In 1588 some sailors from the fleeing Spanish Armada are said to have been shipwrecked off a Scottish coastal town. The inhabitants gave them food and shelter; proved to them from Scripture that the pope was Antichrist; and arranged a treaty with the Spaniards whereby the said town gained commercial advantages over the rest of Britain. The modern Scot is as hospitable (and would have you believe that his commercial instinct is still as highly developed), but he no longer goes around smelling out Jesuit plots and hurling indelicate epithets at an elderly Italian ecclesiastic. The Scottish policy, indeed, might now be summed up by slightly amending Thomas Boston’s words: “Remember, I pray you, this is a very ill-chosen time to live at a distance from Rome.”

How has this developed? In April 1961 some 35 Church of Scotland ministers and elders attended as individuals a day-conference with Roman Catholics in Sancta Maria Abbey, Nunraw. This was not known till two months later. A further meeting took place in Edinburgh in January this year. In March the moderator visited the Vatican. In April representatives of Glasgow Presbytery met with Roman Catholic delegates in a Glasgow convent.

The historic question naturally arises. Stands Scotland where she did? “The theological gulf between Rome and Protestantism,” writes Anglican scholar J. I. Packer, “remains just as great as it was four centuries ago, if not, indeed, greater (for papal infallibility and the Man-doctrines have been promulgated since then).” True, but is this sufficient reason for us to retreat into our “citadel of spiky Presbyterianism” and refuse to give the other side a hearing?

Rome is anxious to explain to “separated brethren” where Protestants have misconstrued Roman doctrine and practice. “For ourselves,” comments the Free Kirk Monthly Record, “we have read and heard Rome’s ‘explanations’ and find that … they are very much what we had always understood them to be … the complete contradiction of the teaching of Holy Scripture.” A more revealing insight is afforded by the Scottish Catholic Herald: “At one time the reconversion of Scotland was a meaningful phrase only for Catholics. But now that the Christian faith no longer means anything to the majority of Scots, the reconversion of Scotland has become the common concern of all sincere Christians.”

Looking at the Church of Scotland position, the impression is given that someone backstage has put in a tremendous amount of homework to build up an atmosphere of sweet reasonableness which made it seem churlish to criticize the inter-church meetings and the moderatorial call on the pope (“what is wrong with one old man wanting to shake hands with another?”). However, after the professional Protestants had dashed into battle and ruined their case by typical overstatement, the clerk to Glasgow Presbytery issued an unhappily-worded pronouncement on the convent visit: “If anyone feels that he cannot do it, I would suggest it is not his function as a Presbyterian, but his function as a Christian that he ought to look at with great care.”

Many Presbyterians are applauding these interchanges for the wrong reason. Looking for a theological lowest common denominator, they shift the emphasis to let’s-believe-it-together and let-sleeping-dogmas-lie. Somewhere they lose sight of the fact that the quest for unity is justifiable only as one manifestation of the quest for spiritual revival. Without the desire for all-round holiness, a man could discover the ecumenical trail to be a dangerous diversion which demands and saps his energies to no purpose.

An unhappy feature of these developments is that the moderator who crossed the continent to go to Rome did not take the opportunity last May of crossing the street (literally) on a similar courtesy mission to his fellow-moderator in the Free Kirk which claims descent from the Disruption of 1843. One-way ecumenicity leads to misunderstanding.

It is clear that Rome is leading on points—she has not budged an inch, has acquired much effective propaganda, and has acted as host at all four known meetings. The Convener of the Church and Nation Committee of the Kirk is reported as having expressed the hope that this would mean official recognition by Rome of the place and standing of the Church of Scotland! Yet, as a Scotsman editorial points out, the Church of Rome’s attitude to the ecumenical movement is too candid to arouse false hopes, and (significant words) “a similar clarity of thinking elsewhere would be helpful.”

A further issue is that Rome is seen at her best in Scotland (as in England and North America); but because she claims to be a universal church she should be judged on the basis of a world view which includes Colombia, Spain and Malta. It will then be seen that Protestantism is a two-time loser, for as the French Louis Veuillot put it last century: “Where we Catholics are in the minority, we demand freedom in the name of your principles; where we are in the majority, we deny it in the name of our principles.”

Article continues below

It is two years since Scotland celebrated the fourth centenary of the Reformation; two years since the Roman Catholic archivist for Scotland boasted that though John Knox had banned the Mass for ever, 1,000 Masses were now daily said in the country. Even peaceful coexistence is a myth in the face of this determined well-organized army (all one body they) bent on securing nothing less than unconditional surrender and making no bones about it.

Despite these semi-secret conclaves, there is no danger as long as the Church of Scotland continues to profess the Westminster Confession of Faith as her subordinate standard. Even diluted as it is by sundry Declaratory Acts, it commits the Kirk to a position irreconcilable to that of Rome. When that fact is reluctantly grasped by those who should have known it all along, a word from Thoreau might not be out of place: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.