In something of a different genre, we now also have ‘No Claim to Perfection?’ by Philip Ross. It’s available here, although it’s only fair to give warning that you may find it a disappointing read.
It (a) makes one substantive point by way of contribution to the discussion, (b) is overall a depressing hindrance to any potential reconciliation, yet (c) indirectly gives some opportunity to salvage the discussion.
(a) One substantive point is all I can find, and it doesn’t appear until half way through.
If you recall that the original ‘Reunion’ paper proposed reunion or amalgamation of four denominations, one essential criterion for identifying these four was that they all require “strict subscription” to the Westminster Confession. The ‘Response’ queried whether the APC does indeed practice “strict subscription,” since the APC Deed of Separation says it accepts the Westminster Confession “insofar as” it is consistent with Scripture.
For expressing a church’s relation to its confession, terminology like ‘insofar as’ should ring alarm bells because historically it was understood that the church accepted the confession not ‘insofar as’ it is consistent with Scripture but ‘because’ it is consistent with Scripture. To say you follow your confession only ‘insofar as’ it is scriptural is only another way of saying ’1892 Declaratory Act’, which, as good Free Presbyterians and friends, we all know spells disaster.
Philip Ross’s article speaks to this point. He concedes the ‘insofar as’ wording could be considered “infelicitous or historically naive” but denies that it defines how the APC subscribe. He says we should take the APC understanding of subscription from their Questions and Formula, which are the same as in the FPs, and retain the ‘because’ (“strict”) subscription.
This matters in the current discussion because an ecclesiastical body practicing “loose,” quatenus, ‘insofar as’ subscription would rule it out as a possible participant in any reunion or amalgamation that could ever take place. If the case can be made for “strict,” quia, ‘because’ subscription on the part of the APC, then – good news – they’re back in the running.
But (b) if Philip Ross’s article is representative of feeling in the APC towards this discussion (or the FPC as one of its participants) it is questionable whether reconciliation is much in their minds in any case.
This article can in no way be construed as a helpful contribution to the discussion. In marked contrast to the three Reunion – Response – Answer papers, it doesn’t even claim to be trying to engage in a respectful or brotherly spirit. That tone of unyielding censure and condemnation which Philip Ross so deplores in the Free Presbyterian Magazine he simply replicates in his own unremitting criticism of the Free Presbyterian Church. The hostility and finger-pointing of this article does absolutely nothing to encourage what had up to now been an atmosphere of frankness and openness to dialogue that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Instead such a wilfully unsympathetic presentation of the FP Church simply invites the response from even the most well disposed FP that it’s not worth the trouble of attempting to have this discussion, and perpetuates the feeling among others that the FP Church is ineligible for participating in any meaningful discussion of ecclesiastical reconciliation.
Maybe the thought doesn’t bother Dr Ross because maybe he thinks the FP Church is so irredeemably contemptible that nobody should even want to consider reconciliation with them anyway. So let’s just concede that the Magazine never shows the FPs at their best, that there is immense cultural conservatism descending to all sorts of apparent trivia, and that having found themselves on the defensive from day one in 1893 the FPs have never felt it advantageous to engage in any public form of self-reflection or self-criticism. None of this means that there are no Christians left in the FP Church, or that the splintered and divided state of Scotland’s believers isn’t a genuine burden to Christians in the FP Church, or that there is no appetite within the FP Church for more and better relationships with other Christians. Nor does it license this kind of sniping from the sidelines. Rather, when the discussion is a sensitive one about brethren from different communions seeking to dwell together in unity, it seems crassly inappropriate to magnify and highlight the obstacles on one side, in the absence of any qualification by way of recognition that there could be plus points to the FP case and that some of the barriers to union have been raised by and can only be dismantled by the other participants in this discussion.
It is, in short, a crashing disappointment.
Still, (c) if you squint hard enough, this article could offer some useful material for the current discussion.
* It reminds us that church splits are nasty things. Nearly 25 years on from 1989, an awful lot of bitterness and grudges remain. If there’s difficulty within a church, splitting it will by no means end the difficulty, but will simply perpetuate it in a different setting. When believers fall out, it needs to be dealt with in-house – leaving in a strop solves nothing. If there is anything to be gleaned from the FP and APC experience, friends who have been involved in recent splits could perhaps take warning that not after their children nor their children’s children will they be over it – that unless they work hard now, the resentment and disaffection could easily persist for generations.
* FPs don’t need reminding that their reputation is really poor even among fellow believers. Obviously, we’re used to it. Obviously too, the natural response is to react with defensive counter-criticisms and then carry on as before, doughty presbyterians floundering in a context of super-nice evangelicalism where mutual misunderstanding is guaranteed. Our public face wears a constant frown of disapproval and we are almost perversely determined to only say things out loud that will make us sound as objectionable as possible. People who look no further than our public pronouncements don’t hear the gospel preached from our pulpits and don’t see the graces exercised in people’s private lives. But from the inside we know there is a big gap between caricature and reality, even if as a body we don’t particularly excel at demonstrating this to onlookers (and tend to abandon even the attempt when onlookers are manifestly prejudiced).
* Although in not exactly the nicest possible way, this article does point to places where we could do some difficult thinking about our priorities and the difference between cultural markers of Free Presbyterianism and biblical requirements for all Christians. Obviously, this article creates the opposite of a safe space where that difficult thinking could be done, but quietly and compassionately and out of the public eye we could do worse than talk these problems over.
* People can be busy writing very useful books one moment, then turn round and do a startling amount of damage the next. Whatever you might think about the need or timeliness or practicality of the current calls for a reunion of confessional churches, venting this kind of indignation against any denomination contributes only to perpetuating the cycle of criticism, resentment, and petty point scoring that saps the energy of believers in all denominations and makes it all the more difficult for all parties to remember that behind the denominational boundaries we are all believers, with ultimately the same hope in the same saviour. Recognising and treating each other as brothers and sisters isn’t a substitute for dismantling the denominational boundaries, but it is both a prerequisite for it and only what we owe each other even while the boundaries remain.