Scotland is not just Presbyterian

Catholics, Episcopalians and Presbyterians

Scotland's "church by law established" has - of course - not always been Reformed, and not all of Scotland ever became Presbyterian - however strong the influence of Calvin, Knox, Melville, and the Covenants. Early Christianity was Celtic and in the medieval period links with the wider Catholic Church and Rome became pronounced. Despite the influence of Knox, and the place of Presbyterianism in the political and cultural history of Scotland, it is important to do justice to other traditions which also connect to Scottish faith and culture, and the Scottish story. Some of the richness of the story is geographical as well as ecclesiastical. Much of what we assume is normal Scottish Presbyterianism or normal Scottish Christianity, is primarily the Edinburgh story the capital whose lawyers and politicians articulated so much of its church order and its theology. The views from the West, the Highlands, and the Northeast were all just that bit different.

At the Reformation not only did some stay Catholic, as the nucleus of a church which later recovered despite its loss of privilege and property, some - particularly in the Northeast - maintained an independent view that was closer to Anglicanism, laying the foundation for the Scottish Episcopal Church.

While Episcopalians had been favoured by James, Charles I and II, and James in the 17th century, sometimes working with the Presbyterian sensitivities of much of the country, after 1688 they stayed loyal to the Stuart kings who in turn sought to influence their affairs. They were doomed to be out of favour politically even if they may have wished to make an accommodation with the government of the day. With American Independence it had became politically impossible for English Bishops to consecrate bishops for the church in America as bishops were required to swear allegiance to the Crown, and the Americans had rebelled. In 1784 the elderly Scottish bishops met in Aberdeen and earnt the undying gratitude of the American church by consecrating Samuel Seabury in the line of Apostolic Succession.

As a "free church", not dependent on government support or subject to its control, Scottish Episcopalians attracted clergy from England whose high church theology made them unhappy with the state connection of the Church of England. Irish migration renewed Catholicism from the early 19th century. Baptist Churches in Scotland from the late 18th century were Calvinist in theology and had elders, and this was also the case with Congregationalists. Today Reformed Christianity is represented in Scotland by the United Reformed Church as well as by the Church of Scotland, the Free Church of Scotland and smaller Presbyterian groups.

A key issue in the 18th and early 19th centuries was Patronage - the right of the large landowners to decide who would be minister (they paid the bills, so not unreasonably they felt the choice was theirs). This right was abolished in 1692, restored in 1714, and fought over during the "Ten Years Conflict" which lead to the Disruption of 1843. The question was "Who has the right to decide who is the minister of the congregation?" Should it be determined by secular bodies (landowners, city councils and the government) or by the members of the Congregation? Scottish Evangelicals were known as "Populars" because they believed in the popular right of the congregation to decide on their ministry. There is a contrast here with Methodists, for whom authority resided at the end of the day in the leadership of the Methodist connexion, and with English Evangelicals who purchased "advowsons" (the right to decide who would be the parish priest) so that they could use the Patronage system to further their cause. A residue of these debates can sometimes be seen in uncertainty about the boundaries between the authority of Presbytery and the freedom of parishes in matters of ministry, mission and property.

LINKS and references:


16th Century Scotland

17th Century Scotland

18th Century Scotland

19th Century Scotland

Scotland Today, Highland and Lowland