Less Power Even Less Glory
Over the years there have been attempts to introduce episcopacy to the Church of Scotland. Secret machinations were publicised by Professor Ian Henderson in his book ‘Power Without Glory’ in 1967 and the process was halted due to unfavourable publicity in ‘The Express’ newspaper.
The Church of Scotland has sought to mirror local government boundaries in their various iterations throughout the years. Following local government reorganisation in 1996 (replacing regions and districts with a single-tier system of councils), the Church proposed to considerably reduce the number of Presbyteries (possibly to as few as seven). Alastair Symington’s Committee’s ‘Tomorrow’s Presbyteries’ report took such a proposal to the General Assembly in 2003. It was rejected. Recently several presbyteries have voluntarily sought permission to merge and have done so. The 2019 General Assembly passed The Radical Action Plan. It included an instruction that the number of Scottish presbyteries be reduced from 45 to about 12. This was uncosted (’whatever it takes’) and indeed was given a blank cheque. How cavalier 121 George Street has been with the offerings of members throughout the years.
In November 2020 members of Ayr Presbytery received an outline of planning to unite the Presbyteries of Annandale and Eskdale, Dumfries and Kirkcudbright, Wigtown and Stranraer, Ayr, Irvine and Kilmarnock and Ardrossan into a Presbytery of South West Scotland. There had been no previous intimation that planning on this geographical scale was being considered. There is some merit in Annandale and Eskdale and Dumfries Presbyteries working together. There is some merit in Wigtown and Stranraer and Ayr Presbyteries working together. There is some merit in Irvine and Kilmarnock and Ardrossan Presbyteries working together. There is neither merit in or justification for all six Presbyteries forming a diocesan Presbytery.
Far from being radical, this plan is unimaginative, conservative and introverted, remodelling the control mechanisms of 121 George Street and repeating the mistakes of 121 George Street’s bureaucratic preponderance. It offers managerial mentality and linear organisation. It presents a fundamental change of direction to the Reformation model of church government which was from hierarchy to people. The geographical spread reflects the Roman Catholic Diocese of Galloway (44 parishes) and the Scottish Episcopal United Diocese of Glasgow and Galloway (60 parishes). The proposed Presbytery of South West Scotland will have 160 parishes (114 charges). It is extraordinary that this should be happening. The excuse that ‘The General Assembly instructed it’ does not prevent discussion and debate as to its merits. Here are some salient responsive points.
(1) The Presbytery of Ayr has never discussed the enlargement of presbyteries in principle. The South West Scotland Presbytery Proposal represents a return to the pre-Reformation diocesan model of Church government. It is in effect semi-episcopal. It is a reversal of the hierarchy to people direction of the Reformation. If the Reformers were right in their direction, then the continuance of that direction would be correct today. This would mean giving congregations significantly more autonomy. This Proposal further disenfranchises congregations. It creates greater distance between them and Presbytery and excludes them from decision making authority which will be placed in the hands of very few people. This will be ‘de facto’ and ‘de jure’. The 121 model which has contributed significantly to the decline of the Church of Scotland will be replicated in diocesan style Presbyteries. The Presbytery of South West Scotland will not halt the decline of the Church of Scotland.
(2) The Scale and Distance of the proposed Presbytery of South West Scotland makes it unwieldy and difficult to manage. The Royal Commission on Local Government in Scotland, usually called the Wheatley Commission led to a new system of regional and district councils, introduced in 1975 by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973. 7 regions and 37 districts were created. This became unworkable and Scotland’s 32 unitary authorities came into being in 1996. The Presbytery of South West Scotland is re-inventing the wheel. It is likely that the Presbytery of South West Scotland will be unworkable and this will necessitate a return to smaller administrative areas with strengthened congregational representation.
(3) The proposed location of Kilmarnock is in the central belt of Scotland; it is a post industrial town. Kilmarnock is not the optimum location for the enlarged Presbytery. It is set in the north of the proposed Presbytery. It looks like a power play by Irvine and Kilmarnock Presbytery. Kilmory (Arran) is 45 miles west. Dumfries is 58 miles south. Annan and Carlisle are 89 and 100 miles south. Stranraer and Wigtown are 65 and 64 miles south west. This putative Presbytery is very largely rural. Its meeting place should reflect its nature and composition and should be reasonably fairly distanced. Maybole is a more suitable location for the enlarged Presbytery. Kilmory is 59 miles north west. Dumfries is 58 miles south, Annan and Carlisle are 75 and 101 miles south. Stranraer and Wigtown are 41 and 49 Miles south.
(4) The blank cheque strategy to establish 12 large presbyteries described at the 2019 General Assembly by the Convener of the Council of Assembly Dr Sally Bonar was irresponsible. The last thing congregations need is another full-time remote bureaucracy in addition to 121 George Street. There is no mention of purchase or rental of housing and offices. There is no mention of estimated car and travel costs over such a large area. It is the members in congregations who will have to pay for this.
(5) There is no mention of the costs for Mission Development Officer/ Director of Mission. Salary, housing, car and extensive travel expenses will be incurred. There are 114 charges. It will take more than 2 years for such a person to spend a week-end with each charge. How is this going to work? It is the same old same old strategy that has not been effective these past decades. The Church of Scotland talks about ‘Mission’ but does not define it. What is really needed is ‘Evangelism’. It is an actual Christian Missionary who is really required. It is vertical not horizontal focus that is required.
(6) The Church of Scotland is haemorrhaging members and income. It has weakened its connection with The True Vine, Jesus Christ. At present it does not have the means of renewal and revival. The Church of Scotland’s problems and issues will not be solved by different administrative arrangements. They are far deeper and require a new understanding of the Church of Scotland’s relationship to Jesus Christ.
(7) The proposed Presbytery will look to the Church of England/URC/Methodist initiatives for help and inspiration in mission. The Church of Scotland's origins are in the Reformation and it is bound historically to the Covenanters. Its ecumenical relationships should include the Reform Churches which are still extant in Scotland and the newer Independent Evangelical Churches which are growing throughout the land.
All this is being offered and deposited without theology or history and without explanation or justification. It wholly fails to address the problems of the Church of Scotland at the present time. It represents an attempt at a horizontal fix (management) for a vertical issue (Jesus Christ). I have written about the current nature and problems of the Church of Scotland in my website publication ‘Could the Church of Scotland become Christian in the Twenty First Century?’ Here, briefly are some of the main issues ignored in the proposal to form a Presbytery of South West Scotland.
The Church of Scotland has been a God centred rather than a Jesus Christ centred Church.
It is not now a sufficiently Jesus Christ confessing Church.
Its national geographical pastoral reach resulted in much nominalism among members.
The growth of bureaucracy at 121 George Street changed it from an ‘ecclesia’ to a business.
The Church of Scotland adopted twentieth century theological, spiritual and moral liberalism.
The Church of Scotland’s ethnic cleansing of evangelicals from the 2009 General Assembly and thereafter has diminished its character and detached it further from Jesus Christ.
This has resulted in the paucity of vocations to the ministry.
The Church of Scotland talks about mission without defining it and without expressing and communicating the disciplines required to effect true Christian mission.
Community involvement is worthwhile. It is the fulfilment of the Second Commandment.
The primary issue is Evangelism. Making people into Christians. Affirming Jesus Christ. Being born again.
Church of Scotland members have fewer rights and controls over their congregations, their properties and finances than they have ever had. Power is now going to be in fewer and fewer hands.
Thus to describe the formation of a diocesan scale Presbytery for south west Scotland is to reveal lack of imagination and courage and to perpetrate the very practices which have broken the Church of Scotland and brought it to its present parlous state. The half way house to episcopacy will demand complex management with scarce time and resources being wasted on such secondary pursuits. Inevitably, those with a liking for bullying others will arrange for themselves to be at the top of the pyramid. This is a posture of great nakedness offering evidence of lack of Christian calling, Godly blessing and Holy Spirit leading.
If there remains any justification for Reformed Presbyterian ordering of the life of the Church of Scotland it can be found in faithfulness to and continuation of the direction of the Reformation from hierarchy towards people. This would involve a complete change of the control mechanisms over congregations, properties and money. The Presbytery of South West Scotland will not do this. The iron fisted grasp of resources will continue in the hands of fewer people. There will be less scrutiny and more opaque decision-making. Far from liberating congregations and giving them respect and status, this diocesan style Presbytery will continue the practices of control of resources while fobbing congregations off with commands to mission for which they are unprepared and unsuited. The Church of Scotland is much diminished and making large presbyteries wherever will do nothing to change this.
(1) Make the congregation not the presbytery the most important instrument of change.
(2) Cede control of finance and property back to congregations.
(3) Introduce a forum for congregations at local level to encourage cooperation, support, and share best practice.
(4) Presbyteries should continue with a diminished managerial role. They should be less formal, less authoritarian, less legalistic and less adversarial.
(5) Supervision of ministry, maintenance of standards of conduct of elders and pastoral oversight should be prioritised at Presbytery level.
(6) Evangelism, spiritual formation, Bible education and encouragement of Christian confession and witness should be promoted.
(7) General Assemblies should be reorganised to reflect the new arrangements at congregation and presbytery level.
(8) 121 George St should become a service centre for the Church and cease to be the Church’s centralised authority.
(9) The Church of Scotland should divest itself of the accoutrements of the state.
(10) The Church of Scotland should prepare for Scotland becoming an independent state.
There is little vision and even less stomach for significant reform in the Church of Scotland. Congregations will survive for a while in reducing circumstances. All this is a denial of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.