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Requiem for the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Hope of Mission and Orthodoxy for the Future

Yesterday’s (8 June, 2017) news that the Scottish Episcopal Church has voted to become the first Anglican Church in the United Kingdom to affirm same-sex marriage may appear shocking.  This vote, however, has been expected for a year.  Moreover, the state of the Church has been such that a further descent into error has been predictable enough.  Of course, the vote will have certain ripple effects--both negative and positive--in the UK as well as throughout the Anglican Communion.  Indeed, all this sad heresy comes with a silver lining: it finally requires fence-sitters to jump to one side or the other and exposes the erroneous narrative of ecclesiastical unity on this issue as an heretical doctrine.

This moment in the life of the Anglican Communion overall is rather like hearing that Toad Hall has been taken over by weasels and stoats from the Wild Wood and are holding a calamitous and destructive party within its walls.  Shocking news, to be sure, but not very significant.[1]  The agonising smokescreen of Archbishop Justin Welby's ‘shared conversations’ in the Church of England—agonising because they involved talking about what has been perfectly clear to Christians in the first place all along—finally came to an end in 2016.  The Church of England’s synod subsequently (February 2017) rejected a measure to affirm what the Scottish Episcopal Church has now affirmed--not because of a commitment to truth but because of a poorly worded 'middle-of-the-fence' measure that too few were willing to accept.  The orthodox in the Church of England have been saddled with further co-existence with the significant number of heretical elements in the Church.  But the SEC’s clear vote for heresy now allows everyone to move on, as both groups need to do.

Several positive consequences of SEC’s vote are already apparent:

*    GAFCON has appointed a missionary bishop, Canon Andy Lines, to bring oversight to orthodox congregations that have laboured under heretical bishops;
*   GAFCON and the Anglican Church of North America’s Archbishop Foley Beach are playing a significant role in the appointment of a missionary bishop, finally stepping into a more active role beyond simply expressing concerns over the direction of heresy-leaning, western provinces in the Anglican Communion;
*   It brings into focus the need for both missions and orthodoxy in defining the Anglican Communion—not least because this missionary bishop has chaired and directed the Anglican Mission in England (AMiE).

The luke-warm sludge in which all Anglicans in the UK have had to swim has had dire consequences for the various Churches.  Cold heresy helps the true Church to turn up the heat of orthodoxy and get active in mission activity.  Moreover, there is no use in evangelising and planting churches only to have them influenced and directed by heretics.  There is no Biblical basis for co-existence with heresy, and pursuing such a policy cannot be understood as 'Church unity' precisely because heretics are not part of the true Church by definition.  As Paul clearly and helpfully says, 'But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler- not even to eat with such a one' (1 Cor. 5.11, ESV).  Indeed, it is theologically and practically important for the far greater number of orthodox Anglicans to avoid table fellowship with the Scottish Episcopal Church and other heretical groups, like the Episcopal Church (USA) and the Anglican Church of Canada--for reasons Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 5.  And it is now necessary to baptise converts from those Churches when they come to true faith, just as much as orthodox Churches would baptise converts from cults such as the Mormon, Jehovah's Witness, Unitarian Universalist, or Christian Science heretical Churches. (Indeed, John the Baptist and Jesus saw it necessary for fellow Jews to be baptised--to receive a cleansing apart from the heretical Temple in Jerusalem that no longer served the purposes for which it was established by God.)

The slow decline of an already terminal SEC can be seen in the statistics.  The number of members in SEC for 2014 was 32,646 and for 2016 was 31,656.[2]  The average Sunday attendance for the entire province in the Scottish Episcopal Church for 2016 was 12,511, and Edinburgh alone accounts for 1/3 of that number (4,571).[3]  In 2014, the numbers in attendance totalled 13,611.  This denomination, like all mainline denominations in the west, is declining every year, and, at this rate, it will disappear in a generation.  Moreover, Scotland’s population is 5,373,000,[4] which means we are presently commenting on only a little over 0.002% of the population.  Actually, since 19.4% of the laity voted against SEC’s pro-homosexual measure, the number is 1/5 lower still of the general population.  It is difficult to find this a very significant population on which to comment, except for the fact that it is about an historic institution.

The Scottish Episcopal Church is not the largest denomination in Scotland.  In 2011, 36% of the population declared themselves to have ‘no religion’ (and an additional 7% left the question unanswered), followed by 32.4% in the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian), 15.9% Roman Catholic, and 5.5% ‘other Christian’.[5]  The same government report noted that there was a 10.6% drop in the number of people reporting that they had a religion between 2001 and 2011.  This allows one to reflect on the Scottish Episcopal Church’s vote for a position held by the culture on sexuality to be interpreted not as a theological enlightenment but as an example of an increasingly irreligious nation.  Indeed, older institutions are dissolving into the larger culture, and this would explain their decrease in size as well: why join a group that is catching up to what you believe in any case rather than that offers something different?

With a diminishing membership one might naturally suspect there would be a diminishing income.  This is not the case.  A long established church with many assets does not need to rely all that much on contributions so much as the management of properties and investments.  In 2014, the incoming revenue of SEC totalled £2,230,528;[6] in 2015 it totalled £2,265,924; and in 2016, it totaled £2,278,512. Thirty-one percent came from diocesan quotas.  Sixty-two percent of this amount came from investments.  Despite the falling numbers of communicants, the annual income for SEC is rising.  In 2014, the received quotas from Scottish dioceses was £658,837, whereas the figure for 2016 was £698,960, and funds requested for 2017 are £719,929. The loss of membership and communicants only increases the per capita financial worth in the denomination as well.  The weasels and the stoats will have a fantastic party with the assets of Toad Hall.

As with any dying patient, everyone is better off focusing on the legacy of the individual rather than worrisome medical updates, even though these need to be monitored.  It is helpful, even if emotional, to get clarity rather than wait around for the inevitable news of an impending demise.  With that can come planning and remembrance of former days, when times were good.  Indeed, with SEC’s clear affirmation of a heretical teaching on marriage, the time has come to say goodbye and plan for the future.  It is time to remember the contribution that the Scottish Episcopal Church made in better days.  Its history includes that of Celtic Christianity, the relationships of Scotland with England, and the Reformation in the 16th century, with preachers like John Knox—a history shared by all Scots.  It was officially incorporated in 1712, however.  Its Protestant history entails an historical relationship with the presbyterian Church of Scotland.  An online historical overview of the history of the Scottish Episcopal Church follows the institutional and political story of the Church—a rather disheartening read if one is searching for some actual story of Christian witness and ministry, a contribution to the mission of Christ’s Church in the world.[7]  Yet such a history rather well illustrates this denomination’s problem as a national Church: it is too much entangled in the intrigues of power and culture.  What might prove to be more fruitful is to explore the biographies of faithful ministers and missionaries, celebrating the Church’s past support of Christian mission in foreign lands through Anglican mission societies.  After all, it is not the institution that has any eternal value—none whatsoever.  Unlike the story of Toad Hall, there will be no recovery of the Scottish Episcopal Church.  However, out of its ashes now rises the hope of a godly people under an orthodox bishop who can let their light shine brightly in a land that desperately needs to hear the radical, challenging Gospel of Jesus Christ instead of an echo of its own, post-Christian, neo-pagan ways.




[1] The reference is to a climactic scene in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows.
[2] See the Scottish Episcopal Church 34th Annual Report, p. 63; online at: http://www.scotland.anglican.org/wp-content/uploads/34th-Annual-Report-and-Accounts-for-the-year-ended-31-December-2016.pdf (accessed 9 June, 2017).
[4] As per the Country Digest, online at: http://countrydigest.org/population-of-scotland/ (accessed 9 June, 2017).
[7] See ‘Steps on the Way: Scottish Episcopal Church History,’ online: http://www.episcopalhistory.org/ (accessed 9 June, 2017).