The Scottish Episcopal Church Option

So, here’s the thing. You’re sitting in your rectory in the Wolds of Nether Essex and turning the wireless dial at the end of a long day in June. Through the crackle and fizz of the static you finally find the Home Service and a plummy voice says with just the tiniest hint of surprise: “The Scottish Episcopal Church agreed overwhelmingly today at its General Synod in Edinburgh to allow gay couples to get married in its churches, becoming the first Anglican church in the UK to do so”. And you are suddenly agog. Could it be, you wonder, that there is another way of being a priest in these islands which might suit you down to the ground? Could it be that you should shake the dust of Basildon and Billericay from your feet and move to Banff or Buchan where the rainbow flag of freedom surely waves proudly in the sky? Your mind starts to imagine swapping Clacton-on-Sea for the true liberty of living in Clackmannanshire. “Harlow Nae Mair!” you cry as you imagine yourself marching with the kilt-clad masses at Helensburgh’s famous Pride March.

Before you know where you are, you are reaching for the back pages of the Church Times and applying for anything north of the border and wondering where you buy Episcopal plaid because the Holy Spirit in her infinite wisdom has revealed to you a sudden and previously unexplored call to the Scottish Episcopal Church that simply can’t be argued with.

Well, if you do seek to live out the Scottish Option, what will you find?  We’ll get to the sex bits further down the post but there’s quite a lot to talk about before we get there.

The truth is, there’s quite a lot of comings and goings between the Scottish Episcopal Church and other provinces of the Anglican Communion. One of the things that matters about the Anglican Communion is that it is relatively easy for those working in one part of the world to move to another part of the world. If you are priest (for example) in one place, then you are regarded as a priest in all places of the Communion. That’s kind of the big idea.

We see quite of lot of trade between the provinces of Scotland and England. The idea of full communion allows people from the Scottish Episcopal Church to work in the Church of England and vice versa. Well, that’s the theory though in reality some people are in fuller communion than others – I would struggle to work in Englandshire as I can’t affirm things that they’ve added to the Creed as essential such as the Five Guiding Principle of the Church of England guaranteeing the flourishing of those opposed to the ordination of women and I could never agree that I would only have a relationship with another man if I was prepared to lie about it to my bishop. But anyway, there’s full communion for some people and come and go they do.

There is quite a lot that is very attractive to people from the C of E coming north. However, one of the most difficult things about making that journey is that from a distance things look the same when in fact they are completely different.

Here’s a few things that are very different that people thinking of hitching their wagons and travelling north need to think about.

Well, the first thing that you need to think about when it comes to moving to Scotland is that you are going to have a relationship with your bishop. More so than you’ve probably had before. Not only that, but the bishop may well have a relationship with members of your congregation in a way entirely unlike  any relationship that you’ve witnessed in the Church of England. I would expect a bishop in a Scottish Episcopal diocese to know all the clergy by name and that they would also know key individuals in the congregation too. We are a much smaller church and that means that we relate completely differently. You are almost always relating to people whom you know rather than nameless officials. There’s an upside to that but there’s a downside to it too that you’ve probably not thought about. To put it bluntly, there’s no-where to hide.

Not only do I know my bishop but I also expect to know all the bishops of the church. I get to deal with them in the course of provincial business (we’ll come to that in a bit) and I would expect that if I had any cause to pick up the phone, I’d get through to any of them quickly and they would know who I am. (And I expected that when I worked in Bridge of Allan too, it isn’t simply because I work in a relatively high profile place).

When it comes to dioceses, don’t forget that there might be no-one in the diocesan office except the bishop, an administrator and maybe a Diocesan Secretary and or Treasurer who themselves may be very part time. Here in Glasgow the diocesan operation consists of a bishop, a canon missioner (currently on maternity leave), three part time people in the diocesan office doing administrative roles and the Diocesan Secretary and the Diocesan Treasurer who work part time and receive a small honorarium rather than a salary. There are no departments. There are hardly any experts. There’s no professionals. There’s just a few people holding things together who are supported by clergy and lay people from around the diocese volunteering to run various small programmes, some of which are almost invisible. It looks hand-knitted. It is hand-knitted.

The kind of clergy who tend to enjoy working in Scotland tend to be Jacks or Jills of all trades – generalists who can throw their hand to anything that their congregation throws at them whilst also join in running some Committee or Board either provincially or in the diocese.

See that word province – that’s how we talk about the Scottish Episcopal Church. It is a province of the Anglican Communion. Coming from England, you’ve probably never really thought of the Church of England as being a province of anything. (And here we’re talking about something quite different to the Provinces of York and Canterbury). You probably think a province is some kind of colonial outpost. Work in Scotland for 2 minutes and you’ll suddenly discover things about Anglicanism that you’ve never thought about in your life before. You’ve probably never realised that most Anglicans are non-conformists, people who worship in churches that are completely separate from the state and which receive no state funding. Here in Scotland you’ll find that you’re not in the most populous church nor even the second most populous church. The Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church are each about 10 times the size of the Scottish Episcopal Church. As an Anglican, you’re very much in a minority. As most Anglicans in the world are.

“Oh, you elect your bishops” you cry quaintly. Yes. That’s what Anglicans generally do. Never forget how odd the idea is that Anglican bishops are appointed rather than elected nor how curious the idea of them being appointed in the name of the head of state.

Don’t forget – the Queen is a Presbyterian.

Don’t forget – the Archbishop of Canterbury has no jurisdiction in this realm of Scotland.

Don’t forget – the Church of Scotland is not something you belong to and if you ever refer, even by accident, to the Scottish Episcopal Church as the Church of Scotland you might as well wear a large garish sign around your neck bearing the words “foreign ignoramus – do not take me seriously”.

When it comes to the Church of Scotland you may not understand the fury that the Columba Agreement unleashed until you’ve been here for some time but don’t underestimate it before coming to work in Scotland. Remember that many if not most priests in the Scottish Episcopal Church don’t really think that ministers of the Church of Scotland are or should be interchangable with priests ordained in our own church. Remember too that most Scottish Episcopalians going to a communion service in the Church of Scotland will happily join in and receive the bread and whatever it is in the cup and think loving thoughts about Jesus but may still feel that something was missing that didn’t make it feel quite the full bhuna. The statement in the Columba Agreement that Holy Communion is rightly administered in the Church of Scotland felt like a very foreign statement. The blunt reality is that lots of Episcopalians don’t feel that way about it.

But wait – before you get uppity on someone else’s behalf, don’t forget that we tend to feel the same way about worship in the Church of England. Take us down to Englandshire and we’ll try to be well behaved but inside we are still rolling our eyes at the Eucharistic prayer (if we can spot it) and on coming home we’ll readily say that there seemed to be something missing somehow.

That’s hard to understand. But look up epiclesis and realise that it isn’t just a word or an nice prayer – it is something that we think a reality.

There’s a lot of other politics to get your head around – both ecclesiastical politics and actual political politics. It is made more difficult because it isn’t all entirely settled and individuals may not entirely seem to be making sense.

Take me for example – I’m in favour of the United Kingdom because I care about the poor child in Carlisle as much as I care about the poor child in Carstairs. For that reason, notwithstanding the fact that I have no truck with the current UK government, I reject Scottish Independence. However, when it comes to religion, I’m the very opposite – hastily defending the independence of the Scottish Episcopal Church. Should the Archbishop of Canterbury put a toe over the border (something which does happen from time to time) you’ll find me suddenly taking on the role of William Wallace, picking up my two edged sword of destiny and whirling it around my Saltire be-painted head to defend the true religion from interlopers. Well, I do this using twitter, but you get the idea. Does this entirely make sense? No. Is it entirely real? Yes.

And it isn’t just me. You’ll find all kinds of things that don’t at first appear to make any sense should you move up to a charge here.

What’s that, you ask, a charge? What’s one of those?

Well, a charge is what we sometimes call a congregation or group of congregations. What else would you call a congregation without a parish?

Yes – learn this and learn it good before you even pick up a pencil to encircle a Scottish advert in the Church Times – there are no Anglican parishes in Scotland. Not one. Zilch. Nada.

Come to Scotland to work and you’ll not be working in a parish. No parish funerals. No parish weddings. No parish schools. Nothing like that at all.

You’ll be working for the people who appoint you and pay you – your congregation. Yes, that’s right, they actually pay you with money that comes from their giving. It isn’t the diocese who pays (though the diocese may appoint a paying officer to gather the money and run a payroll system). It isn’t the province. It isn’t the Queen. It isn’t the Church Commissioners. (Church who?) It is the actual people you will be preaching to on a Sunday who have to dig in their pockets and find your stipend. That’s a fundamentally different situation to that which you’ve experienced before if you’ve worked in English parishes. Make sure you understand what that will feel like. Think of it more like being a chaplain to people who happen to like worshipping this way. People are often rather derogatory when they refer to working in “chaplaincy mode” to keep a congregation going. They forget that chaplaincy models are mission models wherever they are found – just ask a chaplain.

With regards to worship, most but not all of our congregations are liberal catholic to one degree or another. Vestments are usually worn. The sacrament is usually reserved. The liturgy that we use is one that we are rather proud of.

Being a priest in Scotland is about gathering a congregation. It isn’t particularly about offering the ministrations of religion to everyone in your local territory. Someone has that responsibility and it isn’t you. And no matter how important you think ecumenism is, you’ll realise very quickly that you are not running the show.

Talking of ecumenism, ever wondered how it feels if you are not the top dog church? No, you haven’t. Of course you haven’t. You’ve never even thought of the question. But start wondering, particularly if you want to work well with others here.

I happen to love the Scottish Episcopal Church – love it more than is good for me some would say. I think that being a priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church is one of the most rewarding things anyone can be called to do. I also think we’ve got stuff for sharing as we attempt to make Jesus known in the world. Stuff to be shared in Scotland and stuff to be shared beyond Scotland. This is a great part of the vineyard in which to work. However, it is only a good part  of the vineyard in which to work if you’ve really thought through how different it is from where you’re coming from.

Don’t assume you understand anything about moving into ministry if you are coming from England.

By the way, we’re as friendly as we’re feisty. We think the two things go together. Odd, isn’t it?

Now before I sign off, and you go to buy your kilt for your interview, what about the sex bits.

Firstly, if you’ve heard about the Scottish Episcopal Church’s recent decision about opening marriage to same-sex couples and think you can come up here because anything goes – please forget this and see a qualified therapist. The truth is, gay couples in the SEC are going to get the opportunity to be married because generally speaking their relationships look to those around them like a stable sacramental way of life that they already recognise. If you want a life of flighty gay fancy, you are probably looking in the wrong direction by looking north.

However, it is the case that I suspect that there will be people who look at the decision that we’ve made and the way that we’ve made it and think that they would quite like to be part of a church that behaves as we have done.  I don’t think that will be limited to gay folk either. The truth is, we’ve worked hard at that decision and gone about it in as grown up a way as any church I know. There’s plenty of room for clergy who want to live and work in a church like that and who think that there a chance that God is calling them to help congregations in Scotland to grow a bit.

If that’s you, we need you. Not only that, we’ll love you and we’ll welcome you.

It says so on the sign by the door.


PS – We don’t have flying bishops. I hadn’t thought of mentioning this because, well why would anyone ever come up with the idea of flying bishops and think it was a good idea? However a friend contacted me and suggested I make it crystal clear as those coming from the south might wonder.

All our bishops ordain men and women. We don’t have any resolutions suggesting that some priests are not really priests.

In a sane church you wouldn’t, would you?

PPS – for what it is worth, I think that it is a very difficult thing to move successfully into Episcopal ministry (ie being elected bishop) in another province of the Anglican Communion to the one you are working in. It might work but there are plenty of examples of people who just didn’t know what they were letting themselves in for. I’d say that I’ve seen more examples of people trying to do that who have ended up miserable than I would have liked to see. It shouldn’t be surprising that it isn’t an easy transition to make. However, I’ve known several who just didn’t bank on how different it all is. See above.


What is really going on in the Church of England

I was down in London briefly earlier this week and caught something of the flavour of what is going on in the Church of England. It is quite difficult for people to get their heads around and quite a lot of the reporting of what happened has been poor. The Telegraph newspaper, for example trumpeted that the Church of England had voted for gay marriage and suggested that a bishop mistakenly pushing the wrong voting button might be to blame for it all going ahead. In fact, they were not voting about gay marriage and the misplaced episcopal finger didn’t make any difference to the result at all.

To understand what was really going on, you have to realise that the debate and the vote which everyone was talking about was a proxy discussion and a proxy vote for something else. Well no, it isn’t even that simple. What was going on was a number of proxy battles all happening simultaneously and all becoming focused on an apparently innocuous vote on whether to take note or not of a paper that had been written by the Church of England bishops and which they were obviously desperate for the Synod to take note of. Whatever anyone might say, taking note of a paper is a form of endorsement and not taking not of a paper is a form of rejection.

However, the paper itself and its rejection can’t be understood without some understanding of the conflicts and issues that were being argued about through it.

It wasn’t about Liberals vs Conservatives

The first and most important thing to note is that this wasn’t a straightforward split between liberals and conservatives. Most people who are anti-gay were voting for the bishops’ report to be noted by the synod because it seemed to say definitively that same-sex couples couldn’t marry and perhaps will never be able to marry in the Church of England. But not all anti-gay people voted that way. A few of the most anti-gay voices actually voted against the paper because it seemed to them too permissive for the bishops to argue for the “maximum freedom” possible within the current definitions, structures and laws of the Church of England. Similarly, most who want progress on LGBT inclusion were voting not to take note of the report but there were some who voted in favour of taking note of it because they thought the bishops had produced the best they could at the time. Indeed, I suspect that some gay members of the synod may have voted for the paper to be accepted.

The debate itself showed that this isn’t about liberals vs conservatives any more in any case. There were speeches which surprised many from Evangelical and “New Wine” folk within the synod who were in favour of more LGBT inclusion. Once upon a time those voices just wouldn’t have been heard.

This is not about liberals vs conservatives. It is about those who favour more LGBTI inclusion and those who prefer either the status quo or even worse, more discipline being enacted against LGBTI people in the church. These categories cut across other parties in the General Synod of the Church of England. This makes things hard to understand.

It was about Hypocrisy rather than Homosexuality

The presenting issue on Wednesday within the Church of England was a not a sudden outbreak of homosexuality. The presenting issue was that a significant number of people saw the behaviour of bishops in that church as being deeply hypocritical. And hypocrisy is a sin. Indeed, in the brave new world, hypocrisy is a Very Big Sin Indeed.  This recognition of hypocrisy amongst the bishops has led to a serious and significant breakdown of trust within the C of E. People who are normally prepared to buy the line: “Trust us, we’re bishops” were simply not prepared to do so this week.

The truth is, people are not prepared to trust bishops who claim to be in favour of LGBTI inclusion who are prepared to propose and vote for a report that very obviously isn’t. There were no dissenting voices in the Church of England House of Bishops when that report was proposed. Not one. And this is despite the fact that it was very obviously written in language which was offensive to LGBTI people.

We even had the unedifying spectacle of one of the bishops advocating a report which denied the possibility of blessing gay couples saying “God Bless you” to a gay couple on twitter when he realised that they were offended. It was crass and insensitive and clearly insincere as he voted for the paper anyway.

How can you apologise for a paper and still vote for it?

People think that those who say to gay people “We’re really on your side you know” in private, whilst promoting a homophobic discourse and homophobic policies in public, are lying hypocrites. That isn’t pleasant to observe but it  was how very many people that I met in London were describing their bishops. That represents an enormous loss of trust. And the truth is, the bishops had lost that trust long before the vote was taken. Even if the vote had taken note of the report, the bishops would have lost a very great deal along the way. Bishops cannot be effective leaders of mission if people think they are lying hypocrites. That is simply the way things are.  And make no mistake – people did think that and were expressing it very openly and very clearly.

It started to look like Bishops vs The People/The Mob/The Dissenters/The Plebs

The whole situation started to look like a classic revolt of the underlings against their overlords. Indeed, it has continued to be represented in that way by people from other traditions who simply can’t understand a polity in which the clergy can tell their bishops what to do.

For the first time in a long time, I became aware that those advocating for more LGBTI inclusion could scent that it was possible to win arguments and win votes in the General Synod. This is a hugely significant thing to happen and something I warmly welcome.

I spent Tuesday evening at the launch of OneFaithOneBody – a new organisation comprised of Changing Attitude (the English brand of Changing Attitude, for the avoidance of doubt) and the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement. I publicly called last year for such organisations to come together in a united way to fight the anti-gay forces of the church instead of fighting one another. I saw exactly that thing happen before my eyes this week. I don’t particularly warm to the new identity, but I do warm strongly to the united sense of purpose that was very much evident.

We may be seeing the end of Indaba

It is possible that we are seeing the beginning of the end of the pseudo-African extra-synodical processes which have been imposed upon various Anglican Churches over the last few years. The Shared Conversations in England were not something I endorsed. I do praise everyone who speaks generously and kindly with those who have different views from themselves and who learn from the experience. However, the indabaization of church process has seen a series of processes which have excluded some voices, taken decision-making away from synodical bodies and  delayed any progress towards equality. It is inevitable that the Shared Conversation process would run into trouble in England (as elsewhere) eventually because organisations which advocate for the inclusion of LGBTI people were by definition excluded from the design of the processes themselves.

The Shared Conversations in England provided many places where gentle learning took place by good people. However as a process of decision making and discernment, they suddenly look very expensive indeed and a huge mistake. If anyone could have foreseen that spending that amount of money (£300 000) towards something that would result in such a significant loss of trust and authority in Episcopal ministry they would never have got off the ground.

What Kind of Leadership Does the Church Require?

The fundamental question raised in the Anglican Communion is not about gay people – it is about bishops. The question is, what kind of leadership does the church require? And the answer that many people appeared to be giving was “leadership that doesn’t look like this”.

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have written a letter outlining a way forward. There’s a change of tone – the words are all fluffy and inclusive and fine. However, once again they are proposing an extra-synodical process of listening – asking the bishops to meet with their dioceses’ synodical representatives. No LGBTI people have been consulted about this proposal and out LGBTI people will by definition be under-represented in it as they are under-represented within the synod. On the one hand it seems reasonable – on the other it seems as though neither archbishop is capable of conceiving of the issues as anything other than a squabble about those pesky gays that only bishops can solve.

The truth is, those most directly affected in all this are those who can best come up with solutions.

The solution that the C of E came up with in relation to the ordination of bishops who happen to be women was not one I favoured. But no-one ever got near a solution in the years in which organisations like WATCH (Women and the Church) were excluded from coming up with solutions.

The bishops should be queuing up at the doors of OneBodyOneFaith and Inclusive Church (and indeed those organisations opposed to LGBTI inclusion too) and asking them directly how to solve this. Instead, the whole thing is bishop centred still. Bishop-centred solutions will not work and are likely to lead to an even greater loss of trust in episcopal ministry.

Things that would help right now

There are things that bishops in England could do which could help. These include:

  • Learning what homophobia is (see the Crown Prosecution Service definition for starters) and admitting that it exists within the church.
  • Learning that the best people to say when homophobia is present are the people affected by homophobia and not bishops.
  • Asking equality organisations within the church and from outside the church for help.
  • Expressing true collegiality by allowing bishops in favour of LGBTI inclusion to be able to be advocates for it. The truth is, we don’t know how people in synods would vote if there were bishops behaving like articulate, grown up advocates for LGBTI inclusion. It is time we found out.
  • Remembering never to design a process about the pesky gays without the pesky gays being invited to help design it.
  • Learning more about the experience and discourse of Bisexual, Trans and Intersex people who didn’t get much of a look in this week in any conversation.
  • Starting to consider how to offer compensation for people bullied in the church in the past because of their sexuality or partnership status.
  • Declaring that maximum freedom within the current formularies of the Church of England includes reaffirming Article 32 of the 39 Articles and thus allowing civil marriage to clergy in same sex partnerships. Article 32 reads: “Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, are not commanded by God’s Law, either to vow the estate of single life, or to abstain from marriage: therefore it is lawful for them, as for all other Christian men, to marry at their own discretion, as they shall judge the same to serve better to godliness.”