Just before Christmas, something extraordinary happened in the life of the churches. Someone in the Church of Scotland leaked the full text of a proposed ecumenical agreement to a journalist from the Telegraph newspaper. I believe that the journalist in question had heard of the agreement, known as the Columba Declaration, and had contacted the Church of Scotland looking for comment.
This came as something of a surprise to very many people and was very wildly and inaccurately reported. In one report from a national news organisation there was a headline that suggested the Church of Scotland and the Church of England were making a “declaration of unity”. This was, of course, over-egging the pudding considerably.
The declaration came as something of an unwelcome surprise to a great many people in the Scottish Episcopal Church who were taken by surprise just a day or so before Christmas by the Church of England treading on our toes.
To be blunt, I know of no-one in the Scottish Episcopal Church who thinks it was ever remotely appropriate for the Church of England to negotiate an agreement with the Church of Scotland at all. It appeared to many and continues to appear to many as the height of rudeness and discourtesy for a Church of the Anglican Communion to negotiate an agreement with a church which is a dominant church in the territorial area of another member church of the Anglican Communion.
I have resisted commenting publicly on the agreement until now because I had not read it. Matters were not helped by the fact that the Church of Scotland gave out the proposed text of the agreement to a journalist and did not release it to the Scottish Episcopal Church despite the fact that it clearly concerns the SEC. This was unethical behaviour and compounded by the fact that the C of S and C of E didn’t even manage to get the name of the Scottish Episcopal Church correct in a press release.
The manner in which this all came out was unhelpful. However, there’s no point concentrating on that. The time has come to offer some kind of comment on where we are now. There are two issues which are of obvious concern – firstly what the agreement actually says and secondly what the consequences of the nature of this agreement are for the churches within Scotland.
In terms of content, there are a number of things to note.
In the paper “Growth in Communion, Partnership in Mission” which supports the Columba declaration there are statements about both communion and “apostolicity” which will make many who know and love the Church of Scotland scratch their heads a bit. For example, this statement:
We believe that the celebration of the Holy Communion, also known as the Lord’s Supper, is the feast of the new covenant instituted by Jesus Christ, in which the word of God is proclaimed and in which Christ crucified and risen gives his body and blood to the community under the visible signs of bread and wine. ‘In the action of the Eucharist Christ is truly present to share his risen life with us and to unite us with himself in his self-offering to the Father, the one full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice which he alone can offer and has offered once for all.’ In this celebration we experience the love of God and the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ and proclaim his death and resurrection until he comes again and brings his kingdom to completion.
Now, this is unsurprising to Anglican eyes – after all it is a direct quote from the Meissen Agreement with some of the churches in Germany.
But is this really what the Church of Scotland can corporately sign up to as what it says about the Eucharist?
The Westminster Confession of Faith does say rather clearly:
In this sacrament, Christ is not offered up to His Father; nor any real sacrifice made at all, for remission of sins of the quick or dead; but only a commemoration of that one offering up of Himself, by Himself, upon the cross, once for all: and a spiritual oblation of all possible praise unto God, for the same.
What does the Church of Scotland believe about the Eucharist? Is it one thing or the other? Or are presbyterian friends going to try to assert that it believes that in the Eucharist there both is and is not a sense in which the sacrifice of Christ is real?
I am aware that catholics within the Church of England synod are questioning the statement in the Columba Declaration which says: “We acknowledge that in both our churches the word of God is truly preached, and the sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Communion are rightly administered.” They might well ask what this assertion actually means. They might also ask exactly what the passages in the supporting papers about bishops actually mean. They appear to suggest that a personal episcopate is not always exercised by a bishop.
The most interesting thing about the Columba Declaration is what it doesn’t say. The rationale for this agreement all along and the justification for the C of E entering into it is that these two churches are in some way alike by virtue of being “national” churches. The Columba declaration however makes no mention of this at all. Saying instead that the churches will:
…work together on social, political and ethical issues that arise from our participation in public life and be prepared to allocate resources to joint initiatives for addressing them.”
Well, which churches couldn’t say this?
It is a matter of great concern to Episcopalians in Scotland that an agreement which was predicated on issues relating to the particular status of the C of S in Scotland and the C of E in England has become an agreement which focuses on ministry and membership. I think we find ourselves in the Scottish Episcopal Church asking – “how did this happen?” The Church of England may indeed have things to talk to the C of S about. However, it is entirely misplaced and completely unwelcome for the C of E to be negotiating issues of ministry, mission and membership with the Church of Scotland. Again and again I hear Episcopalians complaining that this proposal is aggressive rudeness on the part of the Church of England. They are right. It is.
The question of exchange of ministries is something that Anglicans are very sensitive about. At a time of great fragility in the Anglican Communion, the Church of England should not be making its own policies in this area but doing so with others. It is abundantly clear that the Scottish Episcopal Church indicated in 2012 that it was not in favour of this kind of agreement and yet the C of E has persisted in negotiating one. No-one should be surprised that Scottish Episcopalians are concerned about it at this stage. Our position has been consistent.
The Church of Scotland is entitled to talk to whomsoever it wishes. However, it should not underestimate the ill will that this episode has generated. If it wants to form an agreement with the Church of England then it seems to me that it is entirely free to do so. If it wishes to do so in a way which seems to give a snub to the Scottish Episcopal Church then it can do so as it chooses. However, it should not underestimate the strength of feeling about this agreement – which I witnessed once again at first hand at a Regional Council in my own diocese this week. Should the Columba Declaration be agreed by the Church of England Synod and the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in its current form then no-one should be under any illusions that it will do anything other than generate mistrust ecumenically in Scotland.
I think most Episcopalians would prefer the Church of England General Synod to say no to this agreement – not as any kind of snub but simply by way of acknowledging that something went far wrong in the process by which this all unfolded. It would be better to begin again from first principles than to sign up to something which has the potential to poison ecumenical life in Scotland for a generation. If the English synod does not have the guts to do that then it should at least find a way of delaying the agreement until other churches, principally the United Reformed Church and the Scottish Episcopal Church have had a chance to comment and any concerns raised be used to inform any way forward.
Two final things are worth saying.
Firstly, beginning again or modifying the agreement in the light of comments from other churches is a way of making something good of this. One of the best ways of killing an ecumenical endeavor is to sign an ecumenical agreement. If it is signed, sealed and delivered in its current state there’s a high chance that out of the sheer embarrassment at the process by which this has all unfolded, all parties will quietly but quickly forget all about it.
Secondly, it is important to remember that Anglicans in England can agree to this set of proposals because of the differences that are acknowledged between the churches. Presbyterians whom I know seem to be enthusiastic because they see themselves as being recognised as being substantially the same as the C of E. They shouldn’t be fooled. This proposal is akin to the Reuilley agreement not the Porvoo agreement. It is about churches which differ and not churches which are fundamentally the same.
It is clear that the intentions of all involved have been to form better ecumenical relationships. It is a matter of pain and sadness that the opposite seems to have been achieved. There have been personal losses and sorely tested friendships because of all this so far. The time has come either to start again or to pause for breath.