The Church in Scotland in 2015 – Part 2
Last week we looked at the reason for the continuing decline of The Church of Scotland. (https://theweeflea.wordpress.com/2015/03/20/ten-reasons-why-the-church-of-scotland-is-in-decline/)
This week I want to reflect on what some are terming ‘Post-Presbyterian’ Scotland. This idea behind this is that Presbyterianism has traditionally practiced in Scotland is now past its sell by date and its time we move on to a new expression of church. It is of course understandable that those who have experienced the dreadful church politics, the stifling bureaucracy and the endless meetings with church ‘legalese’ being the main language, should not wish to return to that. But what does post-Presbyterian mean?
The idea is that in a post-modern, post-Christian secular society, the concept of a national Presbyterian church, with one congregation in every parish, is no longer a viable one. Indeed the trouble is that it has not been viable for many decades, with several Presbyterian denominations claiming, at least in theory, to be that national denomination, with the result that in some areas of the Highlands you had small communities with four or five Presbyterian churches all claiming to be the Church of Scotland; the Free Church of Scotland, the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, The Free Church (Continuing) Church of Scotland, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland etc. To say nothing of the APC, IPC and of course the Church of Scotland.
Some people of course rejoice in this multi- Presbyterian Scotland but I am more inclined to despair at the increasing plethora of denominations. To paraphrase Solomon, of making many churches there is no end and much church politics wearies the soul. My sympathies are with those who have had enough of Presbyterian Church politics and who just want to get on with the work of the Gospel. So what is their solution?
They want to retain the basic Presbyterian structure of the local congregation (with ministers, elders and deacons) but to exchange the more national structures of a Presbyterian church (Presbyteries, Synods, General Assemblies along with their attendant committees, administration and church ‘courts’) for a more loosely defined ‘network’. The idea is that we all as brothers and sisters will all share, conference, communicate, discipline and love one another, as we work together to advance the Gospel. It’s a very attractive notion. But it is a realistic utopian concept that in my view will not work. Why?
On the negative side it is highly likely that we will just end up exchanging official bureaucracies that get in the way of the work of the Kingdom, for unofficial networks based on personalities and individual ambitions and foibles, which will get in the way of the work of the kingdom. In such networks we inevitably will only work with PLUS (People Like Us). Thomas Chalmers in his wonderful six lectures on the Establishment Principle given in London explained that one of the reasons for an establishment was that if you left individual churches to just follow their own path you would end up with plenty churches in Broughty Ferry, Morningside and Bearsden, whilst the poorer (and more receptive?) areas of the country would largely be left alone. My fear is that we will end up creating middle class networks that import grand ideas from outside (primarily England and the US) but will do little for the vast majority of Scotland’s population. We need the city centre churches and the leafy suburban churches, but we need them to be in alliance with the small town churches, the scheme churches and the rural churches. I don’t believe that ‘networks’ based on PLUS will achieve that.
The problem is that no matter what network or systems we have we are all still sinners. And sin really has a habit of getting in the way. Which is why I can so identify with Martin Luther’s idea that we need to repent every day! Because we are sinners we need structures.
I agree entirely that we don’t need the kind of Presbyterian structures that revel in bureaucracy, legalise and formal procedures that seem designed to suck all innovation and life out of the local church. But does it have to be that way? Often those who advocate the Post-Presbyterian concept come from a background of Independency or the type of Anglicanism that seems to regard the denomination solely as a property manager. But I am a convinced biblical Presbyterian and I am reluctant to give up on an ecclesiology that I think is mandated by the New Testament. I realize that there are my brothers and sisters who will disagree with that, and therefore we will just have to agree to disagree on what is after all a secondary issue. It is true that there will be no presbyteries in heaven; it is also true that there will be no marriages! That does not mean that we have to do away with either on earth!
I believe that what post-modern, post-Christian Scotland actually needs is more churches and a renewal and reformation. And I believe that a renewed Presbyterian system could be one of the key factors in achieving that. In fact, Presbyterianism is uniquely placed to be used in that process. Why? What does it offer?
Firstly it offers collective leadership. We really don’t need the kind of mega-church (or for that matter mini-church) based on an individual leader. Just because we have suffered from Presbyterian Popes in the past in Scotland, does not mean that we have to exchange the whole system for Independent ones! Collective leadership in a local congregation is essential, and collective leadership at a regional, national and international scale is also a necessary condition for a biblical ecclesiology. Do we really think that a situation in which ‘each does what seems right in their own eyes’ is a recipe for anything other than anarchy, factionalism and fragmentation?
Secondly we need connected congregations. I know we say that we will do that in terms of networks, friends and so on. But will we? Will that not be subject to the pressures of time, finance and whether we actually like or get on with those who we want to connect with? What I like about the local church is that I don’t get to choose its members – they are not just my friends or people I agree with. We are a mixed and varied bunch (with all the problems that creates). Why can’t that be the same at a regional and national level? People say they don’t want to be tied. I do. St Peters is a local city centre, university type congregation. I want us to be tied to churches in Perth, St Andrews, Broughty Ferry, Charleston, Kirkton, Alyth etc. And I do want to be tied to churches in the rest of the country. I want us to share resources, pray for one another and work together for the good of the kingdom.
Thirdly I think Presbyterianism can bring what I would call community cohesion. We are not all one age, race, gender, social class etc. We come from many different backgrounds and sometimes local churches will reflect that. But often the danger is that a local church will just reflect one main background and will then naturally link with those who are similar to them. This is not good for the health of the body. It is not good for the Christian community and it is not good for outreach to the wider community. In a vibrant biblical Presbyterian system you would have a denomination with, for example, a large youth conference, which would help those young people who are in small churches with little or not fellowship amongst their peers. You would be able to offer ministerial training, youth camps, missionary outreach, church planting, discipleship courses etc. that would all be consistent with and subject to the churches doctrinal standards. If the price of this is a little bureaucracy then so be it. I have noticed that some individual large churches which are very strong on their own independence, themselves have significant administration and bureaucracy (which is probably needed because they have a lot to administer!), but that cannot apply to the vast majority of churches. Presbyterianism allows us to have the advantages of good administration without us all having to be mega churches to afford it.
Fantasy or Reality?
I suppose that there are those who think that all the above is either trivial or fanciful. That having critiqued others for putting forward an unworkable system, I have just done the same thing! Maybe they are right. However I believe it is workable, not because it will deliver a perfect church (not possible this side of glory) but because it is based on biblical principles and seems to be ideally suited to the current state of our wider society. Churches which are well led, connected and have a community cohesion will, by Gods grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, be used to glorify Christ in Scotland once again.
Let it be!