A Tale of Two Assemblies

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(The Future is African!)

 

A report of the Church of Scotland and Free Church General Assemblies in Christian Today – A Tale of Two Assemblies

Another year, another annual church assembly, another battle and series of headlines about the church and sexuality. Deja vue. At this year’s General Assembly the Church of Scotland ‘crossed a Rubicon’ (as the Principal Clerk pointed out). It voted by 339 to 215 to allow those in same sex marriages to be ministers. Although, somewhat bizarrely, it will not allow them to marry, or be married in church and it still officially holds to the biblical view that marriage is between a man and a woman. This will doubtless be rectified in the next couple of years when a theological commission reports and new rules will be put in place. It will probably be 2019 before the issue which began in 2009 is settled. Why is it taking so long?

It’s not so much the vagaries of Presbyterian procedure that is causing the delay, as it is church politics. There are still a declining number of evangelicals within the Kirk and the Establishment wants to do whatever it can to keep them on board. It was interesting that this year’s outgoing moderator, the evangelical Rev. Dr Angus Morrison, was thanked by the incoming moderator for being an evangelical Highlander who managed to keep most of the evangelicals on board. It was as the Moderator said, ‘for such a time as this’ that he was appointed.

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Of course same sex marriage (SSM) was not the only issue discussed – indeed the discussion was very limited. The Church of Scotland also had other issues to face. There was the Columba Declaration – a formal agreement between the Church of England and the Church of Scotland (something which had caused an adverse reaction from the Scottish Episcopal Church). Archbishop Welby spoke to the Assembly and declared that the most significant part of the Columba Declaration was both denominations formally recognising each other as Churches. This came as a bit of surprise to those who had assumed they already did. Meanwhile other Presbyterian churches, such as the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, the Presbyterian Church of Ireland, the United Free Church and the Presbyterian Church of Australia warned that they might have to withdraw from fellowship with the Church of Scotland if it continued on its current course.

Although the Kirk has not quite yet decided on SSM, it has decided that it would be better for the UK to remain in the EU, that the church should disinvest from companies who make their money out of fossil fuels, and that parents should be banned from smacking their children.

The main problem remains the accelerating decline within the church’s numbers. This year the Kirk lost over 14,000 members, the equivalent of one church per week being closed. It has 120 vacancies with many more due in the next decade and only 40 ministerial candidates in training. Its congregational demographic is aging with 20 per cent of congregations having no young people and children at all. It was suggested at the General Assembly that it would have to sell around 40 per cent of its buildings within the next decade. With some 350,000 members, the Kirk still remains a force within Scottish society but it is a fading one. The Rev Dr Andrew McGowan warned that although only 3 per cent of ministers had left over the SSM issue, thousands of members had and were continuing to leave. Although there was a great deal of positive talk about fresh expressions, internet initiatives and various new ministry outreaches, the reality is that just as there are arguments about sexuality at every Assembly so there are promises of jam tomorrow.

 

GA16 Sarah and John Nicholls nwbMeanwhile, across the road the much smaller Free Church of Scotland also had an Assembly. The Free Church is in a period of growth, with around 15,000 members and adherents and 100 congregations. Some of this is due to people leaving the Church of Scotland. Two new congregations were welcomed into the denomination, Broughty Ferry in Dundee and the West church from Inverness – both from the Church of Scotland. One former C of S minister explained how he has been warned that leaving the Kirk would mean heading into the wilderness, but that he had found the wilderness to be a fruitful place! Much of the Free Church’s growth is due to new church plants, a renewed emphasis on evangelism and growing numbers of young people coming. The Free Church has 20 ministerial students in its rapidly expanding Edinburgh Theological Seminary which means that new churches and new ministries will need to be started. The Assembly also agreed to look at starting church schools and continuing to develop relationships with other denominations.

As the retiring moderator of the Free Church and a committed evangelical of course I have a bias. But my bias is best summed up in the words of Thomas Chalmers, one of the founding fathers of the Free Church – ‘who cares for the Free Church, compared with the Christian good of Scotland’. The Free Church will need to continue to develop, change and reach out if it is to be effective in winning back the lost ground for the Church in Scotland today. And no Christian can be glad at the decline of the C of S. It is distressing to me that the Church of Scotland has lost half its members in a decade and seems to be in freefall.

Moderator of the Church of Scotland, the Right Rev Dr Russell Barr welcomes the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, to the general assembly in Edinburgh.
(the future is African!)

One small unreported incident perhaps shows where things are going and points to a better future. The delegates from the East African Presbyterian Church left the Church of Scotland Assembly over the decisions on SSM, and came to visit the Free Church. They are a church which was founded by Scottish Presbyterians but which now has four million members in Kenya. They expressed concern at the continuing theological, moral and numerical decline of the Church of Scotland. Perhaps they will be the ones who send missionaries to the UK?

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(The empty chairs at the new Charlotte Chapel – which will be filled this Sunday).

There are churches in Scotland that are growing, not only in the Free Church. In another sign of good things to come Charlotte Chapel Baptist Church, in the centre of Edinburgh has purchased and refurbished the former Church of Scotland, St Georges West, in Edinburgh (at a cost of some £3.5 million). This growing congregation of over 700 people and other FIEC churches, along with charismatic churches such as the growing Destiny churches, and the renewed Free Church, perhaps indicate a different trajectory for the Church in Scotland. St Georges was the place where the Free Church began, (although not St Georges West – note it was a different building now in a joint charge) in the Great Disruption of 1843, which itself resulted in a flood of new churches, schools and missionary endeavour. Perhaps its physical renewal is a sign of better things to come, a spiritual renewal for the whole church in Scotland?

 


28 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Assemblies

  1. I don’t think you are correct in stating that the Free Church began in St. George’s West. I think it was in St. George’s and St. Paul’s at the East End of George Street. Please advise.

  2. I am glad that the delegates from PCEA had the foresight and conviction to go over to the Free Church assembly. The CofS is a theological disgrace and injurious to the kingdom of Christ. It has unfortunately become a sesspool of rank unregenrate heresy. Whilst the Church of Christ will always prevail the CofS will die an ignominious death.

  3. Dear David,
    you state that “no Christian can be glad at the decline of the C of S”. Why? The so-called “Church” of Scotland has put itself firmly outside of mainstream Christianity and is now counted amongst the other unbiblical sects such as the JWs, Mormons, Christian Scientists etc. I personally have no problem with seeing such anti-scriptural outfits go out of business. In fact, as the CoS continues its heresy and the corresponding collapse in numbers, their property porfolio will become available for legitimate Christian churches to buy up and thus preach the Gospel. A win-win situation!

  4. David … or TWF,
    I fear that all this unending talk about the CoS, the Free church, and others is very distracting, and detracts from the purpose of life that is Christ, and Christ therefore living and reigning in our hearts and lives!
    Satan, however, has to gain some satisfaction from this focus on old established and dying/dead churches (and I don’t just mean loss of members or less money filling the coffers to maintain these blighted husks. But it seems that the devil’s got many people enthralled with church assemblies rather than with Christ, with the pure gospel, with the conversion of hearts in Him and not tied to some dead things like the so-called CoS or the Free church.
    Ah, but are we to allow the enemy of our souls access to us in this way?
    Oh yes, for those who have been born-again would flee such discussions about what is mostly vain and vexing. Yes, I know that Scotland has had horrendously trying times in their church and political history what with the RCs over hundreds of years, and then the CoE, but what does the archbishop of Canterbury have to do with Christ?
    The Lord cares deeply for souls, not for formalities like ‘upper-scale’ visits or SS marriage as a front-and-center attraction that acts only as fodder for the curious and the kinky. For we either know God as our beloved Father, as Jesus Christ, as the divine Spirit, or we are strangers to Him. As well, being able to say that we know someone who is a true messenger is very different to KNOWING that person as a true brother in Christ.

    What do we then resort to to get the Lord in our focus?
    1. Pray deeply to Him in the depths of our hearts that He’d deliver us into his true family, the one that’s destined for heaven forever and ever.
    2. Consult with the likes of William Still, Eric Alexander, Sinclair Ferguson or Iain Murray whom I trust to be in Christ first and foremost, and not in the assemblies of gathered bodies under the moniker of a formal church name. If these men by audio or video releases (Monergism. com, SermonAudio, even YouTube) or in person are not able to inform you of what is right and Godly, then might our Father in heaven help you … that is, if you really want to be helped out of the death that your focus strongly suggests to be true in your life.
    3. Somewhere in this ‘discussion’ the new birth in the soul of a man needs to be the focus. For if one is not so taken over by the Lord Himself – that is His core ambition for the sons and daughters of men – then one is still lost and headed for hell. It is this cut and dried.
    Whither then is Christ in your life, twf?
    Perhaps it’s time to truly become a wee man, instead of an unthinking wee flea that’s not got what it takes to ever get close to God.
    Sounds ruthless? Well, I guess it is from a human standpoint, but from God’s … it’s His work and He knows who are his. But meanwhile let’s drop the pretension that we are actually living in the Master, and own that until one is born again, one is still outside the will of the Father, and therefore won’t have a clue that all this chatter about politics, sexuality and numbers of bodies filling church pews is just so much fluff that is swayed by the unthinkable.

    A wee one in the Master’s flock,
    Bruce

    1. Hi Bruce,

      I’m not normally a commenter, but your message stood out.

      I agree that Christ should be our focus. Entirely! Things can distract us from that, but maybe the point being raised here is that we can’t be Christ-focused under church leadership that rejects the Bible.

      You may see it as a distractor but this discussion raises important issues. I personally, find it helpful to have a commentary on these events (thanks David). In a time when we pray that our political leaders will have wisdom to follow the Bible teachings, but at the same time the CoS rejects the Bible as the Word of God. From an outsider it appears the Church is watering down their message in order to boost membership. Surely a faith that conforms to the social pressures around us is not Biblical and if we are Christ-centred this news hits us with great sadness?

      It’s clear from your comment that this discussion has touched a nerve with you but your comment really undermines itself when you say “that’s not got what it takes to ever get close to God”. Please take time to think about this.

      Best wishes,
      H

      1. The point that you may have missed is that the CoS nor most churches who have adopted and adapted to the current world or secular culture are not all the people of God. And as there are a few who are His, then will He not separate them out to live their lives far from the hypocrisy of the established systems?
        As for those three elder statesmen who you say ‘support’ the CoS and Free Church (what remains of them), either they are endorsing them as a means to not take a stand against unrighteousness (or are shy of taking a stand), or they are keeping a fairly low profile in order to continue to let the Lord bring them in through their preaching and other ministry. In other words, it’s a wise strategy to not be too boisterous about what’s wrong and defiled in the Scots systems, but to bring the Lord to listeners in the way that HE directs despite the unborn nature of the bulk of such congregations. This latter recourse seems wise, although there will likely come a time when they will have to (or would have had to) draw a line between is the Lord’s work and obviously Satan at work. In fact, Eric A. left his St. Georges Tron behind amid much controversy. He took the Lord’s true people away from there and perhaps Sinclair has also picked up some slack from those who still yearn for the word of God.

        Amid my somewhat blatant pronouncements, let me make a suggestion? Even using my missives if they are useful, talk to Sinclair during a quiet moment in his schedule about these matters. Either my sense of the Lord’s mission in Sinclair’s life is wrong, or Sinclair is playing a chess move that’s adroit enough to keep the gospel alive in a dying system for as long as possible. I hope he’s doing the latter until the time comes that he too will have to step down when the Spirit so directs … as the wishes of the administration demand hard and fast obedience to skewed secular beliefs. Then, as usual, the true messenger will be forced to make a choice – a hard one – and go elsewhere to preserve the beauty of Christ in himself and for the sake of others.

        Bruce

      2. Your ‘sense of the Lord’s mission in Sinclair’s life’ is way off wrong. Your speculation is uninformed and silly although you write as if you have a direct line to the Spirit (remember what they used to do to false prophets?!). Sinclair is my colleague and friend and as such I would be too embarrassed to show him this kind of nonsense…Your comments about the Free Church are also a product of ignorance….perhaps you should pray more and comment less? Especially when you clearly have no idea about what is going on here.

    2. Bruce, with respect I find your comments rather confused and certainly unfair on David, with comments like, “the death that your focus strongly suggests to be true in your life” and “(you’ve) not got what it takes to ever get close to God”. Also, with regard to your mentioning certain well-known Christian leaders who might be able to helpfully advise David, it might interest you to know that in his own time the late William Still strongly counselled against leaving the CofS over theological issues, Eric Alexander still takes that position and Sinclair Ferguson is a fellow elder of David’s in his Dundee congregation!

      1. John,
        Then these elders in the Lord’s ministry are wise old foxes for likely knowing that tearing up the wheat before the tares need removing is paramount. In other words, they know more or less those who have the essential new birth, and want to stick around as long as possible to ensure that those sheep get fed, and that any others with hunger for Christ can receive encouragement from the Master through their word until it is no longer viable to stay in those toppling systems.
        As for Eric, he left St. Georges Tron under much controversy and apparently took the Master’s congregation with him. It must have been very hard for him, even though I think he openly stated during one sermon I’ve heard that he is not the most forthright person when things head south.
        And there may come a day when Sinclair will have to take a similar stand as the administration of the Free Church initiate more moves away from the true gospel, even in only one bit at a time. Of course I don’t live over there: so I trust I am excused for any faux pas from this quarter, yet is the core of all things not really what the Lord can do in us? If this is true, then we can with full liberty rejoice. But if not true, then the rebirth and the path of renewal are so much blather and I am utterly wrong on this. But faith would shout, no, “you must be born again.” This then is the fulcrum that is essential to the true Christian life. If this has not taken place in our lives, then I am barking up the wrong tree.
        Now I am not arguing with you. I am not of that fine wee land, but from across the pond my vision may be unclear. Hence to reminded of William Still, when He said that we all might benefit by learning to be patient and let God’s will predominate in all things.
        Bruce

      2. Robert – you talk of what you do not know and therefore you end up engage-ing in gossip and silly speculation. Eric Alexander did not leave St Georges Tron under much controversy and did not take the congregation. And Sinclair Ferguson is not going to leave the Free Church which is not moving away from the true gospel. So no, you are not excused for passing on such ridiculous gossip. Perhaps silence about what you do not know might be more ‘spiritual’?

  5. I know that David is not Paul, but Paul didn’t leave false teachers to just get on with it, did he? Even Peter. He was extremely concerned about the effect of false teaching on the flock, even if they weren’t directly his.

  6. The future is african too for the anglicans . They are strong evangelicals . If the CofE wants to stay with TEC and other liberal provinces , they will lose the aficans and be condemned to death.

  7. David, just to correct one statistic above – the total number of candidates in training for C of S ordained ministry of Word and Sacrament is 70, not 40 (I am one of that number).

      1. Yes of course David. The Ministries Council report details 40 full time students in education and then a further 12 studying for Ordained Local Ministry. On top of this there are 14 candidates for full time ministry in probation and a further 4 in probation for OLM. The source is the Ministries Council report in the Blue Book, available online. Barry.

  8. Bruce.

    It would be interesting to know what you see as true biblical “church”. Yes it comprises those “called out,” “born from above”, but neither is it a “system”, nor denominational, nor Scottish, nor Western, nor Westernised in style of worship or culture. Those Christian men from other continents do not have to wear 3 piece suites, neither do we all have to be able to read Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic any more than we have to follow Hebrew traditions. Do we impose western styles and culture on Messianic Jews, Jews for Jesus?

    You do not know whether I have been born again, nor I you. You don’t know whether David is, nor the Archbishop of Canterbury. As you will be aware, Jonathan Edwards counselled at length in “Religious Affections” over basing this knowledge on “spiritual language” used.

    If I’m not mistaken, the main point of David’s article was false teaching and New Testament indicatives. You’ll be well aware that the New Testament imperatives flow from, are grounded in, the indicatives of Christ Jesus, but nevertheless they remain imperatives. From what I read, David contends for the indicatives, which the CoS as an organistion or system as a whole or large part seems to explicity and implicity deny.They are not alone in this. Hence there are no imperatives or they are unterthered from the Rock that is Christ and self selected.

    You have no idea at all about Ferguson’s and David’s relationship. Their ministries are different. David thoroughly endorses Ferguson’s book “The Whole Christ” describing it as the best theological book for 400 years.

    From what I’ve read from across David’s blog, it is clear to me that mongerism is at the heart of what he writes and does, though I don’t know him personally, and that he loves our LORD Jesus and seeks His honour and glory outside the confines of the “church” of his own denomination.

    1. The pot has been stirred and the flavors emerge. I can both be akene to task for passing on hearsay, esp. as one’s sources always can be suspect. As for the events in all of our lives as we seek to learn more of Christ, it’s best to say less and focus more on Christ. Hence I have been learning, which, alas, never ends.

      As for proximity of one person to another, I was told by David himself that He was somewhat close to Sinclair. Ah, but my words outreach themselves, placing me very close to revealing what I fool I can be…

      As for your last paragraph, does that mean that Sinclair has set up “his own” group outside the formal structures of the CoS and Free?

      1. Robert – you seem to love your conspiracy theories. Once you profess ignorance its a good idea not to keep digging! Sinclair is an elder in my congregation and no he is not an infiltrator or setting up his own group. Maybe focusing on Christ is not such a bad idea?!

  9. What is at the root of the problem in the C of S is not same sex marriage, or anything to do with sexuality or morality. It is simply that the dominant theology held by those in leadership, and therefore the one expected of everyone else, does not require a personal faith in Christ in order to be saved. This is pretty fundamental and it is the reason I left the Church of Scotland in the early nineties.

  10. Robert/Bruce,

    “From the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” You’ve displayed your motives and intent.

    We’re getting to the bottom of this and it is far from Christ, far from Godly. It dishonours Christ, Ferguson and David, the body of Christ, and yourself and you seem to do it with relish, pride.

    What you described as hearsay is in fact ungodly gossip . And unless it is true it is libellous. So put up or shut up.

    I have no personal allegiance to the CoS, the Free, Ferguson or David, but what you write strays far from the Way. It bears no semblance of teaching, but seems to be divisive for its own sake.

  11. Dear David,
    Minor point, do you see the Destiny Church growth as a good thing, considering their love of Creflo Dollar?
    Regards
    William

  12. Robert Bruce Kehl,

    This post is no longer fresh, but you may look in.

    Sinclair Ferguson has answered you “personally” at the outset in this sermon from St Peter’s 2016 May 22(pm) Dr Sinclair Ferguson on “Loving life” – 1 Peter 3:8-12
    24/05/2016

    The sermon itself will pierce the heart of us all as David says, “it is cetainly what I need.”

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