Ian Hardie on the Problems in Scotland

It is, perhaps, difficult for members of the Church of England to realize how life in the unestablished Scottish Episcopal Church differs from their own. Much of this difference has its origin in the history of the Christian Church in Scotland in the seventeenth century.

A distinctive history

The Scottish Episcopal Church began its own distinctive history in 1690. For more than two centuries before that, there had been one Church in Scotland with two parties – Presbyterian and Episcopal. First one and then the other was dominant in turn. When William of Orange came to the throne of the United Kingdom in 1689 the Scottish bishops declined to give him their oath of obedience. This was on the grounds that they had already pledged their obedience to King James, and that allegiance was a sacred and irrevocable commitment. In this they were following the pattern of some of their fellow bishops in the Church of England – the non-jurors.

William’s reaction was to look to the Presbyterian party in the Church of Scotland, and, by an Act of Parliament, declare the Church of Scotland to be Presbyterian. From that time onwards, the Episcopalians were disestablished, and for almost a hundred years subjected to penal laws. It was as a matter of historical interest, that the Scottish bishops in 1784 consecrated Samuel Seabury to be the first bishop for the Americas. The penal laws were repealed in 1792, and from then onwards the Episcopal Church began to grow steadily throughout the nineteenth century. It was considerably influenced by the Evangelical Revival and later by the Tractarian Movement. It was the latter that particularly reinforced the claims of the Episcopal Church to be the true guardian of the Faith in Scotland.


Some of the consequences of this history and of that conviction are the concern of traditionalists within the Scottish Episcopal Church at the present time.

One important factor is size. The population of Scotland is approximately one ninth of that of England, whilst the geological area is more than half the size of the southern kingdom. Membership of the Episcopal Church is spread throughout Scotland in seven dioceses. One consequence of this is that the ratio of clergy to people is three times greater in Scottish Church. The State plays no part in the appointment of Scottish bishops. They are elected by the clergy of the diocese and by a lay representative from each congregation. The electors are presented with a list of candidates which the College of Bishops has previously agreed to be acceptable to them. Voting requires a majority in each house, clergy and laity voting separately.

This may, at first sight, seem to be a fair way of ensuring that the bishop is the choice of the clergy and laity of the diocese. In practice, however, it can mean that a determined majority, (however small) of either house can prevent the nomination of a candidate from whose views they differ, as for example on the ordination of women. Moreover, the prior approval of the College of Bishops similarly means that candidates whose views differ from their own could have their names blocked without ever arriving on a list of candidates.

Episcopal unanimity

From 1985–1990 we had four bishops who were against the ordination of women; by 1992 we had only one. Now in 2002 all seven are in favour. There are only two retired bishops, both in their seventies, who have not ordained women to the priesthood.

When the resolution to ordain women to the priesthood was passed by General Synod, the following clause was included: ‘We acknowledge with deep sadness that within the Scottish Episcopal Church there are those, who for various reasons, cannot in conscience agree with this decision, and we recognize the good faith in which their convictions are held. We pledge that those who hold such convictions will continue for all time to come to hold a valued and respected place within the Scottish Episcopal Church.’

The General Synod has now produced a paper entitled ‘The ordination of women to the Episcopate’. The paper states that by such an action there would be no desire or intention to break with the traditions of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. The paper also re-iterates that those who cannot in conscience agree with the decision do so in good faith, and once again pledges that those who hold such convictions will continue for all time to come, to have a valued and respected place within the Scottish Episcopal Church. The proposals go on to say that the Synod recognizes its fallibility, and hopes that under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, all branches of the Church may continue to work together in love.

To fly or not to fly?

Traditionalists in Scotland have consistently asked for the ministrations of a bishop who holds the traditional faith and who is not prepared to ordain women. In other words, they look for an alternative episcopal oversight. It has been suggested that if the proposed ordination of women to the episcopate is passed, that a diocese having a woman bishop, might make arrangements for a male bishop to administer the sacrament of confirmation and that this would honour the pledges already made and proposed to be made. We consider this to be totally unacceptable.

The Church of England made arrangements for financial provision for the clergy who were in conscience, unable to continue their ministry when women were ordained. In Scotland no such provision was made. Nor was any provision for alternative Episcopal oversight. The Scottish bishops have consistently set their faces against the provision of Flying Bishops on the grounds that they would be too expensive and in fear that they would be too divisive in so small a Church as ours. We do not think it need be unduly expensive or divisive.

We believe that ‘working together in love’ and ‘giving us a valued and respected place within the Scottish Episcopal Church’ calls for more than a blank refusal to follow the example of the way the Church of England cares for its traditionalists.

Ian Hardie is an NSM in the Diocese of Brechin and has served on the staff of St Salvador’s, Dundee for the past eleven years