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.


Understanding the Justin Welby Radio Phone-In Controversy

There’s been something of a fluttering in the various Anglican doocots this week over remarks that the Archbishop of Canterbury made on a radio programme. When asked why the Church of England could not move forward on affirming marriage as an option for same-sex couples, the Archbishop spoke of standing at a mass grave in Africa and being told that this was caused by some event in America – the implication being that if we affirm LGBT people in the affluent west then Christians who are up against it in places of violence will be killed. It appeared to many that he was suggesting that we shouldn’t move on LGBT affirmation because of what would happen in Africa.

People got cross about this. People including me, accused him of appeasing people of violence.

Then he said that people hadn’t listened to him and that he hadn’t meant it. Then he repeated it several times, leading people like me to the view that we had heard him loud and clear the first time.

It was as though the Archbishop wanted to believe that those who were criticising him had simply not understood him. In fact, it seems to me that we understood him perfectly well the first time but didn’t like what he was saying – something which he now seems to find difficult to understand.

It seems to me that there are a number of important things swirling around under the surface of this story which need to be understood.

Deference is dead in the West but not in the Global South
Firstly, there’s no sign that the Archbishop has understood that deference is dead in the West. People will not simply believe what someone says because of the position that they hold. They will want to question, tease out, reject, argue, discuss, be persuaded. The very fact that the Archbishop went on a radio phone-in last week is part of a remarkable culture shift whereby people simply don’t believe something because someone important says it. Now there are things to be regretted about this but there are things to be celebrated. There has never been a better time for getting people to discuss faith if you approach it in the right way. But you have to expect people to test things out for themselves. They want to know that it is true for them, not for you. What’s so wrong about that? The tone of the Archbishop’s answers seemed to be that we needed to trust him on this because he was right. He has also since said he won’t provide any evidence to back up what he was saying. This comes over as arrogant even if it is not intended to be and I don’t think he realises how it makes him look.

Unfortunately for leaders who have to work across global cultures, this is not so everywhere. In the Global South, deference is far from dead. What bishops say there largely goes. The question is not really how the Anglican Communion can hold together with different views of homosexuality in it. The real question which we never seem to discuss which is fundamental, is whether the Anglican Communion can hold together in the face of radically different views of what the episcopate is about.

The Back of the Bus Won’t Do

It looks as though the Archbishop is trying to set up a “reconciliation process” when he has already decided that the best outcome would be for the church to adopt a policy of blessing gay couples in Civil Partnerships but not affirming anything to do with same-sex couples and marriage. The trouble with this is that it won’t do for those who have come to the view that gay people and straight people should be dealt with equally because they are fundamentally equal in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of God.

The suspicion is that the Archbishop of Canterbury and many others with him, is trying to address this question on the presumption that gay people are in some way disabled (or worse, dysfunctional) straight people. Does he believe that gay people just can’t help themselves and so something must be done for them? It may be to misjudge him terribly, but it feels very much like it.

The reality is that those who have campaigned long and hard for marriage to be opened up to same-sex couples have drunk deeply at the Civil Rights well of justice. They (we!) believe gay people and straight people should be treated equally because of a fundamental existential equality between gay people and straight people.

Any hope that the church could have satisfied people by blessing civil partnerships but refusing to affirm marriages contracted by gay and lesbian couples is 10 years out of date. Had the churches affirmed Civil Partnerships in the first place then they might be in a better place to affirm them now. The argument can be endlessly made that Civil Partnerships and Marriage confer the same rights. The trouble is, most people now accept that Rosa Parks was right. Even if the bus does get you to the same destination, travelling at the front of the bus and travelling at the back of the bus are not the same thing.

There is no sign at all that the Archbishop of Canterbury has understood this as a Civil Rights struggle. The absence of any discussion of rights issues from the narrative whereby these conversations takes place is part of the problem. (The Church in Wales – I’m talking about you!)

The Grinding of Gears as [some] Evangelicals change their minds

These days we are constantly hearing the grinding of gears as some of those in the Evangelical parts of the church are reassessing their views on LGBT people and their relationships within a difficult context and in a place whereby they may suffer at the hands of others for doing so. I’ve been talking about the realignment of Evangelical opinion around this for years and gradually, step by painful step, it is happening. In recent weeks we have had the debacle of World Vision firstly supporting the right of its employees in same-sex relationships to contract marriages and then going back on the decision when people rang up to remove their pledges to support poor children in the world’s most needy places. The revolting display of people removing their financial support from needy children because of LGBT affirmation, and the capitulation of World Vision to those people has made many pause for thought.

And then we have had Vicky Beeching this week talking about how her own support for same-sex couples wanting to marry could cost her her livelihood as US Evangelicals may stop singing her worship songs as a consequence.

These are ugly scenes by the wayside but need to be keenly monitored and understood.

We’ve also seen the Archbishop strongly supported this week by a small number of commentators – particularly those bearing the “Open Evangelical” brand. Now this is complicated, but I still maintain that “Open Evangelical” can in most cases be used as shorthand for those in the Evangelical wing of the church who are pro-women, pro-divorce (though you won’t find them saying so in public) but anti-gay. There may be signs that this is breaking down, but I’d say this description still broadly holds true.

The Spectre of Rowan Williams

Finally, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s seemingly casual comments on a radio phone-in have raised the fear in many good-hearted people, that his views are no better than those of his predecessor. I make no comment on whether they are the same or not – simply that it matters that many thought – “here we go again”. I don’t think that there has been enough of an understanding thus far that many moderate Christians simply don’t feel that their leaders represent their views, values and generosity. Indeed, I’ve never known bishops to be as mistrusted as I perceive them to be now, by those who traditionally would have supported them the most.

The particular fear that has been raised by this radio phone-in is that Justin Welby harbours the same fantasy that the Anglican Communion is a church which a leader can control (as Rowan Williams appeared to many to believe) rather than a communion of autonomous churches which are able to make decisions appropriate to their situation. Talking about homosexuality is a displacement activity from talking about autocephaly.

The Rowan Williams factor is a significant one and this is the first time that I’ve really seen people dismissing Justin Welby as just another version of the same thing. It matters to understand this and to try to work out whether or not it is true.