Scotland The Church in Scotland The Free Church

A Rubicon has been Crossed – The Church of Scotland Assembly Decision on Saturday



As I prepare for the Free Church Assembly beginning this evening, I have been reflecting on what happened at the Church of Scotland Assembly on Saturday. This from the BBC sums it up well:

The Church of Scotland has voted to allow its gay ministers to marry.

The General Assembly meeting in Edinburgh voted 339 votes to 215 to update church law to bring it in line with secular Scottish law. The church already recognised ministers and deacons in same-sex civil partnerships and has today extended that to cover same-sex marriage.

The Church said in a statement immediately after the vote that the decision “does not compromise the Church’s traditional view of marriage as a union between one man and one woman.”

And it does not mean church ministers will be able to register same-sex civil partnerships or solemnise same-sex marriages themselves.

Speaking after the vote, the Very Rev John Chalmers, principal clerk, said: “We had a debate which made very clear that we were not interfering with our theological definition of marriage and were not going to the place where ministers or deacons could themselves conducting same sex marriages.

“It is an entirely different discussion.”

“Today’s decision means it will be possible for kirk sessions and congregations to depart from the traditional understanding of marriage to call not only potentially a minister in a civil partnership but one who is in a same-sex marriage.”

“In some ways we crossed the Rubicon last year when it was agreed that kirk sessions could call someone in a civil partnership and for many people what today was about was simply tidying up and making the law of the church consistent with Scots law”

What does all this mean for the cause of the Gospel in Scotland?

The background to this comes from an article I wrote seven years ago –

So here are the lessons and logical conclusions:

  • A Rubicon has been crossed – As the Principal Clerk stated. Are Evangelicals aware of this? Or are they looking for another Rubicon? And another?
  •  The Church of Scotland establishment will now claim that this is over and the Church can go on to more important things. John Chalmers stated: I hope we have now put this issue to one side and we can now get on with what I believe are important issues – developing our vision for the church, increasing membership and developing our work around mission.” The C of S is not concerned with the mission of Christ. It is their vision, their membership and their mission.   Not Christ’s. It is hard to believe that evangelicals will continue to buy into, and pay for, this. But most will…
  • The Church of Scotland will legislate for Same Sex Marriage (and indeed whatever other marriage our society says should be) within a couple of years. They cannot have the situation where ministers can be same sex married, but cannot marry people in the church. Who marries the ministers? A report on marriage will be given next year.
  • The Church of Scotland has cut itself of from most of the worldwide church – the Catholic, Orthodox and Evangelical churches are opposed to SSM. Both the Presbyterian Church of Ireland and the Australian Presbyterian Church warned there would be consequences, but to no avail.
  • The Church of Scotland has removed itself from the Bible. The Youth Convener said that “you can’t discard Scripture, but you have to reinterpret it to suit the age” not seeming to realize that when you ‘reinterpret’ Scripture to suit the age, you have discarded Scripture.   The ‘world’ seems to get that better than some in the Church. One journalist told the Principal Clerk “It is ok for members in the church to do things that are described in the bible as an abomination.”  Perhaps the most chilling example of this apostasy from the Word of God was given from the convener when asked the question “are we going to redefine marriage?”. His answer – “that will be up to the Assembly”. The C of S has moved from the authority of the Bible to the authority of the magisterium of the Assembly.
  • The Church of Scotland has nothing of the Good News to say to the people of Scotland. When the Principal Clerk was asked on the BBC ‘is the Bible wrong?’ – he refused to answer.   He said he had to be neutral. Neutral about the bible?!   The Kirk will have plenty to say about climate change, smacking children and being in the EU – but it has no good news for sinners and nothing of Christ to tell the people. There is a famine of hearing the word of the Lord in our beloved land and all the C of S will give the starving people is sound bites, political clichés and feel good truisms.
  • The Church of Scotland is in terminal decline. The Principal Clerk stated that “we have lost some people but we have gained some because of this”. But they are continuing to lose the equivalent of one church per week. Almost 15,000 members this year alone. My own city of Dundee saw 500 members lost in one year. 500. That’s two churches. But the blinkers are well and truly on. That did not stop the retiring moderator from claiming “What I rarely found in the local church was serious discouragement on these challenges….by Gods grace and strategies we can see things reversed.”  I have a lot of friends (still!) in the C of S and in general they are very discouraged. They don’t like the propaganda coming out from 121 – e.g. only 3% of ministers have left. As Andy McGowan said – in his short but excellent contribution, thousands of people have left. And they are continuing to leave. The people are voting with their feet.   The C of S will soon be all chiefs and very few Indians!   Even this past Sunday I had one elder and his family in St Peters and another couple, who had just all had enough. They are going to leave – as will many others. The drip, drip, drip of some of the finest Christians within the C of S will continue.
  • The Evangelical tactic of infiltration and influence failed – spectacularly. I was blasted and accused of being mean because I said that the purpose of all the discussions and delays, of the mixed economy’ idea was simply to keep the evangelicals on board.   That was confirmed in a chilling bout of openness when the incoming moderator, thanked the outgoing moderator, Angus Morrison. He thanked him for the job he had done and stated that given his standing within evangelicalism and the Highlands it was important that he had stood out against schism – “It was for this message, for this year that God prepared you to be our moderator.” As I feared Angus was not there to be the evangelical voice into the establishment – he was there to be the establishment voice to the evangelicals. And it largely worked.  The Establishment was exultant.   They even had a PowerPoint slide displayed which boasted only 25 ministers had left over this – that 97% had stayed.   Angus was thanked for having done his job.

Evangelicals have no hope of reversing the situation. Now that the Kirk has decided it is no longer governed by Christ through his Word, the Establishment will resort to the type of underhand politics, spin and macro management that I have witnessed this past year and which was once again evident on Saturday. The Moderator wanted to get it over with ASAP and so the debate was curtailed. Evangelicals will keep being played with the carrot and stick approach. They will be insulted and praised in the same breath. As long as they play the game they will be allowed a seat at the table – on the condition that they keep other evangelicals in line and don’t rock the boat.

And there is no chance of evangelicals rocking the boat…there will be a bit of shouting and murmurs of rebellion, but given what has already happened the Establishment know they are home and dry. Their tactics have paid off and largely because evangelicals were weak, disorganized, nice, divided, and at the end of the day not prepared to fight, they have lost what should have been a no-brainer.   I had hoped that when the Scott McKenna debate came up, the evangelicals would have picked up the baton and continued the fight for the gospel – but not a word in public, and in private, instead of taking on the aberration of Scott’s anti-Christian teaching, some moaned about me doing it and accused me of being anti-C of S because I challenged a C of S minister to uphold C of S standards! And Mr. McKenna has been rewarded with a regular column in Life and Work. Whither Evangelicals now?

The Curates Sermon

Let me finish with some reflections on Angus’s final sermon which was like the curates egg: It had some good stuff in it, but overall ended up being really frustrating because it shows both how close and how far, Establishment evangelicals within the C of S are.
Speaking from 1 Peter Angus argued for three excellent things.

  • A commitment to unity – the strengthening of our unity in diversity over against the tendency to fragmentation. The question he did not address was what that unity is based on. Is it unity with people who deny that Jesus was virgin born or that he died for our sins? It cannot be a unity based upon Christ and his Word because we believe in different Christ’s and have different views of the Word. It can only be a unity based upon the denomination. Watching the Assembly it comes across to me like a giant social club where everyone knows everyone and understands the in-jokes and the friendly bonhomie. How can any self-respecting bible believing Christian buy into that?
  • A commitment to mission – Mission is one of those buzz words, that everyone including the devil likes. But it is meaningless without some content. What is the mission of the Church? To be the pillar and ground to the truth? To proclaim the glories and beauty of Christ and advance his kingdom here on earth? Angus made an astonishing statement that Bultmann and Tillich would have been proud of. He stated that we have a mission “to work with people of other faiths and none, to work for the common good for the advance of the kingdom of God.”. The Kingdom of God is not advanced by faiths that deny Christ, the King. What is the mission that the Church of Scotland is going to work with atheists for?
  • A commitment to Christ – against the forces of secularisation.  Its time to give the church back to the one who owns it.   The Church belongs to Christ.  We must have the stamp of those who have been with Jesus.  We must fight against secularism and the idols of this time.   This was all excellent stuff – if only it had not been preceded by what went before.   Yes indeed it is the time to give the Church back to the one who owns it (was this an admittance that we had taken it away?).   Christ is the head of the Church. So why then has the Church of Scotland departed from his Word and set its face against what He says?

The Assembly sang To God be the Glory after Angus’s sermon. It contains the wonderful line ‘Who yielded his life an atonement for sin’? Is that what the C of S believes? Does it believe it in the same way that it believes that marriage should be between a man and a woman, unless you happen to be a minister with an exemption?

Perhaps the last word should be left to Angus – who quoting Augustine declared

“Keep focus on Jesus himself, the only foundation of the church and the pioneer and perfecto of our faith.   Our agenda in every respect must be his (Augustine). “

Amen and Amen.





  1. A CoS minister in the town where I live recently told his congregation that Christianity is no more right or correct than any other religion. At which there was a mass walkout from his church. Well there should have been but unfortunately there wasn’t. How you explain that people are still happy to attend his church when he says things like that I do not know. Agreement? Surely only for a small minority. Misunderstanding? Well, it wasn’t exactly opaque. Inertia? Lack of concern? A feeling that as long as we still get to sing the hymns we like and run our coffee mornings with our pals what does it matter what the minister preaches? It’s like the United Reformed minister who rejected the doctrine of original sin at a baptism I attended. She told me that not all her congregation would agree with her. But they were still prepared to attend her church.

  2. David,

    Very very sad, but after your reminder from 2009, not unexpected. What was the description used by Rev Welby: Rotary with a pointy spire. Regrettably your analysis of the prospects of an amiable divorce between those who can still claim to be part of the “one, catholic and apostolic church” and those who have by these decisions placed themselves outwith that, will be proved sound. More unedifying times and headlines appear inevitable as (not so) ordinary members vote with their feet and clergy face tough decisions. Your thoughts from 2009, on how those who do decide to leave can be helped, remain appropriate.

  3. This is a descent into farce. The leaders can enter a same-sex marriage but not perform one. I cannot comprehend how they can without apparent embarrassment spout such self-evident nonsense.

  4. How many ministers of the 215, who voted against the Overture, will give up their £30k stipend and free Manse? Sorry, probably 5% maximum. The phrase “God and Mammon” springs to mind. If they are truly committed against this decision, will they have the courage of their convictions, and quit? Where’s the hypocrisy there?

    1. I imagine that there will be hypocrisy on all sides, Sandy,
      and a multitude of reasons for remaining even after thinking, “That’s it, I have to go.” Nevertheless, as a non-Presbyterian looking at this I’m puzzled on two accounts. I did not realise that those voting on what turns out to be the losing side in a disputed matter are then under any sort of moral obligation to be sore losers and go. Nor did I realise that a minister – concerned for his congregation so voting against something he thinks would harm them – would then be expected to abandon them to the winds or to the wolves.
      Presumably you would exclude from the charge of hypocrisy those ministers whose congregations would secede with them, particularly those where the leaving congregation would be able to support their minister well enough that they can buy their own house.
      Scottish church history ought to teach us that it is a very dangerous thing to think to have bought someone’s loyalty with stipend and manse and then taunting them for not leaving. There is a name for the sort of victory that forcing evangelicals to leave would be. We call such a Pyrrhic victory.


      1. John,

        I think the problem here is misunderstood. No-one is saying that if an Assembly or Presbytery or even your elders vote in something that you don’t like you are obligated to leave. But if they vote in something that is clearly unbiblical and insist that the whole denomination follow it, then as office bearers in that denomination we have taken vows to submit to the courts of the church. We are then faced with the problem of either submitting to something we know is unbiblical and sinful or being disobedient and either being forced out or resign. No-one is forcing evangelicals to leave – in fact the liberals are desperate for evangelicals to stay – because they provide most of the resources of which the liberals leech!

      2. This is where their faith in Christ’s provision is tested. “Is the Lord’s arm too short,” God asked Moses.
        There are many promises in the the Bible about God taking care of our needs but for many staying with am organisation that has abandoned the Word of God is leading their flock straight to the wolves.

  5. Does the word hypocricy come to mind?

    Today, I caught the conclusion of radio 4 Beyond Belief as I came out of the dentist’s: the conclusion of all the guests was that it was best to get rid of “original sin.” (My words.) It was more painful hearing that than the visit to the dentist.

    “Doing the right thing” is the political buzz phrase without any substantiation, but the church hasn’t a clue what the the right thing is based on self serving “interpretion,” blasphemously explained as “spirit led”. The world has been imbibed, embraced by the church at large – the church has married the “spirit of the age,” ’till death do they part.

    Let’s move on to eschatology to interpret all this.

  6. Very sad. Just checked out the CofS website and on its ‘about’ page the first statement defines ‘our faith’ as “Central to the Church of Scotland is our love and worship of God through following the teachings and examples of Jesus Christ…” I thought we worshipped God directly through Jesus? That statement is unitarian. Fond memories of Scotland and some of its great churches. How did this happen so quickly? Heart-broken.

  7. The “church’s traditional view on marriage” – it’s not a tradition or some cute quirk. Tradition is eating shortbread at New Year. Marriage is a creation ordinance, designed for a explicit purpose. Like the church. Water them down and God’s law isn’t broken, but people will be.

    Another example of setting aside the commands of God in favour of human traditions by the religious establishment of the time?

  8. A wonderful piece of scripture admonishes us by laying out in general that we “be not entangled with the affairs of this present world, but strive to fight the good fight of faith.” (2 Tim. 2:4; Gal. 5:1; 2 Pet. 2:20). As the world spins more and more out of control, and as the powers of darkness drive the world further into chaos and eventual anarchy, are we to be surprised by what is going on?
    The CoS is not the only institution in the world that is spinning out of control and losing all good sense, even secularly, that now is spilling over into ‘the church.’ Almost every government and institution in all the world is becoming more cloaked in some aspects crucial to an open society, and in other ways is approaching the critical point of loss of control over itself.
    In fact we can see this in ourselves when we are forced to deal with life in the world, whether in our work, at school, in university, or even visiting friends over coffee. We who are in Him somehow are forced to enter the turbid waters of controversy perhaps as never before, and only diligent prayer and application of our hearts can keep us from the swirling waters of impending chaos. After all, only our Christ affords us the peace and rest from all the mess, including that which will seek to overwhelm us day by day.
    Are we to stop it?
    Likely not.
    So what do we do?
    Entangle ourselves as little as possible in and with it, and become more and more diligent in our walk with Him so that each day we emerge more like Him. For what is going on is prophesied, and we are not to be surprised at the vehemence of the present day confusion, for the master of it is being unleashed, and his power is on display as never seen before.
    The CoS? It’s like almost every congregation in the USA, and that has spread across the world in so many extremes as to boggle the mind.
    Let’s stay close to the author and finisher of our faith, our Jesus.

  9. At least the Forward Covenant of Confessing Together Evangelical Fellowship Network Churches have posted a powerful, insightful statement on their website. Oh, no, that was you, David — like a voice crying in the wilderness. I don’t know what upsets me more: the denigrating of the Bible or the silence of Evangelicals. Another re-branding exercise won’t work. I’m gradually coming to the conclusion that the Church of Scotland has to die, in its present form, to assist the growth of the Church in Scotland. But I am not rejoicing or gloating — I’m a deeply saddened ordinary member who has had to leave.

  10. Like a rusty old pipe the Church of Scotland broke in 2009; now it is just wreckage. The great failure has been that of the Clerk’s office which has permitted Assemblies that are ultra vires. What can you do when the law of the Church is not upheld? The Assembly is renegade. It has no authority from Scripture, the Declaratory Articles, The Westminster Confession or the ordination vows to ordain or induct people living in openly homosexual relationships yet it has chosen, and been permitted, to do so. The fiction that the C of S can maintain its orthodoxy and allow such ordinations, by the back door, is the heart and soul of hypocrisy and it breaks the letter and spirit of the law of the Kirk. The very thing that the framers of the 1929 settlement feared and tried to guard against has happened. The last resort, if the Assembly goes haywire, is a legal appeal the state. That would be very challenging and interesting and probably impossible and futile. But who knows? And if you have to go down would it not be better to go down fighting?

    Behind everything there is a general failure of courage and reason. But if this can happen to the C of S might it not happen to other denominations as well? Is there more courage elsewhere should the threat of losing home and income arrive from another angle?

  11. Careful, David, two of your headings border on the contradictory. “The C of S has cut itself off from most of the worldwide church” and “The C of S has removed itself from the bible.” In subordinating the bible to its own “magisterium” the C of S is doing exactly what the (Roman) Catholic and (Eastern) Orthodox “churches” have been doing for a very long time; indeed, that was why the reformers had to separate from them.

  12. The poor Church of Scotland is walking in TEC’s footsteps — and it truly is ‘how to shrink a church in three easy steps’. May I suggest that a/ preaching, teaching and praying are vital here? and b/ do bring ex-gays in to speak about this matter! One of the prime reasons the CofS is going gay is because they have been had by the activists who have done their propaganda work really well. Gay is the new black. Who wants to be seen as a racist? ‘After the Ball’ (Kirk and Madsen) explain exactly how to make the world gay… and the only snag for them has been it took a bit longer!

  13. David,

    I invite you to come down off your high horse and leave the judging to God. Pray that God will have mercy on us all and that, by his grace, we shall be strengthened to live faithfully, without fear or favour, whichever church we are in.

    Only yesterday Scott McKenna, the very man you continue to vilify, spoke about you with warm appreciation, in recognition of your resistance to the influence of secularism in Scottish education which he shares.

    I appeal to you to stop picking fights and start building bridges. Our God is big enough to police his own boundaries. He has called us to put our energies into proclaiming the Gospel, making disciples and baptising believers.


    Rory MacLeod
    Strath & Sleat Church of Scotland

    1. Dear Mr MacLeod, how many members of your church are under 60? When they close down your church in c. 15-20 years, will you move to another dying outfit or rejoin mainstream Christianity?

  14. A good analysis of this development from David Robertson. I often enjoy his writing, particularly his letters to the media.

    However, I would ask – why is this particular move by the CofS perceived as more heinous than the rest? After all, it is only the most recent rejection of Jesus Christ by mainstream Protestant groups, it is by no means the first.

    To give just two brief examples – they have long since tolerated divorce and remarriage (explicitly condemned by Christ) and even changed the model of ministry He created, via rejecting the Church hierarchy and the introduction of female ministers.

    I (of course) do not support the move, but the CofS could hardly waive “the rules” for some sinners, but not for others.

    The CofS has moved from Biblical truth, to secular subjectivity. Lorna Hood of the CofS defended this marriage move as “different people reading their Bibles and coming to different conclusions” – a nonsense. What a volte face from the reformation principle of “Sola Scriptura” (but then, there is nothing actually in the Bible which supports the idea of “Sola Scriptura”, which is ironic). In truth, the mainline Protestant denominations scurry to affirm secular morality in the belief that this will bring them (i) secular approval and (ii) relevance. They are led by secular Governments, not Jesus Christ.

    If the CofS is not saying anything different to secular Governments, then they are in fact offering people nothing – as David correctly identifies.

    I think this development and the general state of Christianity across the West of why Our Lord Jesus Christ placed so much importance on the notion of Christian unity. If the sheep wander off on their own, they get lost. The CofS was doomed from the start and will likely ‘go under’ in the coming 2-3 decades. With the benefit of approx 500 years of evidence to review, we can see that the legacy of the Reformation in Scotland (and elsewhere) is the large scale de-Christianisation of the nation and its deliverance to secularism. This is undeniable.

    Finally, speaking as a Catholic, moves such as this show that mainstream Protestant groups like the CofS have no real interest in Christian unity – they erect barrier after barrier – and their interest in ecumenism extends only as far as the legitimacy they feel they receive from being seen with Catholic Bishops.

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