The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Right Reverend Martin Fair gave a wide-ranging interview to Neil Mackay and it was published in The Sunday Herald on 4th April 2021, Easter Sunday. The title of the article was ‘NEIL MACKAY’S BIG READ: A crisis of faith - Kirk Moderator reveals Church of Scotland faces extinction by 2035’.
Nowhere in the interview did Martin Fair acknowledge that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. He did not mention the Holy Spirit empowerment of Jesus’ followers which gave birth to the Church. How is it possible for a Christian Church leader to be so remiss? Because the whole import of Martin Fair’s presentation of Christianity was confined to the realm of the Second Commandment, that is, to love our neighbour. We are told that the Moderator ‘wants to return the Kirk to the principles of Jesus – humility, public service, love thy neighbour, good deeds, charity, and kindness. It’s a bold, moving philosophy, which even the most committed atheist can respect … that’s if the Kirk carries it through, of course’, comments Neil Mackay. Martin Fair is quoted as saying, Christianity isn’t ‘about those who like to sing hymns on a Sunday, it’s about being where people are vulnerable, fragile and broken – and being alongside them’.
The Christian Church has sung hymns for nearly 2000 years. Jesus sang hymns and Psalms. The earliest Christian congregations did so too. Paul wrote that Christians should be ‘speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord’ (Ephesians 5 : 19). What of Thomas Tallis (1505 – 1585) and his awesome 40 part ‘Spem in alium’ (Hope in any other)? Is Martin Fair saying that Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) was wasting his time composing his St Matthew Passion, his Mass in B Minor and all of his music ‘corpus’ for Sunday services? Does Martin Fair deny the calling and gifts of hymn writers such as Charles Wesley ('Love divine all loves excelling, joy of heaven to earth come down')? Is he in denial about the contemporary hymn writing ministry of Graham Kendrick (Shine, Jesus shine) and of the visibly joyous Gospel singing of English-African inner city Christian congregations seen on Songs of Praise? Does he want to scrap ‘Ye gates lift up your heads on high’ at the start of General Assembly Services of Holy Communion?
Worship is the fulfilment of the First Commandment to love God. It is first for a reason. God is to be acknowledged, worshipped and loved as Maker and Redeemer through his Son Jesus Christ. The command of the risen Jesus to his disciples was ‘You shall be my witnesses...to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1: 8). The proclamation of who Jesus was and is the the central, core, 'sine qua non' of Christianity. Any Church leader who does not make that clear has much to answer for. Matthew 28 : 19 - 20 records Jesus telling his disciples to 'go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age'. Martin Fair does not mention this basis of Christian presence in the world or the fact that visible Christian worshipping communities are its fulfilment.
Martin Fair is critical of the institution of the Church of Scotland. Here he may find general sympathy. He likens the Church to Kodak, Blockbuster and the Ever Given. We might add Betamax to the list. But the Church worldwide is the Body of Christ. It is not outmoded. Neil Mackay comments, ‘If there’s a distinctly egalitarian, even ‘socialist’ flavour, to what Fair says, he’s also got no time for intolerance of any stripe’. This means that he does not uphold distinctive Judaeo-Christian teaching as something especially blessed. Paradoxically though, he quotes Jeremiah. ‘Look for the path and find the ancient way and you’ll find rest for your soul’ (6 : 16).
Martin Fair thinks that many churches will not re-open after the pandemic. He says ‘it’s not just inevitable that there will be fewer churches, but also the way churches look and what they do will change too. The number of church buildings has fallen from around 2,500 in the Kirk’s heyday to about 800 today – even that’s currently ‘way too many’, he says, and more will inevitably go. And they are not to be worship centres; they are to be ‘sanctuary spaces’ 'for ordinary people whether they’re religious or not’, he says. His nihilism continues in seeking to justify the Church of Scotland’s failure to assert its right to decide where and when to open its churches. ‘We’ve worked with the Scottish Government’, he says, ‘and were happy to have our buildings closed’ (during the pandemic). Is this a joke? No, it is not. If the Jews of old had taken Martin Fair’s attitude Judaism would never have survived (‘How can we sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land?...If I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy' (Psalm 137 : 4, 6)). If Christians had adopted his attitude Christianity would have disappeared. Even now there are Christians in China meeting in underground churches to worship at the possible cost of freedom and even of life itself. They are strengthened and inspired by being together. The nearest he gets in his interview to Easter Day is to suggest in closing that “Light always triumphs over darkness.”
Our human life finds its meaning and direction in relationship with Our Maker made possible through Jesus Christ. ‘Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going?’ are questions of philosophy. ‘Does God exist?’ is a question of theology, as are the questions ‘Is this all there is? Is there life after death’? ‘Does God know and love me’ is a relationship question, answered in Jesus Christ for all humanity for all time. The Church and Christianity seem to be separated in Martin Fair’s thought. Christianity is an all encompassing offer, for everyone.
Martin Fair’s thought is an expression of Second Commandment Christianity. It is human centred and part of a long tradition of Christian socialism. He sees no possibility of the revival of Christian worship, of a movement of the Holy Spirit, of the discovery by succeeding generations of the Risen Jesus Christ. His version of Christianity would never have made it out of Jerusalem. It would never have reached Scotland. Atheists may grudgingly tolerate Martin Fair’s thinking and politicians will be relieved not to be challenged on their philosophies and practices. He is typical of Church of Scotland Moderators who cannot urge us to ‘stand up for Jesus’ first and indeed kneel in service second.