The rejection of the Anglican Covenant by the Scottish Episcopal Church is another serious body blow for a measure which proponents say is about proper ecclesiastical order, but which detractors argue will impose narrow conformity on a denomination historically based on self-governance within its provinces.
Predictably, disputes over sex and gender, though never traditionally ‘first order’ doctrinal issues, lie behind the latest manoeuvres. The idea for a binding covenant was proposed in the wake of a Canadian diocese authorising liturgy for the blessing of same-sex unions and an American diocese electing a partnered gay bishop.
Backed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, it establishes more restrictive boundaries on belief and practice and sets out processes for dispute resolution which mean that some parts of the worldwide church could end up as second-class citizens – while hardliners still argue that it is not conservative enough.
Opponents of the measure in Scotland and beyond say it has the appearance of a one-sided contract couched in piety, not a truly biblical Covenant based on grace and mutual recognition. Some speak less tactfully of razor blades lurking within the apparent Anglican fudge.
Though its 54,000 members make the Scottish Episcopal Church a tiny part of global Anglicanism, which ambitiously claims 77 million adherents, its history lends it far greater weight. Its origins extend beyond the Reformation to the mission of the great Celtic saints. Equally, it may be argued that the Anglican Communion was actually born in Aberdeen in 1784, with the consecration of American Bishop Seabury.
Close historical and liturgical ties between Episcopalians in Scotland and the USA add further spice to the decision to mark the Covenant ‘return to sender’. The American church has been under hostile fire from anti-gay advocates in Africa and elsewhere.
The Scottish Episcopal Church may also claim to have ‘been here before’. Suspected of Jacobitism, its bishops were frozen out by oaths of allegiance in the 17th century. The stakes are less dramatic today, but Scotland’s loyal dissenters are perhaps trying to teach other Anglicans that it is ultimately relationships, not rules, which shape hearts and minds collegially.
© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. An abbreviated version of this article appears as Comment in the Scotsman newspaper, 9 June 2012, under the headline 'Disputes over sex and gender lie behind the latest manoeuvres'.