08 July 2012

A first visit to Edinburgh and Scotland’s Episcopalians

Edinburgh Castle, with its ancient battlements, is perched above the city on an extinct volcanic rock (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

Earlier this year, I was in Edinburgh for a conference organised by the Scottish Episcopal Church. This was my first visit to the northern capital. But this was a first in many other ways, for I had never been to Scotland before.

With its many classical buildings and its reputation as one of the historical major centres of the Enlightenment, Edinburgh became known as the “Athens of the North” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

As a boy, like others of my age, I had read the novels of Robert Louis Stevenson, such as Kidnapped, Treasure Island, The Master of Ballintrae, and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Waverley Novels of Sir Walter Scott, including Rob Roy, and the poems of Robert Burns.

The Scott Monument in East Princes Street Gardens was erected shortly after the death of Sir Water Scott (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

But it still took me sixty years to visit Scotland. And on the sidelines of the conference I enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about Edinburgh and the story of its churches.

Robert Burns (1759-1796), Scotland’s national bard, remembered in the name of a pub on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

A minority Church

The Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC), like the Church of Ireland, is not an established church and has no state role. But it has many links with Ireland, and the present Primus, Bishop David Chillingworth of St Andrews, was born in Dublin in 1951.

Although Roman soldiers may have been the earliest Christians in Scotland, the SEC traces its story to Saint Ninian and Saint Mungo in the fourth and fifth century. Saint Ninian may have been born in Galloway around 350. When he returned from Rome around 397 – 14 years before the Roman legions withdrew from Britain – he built a church at Whithorn in Galloway, and he died there in 432, the same year Saint Patrick landed in Ireland.

The last of the Romano-British bishops, Kentigern of Glasgow, died in 603. In his old age he met the elderly Saint Columba, who brought another strand of Christianity from Ireland to Iona. Saint Columba died in 597, and for about 200 years Iona was the centre of Scottish Christianity.

Scotland first became an organised kingdom in the reign of King Malcolm Canmore (1058-1093). Through the influence of his wife, Queen Margaret, the Scottish Church began to conform to church practices in England, and during the reigns of her sons –Alexander I and David I – true dioceses were created. The primacy eventually moved to St Andrews in 1474.

The Scottish Reformation

Saint Giles’ Church is the original parish church of Edinburgh ... from here John Knox launched the Scottish Reformation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The greed and corruption of the late mediaeval Church are typified by the appointment of two successive Archbishops of St Andrews in the reign of James IV (1473-1513): James Stewart, Duke of Ross and the king’s brother, was appointed in 1497 at the age of 21; he was succeeded in 1504 by the king’s 12-year-old illegitimate son, Alexander Stewart, who died at his father’s side at the Battle of Flodden in 1513.

By then, the moral life of the church was in decline, clerical celibacy was not enforced and the monasteries were houses of luxury and laxity. The disputes between Archbishop William Scheves of St Andrews and Archbishop Robert Blackadder of Glasgow were so acrimonious that Parliament intervened to restore the peace. The way had been paved for the Reformation.

The first martyr of the Reformation in Scotland was Patrick Hamilton, former Abbot of Fearne, who was burned at the stake in 1528. Meanwhile, corruption continued in the church: King James V (1513-1542), a nephew of Henry VIII of England, had five of his illegitimate sons appointed abbots or priors. As the demands for reform gathered pace, Cardinal David Beaton, Archbishop of St Andrews, was murdered in his castle in 1546.

John Knox House – a 15th century stone house with an external stairway and a classic example of the Royal Mile in its heyday – was the home of the Scottish Reformer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

John Knox, who had been a vicar in England where he declined a bishopric, came under the influence of John Calvin in Geneva before returning to Scotland in 1559. A year later, when the Treaty of Edinburgh brought civil turmoil to an end, the triumph of Knox and the extreme reformers was complete. From 1560 until his death in 1572, Knox was the minister of Saint Giles’ in Edinburgh.

The episcopacy was restored briefly in 1572, but Presbyterianism was formally established in Scotland in 1592. The titular bishops continued to sit in parliament and by 1600 new bishops, called commissioners, were being appointed. James VI became James I of England in 1603, and in 1610 the episcopacy was restored once again.

King Charles I in a memorial in Saint Mary’s Cathedral ... he first formed the Diocese of Edinburgh in 1633 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The struggle between the bishops and Presbyterianism continued, and episcopacy was abolished once more in 1638, partly in revolt against Charles I, who had imposed new canon laws, a new ordinal and a new Prayer Book. All 14 bishops were deposed and eight were excommunicated, including John Maxwell who fled to Ireland.

The Mitre Bar stands on the site of the Edinburgh house of John Spottiswood, Archbishop of St Andrews (1615-1639) ... it is said his throne lies buried beneath the bar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

A suffering Church

After the restoration of the monarchy, the Presbyterian system was abolished and the Episcopal system was restored in 1661. But only one bishop from 1637 had survived, and four new bishops were consecrated in London. Sectarian violence continued, however, and Archbishop James Sharp of St Andrews was murdered in 1679.

William of Orange tried to win over the Scottish bishops and met Bishop Alexander Rose of Edinburgh in London. But the bishops would not break their oaths to James II, and when the Church of Scotland became Presbyterian once more the bishops went underground.

For most of the 18th century, the majority of Episcopalians suffered under Penal Laws that excluded them from public office, voting or entering universities, and that limited the size of their congregations to four.

When dioceses became vacant, the bishops were forced to consecrate “non-ruling” bishops without sees. The last remaining diocesan bishop, Alexander Rose of Edinburgh, died in 1720, and the bishops formed an Episcopal College with collective oversight of the church and elected Bishop John Fullarton as their Primus inter Pares or first among equals. In time, the diocesan system was restored, but the concept of a College of Bishops with a Primus continues to this day.

In Aberdeen in 1784, the Scottish bishops consecrated Samuel Seabury of Connecticut as the first bishop in the United States. This move ensured the survival of the Anglican and Episcopalian tradition after the American War of Independence and marks the beginning of the Anglican Communion.

In 1789, the Primus, Bishop John Skinner of Aberdeen, led the Church out of its legal difficulties. The church agreed to pray for King George III and the penal laws were repealed in 1792. However, in Old Saint Paul’s Church in Edinburgh, the first prayers for a Hanoverian monarch were drowned out by groans, sighs, coughing and nose-blowing.

Meanwhile, those Episcopalians who renounced Jacobite sympathies were allowed to worship openly if they used the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England. These “qualified congregations” grew in number, and they were reunited with the Scottish bishops when the SEC accepted the 39 Articles in 1804.

The Church experienced a major revival in the 19th century and a theological college founded in Edinburgh in 1810 was the first such college in the Anglican Communion.

The Oxford Movement had lasting effects on a church that already had a high theology of sacramental life. In 1838, the surplice replaced the black gown as “the proper Sacerdotal Vestment,” religious communities were soon reintroduced, and lay people acquired a greater say in Church affairs. On the other hand, liturgical conflicts at Old Saint Paul’s led to a separate church being founded at Saint Columba’s by the Castle.

More recently, in 1993 and 1994, the SEC agreed to the ordination of women as priests. The ordination of women as bishops was approved in 2002, although no woman has yet been elected a bishop.

A 400-year-old diocese

William Forbes (1585-1634) became the first Bishop of Edinburgh but died two months after his consecration (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The Diocese of Edinburgh is one of seven in Scotland, although Edinburgh was originally part of the Archdiocese of St Andrews. When Charles I formed the Diocese of Edinburgh in 1633, William Forbes became the first bishop and Knox’s former church, Saint Giles’, became the cathedral.

When episcopacy was abolished yet again in 1637, Saint Giles’ lost its status as a cathedral, but it was restored as a cathedral when episcopacy was reintroduced in 1661. When the Church of Scotland reverted to Presbyterianism in 1688, Saint Giles’ became the “High Kirk” once again.

Old Saint Paul’s traces its story back to 1689, when Bishop Alexander Rose left Saint Giles’ Cathedral with much of the congregation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The last bishop at Saint Giles’, Bishop Alexander Rose of Edinburgh, left the cathedral in 1689 accompanied by much of his congregation, finding a new place of worship in an old wool store in Carrubber’s Close, close to the present site of Old Saint Paul’s Church.

Later Bishops of Edinburgh included Daniel Sandford (1806-1830), who was born in Dublin in 1766, and John Dowden (1886-1910), who was born in Cork in 1840.

Building a cathedral

Saint Mary’s Cathedral is Scotland’s largest cathedral and a masterpiece of Victorian Gothic architecture (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

For centuries, the SEC had no cathedrals and many churches, including Old Saint Paul’s and Saint Paul’s in York Place, served as the “pro-cathedral” in Edinburgh until Saint Mary’s Cathedral was built in Palmerston Place in the 1870s.

The sisters Barbara and Mary Walker left all their property for building a new cathedral, and Sir George Gilbert Scott was chosen as the architect.

Scott’s design was inspired by the early Gothic churches and abbeys of Scotland. The foundation stone was laid in 1874 and the cathedral was consecrated in 1879. The Chapter House was added in 1890 and the western spires in 1913-1917.

Visiting the cathedral

Sir George Gilbert Scott’s design ensures the High Altar is the centre of attention in Saint Mary’s Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The central tower and the spires can be seen for miles. But Scott’s design ensures the High Altar is the centre of attention in the cathedral. The intricate reredos has a marble relief showing the Crucified Christ flanked by the Virgin Mary and Saint John, along with Saint Margaret of Scotland and Saint Columba of Iona.

The Rood Cross over the Nave Altar, designed by Sir Robert Lorimer as a War Memorial, shows the Crucified Christ against a backdrop of Flanders poppies (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The Lorimer Rood Cross over the Nave Altar, designed as a War Memorial by Sir Robert Lorimer, shows the Crucified Christ against a backdrop of Flanders poppies. The windows include the colourful Ascension or Paolozzi Window designed by the late Sir Eduardo Paolozzi.

The Presence (1910) by AE Borthwick ... the scene is set in Saint Mary’s Cathedral

The Presence, a 1910 painting by the Edinburgh artist Captain AE Borthwick, hangs in the cathedral and has an intriguing story. It shows the Holy Communion is being administered in the distance at a crowded High Altar in the dimly-lit cathedral. In the foreground, a kneeling penitent at the west end is comforted by the presence of Christ behind her. The light emanating from Christ shows that his presence can be felt wherever it is needed and not just at the altar.

The painting was sold illegally while on exhibition in Munich in 1914 and became the centre of legal action. On its return to Scotland, Borthwick presented it to the cathedral in 1944.

A tourist at large

Forbes House, the offices of the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Theological Institute, is in Grosvenor Crescent, a short walk from Saint Mary’s Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Of course, I did all the other things a tourist should do in Edinburgh. I saw the Castle, the Old Town and Parliament Square, walked the Royal Mile, Prince’s Street and George Street and admired the classical buildings that have made this city the ‘Athens of the North.’

But a day was not enough, and I promised myself a return visit.

Patrick Comerford with Bishop Mark Strange of Moray, Ross and Caithness – geographically the largest diocese in Scotland

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay was first published in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory) in July 2012.

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