Ex-leader says Kirk may need 'bishops'

A FORMER Kirk moderator says the Church of Scotland may have to overturn 400 years of history by appointing the equivalent of bishops.

The Very Rev Dr Finlay Macdonald says the Kirk may need a recognised leader with a higher profile than the current moderator to speak out on major issues.

He was responding to fears within the Kirk that it was losing out to the Catholic Church in terms of its public profile.

The extensive media coverage won by the late Cardinal Thomas Winning, as leader of Scotland’s Roman Catholics, made some feel that changing the Church of Scotland’s figurehead every year was counterproductive.

The position of bishop has been banished from the Kirk since the Reformation.

Any move to restore such a post would provoke a storm of controversy and spark claims that the Church of Scotland was abandoning its Presbyterian principles.

Bishops are seen as undermining the Kirk’s belief that all ministers are equal.

But Dr Macdonald argues in a new book that growing calls for moderators to serve more than the current 12-month stint could effectively turn them into bishops.

Dr Macdonald, who is principal clerk to the General Assembly and was moderator two years ago, says the argument for longer terms of office will become more forceful as time goes on.

"It is this kind of recognition question which may eventually lead to a fresh examination of the vexed question of bishops in the Kirk," he writes.

"The simple fact is that, were you to stop ten people in Princes Street on a Saturday afternoon and ask them what a bishop was, most would be able to tell you. Ask them what a moderator was and I guess you would get a lot of blank expressions."

In the book, Confidence in a Changing Church, published ahead of the General Assembly which opens on Saturday, Dr Macdonald says the Kirk could be faced with a choice - "stick with the present policy on leadership and go largely ignored by the wider community; or recognise that the medium of communication most likely to be heard and noticed is an identifiable leader whom people can get to know over a period of time".

He continues: "If this kind of pressure leads eventually towards a longer term of office for the Moderator, then the Moderator of the General Assembly will inevitably accrue a national leadership role.

"In time, a similar development may arise at presbytery level and then we will have full-time national and regional leaders.

"If that day comes then, effectively, we will have bishops.

"I am not saying this will happen but I can certainly see how it could happen."

Numerous church unity schemes in the past have failed because the Kirk was not prepared to accept bishops, an essential part of the structure in the Episcopalian and Roman Catholic churches.

In 1957, a report proposing the Church of Scotland should adopt bishops as part of a united church with Episcopalians and others caused outrage in the Kirk. Supporters of the move were accused of a sell-out to the Anglicans and of betraying the principles of the Reformation. The plan was eventually dropped.

And last year the General Assembly killed off plans for a merger between the Church of Scotland, Scottish Episcopal Church, United Reformed Church and Methodist Church in Scotland.

The proposals included creating "maxi parishes" served by teams of ministers from across the churches and led by "bishops" elected by regional church councils.

Supporters insisted the bishops envisaged in the scheme did not fit the popular stereotype and they would not have been appointed for life, but it was not enough to save the plan.