The Free Church is a force for good in Scotland. There can’t be many Free Presbyterians who don’t have dear friends and relatives in the Free Church, and even if our official and publicly displayed attitude to the Free Church is one of frowns and disapproval, there are still plenty people who respect the Free Church, value the Free Church’s testimony, appreciate the fellowship of believers in the Free Church, and wish the Free Church well. There are some of us who, on seeing a negative comment in the magazine, cry a little bit inside every time. We share the same fathers of the Scottish Reformation, we honour the Disruption testimony, we are grateful for every point of agreement in doctrine and every point of agreement in practice.
Right now, the Free Church is being featured in the news, both secular and Christian, for raising the issue of whether to continue with the practice of singing only inspired materials of praise unaccompanied by musical instruments, or whether to allow uninspired materials and/or musical accompaniment in addition.
The historical reasons in favour of the status quo are shared and endorsed by Free Presbyterians, who sing psalms only, a cappella. We sing the Psalms, because that’s what the Book of Psalms is for, and we don’t use instrumental accompaniment, because we have no mandate for it. This is consistent with scripture; it is required by scripture; it imposes nothing on the conscience of worshippers but what the scriptures allow; it is borne out by centuries of practice in the New Testament Church; it was the universal position of the Scottish Church at the Reformation and for hundreds of years thereafter; it is built into the ordination vows of our office-bearers. It is, in short, a warm-hearted commitment to purity of worship. We are thankful to share this with the Free Church.
Needless to say, the general reaction to the hot news of the Free Church’s exploration of the worship issue is one of mass incomprehension – even among the Christian commentariat. Thus wild criticism comes from those who think that the practice is Hebridean, that it’s unbearably old-fashioned, that including uninspired hymns is a modernisation essential to the survival of a denomination, and that restricting yourself to the Psalms means you won’t be singing about Jesus. All of this is pitifully wrong (and when delivered in tones of scorn, says quite a lot about contemporary commentators’ grasp of the issues and disregard for what, even if quaint, is still a perfectly respectable Christian tradition in its own right; yes, trendy popular postmodern evangelical blogger who graciously spent some time in a Highland congregation and speaks from vast experience, I’m looking at you).
By having this debate, people in the Free Church have the opportunity to rediscover or reaffirm the principles involved. It’s not a question of clinging resolutely to outdated and offputting worship styles: anyone who prefers the unaccompanied singing of untutored congregations as an aesthetic choice is wide open to criticism; anyone who prefers it as an expression of cultural heritage is verging on the patronising and missing the scriptural point. If the Free Church doesn’t know why they exclusively sing inspired songs a cappella, there could be an argument that they might as well abandon it. But a return to the whole-hearted conviction that our historic practice truly equips us with what we are to praise with and how we are to praise would be an excellent step forward for the Free Church and the wider Church more generally.
O come, let us joyfully sing to the Lord;
To the Rock of salvation let us raise our voice.
Let us come before him expressing our thanks;
Let us with loud singing praise him and rejoice.