The Church of Scotland - RIP? Reflections on a Sea Change in the Church of Scotland

May 22, 2013
David Robertson

The blog below was written by WRF Member David Robertson.  David is Minister of St. Peter's Free Church in Dundee, Scotland, and Director of the Solas Center for Public Christianity.  He may be contacted at .


The Church of Scotland, RIP?

Reflections on a sea change in the Church of Scotland

The morning after the night before. I woke up this morning with a heavy heart and a mind incredulous at the futility of human thinking when it turns away from the Word of God. Several people have written and asked what the decision of the General Assembly to allow the ordination of people in same sex relationships means for the Church of Scotland and the church in Scotland. The BBC and others of the secular news media have reported it as an historic day in the church, when it changed forever. I think they were right.

The official line is that, as the moderator declared, “this is a massive vote for the peace and unity of the church”; that this is a third way in which the two sides represented in the report of the theological commission have both conceded ground and come a position which both allows the Church of Scotland to retain its historic Christian position and yet come into the 21st Century. How has this miracle been wrought? The Assembly basically rejected the two years work of the theological commission and chose a motion made up over lunch and presented at the last minute by the former moderator, Albert Bogle and another evangelical, Alan Hamilton. The liberals who reject the Bible as the Word of God, are delighted, declaring that this is the Holy Spirit speaking through the Church. Stonewall are delighted. The self styled ‘Equality Network’ are delighted. The metro elites are delighted. But many of us who love the Church of Scotland are devastated. Why? Because yesterday, and it pains me as I write this, the Church of Scotland wrote its own suicide note.

It’s sad but in writing this I have to first genuinely affirm (insofar as that word has any meaning this morning) my desire for the Church of Scotland to flourish. I do not write with any degree of Schadenfreude, I have too many friends within the C of S for that to happen. I also spent a couple of years of my life looking at how the Free Church could come back into the Church of Scotland. We did so because we take seriously the unity of the Church. At that time we could not do so for one reason only – the attitude of the General Assembly to the Bible. That has been now come home to roost. The turning away from the Scriptures has resulted in the official mess that we are now in. Let me explain.

The General Assembly were given a clear choice by the theological commission. On the one hand there was the biblical case presented by those such as Dr Andrew McGowan which affirmed the Churches historic position not to allow those in same sex relationships to be ministers of Word and sacrament. David Randall put will perfectly “The basis issue is whether the Church stands by the teaching of Scripture or whether we think we know better”. On the other there was the trajectory away from that. It was clear. I was pleasantly surprised and thought that at the very least we would get a clear decision. But then up came this compromise motion, which has managed to take the worst of both worlds, rather than the best. Despite the best efforts of men such as David Randall and women such as Fiona Cameron, who both spoke so clearly and powerfully, the General Assembly has voted to a) Affirm the historic position, practice and doctrine that those in same sex partnerships are not allowed to be ministers and b) allow those in same sex partnerships to be ministers. Only in the absurd and surreal world of church politics would this be seen as anything other than a Monty Pythonesque skit. It is a basic rule of rational thinking that A cannot be Non-A. It would have been wonderful if when Albert Bogle stated so passionately that he wanted to stand with his Greek Orthodox brethren and say that the Church of Scotland affirms the historic position, he had left it there. But instead he committed the Church of Scotland to this confused and dishonest contradiction. On the one hand the Church will say to the Greek Orthodox, we affirm the historic position that same sex relationships are wrong and therefore we do not allow our ministers to be in same sex relationships, on the other hand we do allow our ministers to be in same sex relationships. It is breath-taking nonsensical hypocrisy that makes the Church a laughing stock. It would have been better for the Church to have one chosen one position, rather than have two mutually contradictory positions.

The liberals of course are laughing all the way to the vestry. People spoke movingly of the pain that was felt by so many. Apart from the pain of those of us seeing our national Church going down the tubes and hearing John Knox turning in his grave, there was no pain. There is a reason that John Cairns withdrew his uber liberal motion, there is a reason that the Equality Network and Stonewall have welcomed a decision that in theory says that being in a homosexual partnership is sinful. That reason is that the decision is all smoke and mirrors. They recognise that the Church of Scotland Assembly doesn’t mean what it says; that in reality it does not in any meaningful sense uphold the historic position, doctrine and practice. In fact it is specifically going against that position, doctrine and practice and now allows congregations to call ministers who are in sinful relationships that go against the Word of God that they are supposed to be teaching. It is as though I said to my wife, I would like to reaffirm our marriage vows and promise that I will forsake all others, but I intend to sleep around with as many others as I feel like!

Ah but, some will say, you are misrepresenting the position. You are being extremist and unkind and unloving. You don’t get the nuance and the subtle balancing act. Don’t you realise that this is the genius solution which will allow congregations to make their own decision? No, I don’t. And it would be cruel and unkind and unloving of me to let my sister Church make such a fool of itself without saying so. The Church of Scotland is a Presbyterian church, not a church of independents. One evangelical commissioner went so far as to state that the position was “if they want to do it up there and they feel sure about it, we shouldn’t stand in their way”. Does that apply for everything? Or is homosexuality such a special case that it is the only area where this kind of leeway is given? The Church of Scotland will not allow congregations to decide they can choose to call ministers who are atheists, racists or Jedi Knights. They will not even allow them to call Baptists. The Church of Scotland will not allow congregations to disobey Presbyteries, or to refuse to send up money to ‘121’. Only in this will the Church say that it officially holds to one position but grant congregations to go against that position. The Church of Scotland officially says it is against Same Sex Marriage. It is against people being appointed ministers who engage in sexual activity outside marriage, and its official position is now that those who go against its official position are welcome to become ministers and swear vows to uphold its official position. It is beyond parody.

So where do we go from here? Is it the case that as another commissioner said ‘God is doing a new thing?’. No. God is doing what he has always done. Letting those who think they can do without Him and his Word, go their own sweet way. Romans 1 warns us that Gods wrath is revealed by letting us have our own way. He allows those who know him, but do not glorify him as God, nor give thanks to him, to have their thinking become futile and their foolish hearts darkened. He gives them over. They exchange the truth of God for a lie. Since they do not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, they are given over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They approve those who go against what God has said is wrong. The worst thing that God can do to us, is let us have what we want and what we scheme for.

I think the shocking thing here is that we cannot blame the liberals. They were consistent, except they (laughingly) even swallowed the pill that the Church of Scotland is ‘officially’ against homosexuality. It is the soft centre evangelicals who have put the unity of the church above the truth of the Scriptures. How on earth did that happen? I honestly think that the fear of disunity overrode any other considerations.

So where do we go from here? I doubt the Church of Scotland will split, but it will fall apart, or gently fade away. The decision yesterday means that this will come back to the Assembly in 2014 in the form of an overture, and then through the Barrier Act to 2015. So this is going to go on for another 2 years. Who has the stomach to continue the fight? I suspect very few.

Why stay? Evangelicals need to realise that they are being played as fools. When the Equality Network are rejoicing at this ‘compromise’ then you realise how much ground has been lost. The work of the commission was wiped out in one afternoon. The whole cry about unity was to ensure that evangelicals would stay in the Church – but why should they? Some of the traditional arguments no longer apply. The notion for example that the Church of Scotland is the national church and a great boat to fish from or in, has largely gone. The Church of Scotland has around 2% of the population attending its services. It continues to lose the equivalent of 100 churches per year (15,000 members) and has not offered any coherent challenge to the increasing secularisation of society – that mantel has been taken on by the Roman Catholic Church.

Loyalty to the denomination of our fathers is also a much weaker reason. Why? Because that denomination has changed. Not just decline in numbers but also increasingly change in doctrine, and as of yesterday, a diminution of Presbyterian Church government. If congregations can pick and choose whatever they want in terms of doctrine, then in what sense can there be any church discipline? And given that church discipline has always been one of the marks of the Reformed church in Scotland, is this not a fundamental change? In fact it is worse than that because it seems as though churches are being asked to accept laxity in doctrine, but nonetheless still maintain and belong to the whole bureaucracy of a centralised Church structure. We will find that our money and time is being used to support a church structure that both encourages sin and stifles evangelism and initiative.

But there are still good reasons to stay. There are ministers and others who feel a loyalty to their congregations and who know that if they leave the congregations may split, and may be left without buildings and assets. To provide pastoral care and continue to serve the congregation you have been called to is surely a good reason. It may be that in the new spirit of independency, individual congregations will be able to continue to act as Christian churches with biblical doctrine, worship and discipline, without undue interference from the centralised church courts. My fear is that with the continual decline of the church even these congregations will come under increasing pressure to give their resources to congregations and centralised structures dying from the poison of incipient liberalism. And there remains the small matter of us being at least formerly Presbyterian – in which we submit to one another and to the ‘superior’ courts of the Church.

Another good reason to stay is because even in our increasingly secular society there are still great opportunities through the parish system. Some, particularly in the housing schemes or small rural charges, will be reluctant to leave situations that on their own would be unsustainable. Those who are in established self-sufficient evangelical congregations may find it a lot easier to set up as an independent church, than those who are already in subsidized supported congregations.

Why go? Am I trying to do a Lloyd Jones and issue a clarion call to all evangelicals to come out? No. I am nowhere near the stature of Lloyd Jones and this is not 1967. But I do believe that the evangelicals have been played and that they have been outmanoeuvred. We are welcomed in the Church but only as long as we agree to play the game. The ‘broad’ church needs us to provide finance and people, so that they can have a ‘pool’ to fish in. Perhaps we should decide that we are no longer ‘players’ and that in contemporary Scotland we need a much more radical vision than just maintaining the remnants of a dying national church in an increasingly secular paganised culture. Even more so the reason for leaving is that the superior court of the Church is about to pass a proposal that distances us from the doctrine of the Bible and from the worldwide church. Have evangelicals really become so weak that on the one hand we can profess loyalty to the Word and will of God, but on the other we are prepared to allow others in our church to go against that Word? Is that the price of unity?

How to go? There are already individuals who have had enough and are walking away. There are other individuals and congregations who realise that the game is up and for whom the question is not ‘if’ but ‘when’. Can I plead that where it is possible that congregations (or significant proportions of congregations), will leave, then people do not immediately walk away as individuals? However that does not mean that I am arguing that they should just hang on and wait for a better day. Surely it would be a better tactic for evangelicals to announce the intention to leave, unless the Assembly of 2014 or 2015 reverse the decision, and to ask if their congregations are prepared to go with them? Individual members could ask their own Kirk Sessions what their intentions are (and please don’t be satisfied with the vague ‘we fight on’ – ask what they are actually going to do). Ministers and Kirk Sessions could ask their congregations if they are prepared to leave. If an individual discovers that their congregation as a whole will not leave then there is not really much point in prolonging the agony. If the congregation can be persuaded and prepared then spend the next year doing that, let the wider Church know what you are doing, and if the Assembly of 2014 (or if you can stand the wait 2015) continues ‘the trajectory’ walk away weeping with your head held high, knowing that you have done what you can to prevent the church you love walking away from Christ.

Is this the death of the Church of Scotland? Perhaps. But in the Christian church we believe in resurrection. And who knows what may yet come out of the ashes?

“Hear us O shepherd of Israel…

…Awaken your might; come and save us.

Restore us O God;

Make your face shine upon us,

That we may be saved…

Your vine is cut down; it is burned with fire;

At your rebuke your people perish.

Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand,

The son of man that you have raised up yourself.

Then we will not turn away from you;

Revive us, and we will call on your name.

Restore us, O Lord God Almighty;

Make your face shine upon us,

That we may be saved”

(From Psalm 80).

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