Yesterday the Free Church voted to allow congregations the liberty to use hymns and musical accompaniment in their worship services. To forestall blank looks: they always did sing! they sang things that were inspired, and they sang using their voices.
This is a serious step. It is a good thing that they consulted widely and discussed it for a lengthy period of time. It is a good thing that they prize unity so much. It is a good thing that the decision safeguards the continued singing of the Psalms in their congregations.
It is serious though because it is a clear break with the historic position of the Church in Scotland since the Reformation. The Free Church’s ties with the Reformation have been weakened by this decision.
It is serious because it undermines the Free Church’s commitment to purity of worship, something which they previously shared with other closely related denominations, who now have lost a partner in witness to the regulative principle of worship and through it, sola scriptura.
It is serious because, even though the form of worship is in itself a matter of lesser importance than the unity of the larger church, whatever threat there was to the unity of the larger church was not coming from office-bearers who respected their ordination vows or people who had intelligently and conscientiously become members of a church whose position on purity of worship was well known. Pragmatically speaking, this decision is conceivably justifiable as the relaxing of a lesser principle for the sake of a greater good, yet the ones who have lost the most are not the ones who had made the most fuss.
It is also serious because there was no weight of scripture behind the change. The Free Church did not yesterday discover a biblical principle which negated the regulative principle. It is possible that they may be dealing biblically with what would otherwise be an intolerable difference of opinion on forms of worship, much though I hae ma doots. But the scriptural case for inspired materials of praise sung a capella has not been overturned. Appealing to scripture for how to deal with disunity is a good thing. Appealing to scripture for how to format your worship service should come just as naturally, but it does not seem to have been as characteristic of either side of this debate as it was, say, twenty years ago, or in the 1870s, or prior to the Disruption. [UPDATE: A friend in the Free Church explains that it wasn’t accurate to say this. “Both James Maciver and Kenneth Stewart delivered superb addresses firmly grounded in first class exegesis in defence of the confessional position. Earlier on, during the consultative stage, Stewart had already written a very accomplished exegetical paper too.” I’m sorry to have written something misleading and happy to set the record straight.]
Consciences in the Free Church today may well be hurting. Obviously, there is no cause for the sprouting of another new denomination: sub-optimal practice does not un-make a church. And in the FPs there is at least one option for an alternative denominational home, if sociological considerations don’t make people overlook our existence, our shared confession, and our once shared practice. Watching from the sidelines, there are other heavy hearts in the spiritual Sion, hanging our metaphorical harps on the figurative willows. How can we sing the Lord’s song, in this foreign land?
(I’m off to catch a train now and will be away for the weekend. If you’re commenting, be nice please.)