Anti-Clericalism Within The Church Of Scotland

Anti-Clericalism Within The Church Of Scotland


Very few ministers are being called to the Church of Scotland. Ministers are being blamed for the present state of the Church. Departure from Orthodoxy is a factor in decline. Global Christianity is based on ministry. 121 George Street’s central management strategies have failed. Membership nominalism is part of the problem. Denying freedom of call to congregations is counter-productive. Depending on the laity will not save the Church. Mission is promoted but not defined. The central issue is Jesus Christ.


It was in 1971 that Tom Nairn the Scottish republican political theorist and academic (1955 – 2017) wrote ‘Scotland will be reborn the day the last minister is strangled with the last copy of the Sunday Post’. Would he feel more at home under today’s Scottish National Party neo-communism? Despite the acute shortage of vocations to the ministry of the Church of Scotland, we are still a long way from the fulfilment of his idyllic hope.

Why are there so few people being called to the ministry of the Church of Scotland? There were fallow times in the history of the People of God described in the Old Testament when ‘the voice of prophecy had fallen silent’. Evangelical and some episcopal representations of Christianity appear not to be suffering loss of vocations to the same extent. There are many ministers available throughout the world wide Protestant Church. There is an often repeated assertion that it is the ministers of the Church of Scotland who are to blame for the present crisis. More generously it might be said that it is the ministry of the Church of Scotland that is to blame. Why could this be so?

It is personality centred. Unlike the priesthoods of Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches Church of Scotland worship is less structured. This allows for spontaneity and for socially contextual preaching. It has preserved lively prophetic communication. It offers a broad diversity of interpretation. However it exposes the minister to the likes and dislikes of the congregation and it exposes them to the flaws and failings of the all too human minister. Many of the great ministers of the Church of Scotland had egos in proportion, George MacLeod, for example. There were saints too, James Stewart and William Barclay come readily to mind. There are no ministers of such quality present in the Church of Scotland today.

Minister and parish has been the model for 460 years. However parishes are no longer defined. Rights of entry to schools and other agencies are not now automatic. Respect for The Minister has declined. Family church connections have weakened. Vehicle mobility has increased allowing movement between designated parishes. Multiple former parishes have been linked and united, many with non-resident ministers.

Congregations have not worked closely or well together over the centuries. They did not need to. Churches were well attended. Christian nurture was straightforward. The Scottish Reformation’s emphasis on God-centred Christianity included everyone. This lasted until the nineteen-sixties of the twentieth century. Now congregations are being forced to share ministers and work together to justify their presence in communities with good works rather than by evangelism.

What some call ‘silo’ ministries, that is individual stand alone ministries continue to this day. Some ministers are jealous of and suspicious of their colleagues. Larger personalities dominate local situations and fraternals. Friendship and trust are at a premium. Presbyteries have fostered much loveless Christianity for centuries. This still very much exists.

However, in spite of these issues the reasons for the present parlous state of Church of Scotland vocations to the ministry are not to be found in the nature of its pastoral ministry but rather in the Church of Scotland’s departure from Christian Orthodoxy, its adoption of political correctness and its conformity with the spirit of the age in the latter half of the twentieth century and in the first two decades of the twenty-first. But was this led by ministers themselves? Have they been disproportionately influential in the corridors of power at 121 George Street and in the General Assemblies? Is it the power and policy ministers who are to blame? Have their ecclesiastical politics disconnected them from the people in the pews? Is it the 2009 General Assembly Pyrrhic victory of the liberals over the evangelicals in the Church of Scotland that has resulted in so very few calls to ministry? Has that internecine strife irrevocably damaged the Church itself? It seems reasonable to conclude that if those living out a more definite commitment to Jesus Christ are no longer welcome then the Church has forfeited the vocations to the ministry that have come from among these members in the past.

Can the laity save the Church of Scotland? Some think so and denigrate the ministry for bringing about the present circumstances. The Church of Scotland is rich in gifted, skilled and well educated members. But they are not men and women called to ministry. The New Testament disciples did not form themselves into a community and found what later became the Church. They had a leader, Jesus, prophet, priest and king (spiritually speaking). Saul of Tarsus was distinctly called from opposition to the new Church to become its greatest advocate. Throughout Christian history orders of ministry have provided the conduits for people to be called to serve Jesus Christ. The worldwide Christian Church is the result of pastoral initiatives. Paul himself wrote, ‘How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ (Romans 10 : 14-15). The Church of Scotland was founded by called men. John Calvin and John Knox were both priests turned ministers. Andrew Melville became Minister of Govan in 1577.

The great world Christians of recent history were ordained. Martin Luther King was a Baptist Minister. Pope John Paul II, of course, was a Roman Catholic priest. Desmond Tutu is an Anglican priest. Chad Varah, founder of the Samaritans was an Anglican priest. Mother Teresa was in Roman Catholic holy orders. Calls to ministry have allowed the expression of a very wide range of gifts and skills throughout Christian history. St Paul recognised their multiplicity in 1 Corinthians 12 : 7 - 11. ‘Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines’.

Throughout the years from 1560 to 1960 the Church of Scotland was based on the Ministry of Word and Sacrament. In that time it worked well. Church of Scotland congregations flourished and had local and global reach and some are still connected to congregations abroad. There were very many well attended churches and a few remain today. The decline of the Church of Scotland cannot be separated from the wholesale abandonment of Christianity in the western world since the Church’s apotheosis in the early nineteen sixties.

Another of the current problems is that the Church of Scotland is being deliberately and strategically precipitated in decline by its centralised bureaucracy at 121 George Street, Edinburgh. Secular business models have been used to project needs and numbers. Algorithms are even used. This attempt at management is being replicated at Presbytery level. There is diminution of the people in the pews. Their sensibilities are patronised and often ignored. Why should congregations not want a Minister of Word and Sacrament? That is the basis of the Church of Scotland. It is all they have known.

That said, a most pressing issue in the decline of the Church of Scotland is nominalism. This means a shallow understanding of the Christian Faith and a less than definite commitment to Jesus Christ while taking part in congregational activities, expressing opinions and taking up leadership positions. It would be too much to say that this is CINO – Christian In Name Only, but there is much ego presentation among church members, a great deal of Biblical illiteracy, an inability to articulate personal faith and intolerance of challenge to spiritual change. This is also true at Presbytery, General Assembly and 121 George Street committee level.

Is there a market for this Church of Scotland half-hearted Christianity? The geographical parish model of ministry was inclusive but caused much nominal Christian practice. Today, elders and members struggling to keep congregations going and churches open have inherited this problem. They do not understand or accept that their own nominalism is a central issue. They are troubled and burdened and being forced to consider ‘mission’ as their priority. What is the content of this ‘mission’? It is not defined. Is it Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour? It would seem not since He is hardly mentioned in the promotion. Evangelical language is discomforting for many and treated with enmity.

Denying Church of Scotland members a Minister of Word and Sacrament and pressurising them into ‘mission’ within a culture of nominalism is no way forward. Local lay leadership of congregations will help to replace the lack of ministers to a certain extent. It will not however create the pathway for Christian leadership that is needed for Christianity to survive and prosper in the future. Scotland’s Celtic saints, Ninian, Columba, Cuthbert and others were apostolic figures with great missionary zeal. Bearing in mind the prevalence of nominal Christianity among many Church of Scotland members and the scarcity of Jesus Christ centred personal confession and witness, lay leadership will not last long as an effective substitute for full time ministry. Without the minister as teaching elder disagreements and personality clashes will proliferate and disillusion and disappointment will become prevalent. Visible and numerical decline will continue.

There is more to the ministry that some members imagine. The call to ministry in the Church of Scotland necessitates an informative experience followed by the beginnings of a journey from one lifestyle to another. Seeking God, confirmation of call, theological education, personal discipline, prayer, learning and training and conforming to Jesus Christ all separate the called person from the church member. Elders do undergo limited training but there is no comparison between the two processes. Expecting elders to take over out of necessity where no minister is available is understandable. But this cannot be a longer term strategy for the growth of the Church.

Teamwork is the new mantra. David Lewis of Ayr Presbytery foresees the micro-management of ministers even suggesting they could use a 3 year cycle of sermons as they move around different parishes. There is a touch of anti-clericalism about such imagination. Above all is the dangerous diminution of the historic call to ministry and its free exercise among people who have chosen the person to be their pastor, Christian teacher and leader. The Church of Scotland is managing the Holy Spirit out of its life.

Reciprocally, the right of congregations to freely call a Minister is now being taken away. This is a right hard won in Scottish Christian history, the cause of much strife and fraction in the Disruption of 1843 particularly. The very physical existence of the Church of Scotland is its members, the people who worship and serve in local congregations. Their nominalism is crusty, brittle, vulnerable. Herding them together unwillingly will lead to another exodus, hastening the eclipse of the Church of Scotland. Destroying the ‘ecclesia’, the called community is happening now and the clear evidence is in the paucity of candidates for the ministry. If viable congregations are allowed to call a minister, they may survive well into the future as the remnant of the Church of Scotland. They should be free to chart their own journeys.

Replacing the Ministry of Word and Sacrament with lay led social activism will actually result in further anonymity and eventual extinction of Church of Scotland congregations. Not that there is no need for community involvement. One of the obvious correlations of the de-Christianising of Scotland, of the United Kingdom and of Europe is the amount of psychological, emotional and physical suffering that has accompanied it among people generally throughout the land. There is a mountain of ambulance and inner person repair work (cure of souls) needed in people’s lives. But people are not turning to the Churches for help. There is a growth industry of all sorts of counsellors instead. Unfortunately, there is no obvious connection for them with the healing, redeeming, loving Risen Lord Jesus. If the Church refuses to proclaim, it loses its purpose and its way. Oblivion surely beckons. The Church of Scotland is not saying that ‘Jesus is the answer’, not even ‘Jesus is one of the answers’.

Jesus Christ is unique and commands loyalty and commitment for His own sake in this world today. This is personal. Christianity survived atheist political communism and it has survived though not unscathed ferocious secularisation in schools, culture and nation. The experience of Christian Faith is considered by some scientists to be an aspect of neurology. Post modern philosophical and political theories have atomised every view and opinion that ever was, especially ‘large’ interpretations of life and its purpose. British Christianity has been damaged by theoretical equality of religion laws introduced by the Blair Government from 1997. Christians have lost their nerve. We are cowed and beaten, afraid to make the central claims of Jesus Christ lest we be subject to ‘hate crime’ laws. We are even afraid to debate openly the respective merits of Jesus and Muhammad, of New Testament Christianity and Islam. Proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, ‘Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to us by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4 : 12) is a very different thing, far from the minds and consciousness of church members.

The Church of Scotland’s present strategy will have unintended consequences. Its 121 George Street corporate ethos, identity and practice do not promote the central message of Christianity. There is no single unifying visible architectural worship representation of Christianity such as ‘Canterbury’ or ‘Rome’. General Assemblies are hardly inspiring. Management of nominal attachments among the membership misses the basic purpose of Jesus Christ’s life, example, teaching and Gospel. Operating at a pragmatic level is helpful in decline but it is a contradiction of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There is no positive message offered, no expectation of renewal, no hope of revival. The essence of near 2000 years of Christianity is being abandoned for pseudo business strategies and lay voluntarism lacking in the depths and strengths of ministerial calling. Nominalism, liberalism and crypto social work are to go hand in hand.

A change in Christian consciousness is needed if there are to be more vocations to the ministry and if congregations are to survive. Well meaning members of the Church of Scotland may be willing to think about this but they would be affronted if they were told, 'You must be born again'. But person and personality centred participation has to become Jesus Christ centred. Richard Nixon was advised 'The people want moral leadership' and it is said that he replied 'Sure, if the people want moral leadership, we will give them moral leadership'. Church of Scotland talk about 'mission' is similar. 'Sure, if we have to do mission, we will do mission'. There is a disjunction between aspiration and reality. The process from nominalism to mission focus cannot bypass Calvary.

All is not lost for Christianity however. Independent evangelical congregations are being formed across Scotland, helping to fill the void. The basis and lead of this church growth is the local pastor, teacher, leader. The strategy of these congregations is Bible based teaching and preaching for clear cut commitment to Jesus Christ, lively worship and practical and charitable outreach to communities. This used to be excoriated as ‘fundamentalism’. But it is actually relational Christianity supported and correlated by the Bible, Spirit first, law second.

The Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches claims a membership of over 600 congregations throughout the United Kingdom of which 25 are in Scotland. There are 15 evangelical Destiny Churches in Scotland with growth continuing. These congregations are also pastor based and led. The evangelical Free Church of Scotland has seen modest growth in recent years. It has over 100 congregations, 60 ministers and around 8,000 people regularly attending Sunday services. The United Free Church describes itself as an ‘Evangelical Presbyterian Church’. It has 53 congregations with 2466 members. The Free Presbyterian Church has 30 congregations and 20 ministers in Scotland. The Baptist Union of Scotland has 160 congregations and 250 accredited ministers (including those retired). These denominations have Bible based, minister led congregations offering distinct Christian identity within Scotland’s current secular culture. There are many lay led Christian Brethren congregations throughout Scotland and there are other independent evangelical fellowships not included in the above figures.

The Church of Scotland upheld a form of public Christianity in Scotland. It still does but in a lukewarm and watered down way. Yet the Church's establishment trappings are also under threat as political independence becomes a possibility under a regime not sympathetic to Christianity or to Jesus Christ. The atrophying Church of Scotland will be less visible and less audible in Scotland. The best may survive as 'The Quiet in the Land'.

Future lay led Church of Scotland congregations may turn out to be like Brethren Assemblies without the conviction. Shedding the chrysalis of Presbyterianism for the flight of New Testament Christianity is the key to the future. The management of decline is an attempt to preserve the chrysalis. The schemes of centralised Church government, larger Presbyteries, joining up parishes and ministries and lay leadership are failing to address the real issue of the day and of any day, the Person of Jesus Christ.

Robert Anderson 2017

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