The Columba Declaration

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.


  1. Father Davud says

    Two Established Churches North and South of the Border engaging in Ecumenical Dialogue – REJOICE

    • The Church of Scotland is not an Established Church.

      • Indeed!

      • Aaron Stevens says

        But the Church of Scotland is an established church. What makes you think it is not? According to what definition of established can it not be called such?

        • The Church of Scotland simply isn’t an Established Church. All members of the Church of Scotland can give entertaining lectures on the difference between a National Church and an Established Church at the drop of a biretta.

          • Aaron Stevens says

            I grew up in the United States, where the concepts of “National Church” and “Established Church” are foreign, so my question, for avoidance of doubt, was a sincere one. As I am responding to your blog and comment of yours, and not attending a lecture (entertaining or otherwise) of a member of the Church of Scotland, can I ask you, again, what your definition of “established” is when speaking of a church?

          • Many Church of Scotland people would want to draw a distinction between the relationship that the state has with the Church of England and the relationship that the state has with their own church. They tend to focus on the fact that the C of E has people automatically in the state legislature (bishops in the House of Lords), that the state has traditionally had some hand in some C of E clerical appointments (though this is radically diminished in recent years) and that parliament can legislate on some C of E matters which they would argue could not happen in the C of S. Added to that are limited legal responsibilities that the C of E has to provide occasional offices (baptism, marriage etc) for those living within its parishes, an obligation that Church of Scotland ministers do not have for people in their parishes.

            The verbal distinction which C of S people use to indicate these differences is to speak of their Church being a National rather than an Established Church.

            I’ve never really heard anyone from outside the C of S seriously argue that it is not in some way Established in law but it does clearly enjoy different privileges.

          • Edward Andrews says

            Sorry Kelvin, Church of Scotland parish ministers have a responsibility to burry their dead, conduct weddings and administer within the discipline of the Kirk. Yes ministers have failed in their duties and Presbyteries have failed to discipline them. However article 3 of the articles deflator you makes it quite clear.
            The difference between the Kirk and the C of E is that the UK parliament calls the shots in worship and doctrine for the C of E and the Prime Minister ultimately approves Bishops. The crown also is patron of some parishes. The Church of Scotland claims that it can basically decide what it believes and how it worships and who can carry out functions for it. Parliament has Established the Church of England. Parliament only accepted the Kirk’s self concept of bring a national church.

  2. Edward Andrews says

    It is in my opinion the Unionists in the Kirk being friendly with the C of E for teh building up of the UK.The answer lies in the statement “Affirm and strengthen our relationship at a time when it is likely to be particularly critical in the life of the United Kingdom;”
    It is Better Together Churches and we know where that got the political parties. If the ESC goes back to its old Jacobite Roots it might do quite well our of this.

  3. Father David says

    In which case should it not be called the Church in Scotland? Until it was Disestablished the Anglican Church in Wales was known as the Church of Wales, thereafter it became the Church in Wales. There’s a big difference between IN and OF. I always thought that the Presbyterian Church in Scotland was Established? My mistake.

    • I’m not qualified to give an opinion as to what the Church of Scotland should be called. All I ask is that they get the name of my own church correct more often than they do.

  4. Father David says

    Wikipedia tells me otherwise that the Presbyterian Kirk is in fact the national and Established Church of Scotland.

    • There are respects in which it behaves like an established church, such as its involvement in the state school system, but CoS parishes are not, for example, obliged to conduct the marriage of anyone living within their jurisdiction (whereas CoE parishes are so obliged) and the regulation of the CoS does not form part of Scots civil law (whereas the English General Synod can in principle be overruled by Parliament). Similarly, no representatives from the General Assembly sit in the House of Lords.

      I guess you could say that the Church of Scotland is the national church—‘of Scotland’ in a cultural sense,—but not established in a legal sense.

    • Well, you’ve got a choice – either to believe what wikipedia says or to believe me when I say that the C of S isn’t an established church. It isn’t because, well, it isn’t.

      • Robin says

        > Well, you’ve got a choice – either to believe what wikipedia says or to believe me when I say that the C of S isn’t an established church.

        Does it matter? I know all about the “National but not Established” lectures, but if it looks like an Established Church, behaves like an Established Church and is generally considered by those concerned with such things to be an Established Church . . .

        • Robin, you and I know that there’s no difference, but we also know that in polite society we have to say that there is unless we are trying to wind up Presbyterians. At this stage we’re trying not to do that, right?

          If they say they’re not then they are not.

          • Robin says

            Wind up Presbyterians? Perish the thought! I gave that up for Lent way back in the 1970s.

          • Of course you did. And then again in the 1980s. And the 1990s …

    • Edward Andrews says

      The Church of Scotland is the national church of Scotland. It is not established? Let’s all get our anoraks and gather round. the Church of Scotland as we know it goes back to the Act of Parliament in 1560 which was not signed by the Queen MQS. it was effectively Episcopalian. Over the years it went through an interesting series of forms of Church government basically Episcopalian or Presbyterian. In 1689 King William decided that the Church was Presbyterian and the important thing was that the officeholders had to acknowledge a faith relationship with the Westminster Confession of faith. Those who did not either stayed as Episcopalians (generally non Jurors) or Covenanters. There was then for 210 years a complicated history of splits and reunions which we do not need to detain ourselves with. In the mean time the Scottish Episcopal Church went through its own vicissitudes. Some of the various parts of the Presbyterian church of Scotland united in 1900 and in 1929. The relationship of the Kirk was settled when the civil authority and the Kirk passed the same act called different things. (if you want to know look at the books or I run tutorial groups on the topic with easy terms) Basically the Kirk believes that it is not established, because of was formed by Christ who is the head of the Church and no parliament has the power to Establish it. (The Church of Scotland asserts that, while this commitment is recognised by Act of Parliament, namely the
      Church of Scotland Act 1921 and Articles Declaratory appended thereto, its true origin and entire basis lie not in civil law but in the Church’s own calling by Jesus Christ, its King and Head) However the term Established is used by some people of lazy demeanour. The kirk itself calls itself the National Church as it claims the task to “bring the ordinances of religion to the people in every parish of Scotland through a territorial ministry.
      I hope that it you are none the wiser after my explanation you are much better informed.

  5. Edward Andrews says

    Now let’s get back to the Columba declaration which has hurt our Brothers and Sisters of the Scottish Episcopal Church with its outstanding arrogance, and rendered those of us who are members of the Kirk who seek to see Scotland removing itself from the United Kingdom incandescent.

  6. Father David says

    Home Ruke for Scotland – that’s what I say. Something else which may well make you incandescent following the June EU Remain/Leave Refurendum is if England votes overwhelmingly to leave and Scotland votes overwhelmingly to stay – what will happen thereafter?

    • Edward Andrews says

      It is not Home Rule which we seek, but independence, their is a significant difference, but to get back to the Columba Declaration

    • This blog post isn’t about the referendum. I’d be grateful if people stayed on topic.

  7. Father David says

    Who was it who took us off topic in the first place? I started off by saying that the Columba declaration was a cause for rejoicing. Last June I enjoyed and was refreshed by a wonderful Retreat on Iona blessed with glorious sunshine. What impressed me was the Ecumenical Welcome offered by the Iona Community in the Abbey Church. It was a joy to participate in an Anglican Mass in that splendid and beautifully restored building. The Declaration which bears his name would surely warm the heart of Saint Columba.

    • I’m at a loss to know how to respond to a situation whereby people rejoice when others weep.

      I rather think Jesus suggested our task was somehow different.

  8. Father David says

    I feel sure that Jesus once said that they may all be one – surely this Declaration is a move in the right ecumenical direction when two great historic churches make moves to come closer together in Christian Unity. I know nothing about winding up the Presbyterians but winding up the weeping Episcopalians is another matter.

    • Well, as I said above, those two historic churches (are any churches not historic?) can do as they please but they shouldn’t do so without being aware of the effects of their actions.

  9. In some ways, Kelvin, and from my own personal experience of the Church of England, wherein I was Baptized and Confirmed (now a priest in ACANZP); some members of the Church of England may, indeed, not quite believe in The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Perhaps it is these sort of people in that Church who have negotiated this agreement with the Church of Scotland.

    However, being a believer in The Real Presence myself, and acknowledging the catholicity of The Scottish Episcopal Church on this particxular issue; I agree that there seems to be a creeping Presbyterianism on the part of those in the C. of E. who have crafted this agreement. It is not consonant with Scottish Episcopaliian theology or praxis. Nor should this type of border-crossing be seen as a worthy attempt at ecumenism.

  10. Father David says

    Father Ron, is this one of the reasons why the Anglican Methodist Reunion scheme failed in England – much to the extreme disappointment of the Anglo-Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury at the time – the great Michael Ramsey?
    Like you, I too am a firm believer In the Real Presence and if the Columba Declaration comes to full fruition I look forward to seeing Tabernacles and Reservation in Scottish Presbyterian Kirks. As one popular song has it – “That’ll be the day!”

    • Father David; I think the great Michael Arthur Ramsey was secretly hoping that the Methodists would return to their High Church Wesleyan roots in respect of Wesley’s understanding of the Eucharist was concerned – as witness some of his eucharistic hymns. The failure might have been on the Methodist side – to live up to ++Michael’s expectations.

  11. Edward Andrews says

    As Anglicans get down to the important issue of the niceties of Theology, lets get into the broad brush situation.
    The relationships between the Churches of the Celtic tradition and the Southern tradition have been fraught since the 7th Century (Whitby). Part of the whole question surrounding the war of Independence (and before with King David was teh independence of the Scottish Church.
    The irony is that the present attempt is to bring the Churches of the united Kingdom together may well blow back on them. While the Kirk today doesn’t mean much in Scotland the most secular part of the UK I’m not convinsed that playing footise over Bishops is going to impress the older members – the ones who voted No.
    The fact is that the Scottish Episcopal Church has the Anglican franchise in Scotland. It is an authentic Scottish Church (especially if you ignore the instances when it has gone to England for Episcopal ordination.) and to negotiate over its head about something so sensitive it at the best discourteous.
    Those of the reformed tradition don’t get wound up by the antics of a few Episcopalians. We seek whatever degree of true unity is available to us, but do not see the need for uniformity. I spent some very pleasant years as a guest of the Scottish Episcopal Church when the climate of the Kirk became unattractive to me, and am grateful for the table fellowship which I received.
    The site of two big boys presuming to set things up is not pleasing. For the information of those who want to get up tight about the real presence, that is what the reformed tradition believes, we are Calvinists not followers of Zwingli. I am not going to seek to discuss which Greer philosopher we get our understanding of existence from.

  12. Father David says

    Father Ron: let us not forget that the great Arthur Michael Ramsey was born an ecumenical baby. His maternal Grandfather was Vicar of Horbling in Lincolnshire and his paternal Grandfather was a Congregationalist Minister. His Anglican Grandfather baptised him and when in adult years he visited Horbling parish church he was deeply moved when standing by the font – the place where this great man of God began his Christian pilgrim journey. However, as a child he worshipped with his family at the Congregationalist church in Cambridge. To the great benefit of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion – the kind of High Jinks that took place next door at Little St. Mary’s proved to be an attractive magnet and so the pull of Anglo-Catholicism brought to us a spiritual giant and a contender (in company with William Temple) for the title of the greatest Archbishop of Canterbury of the 20th century and a man who yearned and longed for Christian Unity.
    Edward Andrews: Even as we all long and hope for the unity of all Christians your words are wise when you point to unity not uniformity.

  13. Keith Barber says

    Cynic I may be, but my first response is to ask what is the hidden agenda. For I’m pretty certain there will be one, whether it’s about trying to create an ecclesiastical bulwark against disintegration of the UK or get ++Welby an ally or two in the aftermath of the huge and hostile reaction to the Anglican Primates’ decision to punish TEC (sorry Kelvin) for its moves towards inclusion of LGBT people.

    • Jeremy Bates says

      Or perhaps it’s like the Easter-calendar announcement–a convenient way of changing the subject, at Synod and elsewhere.

  14. Whatever the motivation for this ‘secret’ accord with the Church of Scotland; simple courtesy would require that the Church of England promoters consult with their Episcopally governed equivalent in Scotia.

    Another point is this; do the Presbyerians realise that they may have signed up to the catholic premise of recognition of the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament of the Holy Communion? Are they happy with that?

    • Edward Andrews says

      Well actually the Presbyterians believe “Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements, in this sacrament, do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally but spiritually, receive and feed upon, Christ crucified, and all benefits of His death: the body and blood of Christ being then, not corporally or carnally, in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet, as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses.” You will see the word real is there. Don’t know what the 39 articles say you believe.
      Those of us who are big on the real presence use the Platonic rather than the Aristotelian understanding of reality.

      • Not believers, then, in con-substantiation? Freely translated as bread and wine ‘together with’ the Body and Blood of Christ? Note, not the more literal trans-substantiation, which would nean the disappearance of the bread and wine. (although as some of my more scientific friends would say, this is a tautology.

        What all must agree on, though, is that some members of the Church of England, and many of its constituent partner Churches of the Anglican Communion, do have a problem with the ‘Real Presence’ – a reality that, for me, and I suspect most Anglican Catholics, means that the substance of the bread and wine consecrated at the Eucharist is truly “The Body and Blood of Christ” in accordance with the dominical instruction: “This IS my Body, my Blood” (Not, you will notice, “this REPRESENTS my Body, my Blood”). ‘A Sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’ – this saying sums it all up pretty well, I think

        • I think it is time to draw the discussion about the real presence to a close on this comment thread. It is hardly the main point and I’ve never ever known a comment thread about transubstantiation to be constructive.

          Comments on the Columba Declaration welcome. Comments trying to explain what transubstantiation *really* means – not so much.

          • Edward Andrews says

            Thank you Kelvin. As I see it the C of E has come poaching in your preserves. This is wrong and unhelpful. If there were going to be Anglican/Presbyterian dialogue the SEC should be the lead player. I have my own problems with the declaration as a Member of the Church of Scotland who seeks an end to the United Kingdom. However as a Catholic Christian I am in solidarity with my SEC brothers and sisters who have been left out of the loop. Both the Cof E synod and the Kirk’ General Assembly should reject the document, but I don’t suppose that they will.

  15. Augur Pearce says

    A contribution to the ‘establishment’ discussion: In my book the terms ‘establish’ and ‘Church of England’ both have more than one meaning. ‘Establish’, for example, can mean ‘set up, bring into existence’ (sense E1), or it can mean ‘endow, privilege’ (sense E2).

    Most people who use it of the C of E use it in sense E2, and they understand the C of E (in what I might call sense C3) as an association with its own rules, distinct from the English nation but privileged by law in various ways (with some concomitant obligations).

    In fact I think this describes the C of S position fairly well, but is quite wrong as regards the C of E. The C of E (I contend) is not distinct from the kingdom of England, it is that kingdom ‘wearing its spiritual hat’ (sense C1). England, as church, has various spiritual responsibilities to discharge, and in order to do so, it establishes (=creates; sense E1), by its law, a complex of specialist institutions, offices, rules, and assets which itself becomes known derivatively as the C of E (sense C2).

    One clear example of how the C of E (in sense C1) and the C of S have been differently understood from very early times is found in comparing Richard Hooker’s well-known words ‘There is not any man of the Church of England, but the same man is also a member of the commonwealth, nor any man a member of the commonwealth which is not also of the Church of England…’ with the Church Act 1567, declaring those ‘quha outher gainsayis the word of the Evangell ressavit and apprevit as the heidis of the Confessioun of Faith professit in Parliament of befoir in the yeir of God 1560 … or that refusis the participatioun of the haly sacramentis as thay ar now ministrat, to be na memberis of the said Kirk within this realme now presently professit’.

    The Church of England, in short, is simply England; the Church of Scotland is a privileged sectional group.

    • If this be so, it strikes me as uncomfortably caesaropapist. This may be one of the things that makes me uncomfortable when I am down south and find myself in a C of E church.

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