By John Ellis
It was easy to feel at home on a return visit to the Church of Scotland Assembly in Edinburgh, accompanied by my Chaplain Nigel Uden. We experienced generous hospitality, warm welcomes and renewed friendships. Much of the Assembly business was also strikingly familiar, whether the subject was a marked downward trend in the number of ministers, how to respond to climate change or the challenge of balancing the central budget.
Historically and visually, a key difference is that the United Reformed Church does not see itself as “the national Church”. Seated above the Moderator as he presided in Edinburgh, there was often the Lord High Commissioner, present as the Queen’s personal representative, supported by the Dean of the Chapel Royal. When His Grace was not present in the Assembly Hall, he was visiting Church of Scotland projects around the country, accompanied by his wife, his Chaplain, the Pursebearer, two ladies-in-waiting and three military ADCs.
Being the national Church became a key point in discussion about the Columba Declaration, an agreement between the Anglican Church of England and the Presbyterian Church of Scotland which the Assembly was asked to endorse. The argument for excluding the Anglican Scottish Episcopal Church and the United Reformed Church from this was that only the Churches of Scotland and England shared the characteristic of being national Churches. Some people found this easier to accept than others but after a public apology to the Scottish Episcopal Church from a guest of the Lord High Commissioner, who happens also to be the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Assembly accepted the Declaration with acclaim.
The URC reps were assured publically and privately that this renewed enthusiasm for working with the CofE would not diminish the Church of Scotland’s commitment to working with the URC, eg through their membership of the Joint Public Issues Team.
Nonetheless it seems a sad feature of the English ecumenical landscape that at the same time as the Church of England reduces the energy and resources it is willing to put into multilateral ecumenical work, such as Churches Together in England, bilateral deals that exclude traditional partners are worked on and welcomed.