Big Fearties in the Church of Scotland
Article IV of the Church of Scotland Act of 1921 states ‘This Church, as part of the Universal Church wherein the Lord Jesus Christ has appointed a government in the hands of Church office-bearers, receives from Him, its Divine King and Head, and from Him alone, the right and power subject to no civil authority to legislate, and to adjudicate finally, in all matters of doctrine, worship, government, and discipline in the Church’.
The Church of Scotland has affirmed this independence from the state. Through its Church and Nation Committee, Church and Society Committee and now Faith Impact Forum it has and continues to express its independence by issuing political opinions, criticising government policies and taking sides in public debates. Shamefully though, it was silent on the issue of Scottish Independence during the 2014 Referendum. The Church of Scotland has always claimed the higher moral ground while itself not being a perfect embodiment of virtue, neither being free from corruption, secrecy and lack of transparency.
The appropriation and misappropriation of authority from Kirk Sessions, Presbyteries, Synods and General Assemblies by the burgeoning bureaucracy of the Church’s central offices at 121 George Street in the last sixty years transformed the Church of Scotland from being a recognisable part of the Body of Christ into a social organisation along secular business lines with less than successful management. This, along with the Church of Scotland’s adoption of theological and social liberalism changed the Church’s identity, character and status with the land.
Then along came Coronavirus. Has the Church of Scotland contributed anything to the public debate? Did it have anything worthwhile to say, pastorally, prophetically? No. Did it affirm its 1921 rights of spiritual and organisational independence? No. The Church of Scotland conformed to SNP Government lock down advice and meekly closed its doors. It put up no protest, argument or fight. Christian churches in France took legal action in their respect and won. Evangelical Christian churches in England began similar proceedings.
‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s’ said Jesus (Mark 12:17). This clever, judicious but enigmatic response to a test political question implies separate spheres of influence and authority. Church of Scotland members expect to pay their taxes. They also expect that the 1921 Act will be honoured. When Jesus was before Pilate he stated ‘My kingdom is not of this world’ (John 18:36). This was said specifically to clarify that Jesus was not a political insurrectionist using violence to achieve his ends. He also told Pilate ‘You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above’ (John 19:11). According to Jesus Pilate’s authority is derived from God’s authority which is greater than that of the Roman Empire and is not absolute. Today in totalitarian countries like China and North Korea human beings arrogate to themselves this final political authority which lies beyond them. The Christian Church belongs to the kingdom which is not of this world, the realm of Jesus Christ, the risen Son of God. The Church of Scotland affirms that in its Constitution but it does not act it out. It has failed to stand up for itself and for Jesus Christ during the Coronavirus pandemic.
At the very origins of the Christian Church Peter the disciple turned apostle preached without fear or favour about Jesus Christ in the temple courts at Jerusalem. He and John were quickly arrested and interrogated by the Sanhedrin. He was ordered not to speak publicly about Jesus. His reply was ‘Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you or to him? You be the judges. As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard’ (Acts 4:19,20). There would have been no Church and no Christianity if Peter had given in to the religio-political authorities of the day.
The 16th century Reformation in Scotland was severally Godly, Christian, confessional, spiritual, political and violent. The Church of Scotland’s origins were not as the origins of Christianity. Even so, there was humility in the testimony of the Reformers. ‘Protestant that gif onie man will not in this our confessioun onie Artickle repugnand to God’s halie word, that it wald pleis him of his gentleness and of christian charities sake to admonish us of the same in writing; and we promise upon our honoures and fidelitie, be God’s grace do promise unto him satisfaction fra the mouth of god, that is fra his haly scriptures, or else reformation of that quhilk he sal prove to be amisse’ (The Confession of Faith and Doctrine, Believed and Professed by the Protestants of Scotland, 1560).
There was a constant struggle for the new Church of Scotland to be free of political interference and jurisdiction. These were dangerous times for people with professions of faith. If they had not stood up to be counted there never would have been a Church of Scotland. The Presbyterian Settlement of 1690 concluded this long struggle. It had not been like the first three hundred years of Christianity in which exponential growth occurred during and as a consequence of systematic persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire authorities causing many martyrdoms.
In Scotland, Protestant Christianity was sustained by bloodshed on different sides. The Church became distinct from the state but there were continuing issues and principles and battles about where boundaries should lie. The Church of Scotland never was a pure church free from compromise and scandal. Over the centuries there were departures, secessions and fractures on matters of principle, largely to do with the relationship between Church and State. Moderatism became a feature of the Church of Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries. After the Covenanting ‘Killing Times’ when 10,000 fought and died for their Faith, it was no wonder that King William II’s message to the 1690 General Assembly stated ‘Moderation is what religion requires, neighbouring churches expect from you, and we recommend to you’. Moderatism became a kind of complacent accommodation to times and events. It oversaw the Highland Clearances and led to the Disruption of 1843 over the 1712 Patronage Act. The raw principles of the Reformation had been compromised.
The spiritual inheritance of the Reformation passed to evangelicals. In England the Puritans had survived persecution and some had departed to the New World. John Wesley (1703-91) had overseen the emergence of a new grass roots Christian revival movement which later became known as Methodism. In Scotland there were Christian revivals associated with George Whitefield in Cambuslang (1742) and elsewhere, John McLeod Campbell in Rhu (1825) and Edward Irving in Glasgow (1819) (and later in London (1822)).
Over the past 60 years the best seats in the Church of Scotland synagogue have been held on to ruthlessly by the inheritors of moderatism, now known as liberals. In that time 90% of Moderators of the General Assembly have come from that persuasion. Evangelicalism became distinct after the Billy Graham Crusades of 1955 and with the work of the Tell Scotland movement under Tom Allan and D P Thomson. Conservative evangelicalism then grew stronger through the ministries of William Still, the Philip brothers Jim and George in Edinburgh and Glasgow respectively and others in parishes throughout the land. The liberals were discomforted and threatened by this development. The General Assembly of 2009 became the watershed that led to the departure of a number of conservative evangelical congregations and of many members individually. It was an inglorious manipulation of and transgression of Church of Scotland law by the officers of that General Assembly which divided the Church. The liberals got their way but great damage was done. The Church of Scotland has been significantly diminished ever since, attracting few ministerial vocations and with unsustainable reductions in offerings.
No surprise then that the inheritors of moderatism made obsequious accommodation with the SNP Scottish Government to close all Church of Scotland churches during the Coronavirus pandemic. On 17th March 2020 the Principal Clerk George Whyte sent out a letter in which he wrote, ‘I have had a conversation with a government official and his advice was that for very small three or four person local meetings we should use our own judgement – they are not barred by law. It is when we get into bigger numbers of people in an enclosed space and using public transport that we are more bound by the Government advice which, among other things, says that “people should: minimise social contact by avoiding crowded areas and large gatherings, including religious congregations..”. He acquiesced without protest and sent out his circular to all and sundry. The Church of Scotland closed its doors. It has yet to re-open them. Nothing indicates the reduced status of the Church of Scotland more than this. There was no fight for God, no reminding Government of the 1921 Act, no advocacy for the primacy of Christian worship in any circumstance, especially in times of great difficulty and threat to life. No sensibility to the possibilities of worship continuing within safe distance guidelines. Many church buildings are large and congregations are often small in comparison. No clarification that Government has no right to tell Christians not to sing hymns. No leadership. No national inspiration, no encouragement, no Gospel.
The role of Principal Clerk is advisory. Authority in the Church of Scotland lies with Kirk Sessions, Presbyteries and General Assemblies. There were no meetings, no votes, no deliverances, no minutes. There was no protest by ministers and members. The passivity of the population in regard to lock down advice was mirrored by Christians. There were no rebels, no Protestants, no defiant worship services. On-line ministries proliferated and that is good. But nothing takes the place of the gathering of worshippers in sanctuaries built for this singular purpose. The line of courage from Peter through the Christian martyrs and the Reformers has been broken in the present day. The Church of Scotland curled up with a whimper and lies cowed in the corner of national life.
Paul wrote in Romans 13 1-3,‘Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended’. This is justification enough for the Church of Scotland’s current obedience. But the Church and its life, doctrine and worship are established in law and so it has the right to continue to worship freely in the land. Christians do not owe the SNP or Nicola Sturgeon anything. She could not even bring herself to acknowledge Christian Easter. The SNP has replaced Christian teaching on personal relationships with current ideologies. God plays no part in its rhetoric or philosophy. Nicola Sturgeon has no regard for Christians or for Christianity. She has plenty of headscarves to visit mosques however.
The Coronavirus pandemic has tested the Church of Scotland and it has been found wanting. Now dire forecasts are being produced as to future attendances and income. No hope is offered. No language of revival and of recovery is communicated. Congregations should have continued to worship making the declaration that God in Jesus Christ is first and foremost. That is what we say we believe to be true. But we have just been big fearties.