Back Door Bishops

Back Door Bishops

The planning to create a Presbytery of South West Scotland indicates a reversal of the hierarchy to people principle of the Reformation. The name ‘Presbytery’ will be retained for what in effect will become a diocese in parallel with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Galloway and the Episcopal United Diocese of Glasgow and Galloway.

The most important person in the new Presbytery will be the Presbytery Clerk. Given the numerical and geographical scales (160 congregations stretching from west Arran to Carlisle) this appointee will no longer be a ‘Clerk’ but will become a ‘de facto’ Chief Executive Officer. Of necessity decisions will have to be taken on a daily basis without waiting for committees to meet. This already happens but will become the normal ‘modus operandi’. The present invisibility of the Presbytery Clerk to congregations will continue. Rubber stamping, euphemistically called ‘homologation’ will increase. There will be few opportunities to question and contest decisions and fewer still to reverse them; ‘de facto’ will become ‘de jure’.

The second most important person will be the Moderator. This office will not be offered for one year only since the scale of distance and duties will necessitate a longer appointment. What is being envisaged here? Is it to be an honorary position as at present. It is to become a part-time paid appointment for someone in addition to parish ministry? Is it to be a full-time expenses only appointment for a recently retired minister or elder? Is it to be a full-time paid appointment? Will the role be pastoral only? Inevitably not, for influence and power will reside in the person appointed. This office will become episcopal in time and not in the too distant future.

A bishop called Moderator. There are enough aspirants to such a role in the Church of Scotland to actively promote and seek to organise this outcome. There always have been. Some ministers resent the lack of career structure in the Church of Scotland. In the past and at present promotion and much increased salaries can only to be found at 121 George Street. Never underestimate the vanities of ministers. Even now some will be dreaming of purple shirts thereby distinguishing themselves from ordinary parish ministers. They will need to be upsides with Catholic and Episcopal bishops. This affectation is already on display at every General Assembly where past Moderators file in to advertise their assumed continuing status.

Nothing will change. The kind of personalities who dominate presbyteries at present will continue to dominate the large presbyteries of the future. Authoritarianism will not disappear. There is an attitude at Presbytery level towards congregations which is manifestly not that of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. In the proposed larger Presbytery of South West Scotland with its much greater distance from members of congregations, accountability will be hidden more easily along with opaque resolutions of issues and problems. These practices will not always be suspicious. There will not always be intentional misuse of roles and positions. Some will do their best to be straightforward and transparent. But they will not get far. Ministerial collegialities will prevail and exclusions of others will continue. All of this illustrates the very large change from being a Presbyterian Church in the Reformed tradition to becoming a semi-episcopal half-way house towards full episcopacy.

Who’s afraid of bishops? Do the members of the Church of Scotland not need more visible pastoral figures like their Catholic counterparts? Recent history suggests that the people would be better off without bishops and that members of congregations should enjoy greater self-determination within the Presbyterian and Reformed system. This is especially true of finance and property. Yet these are the very matters over which the new presbyteries will have even greater control. It could be argued that the disguised intention of the decision to reduce the number of presbyteries and introduce a new level of bureaucracy is motivated by the managerial requirement to control money and property in the uncertain future decades of the Church. This is a most cynical exercise being foisted on the members of the Church at a time when meetings are curtailed and Zoom discussions have replaced them. There is at present no physical meeting, no physical presence, no Body of Christ.

The members of the Church of Scotland are passive. They are cowed. The representatives of congregations sit silent throughout presbytery meetings. Moderators strategically inhibit free discussion, freedom of speech. Questions are discouraged. Criticisms are unacceptable. This passivity is being exploited and it is more than likely that the Presbytery of South West Scotland will come into being as an extra bureaucratic imposition on the members of churches within its bounds. That this should happen amid the continuing and projected decline of the Church of Scotland is beyond parody.

In episcopal churches bishops are held to be guarantors of apostolic succession going back to the disciples of Jesus. The Reformers abandoned this tradition largely because of the rampant and widespread sin and corruption of bishops, archbishops, cardinals and popes in the medieval Church. In their place the Reformers offered an apostolic succession of Christian truth based on the Bible, the preaching and teaching ministry, the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion and added an education system for children and adults. They introduced lay spiritual authority in the form of elders to balance clerical dominance and root the life of the Church in local communities and families. To return now to pre-Reformation dioceses is to diminish the last 460 years of Reform Christianity and their influence throughout the world. It is to weaken the status of elders and their roles in congregations. It is to aggrandise a few who will most likely be ministers and invest in them the identity of the Church. ‘Their faces will be very great’ as the Chinese have it.

Disappointment will proliferate because the kind of people who will seek these roles will be the same kind of people who do so at the present time in the committees of 121 George Street and in current presbyteries. The Presbytery of South West Scotland will be an administrative and management entity and those most prominent in it will be bureaucratic rather than charismatic in personality and character. But the Moderator will visit and find congregations ‘in good heart’, not ‘full of the Holy Spirit’, not ‘Christ centred’, not ‘articulate in witness’ and not 'optimistic about the future'. Clerical presentation and display will be superimposed on localised spiritual authority. The genius of John Calvin will be replaced by those not fit to clean his shoes.

Bishops are no guarantee of anything. ‘The Times’ newspaper carried a story about Scottish Episcopal bishops on December 26 2020. It was entitled ‘Bishops on anti-bullying course after clergy harassment claims’ and reported that more that one third of clergy within this denomination had been bullied. ‘In response, the church’s senior figures have taken part in bullying awareness courses. Its primus the Most Rev Mark Strange, Bishop of Moray, Ross and Caithness said that he found the process ‘painful and shameful’. On the same day ‘The Times’ also published an article from author and critic AN Wilson entitled ‘Church shepherds have lost their flocks’. The subtitle was ‘The Archbishop of Wokeness Welby and the equally inept Nichols are not leaders that the faithful deserve’. Four letters to ‘The Times’ published on December 28 countered AN Wilson’s argument and one supported it. Scandal upon scandal perpetrated by the Vatican hierarchy has been recently revealed in the Roman Catholic Church. In Scotland Cardinal Keith O’Brien was obliged to resign in disgrace due to his hypocrisy in publicly condemning homosexuality while practising it privately with seminarians. And for years Richard Holloway an apostate bishop of the Scottish Episcopal Church roundly scorned Christians who adhered to the basic beliefs and doctrines of Christianity.

In the 21st century national and world politics are being led by ‘strong men’ such as Xi Jinping of China, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Narendra Modi of India, Recep Erdogan of Turkey and for a time Donald Trump of America. It is more than ever necessary for the example of localised democracy to be advocated, treasured and upheld. The Reformation democratised the Christian Church of the time, then Scottish society and in time it democratised the western world and beyond. This example is much needed and there is no cause or justification for it to be abandoned or compromised by the introduction of back door bishops in the Church of Scotland.

Robert Anderson 2017

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