We’re NOT English Kirk
by Ron Harris
AFTER 150 years, it’s time to put the record straight about one of Lanark’s churches.
As Christ Church approaches its historic milestone of a century and a half in existance, its current clergyman is attempting to finally rid it of its traditional but, some claim, totally unfair nickname of ‘The English Kirk’.
Indeed, the Episcopalian place of worship in Hope Street should, by rights, be known as ‘The Tartan Church’ instead, argues Dan Gefvert.
Perhaps taking the purely neutral view you’d expect from a Swedish Lutheran, born, brought up and educated well away from the given history and myths of this country’s religious, cultural and political conflicts, Dan has used the forthcoming anniversary of the founding of his church in Lanark to correct some popular misconceptions about the Scottish Episcopal Church.
Far from being just the Church of England’s North British Branch, it actually has a rather fiercely patriotic Scottish track record, including preserving the nation’s ancient Celtic Christian roots and championing King Robert the Bruce!
Dan recounts that Scotland’s first Christians were probably converted Roman soldiers and the first known historical figure promoting Christianity in Scotland was St Ninian in around 350AD, although there were probably already established Christian enclaves in parts of what was still to become a united and recognisable nation of Scotland.
He says that the roots of a Celtic Church can be taken from the spreading of ‘The Word’ by monks from Iona in the 500ad’s to the Scots in Dalriada and the Picts down into what is now Northumberland.
He states: “The Celtic church was Episcopalian, with its strong reverence of Holy Communion but, in the same way, it favoured both the feministic view of the church as well as the perception of the original blessing, feministic being a gentler approach to life issues and a natural view of life as well as nature,”
This, of course, brought many conflicts with the Roman branch of the church, with differences over issues ranging from the existence of original sin to separate monasteries for men and women, the old Celts favouring the concept of original blessing instead and ‘mixed’ monasteries.
However, Queen Margaret used her influence to bring the Scottish Church into line with the then practice of Christianity in England and, through it, Rome.
However, the independent streak in Scottish Episcopal-thinking still survived, its Bishops recognising the claim to the throne of Robert the Bruce a full four years before Bannockburn!
The decline of morals and church practice led, in the 1500’s, to the Reformation and, following The Reformation Parliament of 1560, led to a deep split between the Presbyterian and Episcopalian communities, the Celtic north and west of Scotland being mainly Episcopal while the south was Presbyterian.
After many years of division and confusion, some order was brought to the issue with the Scottish Episcopal Church coming into being as a distinct denomination after the Stuarts were deposed in the revolution of 1688; the separate Calvinistic Presbyterian Church went on to become the Church of Scotland.
Dan says that the Episcopalians maintained their independence as they felt it important to hold onto the practice of having Bishops and keeping a structure that went back to the very roots of Celtic Christianity.
This included its special reverence of sacraments, liturgy, saints and creational unity.
However, the Presbyterians truly had the upper hand and engineered the suppression of the newly formalised Episcopal Church in Scotland in 1689, leading to what Dan describes as the “defining episode” in the church’s – and Scotland’s – history.
“Whilst the Presbyterian Church of Scotland was loyal to the new Protestant English monarchy of the Hanovarians, the Episcopalians remained faithfully Jacobite, loyal to the Stuarts.
“The Episcopal Church was in the front line of the Jacobite struggle, especially during the 1715 and 45 Risings.
“This was part of the struggle to remain as a church for the Scots founded on the old Celtic traditions.”
Almost inevitably, the defeat at Culloden signalled some very hard times for the Episcopal Church, its clergy being intimidated, imprisoned or transported to America; many of their churches were destroyed or taken over by the ascendant Presbyterians.
As Dan puts it: “Together with the tartan and bagpipes, the Episcopal Church was banned!”
Far from being ‘The English Kirk’, Dan claims that the Episcopal Church was seen at the time as one of the main planks of Scottish nationalism and its suppression was an attempt to pacify parts of a still rebellious nation.
The victimisation led to Bishops being deprived of their livings and priests being turned out of their churches.
Later, there were further blows to the church in its Highland homelands with the Clearances which amounted, in certain areas, to ethnic cleansing and the exile of thousands of adherents to the church and their clergy being exiled to North America.
Steadily, however, more liberal attitudes prevailed and the legal penalties on the church eased.
However, it was not until the mid-1850’s that there was full liberty for the church and its members and it is notable that a large proportion of the church’s buildings, including Lanark’s Christ Church, date from this time when the Episcopal Church was finally, fully ‘accepted’ by the establishment.
Dan explains: “The old Celtic Episcopal Church had now become an independent province of the Anglican Communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury as the main focus for unity.
“It is sometimes known as The English Church (or Kirk) but this is misleading because the Scottish Episcopal Church is fully independent and Scottish and has been since the days of the first Celtic missionaries to Scotland around 400AD.
“The nickname probably has its roots in the way Episcopalian congregations managed to survive by using priests educated in England.”
He speculates that it was actually the long persecution in Scotland the Episcopal Church suffered for sticking to its Celtic roots that, with supreme irony, drove it to finding security within the Anglican Communion!
The church in Hope Street is one of several Episcopalian places of worship celebrating its 150th anniversary at around this time; this was due to the Victorian liberation of the church from its previous legal constraints.
That century and a half has seen changes such as the establishment of a General Synod, development of self-supporting and women’s ministries and, says Dan, a re-awakening of the church’s awareness of its Celtic past.
As for the church in Hope Street which is now his charge, it was consecrated on Lady Day (March 25), 1858.
This was the climax of eight years of work to establish a home for the Lanark congregation by the Rector of St Mary’s Church in Hamilton, the Very Rev. Dean Alexander Henderson.
The creation of St Mary’s was very much a ‘home made’ effort, the architect being John Henderson, the Dean’s brother and designer of no less than 27 Episcopal churches during that period.
The only major alteration to building since was the side aisle added in 1923 as a War Memorial.
The then-Rector, the Rev William Lyon and his family, gifted the church the beautiful Carara marble carved choir and sanctuary; he also donated the carved oak pulpit as a tribute to his three brothers who died in World War One.
The font cover and reredos were carved by Major-General Stevenson, a congregation member.
The traditional Gothic style building is now Grade B Listed and remains one of Lanark’s most beautiful buildings.
It remains part of the United Diocese of Glasgow and Galloway and covers an area of 400 square miles, including the Biggar and Douglas areas to the south and Carluke to the north.
It is almost certain that Christ Church will survive to celebrate its 200th anniversary – by which time, Dan no doubt hopes, folk might even have stopped calling it The English Kirk!
* Ron Harris and the Gazette would like to say thanks to Dan Gafvert and Lanark Library for help in supplying the information for this article.