General Synod After Dinner Speech by Robin Angus

It’s 20 years since I was a member of Synod and 16 years since I addressed a General Synod Dinner; and I’ve no idea why you invited me tonight. My views are eccentric and my speciality is contradicting myself with futile yet self-destructive passion ― a kind of one-man General Synod without even Professor Peattie to keep me in order. Of course, having spent my first 20 years in Edinburgh as a member of St Michael & All Saints, I long ago learned the lesson that thousands of nurses and hundreds of members of the clergy know only too well: that authority is divinely appointed; is one and indivisible; and resides in Professor Peattie. Madam, with my humble duty.

And, Patricia, I remain much as I was in my St Michael’s days. To liberals, I’m a cranky old fool who mutters his Rosary and defaults to the Prayer Book the moment he lets go of that Blue Book thing so many trendy churches now use. Yet to conservative Catholics in the Scottish Episcopal Church ― and, yes, I am old enough to remember when there were conservative Catholics in the Scottish Episcopal Church: I knew both of them: indeed, I was both of them ― it was said that I’d sold out to “lady priests” (and doubtless a woman Bishop soon, which will not now be controversial ― can you imagine more of a non-headline than “Ruth Innes seen wearing purple”?) and that I now saw the “pink lobby” as being something more than just agitation for the right colour of vestments on Lætare and Gaudete Sunday.

They had cruel words for me.

Liberal churchfolk, more than most,

Sin against the Holy Ghost,

Forsaking Scripture’s ancient glory

All for Katharine Jefferts Schori!

And to Evangelicals ― well, I’ve always been a target for conversion.

Soul in bonds to lace and gin,

Christ can wash away your sin,

Bibles, tee-shirts, Coca-Cola,

Long live Peter Akinola!

But other than with Professor Peattie, where does power in the Synod lie? We know that one day, in Heaven, Provost Auld, clad in white robes, washed in the blood of the Canons Committee, will set to work expanding the 7 Commandments of Noah into the 613 mitzvoth of the Torah and then adding a few helpful Resolutions and Appendices, while Elaine Cameron and Marion Chatterley break the news to Our Blessed Lord that the Apostles have failed their Gender Audit and He’d better get some new ones. But here on earth, power must obviously lie with the Prolocutors.

And what a wonderful title that is, evoking all sorts of half-remembered Scriptural quotations.

“And Jesus stood before the Prolocutor: and the Prolocutor asked him, saying, Art thou the King of the Jews?”

As it happens, I first met the Clerical Prolocutor nearly 40 years ago, when we were 18 year old students at St Andrews and formed a friendship which has been one of the cornerstones of my Christian life. We had many dreams in those days, but neither of us ever imagined that one day he would be a Prolocutor. I was the ordinand then, and he was going into business. But I was there when the Holy Spirit kindled a flame of sacred love on the mean altar of his heart, and if you want to know what a mean altar is like, you should have known the Clerical Prolocutor when he was planning to make his fortune in business. Grace works miracles.

The Episcopal Church really IS an extended family. I look round and see so many familiar faces ― often, people I have known since Canon Allan Maclean and I (Allan being my oldest friend of all, other than people I was at school with, and the friendship has again been one of the cornerstones of my Christian life) ― since Canon Allan Maclean and I were trendy late 1960s ordinands, wearing our best leather brogues, tweed jackets and club ties for the Summer of Love. For instance, my mother and father were at one of the last ever meetings of the RCC, I think in Oban, and my father, to his surprise, bumped into his old friend Alec Davidson, the Verger of Inverness Cathedral.

“What are you doing here, Alec?” asked my father. “I didn’t think this would be your kind of thing.”

Alec merely gestured to a figure lounging in the corner, a young, red-haired man in a cassock with fag ash all down the front of it, and a pint held unsteadily in his hand, beer slopping over the floor like a BP oil spill.

“I’ve been sent to keep an eye on Emsley,” said Alec.

Aye, indeed ― the Very Reverend Canon Doctor Alexander Emsley Nimmo, Dean of Aberdeen and Orkney.

But then, I seem to be fated to be brought into contact with red-haired future Deans. When my wife and I came to Edinburgh in 1977 there was a polite and well-behaved schoolboy who lived with his family on our stair. The only unusual thing about him was that, every so often, huge gusts of pungent, sweet smoke would billow up the stair, so that we had to grope our way to our doors through thick fog, like the Dean of Edinburgh on Corpus Christi, and then his father would cry,

“Kenneth! Is that you burning incense again?”

Little did I know that one day the red-haired schoolboy would be the Very Reverend the Dean of St Andrews, Dunkeld and Dunblane.

A difference between then and now, of course, is that as a way of keeping a finger on the Church’s pulse the Holy Ghost had not yet invented blogs. Today there is no excuse to be ignorant of The Reverend Ruth’s Rantings, or of Father Kenny’s Rector’s Ramblings, or of Kimberley’s Wonderful Exchange, or of What’s In Kelvin’s Head. There is a great deal in Kelvin’s Head. So much, that I’m reminded of Oliver Goldsmith’s couplet:

And still they gaz’d, and still the wonder grew,

That one small head could carry all he knew.

But that is not the blog that strikes at the heart of my Faith. That blog is the one by the Rector of St Silas’s, Glasgow, who calls himself “Gadgetvicar.”

Father McCarthy, if I may call you that, I don’t always agree with your theology. Your taste in music is not my own. Your hope that England may reach the final of the World Cup I can only describe as bizarre. But I can tolerate all that. What wounds my pedantic soul is that there are no Vicars in Scotland.

Nor will there be any, until the king returns, re-establishes us and restores to us the Teinds in every quoad omnia parish in Scotland. And if that happens, Kelvin will be Dean of St Mungo’s and you’ll be Vicar of St George’s, Tron, and the Diocesan Synod will hold daily banquets at the Ubiquitous Chip and Canon Milne can finish building St Bride’s and paint the vastly extended church in Boudoir Pink, even if it means knocking down most of Kingsborough Gardens, and the Bishop of Aberdeen will be able to fill his cellars with something better than a well-known brand of Tonic Wine ― although unless they change the Diocesan boundaries (whether or not the See is vacant in terms of Canon 8 as amended), the Diocese of Aberdeen still includes Buckie.

Now, if you’re expecting sage comments on Synod business you will be disappointed, although I have read the documents and found them most interesting. (He lied.) One item, indeed, on page 8 of the Annual Report, I found frankly unbelievable:

“The Standing Committee approved, on behalf of the Scottish Episcopal Church, the conversion of the Anglican Consultative Council into a charitable company.”

If the Standing Committee can achieve that merely by resolution, it must be the most successful ecclesiastical body since the Council of Jerusalem, in the 15th Chapter of Acts.

Well, some 350 years after the Council of Jerusalem, in 397AD, St Ninian founded the Scottish Episcopal Church. Thirteen years later, in 410 AD, came the Sack of Rome. I dare say that God felt She could safely permit this, now that the centre of Christendom had been moved north to the Galloway coast. We are a very old church. My favourite entry in the old Red Book was that for St Drostan’s, Old Deer, where the list of former clergy was headed, “St Drostan, circa 500AD”. A century before St Augustine was sent to Canterbury. So much for the supposed Mother Church of the Anglican Communion, which, as we all know, is actually in King Street, Aiberdeen.

I am proud of the Scottish Episcopal Church. And this evening I’m going to tell you about the proudest day of my life ― when I was made an Honorary Fellow of the Business School in the University of Edinburgh.

You may not understand the significance of this, so let me explain. As you know, I attend St Columba’s-by-the-Castle in Edinburgh and for many years I was what is known in Columban parlance as a ‘Candidate Member’. Alas, I could not be admitted to full membership, because I wasn’t in Holy Orders, I wasn’t on the Staff at Edinburgh University, and I’d never finished my PhD. But then, when I was made an Honorary Fellow at the University, I was able to be admitted a full member at last. If I can just wangle an Honorary Doctorate, I might even be able to stand for the Vestry.

The Scottish Episcopal Church as a whole is not so restrictive. Twenty years ago, I went to a party at Coates Hall, of happy memory, with a friend, an English Lay Reader, who had a doctorate and six other degrees and fellowships and would therefore have been accepted as a full member of St Columba’s without even a probationary period, but who in many years of lay ministry had never met his Diocesan Bishop or even the Suffragan who was nominally in charge of Readers. Yet at Coates Hall that night he met all the seven Scottish Bishops, all of whom knew me by my Christian name, and called me by it even after I had performed my party piece for the evening, a jazzy recitative entitled “The Election of a Primus Rag”, which, as I recall, began:

“Hello! My name is George Argyll.

I’m 66, and I seldom smile,

But I’m keeping Dick Holloway out for a while ―

That’s why they’ve made me Primus!”

And that brings me to the Primus of today.

Chillingworth. There’s a name to conjure with. Google “Chillingworth” in an ecclesiastical context and what do you get? William Chillingworth, and:

“The Bible, and the Bible only, is the religion of Protestants,”

Holy Mary, Mother of God, defend us! That is not what my hero and mentor, Bishop George Sessford, told me was characteristic of Episcopalians. I remember him preaching in the Parish Kirk of Forres in Christian Unity week when I was a boy, and our baffled next door neighbour saying to my mother afterwards,

“He seemed to be saying that the Reformation wasn’t a good thing!”

And the Clerical Prolocutor will remember me in my St Andrews days writing a parody of a Sherlock Holmes story, entitled, The Mystery of the Missing Censer, concerning a robbery at what was then a famed ecclesiastical emporium in Margaret Street, London.

“Great Scott, Watson! They’ve robbed…. Mowbray’s!”

“Not…. Mowbray’s?”

“I’m afraid so, Watson.”

“The swine! The blackguards! The inhuman devils! The… the… the Protestants!”

“I know, Watson. No words are too strong with which to describe their villainy.”

But let us assume that William Chillingworth was right and that the Bible, and the Bible only, should be our religion. It would make our lives a good deal simpler. For instance, all our present controversies about human sexuality could be resolved by resorting to the plain words of Scripture. Luke, Chapter 13, verse 13.

“And he laid his hands on her: and immediately she was made straight.”

But before the bells start pealing for joy all the way from Malawi to Nigeria, don’t forget Malachi, Chapter 1, verse 11,

“For from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same, my name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense shall be offered unto my name.”

In every place. And that includes Balerno.

Because, there it is. We must teach and act in continuity and consonance with Scripture”. That’s the Anglican Covenant, Section 1, Paragraph 2, sub-section 1, and if not a sparrow falls to the ground without Our Father knowing it (Matthew, 10.29), He’s hardly going to overlook Section 1, Paragraph 2, sub-section 1.

Fortunately for us, there can be nothing more in continuity and consonance with Scripture than the idea of a Covenant.

Hosea, 10.4 “They have spoken words, swearing falsely in making a Covenant: thus judgment springeth up as hemlock in the furrows of the field.”

The idea of judgment springing up as hemlock rather alarms me. People do complain that Section 4 of the Covenant has no teeth, but hemlock seems to be going a bit far. Removing Episcopalians from ecumenical dialogues is one thing, but do you want to see a black-hooded Rowan Williams, with albino eyebrows, stirring the bubbling contents of a Borgia-style chalice and saying,

“Come on, Katharine, drink this up, it’ll do you good!”

So what about Ezra 10.3? “Now therefore let us make a Covenant with our God to put away all the wives.”

No, that can’t be right. It’s sort of…. going in an opposite direction from what the Covenant is setting out to do.

Or could it be 1st Samuel 18, 1-4?

“And it came to pass . . .  that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. And Saul took him that day, and would let him go no more home to his father’s house. Then Jonathan and David made a Covenant . . . And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was upon him, and gave it to David, and his garments, even to his sword, and to his bow, and to his girdle.”

Well, I can’t tell you what happened next. I don’t know the Hebrew for “moratorium”, or “Instruments of Unity”, or “gracious restraint”. And I feel that I am getting into very deep waters here, and that I should therefore flee all controversy and turn to The Episcopal Church in the United States of America.

In Rome, there is the custom that Bishops will come to reconnect with their roots on their “ad limina” visits. Bishop Katharine, we welcome you on yours.

Bishop, I do know a little of the American Church. The Advent, Boston. Smoky Mary’s in Times Square. The Ascension & St Agnes in Washington DC.

My former parish priest in Edinburgh is now Rector of St Clement’s, Philadelphia ― the highest church in the world, the St Thomas’s, Corstorphine, of Pennsylvania. The dioceses I knew of were Fort Worth, Quincy, Eau Claire and Fond du Lac ― or, as it was referred to, “Fond of Lace”, the panting heart of the Biretta Belt. My own Diocese of Moray, in the time of Bishops George Sessford and Clarence E Pope, was twinned with the Diocese of Fort Worth. The official explanation was that the Dioceses were linked because of the oil industry. Nobody was fooled.

I don’t pretend to agree with everything that has happened in the Scottish Episcopal Church since the consecration of Bishop Seabury. Indeed, I don’t pretend to agree with anything that has happened in the Scottish Episcopal Church since the consecration of Bishop Seabury. Trendy nonsense like accepting the Union between Scotland and England. Praying for the Elector of Hanover in 1788 as if he were King.

Primus, things were falling to bits even then. But the Synod of Laurencekirk in 1804 ― that’s when the rot really began. Assenting (now happily revoked) to the 39 Articles. That’s 39 too many. We should have told Lord Thurlow then what we should tell Dr Williams now: the Episcopal Church may well be an apple short of a picnic ― but if I’ve anything to do with it, it’s going to remain 39 Articles short of a Covenant.

Fortunately, help and support were on hand from our daughter in America. There was a time when every Episcopalian child was familiar with The Orange Sacrilege, the poem written in the 1840s by Arthur Cleveland Coxe, Bishop of Western New York, and its stirring cry,

“They’ve robbed thee of thine altars;

They’ve ta’en thine ancient name,

But thou’rt the Church of Scotland

Till Scotland melts in flame!”

Bishop Cleveland Coxe had a vivid pen as he described the sad fate of our martyred Kirk:

“Then leave to grim Genevans

Cathedral, choir and aisle;

Let psalms of Covenanters [well, I didn’t write this]

Be quavered there awhile.

The very stones shall flout them,

In beauty built, and might,

For Apostolic service

And high Liturgic rite.”

Then he told of revival after the Penal Times.

“See after See uprearing

Once more the shattered Cross;

Once more a Bishop treading

The heathery braes of Ross.

Oh! Then St Andrew’s crosier

Shall once more be upheld,

And the Culdee mitre glisten

In Brechin and Dunkeld.”

“In Edin’s high cathedral,

No more the fish-wife’s voice;

In Glasgow’s crypts and cloisters

No more the rabble’s choice;

O’er Elgin’s choir in blessing

The Moray shepherd’s smile,

And none of Scotland bishop-less.

(Except, perhaps, Argyll . . . )”

OK. I made that last bit up.

But, as it says in Nursery Rhymes for Episcopalian Children, published recently by the Liturgy Committee:

“As I was coming down the stair

I met a man who wasn’t there.

He’s not been there for quite a while ―

He is the Bishop of Argyll.”

And Bishop Cleveland Coxe pointed to America as the land of the future for the Episcopalian idea:

“When o’er the Western waters

They seek for crook and key,

The Lord shall make like Hannah’s

Thy poor and low decree.

Thou o’er new worlds the sceptre

Of Shiloh shalt extend,

And a long line of children

From thy sad breast descend.”

“And when at last old Scotland,

Her chiefs and her true men,

Her Highlands and her Lowlands

Shall find their hearts again,

Then tremble, Rowan Williams,

Within the Lollards’ Tower!

See Katharine Jefferts Schori

Advance in might and power!”

OK, I made the last four lines up, too. But you get the message.

There is one thing I must say to you, Bishop. We are not a respectable kirk. Certain types of people make fun of us and scorn us. “Anything goes.” I have a number of extremely conservative Tridentinist Roman friends, mostly former Episcopalians, who laugh at me as “the only Pisky in the village” and accuse me of attending fertility sacrifices to the moon-Goddess at St Columba’s-by-the-Castle, but I shut them up by telling them that the Mass of Trent would be a perfectly valid rite if only it had an Epiclesis.

Well, I don’t mind not being respectable. I’ve read of Someone else who wasn’t respectable.

“Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners.” (Matthew 11.19)

Bishop Forbes of Brechin famously used to go visiting in the slums of Dundee with a Prayer Book in one pocket and a flask of spirits in the other. Once, he gave sixpence to a known scoundrel and his chaplain remonstrated with him,

“Bishop, he’ll only drink it.”

Forbes replied,

“If I were as poor as that man, I’d drink it too.”

There are many tags or mottoes descriptive of various churches.

“Securus judicat orbis terrarum,” (the verdict of the whole world is conclusive”), a phrase from St Austin often used to describe our younger sister, the Church of Rome.

“Nec tamen consumebatur,” (“and nevertheless it was not consumed”) for the established Kirk of Scotland.

We have the Pub Sign’s “Evangelical Truth and Apostolic Order”.

All these are valid notes of the Church. But what I hope may be described as the SPECIAL note of the Episcopal Church ― well, I wonder if any of you know the short story by that unfashionable author, Rudyard Kipling, “On the Gate, a Tale of 1916”? C S Lewis or G K Chesterton never wrote anything better. It’s wartime. St Peter is receiving sinners at Heaven’s gate and it’s pandemonium. Death is watching as St Peter uses every trick in the book to ensure that no-one is turned away (and if you think that’s too sloppy and sentimental, think of 1 Timothy 2.4, where Paul says that Christ desires everyone to be saved ― with an unmistakeable hint of “whether they want to be, or not” ― and the Parable of the Lost Sheep in Matthew 18). A woman appears. A woman who has done some shameful things, but also good and kind things. A worried Seraph approaches St Peter.

“It’s her civilian record, sir. I judged best to refer it to you.”

The Seraph handed him a vivid scarlet docket.

“The next time,” said St. Peter . . . “that you get one of these, er, tinted forms, mark it Q.M.A. and pass the bearer at once. Don’t worry over trifles.”

The Seraph flashed off and returned to the clamorous Gate.

“Which Department is Q.M.A.?” said Death. St. Peter chuckled.

“It’s not a department. It’s a Ruling. ‘Quia multum amavit.’ [“Because she hath loved much.”] “A most useful Ruling. I’ve stretched it to . . . [oh, you wouldn’t believe].”

“Quia multum amavit.” [“Because she hath loved much.”]

God grant that that may be pleaded for the Episcopal Church ― Scottish and American ― at the gate of Heaven.

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6 thoughts on “General Synod After Dinner Speech by Robin Angus

  1. I do love ‘On the Gate’ –

    Wonderful, Robin – and I still remember a couple of wonderful limericks of yours.

  2. I too remember Robin’s ditties on the back of the Scotsman at Hogmanay, looking back over the year. Very funny. What a gift!

    Are you really blushing now, Robin?

  3. > Are you really blushing now, Robin?

    Even more than I usually do when I think of you, sweet Mother Ruth!

    Rosemary, I do remember rhyming “Hannah” with “the Calvinist banner”, but I can’t remember the rest!

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