As we move into pre-Assembly season I want to begin a new weekly series looking at the state of the Church of Jesus Christ in Scotland, and assessing where we are, how things have changed in the past year and look at some of the opportunities and threats to us. There is no particular order to this but I hope that these musings/observations will be helpful. Like all my writing I issue these with several warnings –
- Don’t read between the lines – there ain’t none.
- I fully agree that I could be wrong, in fact I know that I will be wrong in some things…so feel free to correct (in love!)
- I don’t know the full picture – I don’t I know a fraction of it.
- I love the church of Jesus Christ, whatever the denomination. Please don’t play the denominational game.
- Please pray. For the cause of the gospel in Scotland. And act.
There is no doubt in my mind that we are in the midst of a major shaking up and many of the Lord’s people are as confused and bewildered as the culture around. As one elderly man told me, I no longer recognize my country, and I am struggling to recognize the church. So lets see if we can shed some light. Ibegin with this rather lengthy essay on the state of the Church of Scotland in 2016.
Life and Work
As I was reflecting on this I started reading the latest edition of Life and Work, the magazine of the Church of Scotland. It was very revealing about the state of that particular denomination. Don’t worry we will in future weeks look at other parts of the Church as well including my own – warts and all! But if you search ‘Church of Scotland’ you will come across several pieces on this. https://theweeflea.com/2015/04/17/church-of-scotland-blues-what-the-may-2015-assembly-reports-tell-us-about-the-state-of-the-kirk/
At the time these were written I was accused of many things, but reading over them it seems to me that what I predicted has happened, and if anything I was too mild! This is an ongoing story. To set the scene reflect on this: today I had lunch with a Roman Catholic friend who informed me that officially the RC’s are now a bigger denomination than the ‘National’ church for the first time since 1560.
On the positive side there were some interesting articles on investment, ethical banking, army chaplaincy, international justice mission, work/life balance and digital media for the poor. I was surprised how many people mentioned in these articles I actually know!
The adverts also tell us a great deal – especially for vacant churches. I often attended Tain Parish church and it is interesting and sad to see it vacant again. They want a minister who ‘loves the Lord’ and is ‘centred on Word’ and ‘dedicated to his people and share his vision’. Those who know the recent history of that congregation know the caveat that comes along with those fine words. Meanwhile our neighbouring C of S (Logies) in Dundee is praised for having an architectural competition for the local art college. Also interesting to see that my local C of S in Dundee is seeking a minister for a ‘deferred linkage’ who will ‘channel an enthusiastic and hardworking congregation”. On the other hand another old haunt of mine, Sutherland, Lairg and Rogart offers, ‘award winning beaches and a haven for all outdoor pursuits, with the promise that you are in easy reach of Inverness airport (in case you need to get away to some warmer beaches?!) Clincarthill parish in Glasgow wants a minister with a ‘strong bible teaching ministry’, whilst Kirk of Keith wants a ‘spiritually warm minister….with good pastoral skills, open minded and inclusive’. Islay and Jura stipulates ‘he or she will have a broad theological outlook’. Once you learn the code and can interpret the jargon you know what all of this means. It is to say the least, a messy and confused picture.
All of this would be fine – if somewhat bland, along with the care home, hearing aid, monumental sculpture, charity and church fabric adverts, which themselves say a great deal about the demographic the C of S is perceived to have. But the really revealing stuff is in some of the other articles.
Ron Ferguson makes what he terms a simple ‘pre-assembly argument’.
“It is this: so called conservative evangelicals and so –called liberals need one another if the church is to effectively live out its gospel in today’s tempestuous world”…”we also need the adventure of the creative holy spirit (note the lower case). He does admit that ‘we don’t get to make up Christianity as we go along. You can’t knit your own Christianity. Certain core elements of the faith are given.”
Which is of course true. Yet we wait with bated breath for the C of S establishment to tell us all what exactly are the core elements of the faith. By definition an evangelical is someone who holds to the core elements of the faith (e.g. the list Paul gives in 1 Corinthians 15) and a liberal is someone who denies some of those aspects – for example the Bible, the atonement, the virgin birth, the resurrection, heaven and hell, the necessity of the new birth etc. What Ron and other liberals are doing is redefining what ‘evangelical’ means, so that it is just a theological party within the church….it’s on a level with Baptist/Paedo Baptist (except the C of S won’t allow the former) or Post or Pre-Millennial. But that is a perversity of what evangelicalism is and if evangelicals within the C of S accepts Ron’s poisoned peace pipe they are committing suicide. Just how do you have Christian fellowship with people who deny the most basic and fundamental of Christian doctrines?
One of the sad things in Scotland over these past years has been the number of evangelicals who are prepared to work with ‘liberals’ and attack their fellow evangelicals outwith the Kirk as schismatic. C of S unity has become more important than gospel unity.
The Unity of the Church of Fundamental Importance
This article by the moderator, the evangelical Angus Morrison, backs up Ron’s appeal by suggesting that those who leave the Church of Scotland are schismatics and seem to think themselves ‘purer than thou’.
“In the church we all need to reckon with our own fallibility, not only in behaviour but in the way we interpret Scripture and understand the church’s tradition”.
Angus is an expert in Augustine and uses him to argue that those who leave the Church of Scotland to seek a ‘purer’ church are committing ‘arguably the most serious transgression of all’. There are many problems with Angus’s thesis, although it is one that some evangelicals are desperate to hang on to.
Firstly he presents a caricature of those who have left, or those evangelicals within Scotland (by far the majority) who are not part of the Church of Scotland. We are just simply people who believe with Ron that ‘certain core elements of the faith are given’, and who along with Angus believe that “There is a place for the proper exercise of church discipline”. We do not believe that we can create a pure church (although we do believe that we are called to be pure and to be holy as God is holy). We are not trying to have the judgement day before the judgement day. We are passionate about church unity…it’s just that we think it should be Christian unity, that is unity in Christ, and not political unity for the sake of preserving an establishment in a Christendom that is long gone.
The other problem with Angus’s position is that his citation of Augustine proves too much. If he is advocating Augustine’s position then the Church of Scotland should not exist – it is itself schismatic. I can understand Angus’s desire for unity, not least because he has already left two denominations, with the C of S being his third. But according to Augustine it should not be his last. If he wishes to be consistent with the position he espouses his next stop must be the Roman Catholic Church. He would not be the first former Free Presbyterian who ended up back in the Roman Catholic Church!
I’m afraid that the C of S has put itself in an impossible position – you cannot argue on the basis of Matthew 13:24-30 that one should never leave ‘mother church’ and then justify your own leaving of mother church. If the Reformation was correct, and I believe it was, then it was right for the Church of Scotland to remove itself (or be removed) from a corrupt church that denied the Word of God. It is strange to now argue that those who believe that the Church of Scotland itself has become corrupt and is denying the Word of God should never leave. To accuse them of being Pharisaical purists and schismatics is disingenuous at best. The key question here is not ‘unity for unity’s sake’ but what is the unity based on? Has the Church of Scotland departed so far from the Word of God, that it becomes almost impossible for any biblical Christian to remain within it, without compromising that Word?
One other problem with Angus’s article is that it is dated and unrealistic – he talks of situations where ‘Christian people of one small village make their way on a Sunday morning to services of worship in four, or even five, separate Presbyterian denominations’. Yes, that did happen. Yes, it was disgraceful. But that was at least twenty plus years ago. The Presbyterian denominations are far too small and weak to staff that kind of system…and if it happens at all today it is fairly rare.
By far the bigger problem are the many villages, towns, and housing estates throughout Scotland where there is no Gospel witness. No vibrant evangelical church. Only a dead and dying church, linked with other dead and dying churches, filled with the dead and dying. Our current problem is not too many churches, it is too few. Let the dead bury their dead. We need to get on with resurrection!
Image over Word
The decline of evangelicalism within the C of S is seen in the article by Rev Alastair Duncan of St Georges Tron. As I have before indicated – https://theweeflea.com/2013/12/31/367/ – the demise and decline of the Tron has been disastrous.
Of course out of the ashes has arisen a renewed and vibrant church, even though they were evicted from their building. Evangelicals went berserk at me (remember the infamous 14 anonymous evangelicals who sent me a letter?) for doubting that a new evangelical ministry would begin in the old Tron and the work of the Gospel would continue. I have no doubt that Alastair means well but the new evangelicalism as represented by this relaunched Tron is a million miles away from the church of Eric Alexander and Sinclair Ferguson.
Alastair repeats the tired old caricature that the Reformation was about destroying works of art. I say tired because although like all caricatures, there is an element of truth, the situation was far more complex than that. Alaister suggests that
‘if a picture can paint a thousand words, them might a new reformation restore art to a place of proclamation, and prevent our preaching becoming merely wallpaper’.
The Reformation sought to take the Word of God out from the scholarly disputes of the academics and the images of the approved artists (paid for by the wealthy) and instead educate every person to be able to read, hear, see and think for themselves. I am totally for using art and for encouraging art but it is through the foolishness of preaching that God primarily brings his saving Word to the people.
Even more I hate the patronizing dumbing down that occurs when middle class Christians talk about reaching ‘illiterate people’ with the gospel by using medieval forms of communication! Art is often the result of the preaching of the Word. It is not itself the preaching of the Word.
Let me issue a challenge. Let the old Tron introduce its new evangelicalism with preaching as wallpaper and art as substance and let the new Tron continue to proclaim the Word of God (with all the creative, mercy and social fruit that comes from that) and lets see what the God who answers by fire does.
The last I heard the expelled Tron was full and was opening up a new church plant, whereas the old Tron is struggling to even have a morning service. If Café church, followed by a late afternoon service of 40 minutes works – fine. I will eat my proverbial hat and rejoice at the hundreds being brought to faith in Jesus Christ. At the moment it just looks like painting deck chairs on the Titanic.
Creative Theology in Action
And now we come on to an article which presumably exemplifies the ‘creative theology’ spoken of by Ron, and the unity in diversity praised by Angus.
My old sparring partner Rev Scott McKenna – https://theweeflea.com/2015/09/22/the-most-important-debate-scott-mckenna-angus-morrison-the-atonement-and-the-future-of-the-church-in-scotland/ – shares with us his insights on two of the central doctrines of Christianity. Given that Scott has already trashed several of them (including calling the notion that Christ died for our sins ‘ghastly’) I was not surprised at what comes in this latest article. Original sin – gone. The Fall – gone. The goodness of God’s original creation – gone. And after trashing any idea of any historicity of Adam and Eve and the three creation ‘myths’ Scott leads us into a wonderful new ‘creative’ insight. God wipes out all the earth (apart from Noah) which now means that because Noah was righteous, we are no longer subject to original sin; we have Noah’s righteousness imputed to us. It’s an astonishing piece of theological gobbledygook!
It is certainly ‘creative’ but it’s not the kind of creativity that comes from the Creator.
It has interesting implications if Scott does not believe in a universal flood that wiped out all mankind! Does this mean that only descendants of Noah are ‘pure’ but that others, say the Chinese and the Aborigines are still in Adam?
The saddest thing about this rubbish, apart from the fact it is printed in the Church of Scotland’s official magazine, is the way it undermines and demeans Christ.
In Scott’s article Jesus is just the pathetic victim of violence, not the redeemer who takes away the sin of the world (including Noah’s!). Scott’s Jesus is the ultimate nanny; he just wants us to be nice and stop hitting each other.
Now I expect this from Scott. To my mind he is an honest liberal. But here is my question for evangelicals and those who argue that there is a place for discipline within the church. Does not a teacher of the Word, who denies that Word, who denies its most basic doctrines and who makes a mockery of the Jesus who both gave and is that Word, does not such a teacher deserve that discipline? Or is that reserved only for those who breaks the administrative laws of 121, or commit the unpardonable sin of threatening to leave the Kirk? Are you really in union and communion with teachers like Scott? What fellowship does light have with darkness? https://theweeflea.com/2015/10/06/the-scottgate-tapes-a-revealing-insight-into-the-current-state-of-the-church-of-scotland/
The Church Speaks Out
If the trumpet gives an uncertain sound…I have been involved with politics and media for several years and one thing that stands out is that the Church of Scotland’s voice is weak and ineffectual. Until the recent leadership scandals compelled the Catholic Church to take a backseat, they were by far the more effective voice of the Christian church in wider Scottish society. The C of S has tended to do the ecclesiastical equivalent of political parties seeking to appeal to a broad electorate and show how relevant/cool/compassionate they are by kissing babies, visiting monuments and delivering sound bites based on opinion polls from focus groups. It is bland, dull and predictable. Of course the church is against poverty, climate change, injustice, and for peace, love and understanding. The words are easy. And sometimes the actions have followed. But what is missing is the prophetic proclamation of the Word of God. On issues such as SSM the church has spoken with a divided whimper. And no one listens. Because no one believes that the church believes.
Most of all the church has been silent on the great Gospel issues. If righteousness exalts a nation and sin is a reproach to any people, then surely the Church should be showing the way of righteousness and warning about the wages of sin? Yet it is as though the church is either embarrassed about, or no longer believes these things. And then occasionally the church does speak with a clear voice – about issues that are frankly none of its business.
An example of this is the article headlined Church backs EU membership in referendum debate. It is beyond irony that the Church of Scotland cannot tell us if the Fall happened, or if people have original sin, but it can officially tell the people of Scotland that we should be voting to stay in the European Union.
When did it become the business of the Church to tell the people how to vote? (It would have been far better to have people within the church giving different points of view – that is a different matter. But the Church having an official political position is another). Of course the language is couched in what some people deem to be spiritual terms
‘the Church of Scotland has repeatedly affirmed the work of the European Union in promoting, peace, security and reconciliation amongst European nations’.
Well I’m sure the EU is glad of that affirmation but it is meaningless. What about those who are for peace, security and reconciliation but who think they are more likely to be achieved outwith the EU? Has the Spirit led the C of S to this conclusion? Have they received new revelation? Is this the new Word of God? Or is it just a political opinion that suits the culture and zeitgeist of those who make up the leadership?
The trouble is that the Kirk seems so certain about its political and social opinions and so unsure about its theology. That’s a bit like having a political party that is sure of its theology but not too sure about policies. It’s maybe not a flattering analogy but it’s as though the Kirk has become the Donald Trump of the ecclesiastical world! All populist soundbite and no substance.
Maybe the Kirk should remember that the good old days of the General Assembly being the alternative ‘parliament’ of the Scottish people are long gone? We have a parliament now. Our politicians can tell us about Europe, nuclear bombs and taxes. We need our prophets to tell the nation about Christ and to see that lived out in our communities.
Maybe the problem is that before the Kirk decides it is going to tell the Gospel to our nation, it needs first of all to work out what that gospel actually is? Because, despite many fine words and ambitions, this edition of Life and Work does not inspire any confidence that the Kirk actually knows what the Good News is.
The Anglicans, the Episcopalians and the Kirk
In another article John McPake, another evangelical, has an interesting explanation of The Columba Declaration, the widely published accord between the Church of Scotland and the Church of England, something that has really miffed the Scottish Episcopal Church. Again what struck me was the meaninglessness of the phraseology. For example
“we acknowledge…..that in both our churches the word of God is truly preached”.
What does that mean? And in what sense is that true? If anything reminds me of rearranging the proverbial deckchairs on the Titanic, it is these two establishment churches seeking to support each other in an increasingly secular society.
So where does this leave us?
Today I got a letter from a former Church of Scotland member who had been an organist in three parishes. They have had enough and have left. Last week I met a woman elder who had also just left. This is a pattern that is repeated weekly, if not daily.
What is harming the C of S is not the mass defections or another disruption, but rather the drip drip drip effect of people leaving in ones and twos. These people are often the workers, givers and prayer warriors. Personally I don’t like seeing this happen (although I do love the sense of freedom that they often say they have) but it seems almost inevitable.
It would be great to see the Church of Scotland renewed and revitalized. Anyone who loves the Gospel and the people of Scotland must want that. Narrow denominationalism is a curse not a sign of faithfulness. But there will not be renewal without reality and there seems little sign of reality hitting home.
I heard an evangelical minister on the BBC actually stating that ‘internet’ church was ‘incarnational’ ministry. This was as part of a discussion on the new report ‘the Invisible Church’ which I suspect will soon become the justification for many of the clergy keeping their jobs!
“There may only be a handful of elderly people attend my services, and a few children in the youth organisations, but my parish has 6,000 people and many of them are ‘churchless’ Christians, who have a real and vital faith.”
It is a mark of desperation that we have gone from church without walls, to messy church and are now in the realms of the invisible visible church!
There are still good and faithful Christians within the C of S. I suspect that some are just keeping their heads down and seeking to survive, others are confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. And still others are hurt, tired, wounded and angry and will lash out at any who dare to ‘interfere’ in their internal grief. But we only do so because we are fellow believers, and we hate to see the Church being decimated in this way. We stand with all believers who want to fight the good fight.
And therein lies the rub. Are the evangelical leaders who are left, up for that fight? Or is their concern more to be part of this broad church envisaged by Ron, Scott, Angus and John?
I remember after the first Assembly which dealt with the Scott Rennie case, Angus and John both making the case that nothing should be done precipitously, that nothing had been decided, that people should wait until 2011 that evangelicals were now a large and respected part of the Church and that they had a seat at the table and could deliver. Wait and see they said, look we have Andy McGowan on the theological commission. Well 2011 came and went and we were told wait until 2013. It came and went and we were told 2015. It came and went and now we are not even being told wait until the SSM decision in 2016. It too will come and go.
There will be those evangelicals in high office within the church who will just say ‘my personal view is…’ but then go on to say ‘I have to be fair and bring balance…’ In other words they have capitulated to the liberal agenda. The question then is what’s the use of having a seat at the table if you don’t get a say in the menu? Have you not just become another church politician, dividing up the crumbs from the increasingly stale bread, and not actually distributing the Bread of life?
My view has always been that making the fight about sexuality and SSM was always going to be a losing battle. Why? Because it is not immediately obvious that it is about the gospel and it does make evangelicals look like homophobes. It also allows the Church Establishment to speak of a ‘mixed economy’ and fools some evangelicals into thinking, ‘isn’t this great, we get to keep our opinions about this issue and we can all live in peace and harmony’, not realizing that they have been bought and sold for fools gold. Of course I agree with what the Bible says about sexual issues, and I know that our stance is primarily about the bible not sexuality – but this was the wrong fight. And SSM is also the wrong one. It must be fought but it should be seen as a side issue. The key issue is the role of Scripture and the place of Christ as Head of the Church.
If Covenant Fellowship and others are going to stay in and fight, where should the fight be? How about the foundational gospel issues?
When I debated Scott McKenna I did so because I wanted to reach him and his people with the Gospel, and I wanted to shift the focus from issues of sexuality to basic gospel issues. I hoped that one of the results would be evangelicals taking up the baton. But is that happening? I don’t think so. Yes in our own congregations and conferences we reassure our own people, but are we taking the fight to the enemy?
According to some evangelicals, there is no enemy – at least within. All the enemies (including those who actually believe the Gospel) are outwith. Scott McKenna, a man who denies the basics of the Gospel is not an enemy of the Gospel. It is little wonder that if evangelicals think, speak and behave like this, the ordinary Christian in the pew gets confused. I know of one congregation where the minister told me that some of his (evangelical) congregation were furious with me for debating Scott McKenna, because they believed I was only doing it to show up the Church of Scotland! That kind of cynicism just makes me despair. I am not interested in attacking the Church of Scotland, I am interested in defending the gospel – and I would like to do so shoulder to shoulder with all those, whatever the denomination, who believe that same Gospel.
The hardest thing about this message is to get people to listen to it. We have a tendency in Scotland to personalize things, shoot the messenger and ignore the message. I know that this will automatically get dismissed as ‘this is Robertson on his anti C of S crusade again’. I deny that…and I am not the only one who sees what is happening. John Haldane, the Roman Catholic philosopher, scholar and advisor to the Vatican writes:
The reality is that the Kirk has lost its way, lost its confidence and largely lost its faith. I fear it is finished as a significant force in Scottish society and is visibly dying.
I have thought this for a while but I am writing it now having received earlier in the day an email from a prominent agency of the Kirk, which, I fear, may be an expression of its desperation and lack of supernatural sense. I reproduce the main part of this message below and provide a link to the attachment that came with it here. Let me say that I am not disclosing private correspondence, for this is a pro-forma letter that has been sent out to a large number of leaders of groups and institutions on behalf of the Church of Scotland Church and Society Council. Here is the message:
‘Scotland is changing and we want to make sure that it is changing for the better.
The Church of Scotland’s Church and Society Council is currently running a campaign called Speak Out! 10,000 voices for change. Over a four month period, we are asking over 10,000 people—from every part of Scotland—to tell us about the key issues that inspire or concern them. As a result of what we hear, we will identify up to six core themes for our work over the next decade. These will be the issues which, if we address them together, will help to make Scotland a fairer, more equal, and more just nation in a fairer, more equal, and more just world.’
Nowhere in the message or in the supporting material is there any mention of God, creation, revelation, scripture, covenant, sin, redemptive sacrifice, atonement, sacraments, repentance, salvation, death, heaven or hell—only of “the issues which, if we address them together, will help to make Scotland a fairer, more equal and more just nation in a fairer, more equal and more just world.” The latter stands rather, as once a passage of scripture did, as the text for sermons and homilies. It begins “Scotland is changing” and in the accompanying material “Imagine Scotland in 2035—it is a fairer, more equal and more just place. . . .” Whether it will be I have no idea, though I suspect, as with the claim that the 20th and 21st centuries are ones of moral progress, it forgets the recurrent facts of human folly and wickedness; facts which for the Christian have a clear and compelling explanation: sin.
We have reached the surreal stage in Scottish church history where it appears as though the Roman Catholic Church is in general more faithful to the Gospel than the Church of Scotland! If he were not in Glory Knox would be birling in his grave!
But it is not the Church of Knox, nor the Church of the Pope that concerns us. We are concerned for the Church of Jesus Christ. He is the Head from whom everything flows. I leave the last word with him.
To the angel of the church in Sardis (Scotland?) write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. 3 Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.
4 Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. 5 He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels. 6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Since I wrote this I was made aware of Scot’s latest sermon on the ‘myth of resurrection’. It is a classic example of what I am talking about. Is this the price that evangelicals are willing to pay for ‘unity’?