SCOTLAND: Big role for small churches, says new primus

July 8, 2009

Minority churches can play a significant role if they are confident, outgoing and learn to engage with the whole of society, says the new primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, Bishop David Chillingworth, who notes that sectarianism still exists in parts of Scotland.

"The Scottish Episcopal Church has a very rich history," Chillingworth, who is bishop of St. Andrews, Dunkeld and Dunblane, told Ecumenical News International. "We need to review that rich history and become more certain and confident about our place in Scottish society today."

He explained that his Anglican Communion denomination is a small church compared to the much larger (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland.

"[The Scottish Episcopal Church] has felt acutely its status as a 'minority' church. We need to learn to engage with the whole of Scottish society in partnership with other churches," said the bishop.

He was elected primus on June 13; his church has 250,000 members. Appearing on television after his election, Chillingworth said, "I come from a minority church in Ireland. Minority churches are really interesting places. They are close knit, and they are part of what sustains the identity of their membership."

He added, "The more secular it is, the better for a small church because it means it is more open and we can begin to work with people from the very beginning, and not actually have the barrier of tired former denominational connections of any kind."

The new primus was born in Dublin in 1951 and grew up in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. He studied at Trinity College, Dublin, and then Oriel College, Oxford. He trained for the Anglican priesthood at nearby Ripon College, Cuddeson, and spent most of his ministry in difficult areas of Belfast before moving to Scotland in 2005.

In Ireland, Chillingworth founded the Hard Gospel Project, which is an initiative to improve the lives of young people.

"It was a response to the situation in which the churches in Ireland found themselves during the years of conflict," Chillingworth told ENI. "It is easy to lament the deep sectarianism of a divided society. It is more challenging for a church to recognize that the same sectarianism is present in the lives of its clergy and people."

He added, "Sectarianism is still a major factor in Scottish life, particularly in the west of Scotland." This is an area where there has long been antagonism between Protestants and Catholics.

The bishop, whose wife's job as a social worker meshes with his, spoke of the need to develop a cohort of younger stipendiary (paid) priests who would approach full-time ministry as a lifetime commitment. He added, "We have more clergy per member of our church than almost any other Anglican church."

Still, while the SEC has 512 available clergy, only 150 are in full time and paid parish work.

There are 250 non-stipendiary clerics, who have often been ordained late in life, and 147 retired clergy.

Some church members say that it is a concern to them that about 75 percent of the full time clergy in the SEC are from England, as only English people apply for church posts.