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‘Ousted’ members of the vestry at St Mary’s Scottish Episcopal Church in Glencoe say the way a number of local churches are being administered by the Diocese of Argyll & The Isles could well trigger an exodus of congregation members.
The former vestry members claim they were physically locked out of church premises in a dispute over control of its assets and that their views have been virtually ignored by senior figures in the diocese administration in Oban, including the relatively new Bishop of Argyll and The Isles, the Right Reverend Dr Keith Riglin.
The row has followed a decision in 2019 to merge the six churches into one charge, West Highland Region, comprising Holy Cross in Portnacrois, Appin; St Adamnan in Duror; St Paul’s in Kinlochleven and St Bride’s at Onich, as well as St John’s in Ballachulish and St Mary’s, in Glencoe.
According to the Scottish Episcopal Church’s website, this was because these congregations were ‘so reduced in numbers/financial resources’ that they could not be sustained independently.
The changes include a single ‘vestry’ being set up for the six churches. A vestry is the term used for the committee governing a particular church and comprises roles such as secretary and treasurer.
The alleged lock-out at Glencoe is said to have followed a vote by the St Mary’s vestry to oppose the merger and reject a request to agree a transfer of local church assets to the West Highland region set-up.
Members of the vestry at St John’s Church in Ballachulish also signed the letter of objection.
Some local church-goers have even now gone so far as to call out what they see as the ‘Anglicanisation’ of the Scottish Episcopalian church in Argyll and told the Lochaber Times this was ‘driving the last of the traditional worshippers into exile’.
Bishop Riglin, who received holy orders in the Church of England in 2008, was appointed to the Diocese of Argyll & The Isles as bishop in May of last year.
At St Mary’s, several people have given many decades of long service as vestry members, with one of those, George Grant, having more than 65 years’ service as church warden.
He told us: ‘We share a minister with the other five churches but always looked after our own affairs as the local vestry. We were then asked if we would consider transferring our assets over to a central committee as part of the West Highland Region formation.
‘But the vestry voted against that, and to retain control at St Mary’s. We have sought meetings with the bishop to discuss the matter and have been constantly refused. It feels like we are just being blanked all the time.’
Mr Grant explained that originally every church controlled its own assets, be they in the form of cash savings or physical artefacts, many having been the result of legacies.
‘We were satisfied with the previous way of doing things and just contributing to a central fund. But now it seems they want everything to be centralised.’
It was after the refusal vote, Mr Grant said, that vestry members then found themselves unable to gain access to church premises and, he said that as far as he is aware church assets eventually did end up transferred to the West Highland Region.
He added: ‘The centralisation has not proved popular, certainly not with our congregation, and this has definitely driven a number of them away. It’s not a very nice situation at all.’
Asked to comment, Bishop Riglin told us: ‘I have already been contacted by some folk in Glencoe and Ballachulish about the formation of the West Highland Region – a formation agreed by the Synod of the Diocese of Argyll and The Isles.
‘Some of those concerned did appeal against this decision to the College of Bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church, but were unsuccessful.
‘Episcopalian worship continues in all six churches, all are welcome, and none are excluded.’