the SEC on the Eucharist but the Scottish Liturgy clearly prays that the Father may send the Holy Spirit upon the bread and wine ‘that it may be the body and blood of your Son’. The Westminster Confession 29.5 and 6 explicitly denies that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ except in name only (‘they are sometimes called by the names of the things they represent’), another link between Protestantism and late medieval theology, in this case sacramental nominalism. The Scottish Liturgy also clearly says that the bread and wine are offered as a sacrifice by explicitly applying to them the language of offering, ‘we offer you these gifts’ (1982 Scottish Liturgy). This phrase which comes from the mid-eighteenth century addition of the words ‘which we now offer unto thee’ to the Scottish Liturgy to express common Episcopalian teaching that the Eucharist is a sacrifice.  The 1986 ‘Declaratory Act anent the Westminster Confession of Faith’ dissociated the CofS from Westminster Confession 29.2 which clearly teaches that there is no sacrifice in the sacrament, only a commemoration of Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross and our sacrifice of praise. The Act, however, concerned teaching offensive to Roman Catholics and did not commit the CofS to Roman Catholic teaching on the Papacy, the sacrifice of the Mass or monastic vows, thus the teaching against the eucharistic sacrifice remains while the offensive language is repudiated. While there is some interesting work being done now on the eucharistic sacrifice in Reformed theology, this work admits that this is quite untypical of Reformed sacramental discourse.[21]

The clear and official teaching of the SEC on the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the bread and wine and on the sacrifice of the Eucharist as a part of the earthly liturgy are thus either not held by the Reformed Church of Scotland or expressly repudiated by it in its ‘subordinate standard’. As a result of its teaching on the real presence of Christ in the elements, for centuries the SEC has reserved the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist for communion outside the Liturgy.[22] This is also condemned by the Westminster Confession, 29.4, as is communion for the laity in the form of bread alone, something the SEC has done during the current pandemic with little objection. The CofS and SEC thus have very different theologies of the Eucharist which are expressed in very different eucharistic practice. Although I have taken part in eucharistic liturgies from the CofS Book of Common Order celebrated in a very Catholic Anglican manner, I suspect that Episcopalian teaching on the real presence and sacrifice of the Eucharist and our practice of reservation of the sacrament would not be welcome in most Church of Scotland parishes.

The Scoto-Catholic movement in the CofS and its expression in church architecture brought Presbyterian and Episcopalian eucharistic worship closer together. Scottish Calvinism also has its own high doctrine of the Eucharist, with a strong affirmation of Christ’s spiritual presence and denial that the bread and wine are simply bare signs, but the problem here is that SAD A.iii makes the phrase ‘faithfully administered’ do too much work. From an Episcopalian point of view Presbyterian Holy Communion is faithfully administered if it is according to the teaching and practice of the CofS, but it is not faithfully administered if looked at from an Anglican and Catholic perspective. To this observer, the teaching of the Westminster Confession and the popular Protestantism found in both our churches is not faithful to Scripture and Christian tradition in general and it simply reflects the misunderstanding of the sacrament present in the Reformed tradition under the influence of decadent late-medieval scholasticism. Is this divergence, though, merely a question of the limits of comprehension? The SEC is in communion with the CofE which excludes the idea of offering the Eucharistic sacrifice from its liturgies and has a place for Reformed eucharistic theology in its mainstream.[23] Is it an indifferent matter, such as the frequency of Holy Communion, usually celebrated less frequently in Presbyterian churches, another relic from late-medieval devotion? Does modern ecumenical sacramental theology mean that these divisions can be overcome? These questions need to be picked up elsewhere but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the affirmation of A.iii, despite its roots in previous ecumenical work, is studied ambiguity masking fundamental divergence.    

A.iv and A.v similarly skate over the differences concerning holy orders and pick up themes from decades of ecumenical discussions. These two clauses are hard to disagree with, particularly as they contribute little to overcoming or reconciling the obvious differences in Church Order centred on the office of a Bishop and the lack of a Catholic theology of holy orders in Presbyterianism. It would be hard today to say Christ and the Spirit are absent from the Presbyterian ministry, although one strand in Anglican teaching, found in Thomas Brett’s book mentioned above and present in the SEC in the eighteenth century, would say just that. Three other main approaches to the necessity of the episcopate may be found in historic Anglicanism: that associated with Archbishop John Whitgift (1530-1604) where God has given no command as to how the Church be ordered and local circumstances should dictate the best solution; that associated with Archbishop Richard Bancroft (1544-1610) and Richard Hooker (1554-1600) which holds that the episcopate is clearly God’s plan for the Church but it would survive without it; and that associated with Archbishop William Laud (1573-1645) and his followers whereby it is essential, a view behind the restoration of the Scottish episcopal succession from England in 1610 and 1662.[24] These suggest Anglican ways of understanding and even valuing Presbyterian polity, but we are not tied to early modern theology. SAD A.v picks up a number of modern ecumenical developments to say that ‘personal, collegial and communal oversight (episkope) is embodied and exercised in our churches in a variety of forms, as a visible sign expressing and serving the Church’s unity and continuity in apostolic life, ministry and mission’. It is not hard for an Episcopalian to see this oversight exercised by Presbytery and the General Assembly or for a Presbyterian to see a collective oversight in Episcopalian Synods. This is reflected in modern ecumenical agreements such as the Porvoo Agreement and the modern Anglican theology found in the Church of England’s 1994 House of Bishops Occasional Paper ‘Apostolicity and Succession’ which can see an ‘apostolic succession’ in faith and order apart from the succession of bishops.[25]

One problem here is that this is an Episcopalian interpretation of Presbyterianism in the light of Christian tradition and ecumenical agreement. There is in at least parts of the Church of Scotland a functionalist theology of ministry which has no place for that Catholic and Anglican sacramental teaching on the three-fold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons which is found in the Canons and Ordinal of the SEC.[26] Deeper study of the theology of ministry is required, particularly of the nature of ordination and the status of elders. Are a Presbyterian Minister of Word and Sacrament and an Episcopalian Presbyter (Priest) the same thing? Is a Presbyterian Elder (Presbyter) the same as an Episcopalian Presbyter? Do these questions matter? I would answer No, No, Yes. At present it is clear there is no equivalence between the two ministerial polities, at least from the SEC side. SAD A.iv and v could thus also be seen as studied ambiguity masking fundamental divergence. Ecumenical advances here do make the phrases potentially less confusing, but again the CofS faces a choice. Does it remain a clearly Protestant Church, akin to the independent Evangelical churches that are springing up around Scotland, or does it follow the Anglican and Porvoo model and, on the basis of the ecumenical discussions of the last century, become an inclusive national or local church like the Church of England, the Church of Sweden and the Church of South India. I could, perhaps, formulate this dilemma better but it is clear that SAD again presents the CofS with a choice and only one option involves closer union (as opposed to cooperation) with the SEC.  

 What are those behind the St Andrews Declaration up to?        

There have been years of cooperation between the SEC and CofS, why has this document been produced now? It has its origin in the bilateral ‘Our Common Calling Group’ established in 2016 in the wake of the 2015 Columba Declaration between the CofS and CofE, which upset many in the SEC and provoked an apology to the SEC by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is thus the product of a minor crisis in relations. In a longer perspective SAD comes at the end of a long series of failed attempts at institutional union by the two Churches, noted in the section above on bishops. This culminated in the failure of the Scottish Churches Initiative for Union (SCIFU), rejected by the General Assembly of the CofS in 2003. SCIFU gave birth in 2010 to EMU, an agreement far short of institutional unity between the remaining SCIFU partners, Episcopalian, Methodist, and United Reformed. SAD, which is very close in wording to the Columba Declaration, may be seen as an attempt at a more modest and realistic form of ecumenical cooperation. It may also be seen by some as the last gasp of an old ecclesio-bureaucratic way of managing relations between denominations. It begins with bilateral conversations in a working group, formed in the wake of a different set of bilateral conversations, and it ends by appointing co-chairs of another working group which will report annually to the Committee on Ecumenical Relations of the Church of Scotland and the Inter-church Relations Committee of the Scottish Episcopal Church. Some have said that a pontifical High Mass in St Peter’s Basilica is a long way from the priorities of Jesus and the first disciples, but the same might easily be said of this ecclesio-bureaucracy.

On a deeper and more sociological level, SAD may be related to secularisation in Scotland and the current crisis in the CofS caused by the loss of its central place in Scottish society. This is reflected in the Church of Scotland’s loss of members, from 1,320,000 in 1957 to 325,700 in 2018, and in its loss of the allegiance of the Scottish people in general, of whom 42% claimed to be CofS in the 2001 census, 32% in that of 2011 and an estimate of 22% according to the 2018 Scottish Household Survey. Other Churches have seen decline, for example the SEC from 54,000 in 1994 to 28,600 in 2018 and the Free Church of Scotland from 15,500 in 1994 to 10,200 in 2016 (when 800 had relocated to the Free Church, Continuing). The crisis, however, does not seem to have bit as deep in these churches as they have less invested in their national position and their history has made a virtue of faithful smallness. One interpretation of this data is to see SAD as a desperate attempt by dying liberal Churches to cling together as they fade away. On this analysis the lack of doctrinal clarity in the Declaration would be an expression of indifference to Christian doctrine on the part of those to whom it doesn’t really matter. If that is the case, perhaps the most significant dividing lines are less between denominations but within them.

A more nuanced view would be to see two of the three Scottish Churches which claim a territorial mission to the whole nation (the third being the Roman Catholic Church) recognising that today they can’t do this alone. The adoption of the ‘Radical Action Plan’ by the 2019 General Assembly was a brave and realistic attempt to respond to the current crisis in the CofS and its financial implications, but the proposed radical reduction in number of ministers and parishes means that the CofS is now just one Christian group among others in an increasingly secular Scotland. It can now no longer pretend to be ‘a national Church representative of the Christian faith of the Scottish people’ (3rd Article Declaratory), a historically dubious claim long-disputed by Roman Catholics and Episcopalians. In practice, the reorganisation of the CofS means that it is withdrawing from communities across Scotland, sometimes in the poorest areas, and other denominations have stepped into the gap to be the ‘local church’. Stenhouse Baptist Church has done just that in a part of Edinburgh where the local Church of Scotland church closed. Anecdotal evidence suggests that SAD may be an attempt to help the SEC and CofS work together ‘to bring the ordinances of religion to the people in every parish of Scotland through a territorial ministry’ (3rd Article Declaratory), but that would require practical cooperation and a recognition that Christian belonging is more than just a tidy arrangement on a map. Every Episcopal Church I have encountered has people who have discovered that Presbyterian worship does not supply their spiritual needs and I have met English Anglicans who are happy to worship with the Church of Scotland. This raises the question of whether SAD is pointing in the wrong direction by affirming more agreement than actually exists.

Other Ways Forward

There may be other ways forward for the Christian communities of Scotland that don’t involve those Declarations and Initiatives so beloved of church leaders. I began this article by contradicting SAD and saying that the Churches in Scotland do not have a shared history but rather a series of conflicting denominational histories. Revisionist academic history can, however, challenge this and help reconciliation. Looked at in a different way, the three main Churches in Scotland today which have a realistic claim to serve the whole nation actually do have a shared history into which their denominational narratives can be read in a way that subverts sectarianism. Put simply, from the Catholic Church in Scotland before 1560, the Roman Catholic Church still possesses its communion with Rome, the Scottish Episcopal Church its bishoprics and the Church of Scotland its parishes. Elements in their sectarian histories or theology might deny the others their validity as Churches, but historically and legally they are all the continuation of the old Church. This argument is strengthened as each explicitly sees itself as a part of the Catholic Church and each bases its faith on Scripture and the ancient Creeds. In a nation where almost all were Christian, Christian difference was significant; today, where secularism and other faiths have a high profile and popular knowledge of the Christian story is fading away, what Christians hold in common becomes more significant. This could give hope for the developments necessary for the two estranged parts of the ‘reformed’ Church of Scotland to come together. In this context the adoption by the CofS of the Anglican ‘Five Marks of Mission’ is significant but so are the proposals of the CofS Theological Forum concerning the Westminster Confessions. The SEC is already in full communion with a church that holds to the faith of the ecumenical creeds but also has a place for an outdated historical document that few really assent to: the Church of England and the 39 Articles. For the CofS, as for the CofE, the incompatible eucharistic theologies which have their roots in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries may be reconciled and overcome in the light of  an ecumenical eucharistic theology which was developed in the twentieth century on the basis of a renewed reading of Scripture and the writings of the patristic period. The real ecumenical breakthrough here may not be the studied ambiguity of SAD but the work of the CofS Theological Forum dislodging the impediment of the Westminster Confession.

These historical and theological tasks involve a reappraisal of our shared history and they still look towards some form of institutional unity, but cultural factors are equally important. The CofS is no longer the Church that stole Christmas and locked up the swings on the Sabbath, but it is still heir to the fanatical, iconoclastic side of the Scottish Protestant Reformation and still holds to what some would see as an excessively spiritual Reformed sacramental theology. The dark side of Scottish Presbyterianism needs to be named, studied and rejected. This is hard because this was the side that won in 1690 and subsequently controlled the interpretation of Scottish history, a pervasive control that is even today being rolled back in the secular world of academic history.[27] A rejection of the dark side of Presbyterianism was an aspect of the Scottish literary and artistic renaissance of the twentieth century, famously expressed in Edwin Muir’s poem The Incarnate One:

The windless northern surge, the sea-gull’s scream,
And Calvin’s kirk crowning the barren brae.
I think of Giotto the Tuscan shepherd’s dream,
Christ, man and creature in their inner day.
How could our race betray
The Image, and the Incarnate One unmake
Who chose this form and fashion for our sake?

The Word made flesh here is made word again
A word made word in flourish and arrogant crook.
See there King Calvin with his iron pen,
And God three angry letters in a book,
And there the logical hook
On which the Mystery is impaled and bent
Into an ideological argument.

This needs to be taken seriously, although much of the legacy of the dark years is gone from the CofS today, with its affirmation of music and the arts. If we cannot have an honest conversation about such legacies, and I have seen no evidence that we can, then any number of common declarations will be worthless. The current reappraisal of Scottish involvement in slavery and reassessment of the persecution of witches show how important this process is, but the ongoing reassessment of the Scottish Reformations shows how dealing with structural prejudice is a long process. The SEC too needs to re-examine its own history and the Church of England also lives with its own legacy of iconoclasm (and shows how well it can be overcome) but there is an important place in Scotland for an explicit cultural and spiritual reconciliation. How might this be done?

When Hew Lorimer carved a remarkable statue of statue of Our Lady on a pillar at All Saints Episcopal Church St Andrews, he wrote,

My statue at All Saints of the Virgin and child somehow had to convey my conviction that the Virgin was forgotten by Scotland, and that this neglect had had a hardening effect on our great Scottish character. I have always called the sculpture ‘Ecce Mater tua’, ‘behold your mother’, addressed both to the Royal and Ecclesiastical Burgh of St Andrews, where the statue stands, and to Scotland.[28]

Hew Lorimer’s statue at All Saints, St Andrews

This statue is a prophetic act, it points to an unimaginable future where Christian Scotland comes together again in all its parts. I saw a glimpse of this in the mid-1980s at the Haddington pilgrimage, that great creation of Patrick Maitland, 17th Earl of Lauderdale. Leaders of the three main Churches of Scotland came together with hundreds of their flock for pilgrimage, prayer, the sacraments, spiritual healing and the veneration of Our Lady of Haddington. The problem with ecumenical agreements and declarations is that they veer between compromise and the lowest common denominator, leaving, as in SAD on the sacraments, fundamental disagreement in our common faith. True unity is spiritual and involves a full sharing of cultural and religious gifts – different ‘takes’ on our common faith. I suspect that only Mary, the Mother of God, can bring us together, after all she did say of her Son ‘do whatever he tells you’ (John 2.5). Perhaps what we need to see is a procession of Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Roman Catholics in Haddington saying the rosary together, singing psalms and praying for justice and healing in our country.

With this vision in mind, it may even be that our ideas of unity need to change and we need to give up on producing more documents and even trying to join up the institutions. A New Zealand Anglican priest recently suggested that instead of a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity we should have a Week of Prayer for Christian Diversity, commenting,

In the Northern Hemisphere Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we often end up seeing quite a lot of ideas that the solution to Christian disunity is to clone and cookie-cutter one way of being a Christian and impose that on all. Unity by uniformity. One size fits all.[29]

Perhaps Jesus is happy that we have different types of Christianity, because people come in different types. Perhaps he just wants us to be friends (John 15.15) and is bemused by our obsession with institutions. In an elegy for an ecumenical community of which I was once a member, Rowan Williams recently wrote that:

People sometimes talk about sensing that we are entering an ‘ecumenical winter’. I’m not convinced, if I’m honest, largely because I don’t think the prolonged courtships of complex institutions are the only determinants of the climate. Time and time again in the last few decades, in very diverse contexts like Taizé or Iona or various Christian activist groups working for peace or environmental responsibility, people have discovered that ecumenism begins in doing the washing-up together and discovering what exactly they can and must invest in the ongoing business of a practical life shared and common purpose.[30]

‘Ecumenism begins in doing the washing-up together’. Perhaps the institutional ecumenical winter is a good thing, calling us to change our vision and move away from the adolescent optimism of the third quarter of the twentieth century which formed so many in mainstream Christian leadership today. The St Andrew Declaration is a flawed document and represents a tired approach, but it is at least a sign of communication and the desire to talk. The blandness of the Declaration is an invitation to the type of critical honesty I have attempted here. Perhaps its point is to point us away from itself. Deeper work needs to be done on theology and culture in Scotland, and, above all, we need to meet in deep prayer and intellectual endeavour to encounter the full glory of the mystery of Christ.[31] Perhaps we need to revisit together the teaching of the creeds and the ecumenical councils of the first millennium. After the failure of so many well-meaning attempts to create unity and the inadequacy of what passes for ‘ecumenical worship’, we and our leaders need to reflect on whether we have been walking down the wrong road. As a new start, let us go together to Our Lady in Haddington, in St Andrews and in Carfin and ask her what we should do.

The poet Peter Davidson was inspired by Lorimer’s title for his statue and used it as the epigraph to his fine poem ‘Commendation of Scotland to the Care of Our Lady’, verses from which may form an apt ending to this proposal for a new sort of unity:

Your pilgrimage: we’ve always gone on foot

Gone step by step, clay, ploughlands, on our own;
Long years of Kings; the years we’ve lived alone,
And what came after: broken stone, wars, loot…

When we go down into our northern earth

To join the rest of Adam’s sons below

Queen of St. Andrews, Edinburgh, Glasgow

Pity our winter journey from our birth

O Queen of Scotland, we can ask no place

But a low lodging in your Purgatory

To weep our history, to see your glory

Your crown of graces in your altered grace.[32] 

The Revd Dr Stephen Mark Holmes is Rector of Holy Cross, Edinburgh, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the author of a number of books and articles on Scottish Church history.


[1] The recognitions are found in section A of SAD, the Acknowledgements. The concept of ‘full communion’ and ‘imperfect’  or ‘partial’ communion is taken from general ecumenical practice, found in paragraph 3 of the Decree Unitatis Redintegratio of the Second Vatican Council. This is reflected in the mention of imperfect unity and fuller visible unity in SAD A.vi.

[2] Macaulay commenting on the ‘ill-mannered’ criticisms of Anglicanism by Roman Catholics and an Anglican response in the same vein, in Constance Babington Smith, Last letters to a Friend from Rose Macaulay 1952-1958 (London, Collins, 1962), 116.

[3] The voting was 78 in favour, 21 against with 7 abstentions and the Synod minutes note a number of interventions critical of the Declaration.

[4] Stephen Mark Holmes, ‘The Scottish Reformation was not Protestant’, International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church 14.2 (2014), pp. 115-127.

[5] Stephen Mark Holmes, ‘Historiography of the Scottish Reformation: The Catholics Fight Back?’, Studies in Church History 49: The Church on its Past (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2013), pp. 298-311.

[6] The Scottish Government, An Examination of the Evidence on Sectarianism in Scotland (Edinburgh: Justice Analytical Services, 2013), p.10. Devine, T.M., (ed) Scotland’s Shame? Bigotry and Sectarianism in Modern Scotland (Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 2000).

[7] Patrick Jones, ‘The Qualified Episcopal Chapels of the North-East of Scotland 1689-1898’, Northern Scotland, Volume 20.1 (2015), pp. 47-69. The authors of this part of SAD may have been thinking of the English Episcopal Chapels founded from 1842, although these too were not just founded for English people, David M. Bertie, Scottish Episcopal Clergy 1689-2000 (Edinburgh: T&T Clarke, 2000), 655.

[8] William Walker, The Life and Times of the Rev. John Skinner, M.A., of Linshart, Longside (London: W.Skeffington & Son, 1883),  p.28.

[9] By ‘Church of Scotland’, Robert Lyon means the Episcopal Church of Scotland. Episcopalians traditionally avoided giving this title to the Presbyterian ecclesial community which claimed it after 1690.

[10] Robert Forbes, The Lyon in Mourning, volume 1, ed. Henry Paton (Edinburgh: Scottish History Society, 1895), pp. 14-15. Earlier in the speech, Lyon had repudiated the ‘many errors and corruptions of the Church of Rome’, and ‘the distinguishing principles of Presbyterians and other dissenting sectaries… whom I always considered as… uncatholick and dangerous to the soul of a Christian’, pp. 13-14.  

[11] As just one example from before the Covenanting movement, Alexander Leighton (1570-1649), ironically the father of Bishop Robert Leighton, referred to bishops as ‘anti-Christian or satanical’ in his 1628 pamphlet Zion’s plea against Prelacy: An Appeal to Parliament, Alexander Leighton, Zion’s plea against Prelacy (Edinburgh, John Johnstone, 1843), p.71.

[12] Proposals involving bishops were rejected by the General Assembly of the CofS in 1959, following ‘the Bishops Report’, and in 2003, effectively ending the Scottish Church Initiative for Union (SCIFU) which had begun in 1996; the SEC Provincial Synod also rejected a similar scheme for unity in 1971 by which the SEC would become an Episcopalian Synod within a united Church of Scotland, Edward Luscombe, The Scottish Episcopal Church in the Twentieth Century (Edinburgh: General Synod Office, 1996), pp.118-122.

[13] The General Assembly’s ‘Declaratory Act anent the Westminster Confession of Faith’ (1986) dissociated the CofS from the Confession’s condemnation of monastic vows (22.7), its prohibition of marriage with ‘Infidels, Papists or other idolaters’ (24.3), its identification of the Pope as ‘Antichrist, that Man of Sin and Son of Perdition’ (25.6), and its condemnation of ‘the Popish Sacrifice of the Mass’ (29.2). The Act noted that CofS office bearers were not required to believe these statements.

[14] www.churchofscotland.org.uk/about-us/councils-committees-and-departments/committees/theological-forum. The report is found here: https://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0014/80303/10-Theological-Forum.pdf

[15] Belgic Confession Article 29.

[16] ‘Reflections on Online Communion’

[17] Stephen Holmes, ‘Real Presence? Theological Reflection on Online Eucharists’, Scottish Episcopal Institute Journal, Winter 2021, Volume 5.4, pp. 91-92 https://www.scotland.anglican.org/wp-content/uploads/2021-54-SEI-Journal-Winter.pdf

[18] Westminster Confession of Faith (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1958), 28.3, p113, while some Scottish Reformers used the English Book of Common Prayer, most followed Knox’s Liturgy which said of Baptism ‘he taketh water in his hand and layeth it upon the childes forehead’, John Knox’s Genevan Service Book, 1556, ed. William D. Maxwell (Edinburgh, Oliver & Boyd, 1931), p. 110. Stephen Mark Holmes, Sacred Signs in Reformation Scotland: Interpreting Worship, 1488-1590 (Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 169-71.

[19] One Baptism: Towards Mutual Recognition, A Study Text, Faith And Order Paper No. 210 (World Council of Churches, Geneva), paragraph 45. Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity (London: Penguin Books, 3rd edn 2015),271.

[20] The Preamble to SAD notes that ‘We have acknowledged that the theological, sacramental and liturgical emphases within our respective churches are consonant with the tradition which each represents’.

[21] Stephen R. Holmes, ‘A Reformed Account of Eucharistic Sacrifice’, International Journal of Systematic Theology (January 2022), 1-21, which starts, ‘I begin by acknowledging the sheer unlikeliness of my theme’.

[22] F.C. Eeles, Reservation of the Holy Eucharist in the Scottish Church (Aberdeen: W. Jolly, 1899).

[23] Even to the extent of giving in to Evangelical pressure and removing the word ‘offer’ from the offertory prayers beginning ‘Blessed are you, Lord God’ and replacing it with ‘set before’.

[24] These positions are outlined in the excellent study of episcopacy in Women Bishops in the Church of England: A Report of the House of Bishops Working Party on Women in the Episcopate (Church House: London, 2004), 2.6.1-9. These positions are associated with English theologians but the possession of Brett’s book by Jolly shows that Scottish Episcopalians lives in the same ecclesial milieu.

[25] https://porvoocommunion.evlutkirkko.fi/porvoo_communion/statement/the-statement-in-english/ ; Apostolicity and Succession: House of Bishops Occasional Paper (London: Church House, 1994).

[26] Doug Gay, Reforming the Kirk: the Future of the Church of Scotland (Norwich: St Andrews Press, 2017).

[27] Much of the revisionism is in the field of the long Scottish Reformation up to the myths surrounding the Covenanters, but even our understanding of the Scottish Enlightenment has been obscured by sectarian history. Kelsey Jackson Williams The First Scottish Enlightenment: Rebels, Priests and History (Oxford: OUP, 2020) builds on earlier work to reveal an intellectual renaissance among Episcopalians and Roman Catholics which continued to flourish in Jacobite circles but has been little noticed in ‘official’ Scottish history.  

[28] Miranda Forest, A Guide to Hew Lorimer, the MoD Rocket Range, and Our Lady of the Isles (20202), p.45.

[29] https://liturgy.co.nz/week-prayer-christian-diversity

[30] Rowan Williams, ‘Foreword’, in Christine Charlwood and Jessica Gatty r.a., Hengrave Remembered 1974-2005 (n.p. Religious of the Assumption, 2021), p.iii.

[31] An excellent start is the three volume History of Scottish Theology, edited by David Fergusson and Mark Elliott (Oxford: OUP, 2019), which breaks away from the sectarian narrative by attempting to include all the voices of Christian theology in Scotland. The next step is to bring these voices together in serious dialogue.

[32] Peter Davidson, Works in the Inglis Tongue (Cambridge: at the Three Tygers Press, 1985), p. 11-14. The poem is based on parts of Péguy’s ‘Presentation de la Beauce a Notre Dame de
Chartres’.

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