Project Canterbury

The “Kirking” of Bishops?

By Eric Graham.

Edinburgh: Representative Church Council Offices, 1957.


The Report on Relations between Anglican and Presbyterian Churches is a historic document, whose repercussions will be felt throughout the world, for it is concerned with issues which affect Anglicans and Presbyterians wherever those polities are found. Its reception has been partly favourable and partly the reverse, and the correspondence in the newspapers has certainly not been helpful. On the side of the Scottish Episcopal Church there has been a wise reticence; but the time has now come for some degree of publicity. [The Report on Relations between Anglican and Presbyterian Churches is obtainable from S.P.C.K. Bookshop, 7 Drumsheugh Place, Edinburgh, 3, price 3/6, plus postage. The Scottish Bishops have commended the Report for study throughout the Church by clergy and laity alike.]

The Bishop of Brechin was the, senior delegate from our Church and he devoted his Synod charge recently to an exposition of the Report. It has seemed good to publish the charge as it stands, for in it we get a statement Christian in spirit, hopeful and thankful in tone, and clear in expression.

I hope that this booklet will be widely read by our people, and by many in the Church of Scotland also. A careful reading of it will make clear what at this point are the real issues, and what the Report really says. Then after reading it our people should go on to make an equally careful study of the Report itself, if they have not already done so. They will then see, what has been widely ignored [3/4] so far, that the Report does not set out a scheme for a reunited Church, but a largely new approach to a difficult problem, to which ultimately further examination must be devoted before any definite action can be taken. Above all I hope that the reading of the Bishop’s charge will lead—as he would wish above all things—to greatly increased prayer for unity: prayer informed and deepened.

Our Lord taught us to pray “Thy will be done.” Nowhere is submission to the will of God more necessary than in this matter of unity, if any progress is to be made.

+ Thomas Argyll & The Isles: Primus.
August, 1957.

The “Kirking” of Bishops?

It is twenty-five years now since the first formal Conference between the Church of England and Church of Scotland was inaugurated. That Conference came to a sudden and untimely end in 1934. Happily, some useful work had been done before the guillotine fell; it is summarised in an Appendix to the present Report, and falls under two main headings: “Things believed in common,” and “Things that might be undertaken in common.” Still more important was the actual contact between Anglican and Presbyterian theologians, which encouraged personal friendships and a more sympathetic understanding of each other’s position.

It was the personal initiative of the present Archbishop of Canterbury which led to the next series of Conferences, from 1949 to 1951. This meant that there was an element of informality about them, though the Presbyterian representatives were appointed by the General Assembly, and reported back to it; and in England the proposals which had been made were brought before the two Convocations. So, though the Anglican team had been chosen by the Archbishop personally, the whole business became more formal as time went on. Both at these Conferences and at the earlier series some loosely attached delegates were present [5/6] from the Episcopal Church in Scotland and from the Presbyterian Church of England, two from each; they were called “Observers,” possibly because they were allowed to make observations. They were also allowed to sign the Report, but they had no vote, and were definitely not full members of the Conference.

The Report issued in 1951 is within the memory of us all, and does not require any examination here. Some of the concessions made from the Anglican side came in for a good deal of discussion at the time; and some doubtful points which had met with legitimate criticism were cleared up in the subsequent Convocation debates. The net result was the application of a small quantity of blameless lubricant to Anglo-Presbyterian relations. But one outstandingly important decision was taken at the beginning of these Conversations: it was that there should be a further series dealing with long-term policy and including fundamental theological issues, and specifically the question of the Ministry, unimpeded by pride, however proper, or by prejudice. Reunion discussions which fail to go right down to the foundations and are concerned only with papering over the most obvious cracks in the superstructure are a waste of time. Unity belongs to the very nature of the Church, it is not merely a desirable addition. So a worthwhile search after the possibilities of reunion must include a radical theological examination of these fundamental things.

On this understanding the most recent series of [6/7] Conversations was launched. And the importance of the task was emphasised in two ways. First, the Archbishop’s action was now prompted by the express request of the Convocations; and secondly, the delegates from the two smaller Communions were promoted to full membership of the Conference, and increased in number. This may seem a minor point, and in one sense it certainly its importance lies in its witness to the principle that the discussion was not to be merely between two Establishments, but between two theological positions. And the stress on “Establishment” can be so easily, and has been so often, overdone that this reminder was very valuable. Perhaps it was especially welcome to Scottish Episcopalians, as we have been made very conscious from time to time—mainly perhaps through incursions of Church of England preachers into non-Anglican pulpits in Scotland—what a small and inconsiderable body we are. The Convocation resolutions in 1951 have done much to effect an improvement here; and what is far more important, the whole attitude of the Presbyterian members of the late Conference has been splendidly sympathetic and friendly to us throughout; even when we had to dig our heels in and be obstinate, or unpleasantly candid.

The Report summarises the aims of the long-term policy as visualised in 1949 in the following paragraph:—

“The long-term policy would have as its presupposition the conviction that our Lord’s will for [7/8] His Church is full unity, and that such unity must involve in the end not only agreement as to the truth in Christ, but also a ministry or ministries universally recognised, freedom to interchange ministries, and fullness of sacramental union throughout Christendom. Those taking part in the discussions, therefore, would suggest that provision be made for further conferences between the Churches, as opportunity may offer, with a view to studying together freely and without any restrictions the kind of modifications in the two Church systems which, in the context of the hoped for reintegration of Christendom, might be regarded as likely in the long run to be requisite.”

This was the programme before the Conference. The Report indicates four preliminary and “largely tacit” agreements which were accepted by all the delegations from the outset.

1. “Unity is not a contingent [Incidental, non-essential] feature of the Church’s life, but is of the essence of it. One God, one People of God; one Christ, one Body of Christ; one Holy Spirit, one Fellowship of the Spirit—such is the incontrovertible logic of the New Testament teaching.” It is therefore impossible to regard the striving for reunion as a merely optional pursuit for those who have a taste for the luxuries of ecumenical debate; loyalty to the revealed will of God absolutely requires that all Christians should be gravely and constantly concerned with this quest.

2. Though sheer obedience to the will of God [8/9] is the primary motive for seeking reunion, we must also take note of the practical consequences of the existing disunity. Quite apart from the obvious wastage of resources and effort which it involves, there is the plain and challenging fact that a divided Christendom cannot bear cogent witness to the divine grace of reconciliation; the reconciliation of man to God, and of man to man in Christ. It is especially in the mission field, and among the younger Churches, that this contradiction between preaching and practice is most evidently damaging.

3. The third agreement partly arises from, and may certainly be illustrated by the findings of the third World Conference on Faith and Order; especially in the chapter entitled “Christ and His Church.” That chapter ends with the following words:—“In our work we have been led to the conviction that it is of decisive importance for the advance of ecumenical work that the doctrine of the Church be treated in close relation to the doctrine of Christ and to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.” Underlying this statement is the sound and gratifying recognition that the Church is of divine origin, from heaven and not from man, and that it has an essential place in the Christian creed and the Christian Gospel.

4. Though members of the Conference were by no means of one mind in their views of the experiment in S. India, all of them were impressed by one principle which has been manifested here, viz.: “That the restoration of unity involves a process whereby each of the uniting bodies shares [9/10] with the others the best gifts it has received along its historic line of tradition, and is willing to take the like from others. The S. India demonstration that this kind of unity between Episcopalian and Presbyterian is a practical possibility, and not merely a dream of theorists, formed part of the background of the Conversations.”

With these four agreements in mind, the Conference became aware at an early stage that the hope of genuine progress required first what the Report calls “the basic presupposition,” and secondly a “working assumption.” The basic presupposition has already been mentioned: it is that “our Lord’s will for His Church is full unity”; the “working assumption” was that modifications in the two Church systems—Episcopalian and Presbyterian—were likely to prove necessary. The nature of the modifications actually proposed must be considered in a moment; it is enough to say here that when two historic Communions have been separated from each other for centuries, it is impossible to join them together in a living unity without some modification. The method of unilateral surrender by the one Communion or the other might seem on paper to be more satisfactory: but it is wholly unrealistic. Moreover all honest approach to reunion must be made with humility; and, if we are humble, we are bound to recognise a number of sins and failings in our own past history, and that there is likely to be much which may be profitably learned from other Communions. We need also a positive and constructive outlook; [10/11] unity should mean not the throwing away of everything which militates against a bare uniformity, but the fullest possible contribution from both sides to the common stock. Another mistake which needs to be avoided at this stage is the dwelling overmuch on past grievances and injustices. This is a special temptation to the Episcopal Church in Scotland, which was reduced from, its Established position in 1688, by military violence; to the condition described by Sir Walter Scott in the familiar phrase, “the shadow of a shade.” But it has been wisely remarked that what we need to-day is “a purged memory and after all it is not the contemporary Church of Scotland which is responsible for our past disasters—though perhaps we have some reason for thinking that purged history books are also desirable.

In any case the Conference definitely set itself to avoid recrimination in connection with the “old unhappy far-off things and. rather to seek from the past such evidence as it provides in plenty of the blessing of God on the fife and services of the Communions concerned; and therefore of the contribution available from each of them to the Reunited Church which is to include them both; The Report states the issue in the following words:—

“The New Testament teaching about the nature of the Church being what it is; the Episcopalian and Presbyterian ‘churches’ being what, in the course of history, they have come to be, neither of them claiming in its separatedness to exhibit the [11/12] whole truth and wealth of the one Church of Christ, yet each claiming to possess gifts from the Head of the Church which it cannot in conscience deny or resign, and each being as desirous of respecting the conscience of the other,—as it is bound to obey its own—this being the historic situation,  are there conceivable modifications and mutual adaptations of the two Church systems whereby they may be reconciled in such a plenitude of faith and order as will ensure the fulness of their traditions?”

The main body of the Report contains the answer to this question which the Conference was led to discern in the course of its deliberations. It is a drastic and rather startling answer; and the Report is wise in stressing the point that a long period of time should be allowed to elapse before an official judgment is formulated by the ecclesiastical authorities concerned. It is worth notice, in passing, that the unanimity with which the Report was signed was largely due to this cautious approach. What the signatories are urging is not that the proposals contained in the Report should be implemented forthwith; but that they are such as to deserve the most careful consideration by the authorities aforesaid, and indeed by the rank and file of Anglicans and Presbyterians. If after this long period of deliberation the proposals commend themselves to the two Communions, then it is suggested that a solemn resolve to achieve reconciliation and unity might be taken, accompanied or followed by decisive action to that end. It is rather [12/13] unfortunate that the Report at this point remarks that such a procedure would place the whole question of inter-communion in a new light. That is a question which may be expected to settle itself if the proposals of the Report go forward; but meantime Presbyterians tend to regard intercommunion as a step towards unity, while most Episcopalians regard it as the consummation of a unity already achieved, and would deprecate it in any other context.

The Report goes on to notice certain theological considerations with regard to the Church and the Ministry which commanded general agreement among the members of the Conference. For our present purpose two of them are especially worthy of note. The first may be stated in the actual words of the Report:—“The whole Church as the Body of Christ participates in His threefold ministry as Prophet, Priest, and King. . . . It is rightly described as Apostolic, not only in its faith, doctrine and mission, but also in its order.” The second consideration is that among the functions of the ordained Ministry is that of exercising episcope in the Church; i.e., oversight. Anglicans have sometimes thought, and perhaps not without reason, that in Presbyterian eyes the work of a bishop is purely administrative. It is therefore all the more gratifying to observe that this episcopé is recognised as including five aspects:—

1. Apostolic mission and authority;
2. The pastoral office;
3. The continuance of the Ministry of Word and Sacraments through Ordination;
4. Guardianship of faith and exclusion of error;
5. Representation of the Church in its unity and universality.

In its comments on these five aspects, the Report has a striking paragraph on the principle of ministerial succession:—“It follows that the continuity of ministerial succession is one element in the unity of the Church through time. The orderly transmission of ministerial responsibility and authority from one generation to the next duly attests, in reliance upon the promised power and guidance of the Holy Spirit, the transmission of the Apostolic Faith according to Holy Scripture, of sound doctrine so based, together with the continuity of worship, mission and corporate obedience in the life of the Church.”

Unfortunately breaches in Christian unity have been apt to involve breaches in orderly ministerial succession, for a variety of reasons which are fairly familiar. The healing of schism therefore requires the healing of those breaches in the succession; and the Report urges that the way to this lies, at least in part, in “the reconciliation of diverse forms of stewardship, each party sharing with the other the authority held by itself.” There is nothing novel in this suggestion; but the Report takes us a good deal further. It states the Anglican and Presbyterian views of episcopé quite candidly, and draws attention to the divergence [14/15] between them. “From the Anglican side it was clear that full inter-communion and unity could not be realised apart from Episcopacy. From the Presbyterian side it was clear that full intercommunion and unity required a movement of mutual adaptation including full recognition of the corporate nature of the Ministry and of the exercise of episcope in the parish ministry of Word and Sacrament.” The Report goes on to elaborate this divergence. “In the Presbyterian Churches, the Ministers of the Word and Sacrament exercise a corporate episcopate, collectively through the Presbytery, along with the lay elders associated with them. Episcope is thus exercised partly through Presbytery, and partly by the minister himself in his own pastoral charge, assisted in certain functions by the elders and under the jurisdiction of Presbytery. Ordination is by the Presbytery by prayer and imposition of hands ‘by those preaching presbyters to whom it doth belong.’ . . . The Presbytery, subordinate to the Synod and the General Assembly, exercises authority in worship, doctrine, and discipline; as a sacral court, it carefully preserves continuity of ordination and jurisdiction, within the context of the sacramental and corporate life of the whole Church. Presbytery. Synod and General Assembly represent the Church Universal to the local congregation.”

“In the Anglican Churches,” the Report continues, “there is the distinctive office of the Bishop. The essence of this lies in the coalescence of certain [15/16] functions in a single person. These functions are: to be the chief minister of the Word and Sacraments: to be the proper minister of the ordination of men to the Ministry of the Word and Sacraments; to be the chief pastor of clergy and laity alike; to represent the whole Church to the diocese and the diocese to the whole Church; to have authority in matters of doctrine—vested in the collective Episcopate, but exercised in connection with the Church as a whole. These functions together make up the office of a Bishop, as Father-in-God, with succession in his see and succession of consecration, within the continuity of the body of the whole Church.”

A saying which has been reported as current in Eastern Orthodoxy is: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death, and the last but one is the Pope.” And if for “Pope” we substitute “Bishops,” we shall be expressing an attitude which has sometimes been influential among Presbyterians. The disgraceful history of the immediately pre-Reformation Church in Scotland does much to excuse and explain that attitude. And there was a strong suspicion in the minds of many Anglican participants in the recent Conversations that when we came to consider the crucial question of Episcopacy, there would be a head-on collision between the Presbyterian delegates and ourselves. Each of the four delegations had been asked to submit a plain statement, for general discussion: (a) of what we should be obliged to ask of the other Communions concerned as [16/17] essential to any genuine reunion; and (b) of what we should be prepared to accept from the other Communions as an enrichment of our own tradition. We who were speaking for the Scottish Episcopal Church drew up our statement with rather gloomy forebodings, as it was rigidly Episcopalian and governed by the first Canon of our Church. But the head-on collision did not occur. On the contrary, we found on the Presbyterian side a quite unexpected willingness to consider the functions of a Bishop, as they are recognised by the Anglican Communion, so long as the office was duly integrated with the Presbytery and the whole Church. And of course we Anglicans were entirely ready to emphasise the point that the Bishop’s office is rightly exercised only within the context of the corporate life of the whole Church; what we had to insist on was not the prelacy which has done so much damage in the past, but a constitutional episcopacy. The position now reached in the Conversations was that the Presbyterians were willing to accept the “historic episcopate.” if Anglicans in their turn would accept a larger measure of what was termed “corporate episcopacy.” At the same time emphasis was laid on the principle that this was to be no mere bargain on the political level, but a conformity to the spiritual and doctrinal requirements in order and practice involved in “fuller participation in the true wholeness of the one Church of Christ.” What is sought for is not an absolute uniformity of life and worship, nor the [17/18] establishment of one single “Church of Great Britain but “a fulness of sacramental Communion” between a renewed Church of England and a renewed Church of Scotland, “involving fully authorised, interchange of communicants and mutual recognition of ministries.”

So far as polity is concerned, the Report mentions these modifications as most likely to be required in the interest of unity:—“(a) On the Presbyterian side, the adoption of a form of Episcopacy, acceptable to the Churches concerned, and (b) on the Episcopalian side, the development of a form of order in which the ministry of the laity would be closely linked together in the decisions concerned with the government and doctrine of the Church.” The actual changes under these two heads which commended themselves to the whole Conference were as follows:—

(a) Bishops, chosen by each Presbytery, from its own membership or outside it would initially be consecrated by prayer with the laying on of hands by Bishops from one or more of the Episcopal Churches and by the Presbytery acting' through appointed representatives. Thus consecrated each Bishop would be within the Apostolic succession. . . . He would be the President of the Presbytery, and would act as its principal minister in every ordination, and in the consecration of other Bishops. He would exercise partial oversight over his fellow-ministers in the Presbytery, and act as its spokesman to the community. . . . Some modifications in the number and size of [18/19] Presbyteries would be necessary, so that each would be large enough to give the Bishop an adequate sphere, and small enough for him not to be overburdened in his spiritual and pastoral functions.

The Presbytery would still retain its full and essential place in the life and government of the Church, except that the annually changing Moderator would be superseded by a permanent Bishop-in-Presbytery. The General Assembly would retain its full existing authority in doctrine, administration, legislation, and judicature. Bishops would be members of the General Assembly, without constituting an upper house within it, though decisions on doctrinal and constitutional matters might well have to require their consent.

(A difference of opinion showed itself in connection with Confirmation, the Presbyterian preference being for its retention in the hands of each parish minister, while the Anglican members of the Conference, regarding Confirmation as a pastoral link between the Bishop and the lay members of his flock, hoped that Episcopal Confirmation might come to be widely, and in the end, generally used. A half-way suggestion was that the Bishop and the parish minister might share the rite.)

In the event of the Church of Scotland adopting Episcopacy in the form which has been sketched, adjustment between its Episcopate and that of the Episcopal Church in Scotland would form an important part of a religious reconciliation between these Churches, and would go a long way towards the point of actual union. The same would apply [19/20] to the relationship between the Church of England and the Presbyterian Church of England.

(b) The changes in the Anglican Churches which the whole Conference deemed appropriate were mainly concerned with the fuller association of the laity in the government of the Church, at all levels: parochial, diocesan, provincial and national. It was suggested that the function of the existing Diocesan Conferences might be assimilated more closely to those of a Diocesan Synod. In England, while the Bishops would retain their existing authority and place as an Upper House within each of the Convocations, steps would be taken to associate a House of Laymen with each Convocation; to procure, a wider and more effective lay representation in the Church Assembly; and to revise the relationship between the Convocation and the Church Assembly viewed as a National Synod. Perhaps the most interesting suggestion of all, and one thoroughly acceptable, was that some office akin to the Presbyterian eldership should be inaugurated in the Anglican Communion.

There were further Presbyterian comments on these proposals: chiefly that Presbyterians would like to be sure that the laity and the presbyterate were fully linked with the Bishop in the doctrinal and spiritual decisions of the Church; and that the Church had such independence in spiritual things as, for example, to be able to reform its liturgy, or to have its Bishops appointed on the recommendation of the Church, including lay representation. The desire was also expressed that Anglicans [20/21] should lay greater stress on the parochial incumbent’s prophetic office of preaching the Word, which is vital to the discharge of his pastoral office. And since the Bishop’s office is essentially pastoral, it was urged that large sees in England should be divided into units small enough to be “adequately pastored by a single Bishop.”

Over and above these definite suggestions, the whole Conference recognised that all sorts of other modifications were likely to seem desirable as the Churches grew in spiritual fellowship together, and in understanding of one another’s discipline and ethos. “It is in the nature of Christian truth,” the Report remarks, “that deeper understanding can only follow upon faithful obedience.” We may add that where spiritual things are concerned there can be no ready-made unity. S. Paul speaks of the Church as a living and growing temple; at once a building and a plant. A building, because the foundations and the ground plan are fixed; a plant because it is to increase with “the increase of God,” as the Holy Spirit guides us into all the truth.

Acceptance of the Report, as has already been noticed, does not commit us to any cut and dried scheme of reunion, but only to a careful consideration of certain suggested approaches to it—approaches far more hopeful than any which have been set before us hitherto. But many problems will have to be faced which could not be dealt with adequately, if at all, in the course of the “Conversations.” For instance, nothing was said about [21/22] Priesthood, though it may well be maintained that the division between Anglicans and Presbyterians is deeper at this point than it is on the question of Episcopacy; and there are bound to be formidable difficulties in the essential process of “unifying” the Ministry. Again, is there to be a minimum fixed form for universal use at the Eucharist? And in Baptism? And even if general agreement is reached on the recommendation that there should be “Bishops in Presbytery,” it will be a very delicate and exacting task to ensure that such bishops shall really be bishops, with no diplomatic watering down of their essential rights and duties out of deference to popular prejudice or even in order to facilitate reunion. No one, fortunately, desires prelacy, but Anglicans and Presbyterians alike must contribute to the common life of the Church that is to be the very best gifts that they are able to offer without diminution. So there are many problems ahead, and it would be foolish to ignore the fact. But the fact itself is a call to prayer and to a fuller reliance on the guidance of the Holy Spirit. “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God and when “a great door and effectual is opened,” there are apt to be “many adversaries.”

The final section of the Report is entitled “The Goal and the First Steps.” The Goal is not merely full inter-communion, but a holy fellowship in faith and life which will exhibit more fully the Catholicity proper to the One Church of Christ.

It is proposed that no immediate action or [22/23] decision should be taken by any of the Communions concerned except by commending the Report to the careful study of its members. Then later on, after such study, the four Communions, if they all agree, should make together a solemn resolve to seek reconciliation and unity with one another. Various factors are mentioned which should help to provide the right atmosphere for this period of study; the first and most important being the growing volume of prayer for the reunion of Christendom. Others are the growth in knowledge and understanding of one another’s traditions, and of the issues which divide us; interchange of visits from teachers and students among the various theological colleges, and conferences attended by priests and Presbyterian ministers, and lay members from either Communion.

“Still further,” the Report continues, “we consider that the authorities of each of the four Churches should:

1. Simultaneously call upon their members and ministers to pray and work for reconciliation and unity;

2. Appoint a given Sunday in each year as a special Day of Prayer, and of instruction in the issues involved.”

Two actions, finally, from the Episcopal side are recommended, if the solemn resolve has been made:

1. That sanction should be given to the extension of invitations to Presbyterian ministers to preach [23/24] in our pulpits, and to the acceptance by Anglicans of invitations to preach in Presbyterian pulpits.

2. That sanction should be given to the admission, on an occasional basis and subject to the consent of the Bishop, of communicant members of the Presbyterian Churches to Holy Communion in Anglican Churches.

With regard to what the Report calls “the major practical steps” taken to implement the solemn resolve, it is reasonably laid down that the necessary modifications should be introduced simultaneously into each of the two polities. And it is finally stated that “Comparisons between the cost involved for the one Church or the other will disappear if each will receive from God the spirit of humility and urgency in doing His will.” Humility, because we all have so much to learn, and because lack of humility has been more responsible than any other one cause for the breaches in Christian unity; and urgency, because all who call themselves by the name of Christ are bound to do all that is in their power for the accomplishment of His will.

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