The Columba Declaration – where are we now?

I was present this morning at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland for the Church of Scotland’s acceptance of the Columba Declaration – the agreement that has been made between the Church of Scotland and the Church of England which has cause a huge amount of concern to Scottish Episcopalians.

It was good to be in the Assembly Hall – there’s an atmosphere there that can’t be replicated online. I’ve enjoyed dropping into the business of the Church of Scotland for years, since the time I was doing a degree at New College which is adjacent to the hall itself. The singing of the Assembly is spine-tingling and this morning there was a brilliant homily from the Moderator of the Assembly on the bible reading of the day which was of the two men who went up to the temple to pray.

I enjoy the way the Church of Scotland does its business. Utter courtesy is the order of the day and there’s always the most powerful attempt to ensure that all voices are heard.

I’ve often commented that a good Church of Scotland moderator would enable one of our synods to get through its business in a couple of hours rather than a couple of days and more people would feel that their opinion had been part of the discussion.

When I was an ecumenical corresponding member of a Church of Scotland Presbytery I gradually got used to the cadences and the humour and gentle stamping of feet to indicate agreement. I also realised to my surprise that the things which presbyterian  friends have often thought odd about Episcopal worship – bowing, standing and sitting every verse-end, a daring splash of lace and a smattering of Latin within the context of an experience that is both highly serious and highly camp are all present in the way the Church of Scotland does business.

This morning was a hugely important symbolic occasion. The Archbishop of Canterbury was present and had been invited to contribute to the debate. This was also an opportunity to try to put some of the ill-feeling to rest that has been stirred up in Scotland by the Columba Declaration.

I have to say that having read my social media timelines since coming home, it is very obvious that this hasn’t been achieved. Whatever was said in public in the Assembly today, there is still a level of outrage being expressed by Scottish Episcopalians which has led both journalists and people from out of Scotland to express considerable surprise to me about it in the last 24 hours. How can it be, they ask, that things are going on in public church gatherings which have these extraordinary levels of grievance attached to them online? My only answer is that those with the power in the equation simply don’t care about the members of the Scottish Episcopal Church enough to have paused long enough to try to put things right.

Full marks to Justin Welby though for trying. He got up at the Assembly and apologised for the hurt that had been caused to Scottish Episcopalians by the manner in which this had all been handled. Indeed, he said that he took personal responsibility for that.

This was highly commendable and might have worked if we had not known since Christmas that it was the Church of Scotland’s media office which leaked the details to the press with the express permission of “someone high up” in the Church of Scotland’s Ecumenical Relations Committee. (I know this because I was personally told so by the person who did it within 24 hours of it happening).

That’s been known for months and talked about for months, tweeted about for months and discussed for months. We know that the way in which this was handled wasn’t Justin Welby’s responsibility. Bless him for trying to pour Archepiscopal oil on troubled Episcopal waters, but Justin Welby was trying to take responsibility for things that he is known to have had nothing whatsoever to do with.

Here I think it is important to distinguish what has caused the trouble for Scottish Episcopalians. There are two issues. The first is the leaking of the report just before Christmas – this was unfortunate and made a bad situation much worse but it was a mistake and we can all move on from that. Indeed, I don’t think Scottish Episcopalians are that bothered by that now. The apology for that mess should have come from the Church of Scotland today though it was clear that the Church of Scotland was in triumphalist mode and there was little chance of any kind of apology from that quarter. But at the end of a rather long day, I think all we can do is shrug and acknowledge that it shouldn’t have happened that way. People make mistakes and I don’t think there’s any point dwelling on this any more.

The second issue is the fact of the agreement itself. This is much more problematic and this is the trouble that just won’t go away. The Scottish Episcopalians I know and whom I see posting at length online about this simply do not believe it is appropriate for the Church of England to be interfering in another Province. And that is, to so very many of us, exactly what this is.

For that, the Archbishop of Canterbury didn’t apologise. And that’s the nub of the problem. Who cares about how it was announced? The fact that it was announced at all is what everyone I know seems to care about.

It is important to acknowledge that there are very real differences in the way that the Archbishop of Canterbury is seen here in Scotland from that in other parts of the Anglican Communion.

This was a very public event with a public gallery but I only saw three Episcopalians whom I recognised there today. There were far more empty seats than Anglicans present.

Having got to know, for example, the Episcopal Church in the USA, my sense is that there they love and adore the idea of the Archbishop of Canterbury and indeed they pray for him at services. This means that when he is seen to misbehave towards America there is not so much anger as bewilderment that the one whom they have loved (and the England that he represents) has not returned the favour (or even favor). The pain of the US church is the pain of unrequited love.

Here in Scotland we are innately suspicious of the idea of the Archbishop of Canterbury (and very rarely pray for him in services) and when he behaves badly it confirms all our expectations. This tends to brew up into our righteous anger which gets very readily trumpeted abroad. We don’t do Archbishops generally. We don’t have one of our own and woe betide any Primus that doesn’t understand that from the get go.

I suspect the US position is a lot more painful in reality. Our pain here in Scotland is more easily expressed and has a historical context and many historical and contemporary myths about England and Scotland from which we can draw, in expressing our indignation. That indignation has once again been pouring out, even as there have been attempts to move on today at the General Assembly.

What I saw today was an attempt to try to make things right. It was largely unsuccessful. It was difficult not to listen and hear under the surface of so much that was said a desperation from presbyterian brothers and sisters to be recognised as a “real church”. One spoke with some pathos about the fact that Anglicans had simply not been able to recognise a Church of Scotland communion service as being the equivalent of a Eucharist celebrated by an Episcopally ordained priest. This one won’t go away with the Columba Declaration either – most Episcopalians I know would take that view whilst being perfectly happy to share in the  bread and wine if invited to within the context of the Church of Scotland.

That hurts for our Presbyterian brothers and sisters and that hurt is just as real and has to be taken just as seriously as any hurt that Episcopalians have been feeling for the last six months.

The Columba Declaration states that in both the Church of Scotland and the Church of England “Holy Communion is rightly administered”. I think Scottish Episcopalians are puzzled by that statement and don’t really know what it means. For what it is worth, Scottish Episcopalians are sometimes more bewildered by what passes for Eucharistic services in some parts of the Church of England as anything happening in the Church of Scotland but perhaps that is for another day. However, the fact remains that we care very much how Holy Communion is administered and this part of the Declaration makes us raise our ecumenical eyebrows.

In the course of today’s events at the General Assembly, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church were both sitting in the gallery for honoured guests at the beginning of proceedings. The Archbishop was then invited onto the Assembly floor where he had a voice and quite literally a place at the table. The Primus was left in the gallery and in course of the debate, people around him disappeared. It was as though whoever was in charge of the choreography had tried to recreate the slight to the Scottish Episcopal Church symbolically for all to see. The players enacted their parts. The Scottish Episcopal Church was isolated and patronised with invitations to join in by sending someone to join the ongoing conversations. The Church of England was invited to the feast.

The Columba Declaration is a major piece of ecumenical work that has been brought about at the cost of more ecumenical goodwill than I ever really thought Scotland had to lose. Looking at my social media timelines over the last 24 hours, it is very obvious that it will poison the wells of ecumenical relations for many years to come. Something has been broken and I struggle to see how it can be repaired.

And the outcome?

They set up a committee.

 

We worship a non-binary God. Don’t we?

male, femals, non-binary form

Just over a week ago there was something called the Scottish Church Census. Churches all over Scotland were asked to count how many people were present and to account for the gender diversity, ethnic diversity, age profile etc of the congregation.

Those organising the census helpfully provided a brief form which people could use to tick the various categories in order to make an accurate return. Though this was helpful, I quickly realised that we couldn’t use the form that was supplied as using it was not going to be inclusive of everyone in the congregation. The first question on the form asked people to indicate whether they were male or female and I was aware that for at least one person in the congregation, that was not going to be a helpful question.

I was aware that there was someone in the congregation who does not identify themselves in a way that would allow them to tick either box with any conviction, seeing gender as something rather more complex for themselves.

Once you start to notice this, you realise that the world is full of forms that require one to identify oneself as either male or female, very many of them forms for which gendered information is completely and utterly irrelevant.

Anyway, we ended up producing our own local version of the Scottish Church Census form with a third box. The options were now male, female and non-binary.

When all the forms were gathered up and counted, it turned out that three people had ticked the non-binary box, one of them circling the words and writing “thank you” next to them.

Thus I found out simply by asking the question, that there were three times as many people in the congregation that day than I would have estimated who would describe themselves as not male nor female but in some way non-binary.

We’re going to hear quite a lot more about this in the coming years I think. In Scotland there’s going to be a consultation about allowing people to legally be regarded as being of a non-binary gender, the law neither regarding them as male or female. It is a change which should go ahead I think though one suspects that a great number of people have never thought it through.

The three people describing themselves as non-binary in St Mary’s that Sunday were towards the younger end of the (very mixed) age profile that we have. This suggests to me that this way of identifying oneself is likely to become more common as time goes on and may be very helpful.

Gender does push people’s buttons a lot and we don’t all agree. There’s a pernicious law being pursued in some parts of the USA trying to ensure that people use the “correct” toilets according to the gender they were assigned at birth. This is problematic for those who have transitioned from one gender to another, those who were born intersex and those for whom gender is simply more complex and who would regard themselves as non-binary.

(We have both gendered and non-gendered toilet facilities at St Mary’s Cathedral. At home I only have a non-gendered toilet, like most people).

But here’s the thing. Christians worship a non-binary God, don’t we?

Haven’t we come (rejoicing) through  the days of feminists calling upon us to recognise that there is a female aspect to the divine which makes all talk of God as purely male to be inadequate?

Haven’t we come to a point of recognising that God is beyond gender?

When the government comes to the point of asking us all what we think of introducing a non-binary gender category, won’t the churches joyfully embrace it and support it because this reflects the God we know and in whose image and likeness we are made?

Might the non-binary gender category that is increasingly going to become an option for people be a helpful way in which we might reflect on the nature of God?

In congregations like my own, I suspect that will be the case very quickly but maybe for the whole church this shift in the way we regard gender may help us in the way we look at God.

I wrote last week about the fact that anyone who insists on God being a male authority figure or even daddy is readily challenged by simply reading the bible where God is seen more by attributes that go way beyond gender. When we address God these days in my own congregation we are more likely (far more likely) to address God as “Eternal God” or “Loving God” than we are to talk of “Father God”. This is partly because not everyone has a good model of fatherhood in their own experience but far more it is because this simply isn’t the God whom the bible has introduced us to. Jesus used fatherhood as a metaphor for God but that has to be seen in the context of a book which speaks of God as a flower – the Rose of Sharon, a carnivorous wild animal – the Lion of Judah or weapon – sharper than a two edged sword, along with dozens of other complex rich and sometimes perplexing images.

We worship a God who is beyond gender even though our tradition has sometimes embraced images of God which are highly gendered – sometimes I think, to distinguish the faith from other highly female gendered images of divinity with which Christianity was competing. (I’ve seen an effigy of Artemis of Ephesus and can honestly say I wouldn’t like to meet her during a dark night of the soul).

Christian people are not in the business of dealing with a Mr God.

And Christian people need to wise up fairly quickly to the questions about gender which are coming our way.

Dear God who is beyond gender,
give us a greater dose
of your holy spirit of common sense
in dealing with gender
than we have seemed to the world to posses
over your gift of sexuality.

Amen