The Columba Declaration

I have spent the afternoon watching the debate in the General Synod of the Church of England, on the Columba Declaration between the Church of England and the Church of Scotland.

Those of us in the Scottish Episcopal Church have had concerns about the Columba Declaration ever since we were blindsided by its being reported in the media at the end of last year, and we have not been particularly reassured by reading the report in full. My general experience of the Scottish Episcopal Church is that we are not of one mind, we are not obliged to speak with one voice, and we consider one of our greatest strengths to lie in our respectful diversity of opinion and of action. And so it is not a matter of agreeing for agreeing’s sake that leads us on this subject to be absolutely united in our concerns about this agreement and our feeling that those concerns are well founded.

When the initial report of this agreement was released on Christmas Eve it was done in a manner that Synod have now acknowledged was “cack-handed”. It was disrespectful and has caused a great deal of hurt and anger in the Scottish Episcopal Church. Those communication errors have been profusely apologised for in this afternoon’s debate (although I note that it didn’t stop people continuing to get our name wrong while standing in front of microphones), but Justin Welby has missed the point completely if he thinks that our concerns are about style and not substance.

The Columba Declaration is being sold as a triumph of ecumenism between two churches that ought to develop a special relationship because of their identity as “national churches” within regions of the United Kingdom. The lightest scratch of the surface reveals that it is really about mission and ministry, and really mostly about the Church of England grievously overstepping its authority in a sister province of the Anglican Communion.

In the full text of the commitments within the agreement, it states that the Churches of England and Scotland will:

  1. contine to pray for and with one another;
  2. welcome one another’s members to each other’s worship as guests and receive one another’s members into the congregational life of each other’s churches where that is their desire;
  3. explore opportunities for congregational partnership, formal as well as informal, in those cases where there are churches in close geographical proximity;
  4. enable ordained ministers from one of our churches to exercise ministry in the other church, in accordance with the discipline of each church;
  5. identify theological issues that arise from growth towards fuller communion and be prepared to allocate resources to addressing them;
  6. 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 in addressing them.

Peter Forster, Bishop of Chester, who was the co-chair of the Joint Study Group which proposed the Declaration, said in the Daily Telegraph that it was “catching up with the Queen”. I think that probably is its true intent, but I’m not sure he realises how discourteous that intent is — even after being told so in no uncertain terms by Mark Russell and Andrew Foreshew-Cain during debate today. Frankly, this is a border invasion by the Church of England into a realm where it has no jurisdiction.

The declaration is named for St Columba, the fourth century Irish missionary who brought Christianity to the pagan Scots. I am uncomfortable with that parallel.

I feel that this is a step in the Church of England trying to make the Scottish Episcopal Church substantively irrelevant to the Anglican Communion.

And doesn’t that sound sinister?

I was disappointed that the Synod approved the Columba Declaration, rejecting an amendment put forward that would have given all three Churches affected time for reflection and discussion before bringing it back to Synod. I note with gladness that the mood of the Synod was split and that the vote was by no means the overwhelming approval that had been called for. I believe there is a conversation to be had now by the Scottish Episcopal Church about what this means for our relationship with our sister province in England.

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