There May Be Troubles Ahead

By Rosie, George | New Statesman (1996), April 24, 2000 | Go to article overview

There May Be Troubles Ahead


Rosie, George, New Statesman (1996)


A report calling for Anglican bishops to be installed in the Church of Scotland has been well received. But the opposition is already mustering.

To most Britons, an Anglican bishop is not usually seen as a subversive figure. To a public conditioned by the Cathedral Close fables of Anthony Trollope or those figures of ecclesiastical fun from All Gas cmd Gaiters, bishops are odd, but essentially harmless. They are to be ranked with over-enthusiastic vegetarians, dedicated topiarists or zealous croquet-players. Mildly interesting, perhaps, but of little real importance. The kind of old buffer whose hand you are happy to shake at the Saint Troliop's garden fete in the hope that his pieties don't keep you from the beer tent.

Not so in Scotland. In Scotland, the word "bishop" conjures up something very different. Even now, more than 300 years after the event, it conjures up the "killing times" of the 1680s, when the late Stuarts -- that crew of arrogant stumblebums -- did their best to ram Anglicanism down the throats of Presbyterians by foisting bishops into the organisation of the Church of Scotland. In the process, they tortured and hanged dozens, maybe hundreds, of ministers, elders and their families. Ever since, "bishop" has been anathema to Scottish Presbyterians.

This is why next month's General Assembly of the Church of Scotland promises to be one of the most interesting for many years. At this event, it will consider a report by an inter-church organisation called the Scottish Church Initiative For Union (SCIFU) which recommends that the Church of Scotland should form a union with the Scottish Episcopal Church and the United Reformed Church. And the price of that union would be that Episcopalian (ie, Anglican) bishops would be installed in the government of the Church of Scotland. This is all to be achieved within a decade. Some interesting debates are expected when the ministers and elders assemble at the top of the Mound. Whether SCIFU will manage to do what James VII and II failed to do remains to be seen. At the moment, it seems highly unlikely, although the SCIFU report has been remarkably well received by the Scottish press. Hardly a media voice has been raised in protest. The Scotsman, that noticeboard of the Edinburgh establishment, opined : "Ten years may n ot be long enough to reconcile 700,000 church members to losing their particular traditions and identities. But the aim is a fine one, and the support from scripture is strong." The Evening News, its sister paper, was just as enthusiastic.

But the support of scripture and the Scottish press might not be enough. Installing bishops into the Scottish Church is certain to be a long and very painful business even in these agnostic days. There will be constitutional problems too. TheAct of Union of 1707 will see to that. The Church of Scotland may not be built into the constitutional bricks in the way that the Church of England is (with the British monarch as its head and with 26 bishops in the House of Lords), but the Kirk is "by Law established".

And, according to Article XXV of the Act of Union: "Presbyterian Church Government and Discipline. Shall be the only Government of the Church within the Kingdom of Scotland." Not only that, but the act binds all British monarchs to "inviolably maintain and preserve the True Protestant Religion" (ie, Presbyterianism). This is as prescriptive as it can get. Oddly, the SCIFU report sees no problem. It blithely states, as if that would solve the problem: "The relationship between the united Church and the state would be set out in the Act of Union." But the Reverend Sheila Kesting, who is SCIFU's secretary, accepts there are constitutional sensitivities. She says that the plan's opponents may well reach for the Act of Union as a blocking strategy. And the ecumenicals may find that, in these devolutionary days, the British government might be very reluctant to tamper with the Act of Union.

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