The established church, north and south of the border (1)

Before I start, in case anyone didn’t read Malachi’s comment last week, inspired equally by modern politics and by our church’s sermon series on Daniel, here it is:

“If you want a challenge you could perhaps try interpreting the dreams of Nebuchadnezzer’s political descendants. I believe the EU leaders had a dream of Europa with all her 28 or more children playing happily and harmoniously around the cornucopia at her feet. By contrast some British leaders had a dream of a newly invigorated Brittania, refreshed after a long slumber, with a brightly burnished shield and sharpened trident standing at the side of a moat and stabbing at a crowd of frogs, toads, snakes and other slippery serpents who were trying to invade her green and prosperous land. Which, if either, of the dreams was inspired by God and what happens next in the two dreams?”

Ahem. Between the years of 1978 and 1997 (discounting time away at university) I was a member of the Church of Scotland, sometimes called the Kirk. From 1997 on, as a result of the move from Aberdeen to Nottingham, I have been a member of the Church of England. I thought it would be interesting to compare the two.

Both the C of E and the C of S are established churches, with status. The Queen is the Head (under Jesus) of the C of E, but when she’s in Scotland she’s a member of the Kirk. Both therefore have traditionally had a large nominal membership, a parish system, and a great variety of churchmanship, eg more or less evangelical or liberal, liturgical or relaxed; although there is no Scottish equivalent of Anglo-Catholicism.

Both have less than totally edifying histories. Most British people know roughly how the C of E was set up – to enable Henry VIII to ignore the Pope on the issue of divorce, wasn’t it? The Kirk had numerous splits over the issue of patronage (who appoints the minister?) in the 18th century, giving rise to several very similar denominations, called things like the Wee Frees (Free Presbyterian), mostly in the west.

Both are experiencing trauma through the issue of same-sex marriage and clergy.

(Several Church of Scotland congregations have effectively and dramatically split over this issue, or indeed defected from the church almost en masse. I note with sorrow that one of these is Gilcomston South in Aberdeen. I never attended this church, although large numbers of students did. It was famous for the long-serving then minister’s line-by-line Bible-expository sermons, which regularly lasted two hours, and which were packed out.)

The Church of England is the mother of the Anglican Communion, basically because it is England’s unique Tudor response to the Reformation, and all other Anglican/Episcopalian churches grew from it via Empire and mission societies. Anglicanism has a prayer book and bishops, and in practice can be almost like Roman Catholicism… but usually is not.

The Church of Scotland is Presbyterian. At this point I stopped to look up “presbyter”, and Wikipedia let me down. Each church has a Kirk Session, composed of the minister (= vicar) and elders; each town has a presbytery, composed of representatives from the churches, and the whole church is governed by the General Assembly. This meets annually and is headed by a Moderator, appointed for one year only. Elders are regarded as ordained (in theory for life), and they have a sacramental and pastoral role, as well as sharing leadership. When a church needs a new minister, its congregation elects a Vacancy Committee, which basically advertises and interviews, and presents a desired candidate to a) the church and b) the local presbytery for approval.

We were astonished, when we came south, to discover that vicars are appointed by outsiders, albeit with consultation, and sometimes even by a “patron”.

Church governance is one of the main differences, then; although of course a Kirk Session meeting and a PCC one have a lot in common; as does the new-fangled concept of General Synod with the older General Assembly in Edinburgh. Other major differences surround communion and leadership.

A Church of England church in theory celebrates Holy Communion weekly, with a choice of eight specific Eucharistic prayers and responses. The elements of bread and wine are distributed by the vicar or other ordained person, with assistants, individually to communicants who come forward in turn and kneel. I assume this is fairly familiar also to those of a Roman Catholic background.

Warning:  some of what follows may now be out of date. Traditionally, in the Church of Scotland, communion is celebrated three or four times a year. Each “member” of the Church is supposed to be visited by “their” elder beforehand to deliver a card authorising/inviting them to receive communion. This may have been part of a system of church discipline in the past; now of course the visit is for pastoral care. It doesn’t of course mean that visitors are turned away from the service (nor that you’re turned away if you forget your card.) The bread and wine are blessed and taken by elders to each row of the congregation, who then pass the elements to each other, to enact being members of the same body. The wine, always non-alcoholic, is usually in tiny cups, and many pews are designed with holes to put the cups in after drinking. I assume this is fairly familiar also to those of other Reformed denominations.

Without going into the more complicated theological elements of the Eucharist, it is obvious that these two methods of sharing the body and blood demonstrate very different approaches. I admire both, and have developed a great love for the Anglican communion liturgy. But the emphasis is different.

One of these differences reflects the role of the ordained person in charge. Although traditionally someone greatly respected, the minister of the Kirk is not considered to be set apart as completely as an Anglican priest, nor does he/she represent Christ in the same way that “high” Anglicans regard as proper. This is doubtless a major reason why there were women in the ordained ministry so much earlier in Scotland (1969, as opposed to 1994. Women are of course also elders.)

The relative infrequency of communion in Scotland is meant to emphasise its solemnity. It also means that Presbyterians have to do other things in their services, and this has traditionally meant a very great emphasis on the Bible and on preaching. This is seen architecturally – most Anglican churches that I have seen look towards the high table or altar, on which the bread and wine are placed. The pulpit is to the side. Churches of Scotland churches have the pulpit in the middle, and in my home church in St Andrews, there was a substantial spiral staircase leading to it. The minister would have been standing at least eight feet above floor level. The communion table was central,  but on the floor. Frequently the Bible is carried in formally at the start of the service, and all rise.

That’s enough for today. I expect to revert to the topic, to discuss some of the less weighty differences, for example in music.

Love from the PPI Blogger

1 Comment
  • Judith Leader

    16th February 2019 at 5:21 pm Reply

    I think I am right in saying that Henry VIII wanted a male heir and that is why he fell out with the Pope (would you like not to have the choice but belong to Rome).
    I find your problem one that affects people who go to the established Church, whereas it isn’t a problem for me as by choice I am a nonconformist and am not that bothered about church politics as long as it doesn’t lead to something against my conscience. I still worry about what our Vicar said about homosexuals, but that can happen in any church as prejudice is something that is active in all churches, sadly. When our vicar decided either unilaterally or in consultation to have communion every Sunday at 09.00 I was sad as I didn’t mind going to the odd service, but it meant I just stuck to the later service.

    These things don’t really bother me, perhaps that is more an indictment on me, or perhaps I have seen too much. Oh I do get the connection between Brexit and said Henry and the Pope or at least I think I do.

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