Congregational Rebellion in the Church of Scotland
Professor John Hume’s letter in The Herald newspaper on 30th January 2023 criticised the formation of large Presbyteries in the Church of Scotland and advocated their immediate abolition. Bill Cowan followed up the letter the next day by criticising the closing of viable local churches and congregations in the Irvine and Dreghorn area. Years ago in the former Presbytery of Ayr I had advised against the formation of large presbyteries and had pointed out that the direction being taken was a reversal of the hierarchy to people principle of the Reformation. I had also asked ‘Why are congregations not being consulted about this?’
Professor Hume wrote, ‘It seems to me scandalous that such information has not been available to most members of the Church and the people of Scotland in general until now. These articles also reveal that these actions were approved during the Covid crisis by General Assemblies held almost exclusively by Zoom, strongly suggesting a reluctance of the Assembly Trustees to expose their plan to informed debate’. In 2019 I had made this point in written submissions to the Presbytery of Ayr. ‘Why were congregations not being consulted?’ I had asked. There was no satisfactory reply.
In a Presbytery Zoom meeting Bill Cowan had pointed out the fact that unions of congregations reduce attendance, membership and financial offerings. He wrote, ‘To my amazement I was told by a former Moderator of the General Assembly that these would be members we do not want’. Bill Cowan argued ‘The so called Mission Plan was simply a handle to cover up the past failure of the Church...in the provision of the supply of ministers’. He concluded ‘In many ways the Church is leaving us. We are not leaving the Church’ and likened the powers that be to VAR operatives in Scottish football, these being the same people who ‘got us into this mess in the first place’. The former Moderator’s name was either Bill Hewitt or David Lacy. If so, they are the Presbytery of South West Scotland’s version of 1960’s Dr Beeching who significantly reduced the national rail service of the time by closing many routes and stations, a number of which have since been re-opened, including from Edinburgh to Galashiels. They are rounding up congregations and herding them together like cattle in the wild west. They are not alone however and this is current Church of Scotland policy.
Bill Cowan is right about the deceptive use of the world ‘mission’ to disguise real intention. On 20th April 2019 I had written a discussion paper for Ayr Presbytery which argued as follows.
It appears that the Church of Scotland in general and the Church at Presbytery level decided that mission was important and that everyone should do mission. The content was never defined. Mission became a criterion of justification for congregational existence (like Jehovah’s Witnesses). This is salvation by works contradicting Luther’s salvation by grace alone. You cannot just prefix something with the word ‘mission’ and that makes it mission. If you stick a Mercedes star on a Ford Fiesta it is still a Ford Fiesta. You are not fooling anyone.
In Acts 19 there is the strange story of the Sons of Sceva. ‘Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, “In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.” Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. One day the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?” Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding’ (verses 13 - 16). This was an attempted second-hand vicarious exorcism. Paul’s use of the name of Jesus Christ was based on his conversion, experience of and commitment to Jesus Christ. The sons of Sceva had none of these. Their attempts failed and rebounded on them.
The Church of Scotland uses the word ‘mission’ in this kind of way. You've heard of 'greenwashing' and 'sports washing'. The Church of Scotland's 'mission washing' is transparently hypocritical. It is like the occasion when former American President Richard Nixon was advised by one of his counsellors, 'Mr President, the people want moral leadership'. To which Nixon is reported to have replied, 'Sure, if the people want moral leadership, we'll give them moral leadership.' There was a disconnection between aspiration and capacity.
Mission is the end point of a Christian life which is based on personal faith in and personal knowledge of God, has matured this faith in relationship to Jesus Christ, can articulate it and is possessed of a calling to do so. Many members of the Church of Scotland are sincere and gifted people and they are genuinely concerned for the Church. However many are unconvinced about the basic claims of the Christian Gospel. Their commitment is to ‘their church’ ie., their local congregation. Elders share spiritual authority and articulate their views and opinions often without reference to Jesus Christ or the Bible. Why are Church of Scotland members so inarticulate about their Faith? How can their tongues be loosened?
Church of Scotland congregational life barely scratches the surface of Christianity. A process of seeking, spiritual rebirth, conviction and re-dedication is required, individually and collectively. Rebirth into a different collective level of Christian consciousness is necessary for real mission. Given the rich resources in the Church of Scotland’s membership, if their modest faith and understanding could be fanned into a flame by the Holy Spirit much could be accomplished. Christianity is greater than our expressions of the Faith we hold. Jesus Christ has all the power and resources for renewal and revival.