RELIGION: General Assembly endorses Friendship between Kirk and Catholic Church

The Rt Rev Dr Iain Greenshields, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

By Cameron Brooks

Commissioners at the 2022 General Assembly overwhelmingly welcomed an historic agreement between the Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church in Scotland and proposed calling it the Saint Margaret Declaration, after the 11th Century Scottish Queen venerated for her missionary Christian faith and her kindness and generosity to poor people.

The declaration of friendship offers ‘a decisive and irrevocable statement of our friendship with one another, based on our shared faith in Christ.’

Already approved by the Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church in Scotland, the declaration is the culmination of more than 100 years of dialogue and emphasises the shared faith and common ground that unites the Churches.

Archbishop Leo Cushley accepted the name suggestion on behalf of the Scottish Catholic Bishop’s Conference, saying he has always had a special admiration for Saint Margaret.

The Rev Alexander Horsburgh, Convener of the Ecumenical Relations Committee told the General Assembly that friendship is a key biblical concept for all followers of Jesus.

“Friendship is a very deep relationship, a relationship of conscious and deliberate choice, in which individuality is respected and there is room for disagreement, but a relationship in which we stand alongside one another, support one another, rejoice together and weep together, pray for and with each other, and do things together,” he said.

“We are declaring a friendship which already exists, which has existed for a long time, and we want everyone to know about it and understand it. By saying out loud that the Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church in Scotland are friends, we contribute to changing, not only the narrative of our churches, but the narrative of our country too. There is no going back.

“We can and do say these transformative things out loud because of a gift, expressive of God’s relationship of love and grace with all creation, which we receive from God.”

Archbishop Leo Cushley, pictured right,  also addressed the Assembly bringing warm greetings and heartfelt prayers from his Church. The friendship has grown in parishes and between church members over 40 years of shared work and shared prayers, he said:

“The Declaration is also a consciously new approach to ecumenism, an attempt to re-imagine the path of Christian unity.

“Instead of listing our problems and points of friction or grievance, old or new, the Declaration chooses to focus on what we have in common, and to underline that we treasure and hold, together, so much that is inspiring, ancient and profound…

“Do I expect our two old institutions to be perfectly aligned and united any time soon?  I suspect that may be a task for another generation.  Nevertheless, I believe that by acknowledging all the good that we hold in common, we can walk and pray together as friends, deepen our affective unity, and be a more authentic Christian witness in the land.  The rest will come in God’s good time.”

In a conversation with Archbishop Cushley ahead of the General Assembly, the Rt Rev Dr Iain Greenshields said:  “I grew up in a very divided Scottish society. I’m 68 years old and was a product of that divided society. I didn’t understand why it was divided, but it was that society has changed immensely over the last 50 – 60 years and I think this is indicative of not us catching up with society, but as affirming together something that is fundamentally important to us, to our faith together, and hopefully to Scottish society.

“I would want people in Scottish society to look at the Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church and to take away one of those excuses I’ve often heard – ‘well if you’re agin one another, what’s it all about? Well we’re not. This is a Declaration of Friendship between us and I hope that that would say something powerful to the non-Christian constituency of Scottish society.”

Meanwhile, a new Jewish-Christian Glossary has created a path of great hope for future relations between the Church of Scotland and the Jewish community, a leading rabbi has told the General Assembly.

Rabbi David Mason of Muswell Hill Synagogue in London was invited to address the General Assembly as Kirk commissioners were asked to approve the glossary.

Ministers and rabbis worked together to define some of the key terms used in both religions to allow users to learn more about their own and each other’s religion by discovering key similarities and differences between the faiths.

Rabbi Mason, who was brought up in Edinburgh and recalled having two “holy places” in his childhood  – his synagogue in Newington and Dundee United’s home ground of Tannadice, said it had been a great honour to get to know leaders of the Kirk as the two traditions engaged in fruitful and respectful dialogue.

Rabbi David Mason of Muswell Hill Synagogue in London was invited to the General Assembly.

Work on the glossary began following a visit by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis to the General Assembly in 2014 after he had warned that a Church and Society Council report which was critical of Israel had caused concern within the Jewish community and was putting a strain on inter-faith relations.

“Chief Rabbi Mirvis’s response was not to run away from this deep challenge – but to engage in dialogue and conversation. And so for the last few years that dialogue has developed and grown,” Rabbi Mason said.

“I would like to put on record my thanks to all those within the Church leadership who never ceased to see the vital importance in this dialogue. I have gained friends in the Church of Scotland through this dialogue – and have only grown in my affection for the Church.”

Joking that both Jews and Scots could be described as “an argumentative lot”, Rabbi Mason acknowledged that the dialogue between the two communities had sometimes been a challenge, but added: “In the development of a glossary of terms, I think we have, together created a path of great hope for the future relationship between the Church and the Jewish community.

“This glossary has done two things. Firstly it has deepened mutual understanding surrounding the very terms that can cause discord.

“Secondly, it has offered up vocabulary, wording, and understanding for both our communities that can ensure that in expressing passionate opinions, we do not offend each other.

“Harmony does not here mean that we will agree. It means that we will disagree well. We will take different approaches based on our contexts and subjective experiences – while being scrupulous in ensuring that the other is not offended.”

Rabbi Mason, who recalled close links between his childhood synagogue and the Church of Scotland, including the then Moderator speaking at the installation of a Holocaust memorial in Edinburgh, concluded by looking to the example of his great-grandfather who, as a rabbi in pre-Nazi Germany, would go walking in the Black Forest each Sunday afternoon with local parish ministers.

“These bonds of friendship were so important to my great grandfather. And they inspired me in the work I do”.

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