A Critique Of Plans To Form A Presbytery Of South West Scotland - A Horizontal Solution (Management) For A Vertical Problem (The Church Of Scotland’s Relationship To Jesus Christ, The Head Of The Church)
From where did this proposal and its ensuing planning arise? Members of Ayr Presbytery were told originally that there was a possibility of Ayr and Kilmarnock and Irvine Presbyteries joining up. Later there was a hint that a third Presbytery might be involved. Without warning plans for a Presbytery of South West Scotland involving the Presbyteries of Annandale and Eskdale, Dumfries and Kirkcudbright, Wigtown and Stranraer, Ayr and Kilmarnock and Irvine were presented. This significant change has been deposited without theology or history and without rationale, explanation or justification. There has been no discussion. Reducing the numbers of Presbyteries is a General Assembly policy but that does not mean that transparency and debate can be abolished. Indeed, because the policy is mistaken and wrong, serious debate is mandatory. The Church of Scotland was born out of rebellion against the Roman Catholic Church. It cannot suppress legitimate dissension within. Its procedures allow challenges to be made to policies.
The planning to create a Presbytery of South West Scotland indicates a reversal of the hierarchy to people principle of the Reformation. The name ‘Presbytery’ will be retained for what in effect will become a diocese in parallel with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Galloway and the Episcopal United Diocese of Glasgow and Galloway.
The most important person in the new Presbytery will be the Presbytery Clerk. Given the numerical and geographical scales (160 congregations stretching from west Arran to Carlisle) this full-time paid appointee will no longer be a ‘Clerk’ but will become a ‘de facto’ Executive Officer. Of necessity decisions will have to be taken on a daily basis without waiting for committees to meet. This already happens but will become the normal ‘modus operandi’. The present invisibility of the Presbytery Clerk to congregations will continue. Rubber stamping, euphemistically called ‘homologation’ will increase. There will be few opportunities to question and contest decisions and fewer still to reverse them; ‘de facto’ will become ‘de jure’. Broad based participation of elders will be curtailed. Catholic and Episcopal Dioceses have simpler structures directed to the position of bishop.
The second most important person will be the Moderator. This office will not be offered for one year only since the scale of distance and duties will necessitate a longer appointment. What is being envisaged here? Is it to be an honorary position as at present. It is to become a part-time paid appointment for someone in addition to parish ministry? Is it to be a full-time paid appointment? Is it to be a full-time expenses only appointment for a recently retired minister or elder? Will the role be pastoral only? Inevitably not, for influence and power will reside in the person appointed. This office will become episcopal in time. Is that not the longer term plan?
A bishop called Moderator. There are enough aspirants to such a role in the Church of Scotland to actively promote and seek to organise this outcome. There always have been. Some ministers resent the lack of career structure in the Church of Scotland. Promotion and much increased salaries could only be found at 121 George Street. Never underestimate the vanities of ministers. Even now some will be dreaming of purple shirts thereby distinguishing themselves from ordinary parish ministers. They will need to be upsides with Catholic and Episcopal bishops. This affectation is already on display at every General Assembly where past Moderators file in to advertise their assumed continuing status.
Elder representation and involvement will continue in new large presbyteries. There are outstanding elders throughout the Church of Scotland. Some are professionally skilled but tend not to exercise their acumen fully in the courts of the Church. Some could become powerful. Elders can be Presbytery Clerks and Moderators. But they are not pastoral figures. A case can be made that elder influence was much involved in the change of ethos from church to business at 121 George Street over the last sixty years. This strategy has failed lamentably. That is why the radical plan was produced. It would be injurious though if the same mistakes were to be made again in the enlarged presbyteries. There is an element of anti-clericalism among some elders in the Church of Scotland. There has been a denigration of preaching associated with 121 George Street as the primary mode of communication. Care and consideration are required lest sacred things are trampled over in management strategies.
The scheme for large presbyteries is largely uncosted. ‘Whatever it takes’ was irresponsibly agreed by the 2019 General Assembly. Houses and offices for Clerks and Moderators, rental or purchase, full-time and part-time salaries, provision of cars, unconscionable travelling expenses and overnight hotel stays, multiplications of paper work, new computer systems, accountancy, property management and all else.
Little of substance is likely to change. The kind of personalities who dominate presbyteries at present will continue to dominate the large presbyteries of the future. Authoritarianism will not disappear. In the proposed larger Presbytery of South West Scotland with its much greater distance from members of congregations, accountability will be hidden more easily along with opaque resolutions of issues and problems. These practices will not always be suspicious. There will not always be intentional misuse of roles and positions. Some will do their best to be straightforward and transparent. Much honourable work will be accomplished. However, ministerial collegialities will prevail and exclusions of others will continue. These consequences will follow the change from being a ‘Presbyterian’ Church in the Reformed tradition to becoming a semi-episcopal half-way house towards full episcopacy.
Less Power Even Less Glory
Who’s afraid of bishops? Do the members of the Church of Scotland not need more visible pastoral figures like their Catholic counterparts? Recent history suggests that the people would be better off without bishops and that members of congregations should enjoy greater self-determination within the Presbyterian and Reformed system. This is especially true of finance and property. Yet these are the very matters over which the new presbyteries will have even greater control. It could be argued that the disguised intention of the decision to reduce the number of presbyteries and introduce a new level of bureaucracy is motivated by the managerial requirement to control money and property in the uncertain future decades of the Church. This is a most cynical exercise being foisted on the members of the Church at a time when meetings are curtailed and Zoom discussions have replaced them. There is at present no physical meeting, no physical presence, no Body of Christ.
In episcopal churches bishops are held to be guarantors of apostolic succession going back to the disciples of Jesus. The Reformers abandoned this tradition largely because of the rampant and widespread sin and corruption of bishops, archbishops, cardinals and popes in the medieval Church. In their place the Reformers offered an apostolic succession of Christian truth based on the Bible, the preaching and teaching ministry, the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion and they added an education system for children and adults. Lay spiritual authority was introduced in the form of elders to balance clerical dominance and root the life of the Church in local communities and families. To return now to pre-Reformation dioceses is to diminish the last 460 years of Reform Christianity and their influence throughout the world. It is to weaken the status of elders and their roles in congregations. It is to aggrandise a few who will mostly be ministers and invest in them rather than the people the identity of the Church. ‘Their faces will be very great’ as the Chinese have it.
Disappointment will proliferate because the kind of people who will seek these roles will be the same kind of people who do so at the present time in the committees of 121 George Street and in current presbyteries. The Presbytery of South West Scotland will be an administrative and management entity and those most prominent in it will be bureaucratic rather than charismatic in personality and character. But the Moderator will visit and find congregations ‘in good heart’, not ‘full of the Holy Spirit’, not ‘Jesus Christ centred’, not ‘articulate in witness’ and not ‘optimistic about the future’. Clerical presentation and display will be superimposed on localised spiritual authority. The genius of John Calvin will be replaced by the dullness of people not fit to clean his shoes. All this wholly fails to address the problems of the Church of Scotland at the present time. The strategy represents an attempt at a horizontal fix, namely management, for a vertical issue, the Church of Scotland’s relationship to Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church.
Bishops are no guarantee of anything. ‘The Times’ newspaper carried a story about Scottish Episcopal bishops on December 26 2020. It was entitled ‘Bishops on anti-bullying course after clergy harassment claims’ and reported that more that one third of clergy within this denomination had been bullied. ‘In response, the church’s senior figures have taken part in bullying awareness courses. Its primus the Most Rev Mark Strange, Bishop of Moray, Ross and Caithness said that he found the process ‘painful and shameful’. On the same day ‘The Times’ also published an article from author and critic AN Wilson entitled ‘Church shepherds have lost their flocks’. The subtitle was ‘The Archbishop of Wokeness Welby and the equally inept Nichols (RC Cardinal Archbishop Vincent) are not leaders that the faithful deserve’. Four letters to ‘The Times’ published on December 28 countered AN Wilson’s arguments and one supported them. Scandal upon scandal perpetrated by the Vatican hierarchy has been revealed in the Roman Catholic Church (financial misconduct, homosexuality, paedophilia, covering up of crimes). In Scotland Cardinal Keith O’Brien was obliged to resign in disgrace due to his hypocrisy in publicly condemning homosexuality while practising it privately with seminarians. And for years Richard Holloway an apostate bishop of the Scottish Episcopal Church roundly scorned Christians who adhered to the basic beliefs and doctrines of Christianity.
In the 21st century national and world politics are being led by ‘strong men’ such as Xi Jinping of China, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Narendra Modi of India, Recep Erdogan of Turkey and for a time Donald Trump of America. It is more than ever necessary for the example of localised democracy to be advocated, treasured and upheld. The Reformation democratised the Christian Church of the time, then Scottish society and in time it democratised the western world and beyond. This example is much needed and there is no cause or justification for it to be abandoned or compromised by the introduction of back door bishops in the Church of Scotland.
Congregations Should Be The Unit Of Change.
The core issues are accountability, authority and equality. The Church of Scotland’s so called radical plan to manage its decades of decline turns out to be nothing more than an additional level of bureaucracy disguised as larger presbyteries. Desperate to do something, anything, the powers that be at 121 George Street with the passive concurrence of the General Assembly have decided to create lesser 121 George Streets for each geographical area parallel to pre-Reformation dioceses. That is the extent of their imagination. It is mind-numbingly unimaginative, boring and wrong.
The unit of radical reform should be the congregation. This would preserve the integrity of the Reformation and further its direction rather than re-establish a provisional hierarchy leading to a re-established hierarchy in the future. There are three areas of possibility, accountability, authority and equality.
When the Church of Scotland’s bureaucracy at 121 George Street increased exponentially in the second half of the twentieth century and management theories and practices were adopted, church became business and power became centralised. Financial controls were ever more top down. This extended to congregations paying for the salaries of ministers even when they did not have a minister, some with little prospect of ever having a minister again. It is against the law of the land to demand payment for services not offered.
Under the proposed new administrative arrangements central financial controls will be shared with the larger presbyteries. The structure will remain top down. This should be reversed. Accountability should become bottom up. Congregations raise funds through offerings sanctified by prayer. They should have a larger role in allocating funds and accounting for their use. Many millions of pounds have been spent by 121 George Street over recent decades which have never been transparently exhibited. Detailed figures are not given to Commissioners at General Assemblies. Neither are they published. It is not embezzlement that is being alleged. It is cavalier spending of other people’s money. Higher than necessary salaries and pensions, hidden expenses, extravagant appointments, fanciful substitute ministerial roles, consultancy fees, costly failed outreach and mission experiments, vanity projects, one way ecumenical overtures, non-essential hospitality and foreign travel for the very few are just some of the ways in which large monies have been squandered.
As the Church of Scotland continues to decline in numbers and financial resources diminish this needs to change. But what is going to happen? Large presbyteries will require large sums of money. There is almost wholesale covering up of the real costs of the proposed large presbyteries. Start-up budgets will increase exponentially over the years to come. Top down accountability will continue. 121 George Street will change little. Large presbyteries will add further financial burdens to congregations and they will not have the means of accountability for these expenditures. In distinction from ecclesiastical power structures in other denominations the Church of Scotland should continue the Reformation exercise and include congregations in the means of accountability. This would be radical.
The Church of Scotland is a representative not a full democracy. It has its own collective form of hierarchy. But authority has too often been authoritarianism requiring obedience without sufficient questioning and discussion. Procedures are subtle but relentless. There is mutual defensiveness between General Assembly Conveners and Moderators. Moderators do not require Committee Conveners to answer questions fully and transparently where that is sought. Probing inquiries about 121 George Street do not get very far. Second and third questions are discouraged and little ongoing debate is allowed. Some Commissioners are actually crushed and excluded.
At Presbytery level decisions are made by the Clerks and Business Conveners together or in committees and Presbytery meetings pass with little debate about anything substantive. Over the years congregations have expressed dissatisfaction at the seeming distance and perceived indifference of Presbyteries to some of their requests, wishes, wants and needs. There are complaints of lack of consistency and of common sense especially in relation to freedom to call a minister. As in General Assemblies there are few second and third questions and those seeking information and explanation are made to feel that they are troublemakers and therefore unwelcome. The technique ‘silence equals approval’ is very suspect. It promotes an atmosphere of sullenness which pervades so many Presbytery meetings. Moderators cleverly move from one item to another and intervene to limit discussion. Elders can be equally authoritarian at 121 George Street and in presbyteries. Some much enjoy their exercise of influence and power.
A more Christian system of authority for the twenty first century and for the remainder of the life of the Church of Scotland is necessary. The example that guides is Jesus washing his disciples feet (John 13 : 1 - 17). ‘I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you’ (verse 15). The underpinning principle is Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 20 : 25 - 28. ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’.
How would this work in practice? It could begin with a change of attitudes. It could deformalise. It could move beyond quasi-legalistic procedures to more humane and simplified rules. It could end adversarial means of reaching decisions in favour of seeking consensus. It could be relaxed and made more Christian in ethos, atmosphere and in relationships. Instead of authoritarianism there would be an aspiration to service following Jesus. There is spiritual arrogance attached to the way the Church of Scotland’s proceedings. Strong egos have always had their place. This has to change.
The guiding principle should be equality. This is not manifested in the way Presbyteries, General Assemblies and 121 George Street work. Equality is the byword of the times. Culturally there is much false equality where things are called equal when they manifestly are not. Equality is an ideology which is used to evaluate and qualify all aspects of contemporary social living leading to absurdities. However, equality is something that could be used to gauge the conduct of Church of Scotland proceedings in order to favour members of congregations and their representatives more fully.
It must be very clear to anyone that the re-establishment of pre-Reformation hierarchies is the opposite of movement towards equality. How can this be happening? There must be some kind of racial memory which goes back five hundred years. There is an old old saying attributed to various people ‘Presbyterianism is no religion for a gentleman’. It seems that some ministers who reach positions of influence are embarrassed and ashamed of being Presbyterian. Others wish for organic unity with episcopal churches. Surely one of the longer term goals of the formation of large presbyteries is ecumenical integration. Some elders want business style management. The problem with this is lack of depth of faith understanding leading to the secularisation of the Church. A new regard for people in pews is required. They can longer just be considered as pay and pray fodder. They pay the piper and they should call the tune. Assumed hierarchies can dissolve themselves. The principle of equality can be applied at every level. It can be articulated and practised and this will fulfil the direction of the Reformation. This would be part of a radical plan.
The sentiments described above have long been felt and expressed by some members of the Church of Scotland. They have largely been ignored. Now instead of listening to them, a new hierarchy is to be formed, the opposite of what members really want. In 2005 I conducted and published a research membership survey project called ‘Changes in Spiritual Freedom in the Church of Scotland 1980 – 2005’. It is available in the Publications section of my website.
Question 2 read ‘Should decision-making powers be redistributed back to Congregations, Kirk Sessions and Presbyteries?’ There were 1101 answers to this question. 946 (85.9%) said ‘Yes’ and (14.1%) said ‘No’. Here are some of the comments and replies from church members.
‘The future of the Church lies in autonomous congregations charged with running their affairs.’
‘Kirk Sessions and members should be the driving force of the Church’.
‘Members should have a greater say in the life of the Church of Scotland.’
‘decisions by Congregations and Kirk Sessions should not be able to be vetoed by any other body in the Church’.
That was 16 years ago. My publication was ignored. The views members expressed were ignored. The formation of The Presbytery of South West Scotland and others like it tramples on the feelings of members of the Church of Scotland. They will stay silent, of course, knowing that they have little or no influence. They will become less committed and less enthusiastic. Many are elderly and have no strength for a fight. Yet their pensions will be used to fund the new hierarchy. The Church of Scotland is travelling in the opposite direction to the Reformation instead of adopting a radical plan towards accountability, authority and equality.
The future should begin to treat members of the Church of Scotland no longer as children to be patronised but as adults, partners and colleagues, fellow servants of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. This may not be a smooth journey. There must be added the caveat of the nominal faith of many members of the Church of Scotland and the difficulties therein. But children must become adults though the process be unpredictable at least until fruition.
The Vertical Problems
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. Now we have ‘Less Power and Even Less Glory’. We have, in essence, back door bishops.
Far from being radical, the plan to form pre-Reformation diocesan presbyteries 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. It is extraordinary that this should be happening. 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 into a new collective Christian consciousness.
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. 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. The pyramid should be inverted. The many not the few should have greater place. The Church of Scotland is much diminished and declining quickly. The formation of large presbyteries will do nothing to change this. To spend time and members’ money in this way is demonstrably against the example and teaching of Jesus Christ.
(1) Make the congregation not the presbytery the most important instrument of change.
(2) Share control of finance and property with congregations.
(3) Introduce fora with responsibilities and powers for congregations.
(4) Presbyteries should become 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 as priorities.
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.