Bishop says Columba Agreement a challenge and opportunity

 The Moderator represents the Church of Scotland at the General Synod while the Church of England sends a representative to the General Assembly. Photo by Andrew Dunsmore.

The Church of Scotland and the Church of England have reached an historic agreement that recognises their longstanding ecumenical partnership and lays the groundwork for future joint projects.

The proposed agreement called The Columba Declaration is set out in a 15-page report by the Joint Study Group, "Growth in Communion, Partnership in Mission".

Rev Dr John McPake, co-chair of the study group and one of the authors of the report, said:"The Columba Declaration recognises the strong partnership that already exists and will help encourage and support new initiatives.

The Church of Scotland published its views on the plans last month. 

The report will now go to the Church of England's Synod in London on February 16 and to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in May for approval.

The Rt Rev Dr Peter Forster,Bishop of Chester and co-chairman of the study group, explains the Church of England's position on the background to the proposed agreement.

When the General Synod meets in February, it will welcome the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Right Rev Dr Angus Morrison, and hear a presentation from him.

In 2012 the then Archbishop of Canterbury addressed the General Assembly, and was very well received.

He emphasised the parallel responsibilities which the Church of England and Church of Scotland had as 'national churches', with a call to maintain a Christian presence in every community in their respective countries.

Following the Moderator's address, the Synod will hold a debate on Growth in Communion, Partnership in Mission: Report from the Church of England – Church of Scotland Joint Study Group.;

As co-chair of the Study Group, I will be introducing that item and asking the Synod to approve the 'Columba Declaration' from the report.

The mutual Acknowledgements and Commitments it contains would represent a significant further step in the long-standing and multi-stranded relationship between our two churches.

Of course, a relationship between two churches always sits within a much wider context of church relationships, and changes in that particular relationship have the potential to affect the wider context for good or ill.

Members of the Church of England will be particularly mindful of the Scottish Episcopal Church as our Anglican partner north of the border, and indeed concerned to ensure it is properly included in any developments.

In the light of some apparent confusion about that, it may be helpful to set out some of the background to the report that is coming to Synod.

Its immediate origins lie in an earlier report, published in 2010, Our Fellowship in the Gospel, from a joint study group between the two churches (the present Moderator was a member).

That report recommended that a more detailed theological discussion was needed, which should include the Scottish Episcopal Church.

The Study Group that produced the present report was originally set up in 2010 as a three-way dialogue between the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Church of England and the Church of Scotland.

By 2012, members of the Study Group had come to the view that they should work towards outlining a formal agreement, along the lines of the Reuilly Common Statement between the Anglican Churches of Britain and Ireland and the French Lutheran and Reformed Churches.

The Scottish Episcopal Church, however, responded negatively to this proposal when its delegation reported back.

The decision was therefore taken in 2013 to re-frame the Study Group as a dialogue between the Church of England and the Church of Scotland, aiming at a formal agreement, with an observer appointed by the Scottish Episcopal Church to attend meetings, and receive papers, in recognition of the need for it to continue to be closely involved in all developments and able to comment on them.

It was on that basis that the Study Group met in 2013 and 2014, with an emerging consensus about the shape and content of the document.

The text of its report was finalised in early 2015 and presented to key church bodies, including the House of Bishops. It therefore comes to the General Synod in February following a lengthy process of drafting and consultation in which all three churches have been involved.

The focus of Growth in Communion, Partnership in Mission is on what the Church of England and the Church of Scotland can do together in mission across our borders as the churches 'of' our two nations.

We discovered that the issues which we were facing are remarkably similar. Our aim is emphatically not about either church seeking to cross those borders in order to increase its presence and influence.

It does however recognise the reality that people – including clergy – from our churches do move over borders, and the choices that face them are not necessarily straightforward.

For all kinds of reasons, some Christians from the 'Reformed' Church of Scotland who come to England may want to have some kind of relation to the Church of England, instead of or as well as the United Reformed Church; and some Christians from the Church of England who come to Scotland may want to have some kind of relation to the Church of Scotland, instead of or as well as the Scottish Episcopal Church.

The Study Group saw these possibilities in a positive light, as offering both challenge and opportunity, not just for the Church of Scotland and the Church of England, but also for the other churches to which they stand in close relation.

How, for instance, might involvement from members of the Church of Scotland help a Church of England parish to appreciate better the richness of the Reformed tradition and thereby assist it to grow in relationship with the local United Reformed Church?

Relations between churches are not a zero-sum game.

Ultimately, growth in unity in Christ with one church draws us deeper into unity in Christ with every church.