To most Britons, an Anglican bishop is not usually seen as a subversive figure. To a public conditioned by the Cathedral Close fables of Anthony Trollope or those figures of ecclesiastical fun from All Gas and Gaiters, bishops are odd, but essentially harmless. They are to be ranked with over-enthusiastic vegetarians, dedicated topiarists or zealous croquet-players. Mildly interesting, perhaps, but of little real importance. The kind of old buffer whose hand you are happy to shake at the Saint Trollop's garden fete in the hope that his pieties don't keep you from the beer tent.
Not so in Scotland. In Scotland, the word "bishop" conjures up something very different. Even now, more than 300 years after the event, it conjures up the "killing times" of the 1680s, when the late Stuarts - that crew of arrogant stumblebums - did their best to ram Anglicanism down the throats of Presbyterians by foisting bishops into the organisation of the Church of Scotland. In the process, they tortured and hanged dozens, maybe hundreds, of ministers, elders and their families. Ever since, "bishop" has been anathema to Scottish Presbyterians.
This is why next month's General Assembly of the Church of Scotland promises to be one of the most interesting for many years. At this event, it will consider a report by an inter-church organisation called the Scottish Church Initiative For Union (SCIFU) which recommends that the Church of Scotland should form a union with the Scottish Episcopal Church and the United Reformed Church. And the price of that union would be that Episcopalian (ie, Anglican) bishops would be installed in the government of the Church of Scotland. This is all to be achieved within a decade. Some interesting debates are expected when the ministers and elders assemble at the top of the Mound. Whether SCIFU will manage to do what James VII and II failed to do remains to be seen. At the moment, it seems highly unlikely, although the SCIFU report has been remarkably well received by the Scottish press. Hardly a media voice has been raised in protest. The Scotsman, that noticeboard of the Edinburgh establishment, opined : "Ten years may not be long enough to reconcile 700,000 church members to losing their particular traditions and identities. But the aim is a fine one, and the support from scripture is strong." The Evening News, its sister paper, was just as enthusiastic.
But the support of scripture and the Scottish press might not be enough. Installing bishops into the Scottish Church is certain to be a long and very painful business even in these agnostic days. There will be constitutional problems too. The Act of Union of 1707 will see to that. The Church of Scotland may not be built into the constitutional bricks in the way that the Church of England is (with the British monarch as its head and with 26 bishops in the House of Lords), but the Kirk is "by Law established".
And, according to Article XXV of the Act of Union: "Presbyterian Church Government and Discipline. Shall be the only Government of the Church within the Kingdom of Scotland." Not only that, but the act binds all British monarchs to "inviolably maintain and preserve the True Protestant Religion" (ie, Presbyterianism).
This is as prescriptive as it can get. Oddly, the SCIFU report sees no problem. It blithely states, as if that would solve the problem: "The relationship between the united Church and the state would be set out in the Act of Union." But the Reverend Sheila Kesting, who is SCIFU's secretary, accepts there are constitutional sensitivities. She says that the plan's opponents may well reach for the Act of Union as a blocking strategy. And the ecumenicals may find that, in these devolutionary days, the British government might be very reluctant to tamper with the Act of Union.
The fact is that the bishop in all his glory represents an essential difference between Anglicanism and Presbyterianism. The bishop is a symbol of an ecclesiastical hierarchy that is alien to Presbyterianism. The Church of Scotland has no pecking order. Kirk ministers are elected by their congregations; they are not appointed by superiors. The moderators of presbyteries are temporary, elected chairmen, and that is all. The moderator of the General Assembly is only a representative of the Kirk, not the leader. He holds the job for one year and one year only. The Kirk's only head is Jesus Christ. These are powerful differences between the two systems, and they count.
They certainly counted strongly enough to scupper previous attempts at church union. In 1957, a 31-strong committee representing the Church of Scotland, the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Church of England and the Presbyterian Church of England issued a report that became notorious as the "bishops' report". It dropped on the Kirk like a bombshell. It recommended that the Kirk and the Scottish Episcopal Church should become one, but the only way this could be done was by having ordained Episcopalian bishops becoming full-time moderators of local presbyteries. And Kirk ministers would be required to accept ordination from bishops.
In the days when the Kirk had more than a million paid-up members and the Scottish Episcopal Church numbered around 50,000 (which it still does), this looked like the Episcopalian tail wagging the Presbyterian dog. That point was seized on by the editor of the Scottish Daily Express, Ian McColl, who happened to be a Kirk elder and proud of it. For the next two years, McColl ran a ferocious "No Bishops in the Kirk" campaign, which ended with the bishops' report being slung out by the 1959 General Assembly. Interestingly, McColl had the support of his boss, Lord Beaverbrook, a dyed-in-the-wool Presbyterian and the son of a minister.
The ecumenicals were down, but not out. In fact, they just went underground. In January 1966, a series of "confidential" meetings between assorted Kirk and Anglican leaders took place in Holland House (one of Edinburgh University's halls of residence). The idea was to see what could be rescued from the ecumenical wreckage. Unfortunately for the divines, McColl got wind of the proceedings and blew the whistle on them, claiming that it was yet another attempt to foist bishops on the Church of Scotland. Once again, the Scottish Daily Express whipped Presbyterianism's defenders into action. And the Holland House conversations (or "plot" as McColl called them) ran into the sand.
McColl and his supporters always claimed that the whole thing was naked ecclesiastical imperialism by the Church of England. This notion was given some credence by the lather some Church of England bishops got themselves into over their defeat. The Bishop of Peterborough accused McColl of having "shamelessly exploited" the historic suspicion of the Scots over bishops. The Bishop of Bristol (who led the Church of England delegation to Holland House) was even more upset. He denounced the "tyrannous pretensions of this strident spokesman of the Fourth Estate" (ie, McColl) and went on to accuse him of "shrill vituperation and gross distortion". McColl, that pious Kirk elder, was painted as an agent of Satan himself.
But while supporters of traditional Presbyterianism may have won the battles of the 1950s and 1960s, it is not at all clear that they have won the war. Ecumenism is a tenacious idea. It did not go away. The dust from the Holland House row had hardly settled when Presbyterian and Anglican divines met again to begin quietly chewing over their differences so that they could find ways of getting together. This they did for 28 years, ending in 1994. Then, in 1995, the Scottish Episcopalian Church came back with yet another plan for church union, which culminated in this year's SCIFU report.
There is certainly enough in the SCIFU report to raise many Presbyterian hackles. Any new "union church" would have bishops. Every new "maxi-parish" would have its bishop. Section 8.5.1 of the report states: "It seems clear that the bishop would obtain a central role in ordination." In other words, ministers of the new union church would be required to be ordained by an Anglican bishop. He would be both administrator and pastor. And it would be "he" - the Scottish Episcopal Church has not got round to accepting women bishops.
The Reverend Sheila Kesting explains the thinking: "There has been a growing feeling that the Church of Scotland lacks senior pastoral figures," she says. "That is a lack. So the bishops could act as pastor pastorum, minister to the ministers." She agrees, however, that the SCIFU report could generate cracks and splits within the Kirk - "but we do hope not".
This has prompted one Kirk elder (who is no creaking reactionary) to complain that, once again, the Episcopalian tail is trying to wag the Presbyterian dog. "Look at it this way," he says. "There are around 650,000 of us and only 50,000 of them. Why should we adopt their method of church government? If the Piskies are so keen on union with the Kirk, let them pay off their bishops and accept our system of presbyteries and moderators. But will they do that? Of course, they won't. The theory of apostolic succession means too much to them. Well, I hope the General Assembly tells them to get lost."
So it remains to be seen whether this latest attempt to fuse the Scottish versions of Presbyterianism and Episcopalianism will succeed. A great deal hangs on next month's General Assembly of the Church of Scotland being persuaded to accept the notion of bishops in the Kirk. That is not a foregone conclusion. The opposition is already mustering. The presbytery of Dumfries and Galloway, for example, is known to be bitterly opposed to any union, and is preparing a "deliberation" (ie, resolution) to dump the SCIFU report. Other presbyteries are expected to follow suit.
If the past is anything to go by, there are interesting times ahead. This is an argument that goes to the heart of Scotland's sense of its self. It is one in which most of us feel we have a stake. All kinds of people will wade in with their opinions. Just as politics are thought too important to be left to politicians, so religion is too important to be left to the religious.