New Directions reports on the state of the Scottish Episcopal Church
The Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC) in its current form has a noble history, dating back to the 1690 Revolution Settlement. Early Celtic missionary saints like Ninian, Columba, Kentigern and Moluag brought the faith to Scotland. Moluag founded Aberdeen Diocese 20 years before Augustine arrived at Canterbury. The Saxon-born queen, St Margaret, did much to foster the catholic faith and obedience, but by the late middle ages the indigenous church with its thirteen dioceses showed all the worst corruption and excesses that reformers rightly condemned. However, the Scottish Reformation ran a very different course from that in England. From the start it was a bloody battle between an Episcopal and Presbyterian way of doing things. On two occasions when there was a threat there would be no bishops left, the bishops turned to England for the safe consecration of new men. With the Stuart kings reigning both north and south of the border things were made worse by what was seen as ‘autocratic rule’ and Scottish religious politics played a pivotal part in the English Civil War. After the Glorious Revolution the Scottish bishops would not break their oaths to James II/VI by swearing allegiance to William and Mary, and at that point the Presbyterian church became the established church in Scotland. Those who remained faithful to the Episcopal church became instant ‘non-jurors.’
Episcopalians were obvious supporters of the Jacobite risings in 1715 and 1745. To this day they cherish the ‘Appine Chalice’ used for the Eucharist in the field on the morning of the battle of Culloden.
Government reaction brought about the Penal Laws by which no more than four people could take part in Episcopalian services at one time; yet still the faithful gathered to worship, finding ingenious ways to bend the rules, and had their children baptised, even if this was through the bars of prison windows. The era gave the community a fierce sense of their unique identity.
There were attempts to impose Church of England conformity and worship by setting up ‘qualified congregations’ but these were treated with disdain, not least of all because the Scottish bishops, like their ‘non-juror’ counterparts down south, had men who were considerable liturgical scholars, deeply influenced by orthodox theology and practice.
However, when the Penal Laws were lifted in 1792, the remaining Episcopalians were mainly concentrated in the north and east, especially round Aberdeen. Not long before that, precisely because they were not the established church, Martin Routh—the redoubtable President of Magdalen College, Oxford—had persuaded Samuel Seabury to be consecrated in Aberdeen as the first post-revolution bishop for the USA. Both these facts are significant for their life today.
The nineteenth century was a boom time for the Episcopalians. Their historic theological stance tied in with the Oxford Movement naturally, and so, as churches were built, those in the towns were often in the most deprived areas. The saintly and scholarly Bishop Forbes built his cathedral in the slums of Dundee. Fr John Comper (the father of Sir Ninian) built his new parish in the Gallowgate, one of the poorest parts of Aberdeen, and invited his friend John Mason Neale to send a posse of his newly formed Sisters to minister there as well. In 1810 the bishops founded the earliest theological college in the Anglican Communion.
The twentieth century was a different story. Especially from the 1960s there has been nothing but decline, so that today there are nominally 30,909 members, with 22,073 the key active figure on the communicants’ roll and a monitored Sunday attendance of 12,149 Episcopalians in seven dioceses. All these figures are down from the previous year, and they compare unfavourably with the membership in the early seventies of 81,750 with 46,288 on the communicants’ roll. English readers should note that the seven Society bishops have 32,000 on electoral rolls in their resolution parishes.
In fairness we should note that no denomination is doing well today, and Scotland is rapidly becoming the most secular society in Britain. However, during this decline the theological mindset of the bishops has been driven increasingly by the theological revolution in the USA. This has eroded the traditional theology of the SEC. The problems began when a former principal of a liberal Cambridge theological college became an influential Bishop of Edinburgh.
By the 1990s a Scottish priest, who some will remember delivering a scintillating address at a Loughborough Conference, was now the Bishop of Edinburgh and elected Primus of the SEC. He forged a College of Bishops in his own liberal mindset, even influencing some who in previous roles had been opposed to such changes as the ordination of women. In retirement he has chosen to publish his own theological confusions, and now confesses himself to be a non-believer, even though he still goes to mass at his former parish in Edinburgh!
Meanwhile other changes that would have a profound effect on Scottish Episcopalian life and witness were taking place. The decision to withdraw from involvement with church schools has left them struggling to engage with the young. The closure of their historic theological college, to be replaced by a local learning institute, has robbed their trainee clergy of the values of deep biblical, spiritual and theological training and formation provided by residential courses. There is virtually no hope of any ‘orthodox’ candidates being accepted for training now. Orthodox clergy are equally harried by bishops and liberal leaning vestry (PCC) members. In worship many clergy now habitually use the formula: ‘in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sanctifier.’ Some even press for such ‘non-sexist’ language to be used in baptism, which would leave the candidates un-baptised. Chrismation at baptism has been normal for some time, so confirmation is rare. The legislation for the ordination of women was passed in 1994 along with what was called the ‘Angus Declaration’ which dealt with our position saying that ‘those who hold such convictions for all time to come to have a valued and respected place within the Scottish Episcopal Church.’ Never has a pledge been so dishonoured in the reality.
Over the last few years various reports and initiatives have been proposed to make the church more outward-looking and reverse the decline in attendance, but all they have succeeded in doing is to alienate more of its flock. It is truly a church that ‘marries the spirit of the age.’ The Committee for Forward in Faith in Scotland wrote to the bishops to ask for a meeting stressing that they represented many beyond its membership who had been cut off from the life of the church by its betrayal of orthodox faith and practice. The bishops refused.
In 2003 the Canon for the Consecration of a Woman Bishop was passed. No woman has ever been elected. Bishops are elected by an Electoral Synod working with a preparatory committee which has to identify at least three candidates. The College of Bishops then have the right to designate any of these candidates unsuitable, and remove them from contention. A few years ago in the election for a diocese where there is a conservative culture and mores, and where being a Gaelic speaker was almost essential, it is highly likely that, at that time, there were candidates who understood the history and ethos of the region. However, such men seem to have been ignored, and it is thought that others were deterred from standing. The regulations mean that if, after all attempts, the three candidates needed for an election are not found, then the appointment lapses to the College of Bishops. In this case they appointed one with no Gaelic. The latest statistics show this now as the least thriving diocese, with a membership of just 957, a communicants’ roll of 645 and an attendance figure of 458.
Most recently, the canon to allow same sex marriage has been passed. GAFCON (the Global Anglican Future Conference) with help from the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), have appointed a bishop to serve those who reject the development on biblical grounds. Already a parish in the Isles has joined their ranks, but it is not clear how many more will follow, or what that will mean for the Episcopal Church, other than more decline. Given Aberdeen’s role in the history of the SEC, the Diocese of Aberdeen and Orkney was the one diocese that had remained largely immune to the wider decline from orthodoxy. It was, therefore, not surprising that the Diocesan Synod was the only one to reject the revised marriage canon by a vote in all Houses. When the bishop retired, assurances were given that the theological stance of the diocese would be reflected in any candidate elected. Of the three dioceses vacant at that time it was the only one that would certainly not be happy to accept a woman bishop. But once again, mysteriously, it was not possible to find three candidates needed, and so the appointment lapsed to the four remaining bishops.
At this point the sheer horror of the vindictiveness of the liberal College of Bishops became clear as they foisted on the Aberdonians not only the first woman bishop in the SEC, but also one of the first clerics to perform a same-sex marriage! The dean (who in Scotland is appointed by the bishop as the senior priest with powers which are even more wide-ranging than an archdeacon) resigned his post after due consideration, along with another canon of the cathedral. Other clergy are preparing to retire as soon as they may, but it is clear that the College merely deem this to be the necessary collateral damage to achieve their aims.
A stinging letter from a retired primus rebuking the College for the way they had behaved probably stayed their hand in the election for two further dioceses, one of which had a female candidate. The new male bishops, though liberal, achieved their appointments by election. The Bishop of Glasgow, who is probably the only one who understands our plight, is retiring soon. The Provost of his cathedral, who had the Quran read at the cathedral’s Epiphany Mass, might well get put forward as a candidate.
The traditional fierce independence of the Scottish Episcopal Church and its bishops, and the distance the church has travelled over the last fifty years from its historic catholic mind mean that—humanly speaking—little hope can now be offered for a long-term catholic future in the SEC. Those who are conscious of their church’s glorious past, and remain faithful to its tradition, feel betrayed and unchurched in what has become a very small body, but they themselves are quite few in number, living scattered across the country. What Forward in Faith can realistically do for them is therefore limited. We offer occasional gatherings for Mass, a regular newsletter, and pastoral care by telephone where needed. Above all, we offer prayer, and this is something in which all readers of New Directions can join us.
‘The darkness deepens, Lord with me abide.’