Important Dates In the Early Life of the Scottish Episcopal Church

The first Christians in the land that would become Scotland are most likely to have been soldiers in the Roman Legions and their families - for a time the northern border of the Roman Empire was the Antonine Wall in central Scotland, although there were frequent forays further north. The first Christian in our land whose name is known is Ninian, consecrated as a Bishop in Rome by the Pope in the 4th century shortly before the Legions withdrew from Britain.

There was simply one Church in Scotland from the earliest days until the Reformation of 1560, and it was in communion with the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. Mid-way through this period the Diocese of Moray was founded in 1114, with Gregory appointed as the its first Bishop by Pope Paschal ll, who was a monk of the Cluniac Order.

Within this united church in Scotland there were differing shades of opinion, such as the 7th century clash between the Roman and Celtic parts of the church and later the question of whether Scotland (without an Archbishop until 1472) was subject to an Archbishop in England. In a piece of deft diplomacy the Pope settled the matter in 1188 by declaring Scotland’s Church “a special daughter, subject only to the Bishop of Rome”.

However, eventually the “shades” deepened into divisions, which led to the Reformation and, in 1560 the emergence of separate denominations. Initially these were the Episcopal, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic Churches and of them the Episcopalians and Presbyterians have each at times (even the same time) been called “The Church of Scotland”. The name continues for the Presbyterian Church to this day while in the Episcopal Church it continued to be used for nearly 300 years, well into the 19th century. That name was followed, for just ten years by The Protestant Episcopal Church in Scotland, then The Episcopal Church in Scotland and currently The Scottish Episcopal Church.

1560 The Scottish Parliament removes the Pope’s authority in Scotland, forbids the Mass and restricts the administration of Sacraments to those admitted as preachers. The legality of the Acts is uncertain as the young Queen Mary constantly declines to ratify them. The General Assembly of the Church comes into being, with both Ministers and Lay Commissioners as members. “Superintendents” replace bishops.  The Roman wing of the Church is never again the “Established” Church of Scotland and for almost three hundred years the word “Bishop” almost always refers to those in what becomes the Episcopal Church. It was not until 1848 that bishops were once more resident in Roman Catholic Dioceses in Scotland.

The pre-Reformation bishops made no made no attempt to continue the Apostolic Succession of Bishops and several, including the Bishops of Caithness, Orkney and Galloway, joined the Reformers and continued to have authority in their former dioceses. Of the two archbishops the Archbishop of Glasgow was the Ambassador to France in 1560 and remained there until his death forty-three years later. The Archbishop of St Andrews, John Hamilton, brother of the Earl of Arran, the former Regent, went through difficult days. He was imprisoned in 1563 and after his release  was an active supporter of Mary, Queen of Scots. He baptised her infant son, the future James Vl and l, and pronounced her divorce from the Earl of Bothwell. He was present at the Battle of Langside, which ended Mary's hopes of regaining the Crown. A kinsman of the archbishop murdered the Regent, the Earl of Moray, in 1570 and John Hamilton was executed at Stirling the following year.

On Apostolic Succession it may be noted that Patrick Forbes, Bishop of Aberdeen from 1618 to 1635, thought of this as having three forms -  either an unbroken succession of Presbyters (which he regarded as the basic form); or an unbroken succession of Bishops;  or the unbroken succession of Saints, those individuals who, in every generation, handed on the precious truth of God (whatever the institutional Church might be doing).

1572 The Episcopate, abolished in 1560, is restored at the Convention of Leith. John Knox, a leading advocate of the Reformation, supports the move, although bishops are now appointed, rather than consecrated, and are subject to the General Assembly.

1592 Presbyterianism is established as the Church of Scotland although the titular, appointed, bishops continue to sit in parliament.  New “bishops”, known as “Commissioners” are appointed to vacant bishoprics as King James VI realises that Presbyterianism is likely to challenge the throne itself - Andrew Melville, a leading reformer, has said that there are two kingdoms in Scotland and one is the Kirk. In this kingdom James cannot be a King, or Head, but only a member.

1603 James Vl becomes also James l of England, uniting the Crowns in a personal union but with England and Scotland continuing as separate countries, each with its own Church, Parliament and Judiciary.

1606 The Scottish Parliament removes restrictions placed on the office of bishop.

1610 Episcopacy in Scotland is restored at the Assembly of Glasgow and three of the titular bishops – John Spottiswood of Glasgow, Andrew Lamb of Brechin and Gavin Hamilton of Galloway - travel to London for consecration, returning to consecrate other bishops.

1636 Charles ll imposes a Book of Canons and a year later a Prayer Book on the Scottish Church, without consultation with the General Assembly or even all of the Bishops.

1638 Episcopacy is again abolished in Scotland by the General Assembly in response the King’s actions.  The Marquess of Hamilton, the Royal Commissioner, dissolves the Assembly, but this is ignored and the Assembly deposes all fourteen bishops from ministry (excommunicating eight of them). In continuing to meet after the Commissioner’s dissolution the Assembly is in rebellion against the king.

1639 The Wars of the Covenant begin. Fighting is initially in the north east as the Marquess of Montrose, a signatory to the Covenant, occupies Aberdeen.  The king’s army marches north from England but a truce – the Pacification of Berwick – is agreed. The Scottish Parliament confirms the decisions made by the General Assembly in the previous year.

In the end the Wars lead to the dominance of the English Parliament and the emergence of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector after the execution of Charles 1 in 1649. The Scottish Parliament, not consulted about the trial and execution of the King, proclaim Charles ll as King, although it is eleven years later before he becomes a de facto monarch.

1660 Charles II, aged thirty, is restored to the throne and Episcopacy re-established in both Scotland and England.

1661 The Scottish Parliament passes the Rescissory Act, removing Presbyterian Church government and reverting to the pre-1638 position. The Episcopal Church is once more the Church of Scotland. However, of the bishops in 1638 only Thomas Sydserf, Bishop of Galloway, remains alive.  He is appointed to the Diocese of Orkney and four new Scottish  bishops are consecrated in Westminster Abbey on December 15th by the Bishops of London, Llandaff, Worcester and Carlisle. They are James Sharp (St Andrews), Andrew Fairfoul (Glasgow), Robert Leighton (Dunblane) and James Hamilton (Galloway). They return to Scotland and within six months consecrate a further eight bishops. However, opposition to the king and the newly re-established Episcopalian Church of Scotland continues.

1688 A Revolution in England removes James Vll and ll from the throne and replaces him with his daughter Mary and her husband William, Prince of Orange.

1689 A meeting in London between William and the Bishop of Edinburgh, Alexander Rose, does not go well. The Bishop had travelled to London during the troubles of the previous year, carrying a letter of support for James VII and II from the Scottish bishops. But instead of James he meets William. The new king is willing to keep the Episcopalian form of church government in Scotland but Bishop Rose is unable to take sole responsibility for the Scottish bishops’ allegiance to the new monarchs.  At their meeting the King says “My Lord, are you going for Scotland?” The Bishop replies “Yes, sir, if you have any commands for me.” William says “I hope you will be kind to me, and follow the example of England.” The Bishop replies cautiously “I shall serve you as far as law, reason or conscience shall allow me.” King William turns away without another word.

A second opportunity for the Scottish bishops comes a few weeks later when the Convention of Estates, 150 members of the Three Estates (including the Archbishop of St Andrews, the Archbishop of Glasgow and seven bishops) meets in Edinburgh. 

William and Mary wish to win the support of the Scottish bishops (as they had done with the majority of English ones).  The Duke of Hamilton, promises that the Episcopal Church will be secure and continue as the Church of Scotland if the bishops will give the same support to the new king and queen as the English bishops are doing.  The Scottish bishops say they cannot break their oaths of allegiance to James. The first Jacobite Rising is led by John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee, who wins an initial victory at the Battle of Killiecrankie. Bonnie Dundee is, however, among those killed in the battle and the Government forces eventually end the Rising, although much of northern Scotland remains opposed to rule by William and Mary. Later in 1689 the Estates (peers, barons and burgesses) again establishes the Presbyterian Church as the Church of Scotland.

The Bishops are deprived of the income of their Dioceses and are slow to reorganise the Church as they think of the new settlement as provisional, and continue to look forward to the re-establishment of the Episcopal Church as the Church of Scotland.

The Bishop of Moray in 1689 was William Hay, who had previously been Master of the Music School in Old Aberdeen and then priest of the East Church in Perth. He was appointed as Bishop of Moray by James Vll in 1688 and following the Revolution a year later moved to Inverness (still as bishop but now without any income) and died at the home of his son-in-law, John Cuthbert of Castlehill, on March 19th 1707.

1701 the Parliament in England passes the Act of Succession, which makes it impossible for a Roman Catholic (as the Stuart King in exile and his heirs are) to become monarch. It takes six years of considerable pressure before the Scottish Parliament, reluctantly, passes a similar Act, which led soon afterwards to the Union of the Parliaments. Sophia, Dowager Electress of Hanover, by-passes more than fifty nearer claimants to become heir-apparent.

1714 Queen Anne, James Vll and ll’s younger daughters who had followed William and Mary as Queen, dies (two months after Sophia of Hanover) and the new King is Sophia’s son, George l.

1715, 1719 and 1745 The Hanoverian succession triggers further, un-successful, Jacobite Risings – in the first almost the entire Army is Episcopalian and in the last 70% of it is so. In the years which followed penal laws made life difficult for both Episcopal clergy and church members and when the Scottish Episcopalians Relief Act was passed by the Westminster Parliament in 1792 there were just four bishops and 40 priests in Scotland, ministering to 5% of the population. Just over a 100 years earlier at the time of the Revolution there had been a Bishop in thirteen of the 14 Dioceses and 600 clergy ministering to 66% of the population.

The end of persecution did not, however, bring back the buildings lost at the Revolution and the 19th century saw both new churches built (coinciding with the Oxford Movement which sought to restore the sacramental nature of worship and architecture) and diocesan structures firmly re-established - in place of a College of Bishops who governed the whole church without necessarily having diocesan responsibilities. The governance of the Church was also widened beyond the Bishops to include, first, representative clergy and, secondly lay representatives.

Today the Episcopal Church maintains a parish structure (there is no part of Scotland which is not within an Episcopalian geographical charge) and has 350 churches with the Church of Scotland having 1700 congregations and, south of the Border, the Church of England over 16,000.

My thanks to Gerald Stranraer-Mull for his allowing me to use the information from the website – - and his advice in compiling this brief history.

Gerald Stranraer-Mull is Dean Emeritus of the Diocese of Aberdeen and Orkney and also Warden of the Community of Our Lady of the Isles in Shetland, and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. He lives in the village of Muir of Ord in Ross-shire.