RMK: starters

Liturgy is a term to strike terror into the heart of honest presbyterians. When Charles I tried to impose ‘Laud’s Liturgy’ on the Scottish church in the 1630s, there were protests all over Scotland, the swearing of solemn oaths, and even possibly the hurling of a stool in St Giles. Those who signed National Covenant of 1638 swore to defend the doctrine, faith, religion, discipline, and sacraments of “this true reformed kirk,” no matter how severe the civil penalties might be.

Yet the core of the objection to Laud’s liturgy was not so much that it was a liturgy, but that it was an “Anglo-Popish” one. The Scottish church has always had a liturgy, even when not called by that name. There has been, especially, the Directory for Public Worship, usually published in the same volume as the Confession of Faith and Catechisms. Where practice has diverged from the DPW, it has historically been a consistent and stable divergence – for instance in uniformly beginning the Lord’s Day services by singing a psalm instead of with prayer.

Scottish theologians have also devoted a great deal of serious thought to the doctrine of the Church. The spiritual independence of the Church was firmly defended not only against the impositions of Charles I but also against the encroachments of the benevolent and increasingly bossy Victorian-era state. A civil court meddling in ecclesiastical matters such as the ordaining and inducting of ministers was simply outrageous: to the Church belongs real (sole) authority in ecclesiastical matters. Ordained ministers, further, were ordained to preach the Word and administer the sacraments. Those who heard the Word preached were supposed to receive it “as the Word of God,” according to the Larger Catechism (160) and the ‘power of the keys’ was a real power.

The Reformation centrality of the preaching of the gospel in the work of the Church was similarly maintained until really very recently. Whatever social reforms the Church made a contribution to historically (and there were many), these were self-consciously not the main function of the Church, because the Church’s role was spiritual and ecclesiastical – to preach the Word, administer the sacraments, and exercise discipline. Because of the priority of preaching, virtually the only evangelism which the Church did was to preach sermons. The unchurched, or whatever they were called back then, were brought to church, to hear the gospel preached – special ‘evangelistic’ programmes and rallies being on that account quite redundant and until recently distinctly under-utilised.


With all that by way of background, let me turn to Recovering Mother Kirk, by DG Hart (2003). This is an extremely stimulating book, written with vigour and verve, and in many, many ways an excellent corrective to the misunderstandings and misbehaviour of the contemporary Protestant world. The critique of ‘contemporary’ worship is simply devastating, and the high view propounded of the spirituality of the Church and the authority of the ordained ministry is extremely welcome. Or consider this, from p117.

“How would you rate the work of your church? A ministry scorecard might include the following: If your church has a children’s ministry, give it 2 points; a welcome team ministry, 1 point; a tape ministry, 1 point (but if a tape and book ministry, 2 points). A couple’s ministry should be worth 2 points as should an international student ministry, a mothers’ ministry, and a newlywed ministry; but subtract a point if it is a newlywed mothers’ ministry. A women’s ministry should also receive 2 points, and in the spirit of equity, a men’s ministry should receive the same. … An AIDS ministry, a ministry to the homeless, and a low-income housing ministry all receive 3 points, a score befitting a big church with many resources and talented members. Throw in 1 point each for a weekly Bible study, foreign missions, and the sacraments (2 points for the latter if your church allows the laity to set up the Lord’s Supper). Finally, add 1 point for a Sunday morning service, 2 points if you have both a contemporary and a traditional service.
How did your church do? Be careful though. Before you delight in a double-digit number, you should know that this game is like golf – the higher the score, the worse the performance. The reason, of course, for this inverse method of scoring comes from our Lord himself. … In the Great Commission, Christ told the apostles to teach and baptise. In other words, he defined the ministry of the church as encompassing two tasks only: Word and sacrament.”

How brilliant is that? Something just as good pops up in every chapter.

The best thing about it is that many of the biggest “ta-da!” moments in the book, just like this, relate to things which all but one, or all but two, of the Scottish denominations have in fact doggedly clung to all down through the generations. Yet attaining greater clarity and conviction on these points is always necessary. One of the main reasons therefore for recommending this book far and wide is because of how it puts a point and a polish on many things which may well remain embedded in our collective life, but, perhaps, gently rusting away there, more than they should be.

Being ‘conservative’ isn’t enough is, in other words, a refrain which we very much need to hear. And ‘the Bible doesn’t say so’ can only take you so far, before you need to start affirming what the Bible does say. Youth camps aren’t a means of grace – nor interdenominational conferences, nor giving a public testimony nor post-church tea and biscuits – well, so far so good. But then what are the means of grace, and how far do we really respect them? How far, in other words, are we positively comfortable and confident about using these and only these means just because these are what the Holy Spirit has promised to bless.

For the great bulk of this book, therefore, reading brings a great feeling of relief. Someone else out there really gets it.

But! He doesn’t get everything, may I make so bold as to say. Yet since even I’m dimly aware that there’s such a thing as a Too Long blog post, I’m going to break the habit of a lifetime and do a two-part series…

You may now bate your breath.

3 thoughts on “RMK: starters

  1. A good post which reminded me of a history book of Scotland for children, which had a picture of Jenny Geddes throwing a stool at some clergyman at St Giles. I can still imagine the picture, though I doubt if I could find the book. I have, however, mentioned the story to some Anglican and RC clergymen as the way that some Presbyterians might react to their sermons.

    I like your extension of the handicap to a golf score. If you have no objections, could I refer to it in a future mythical critique by a liturgical pedant?


  2. Pingback: RMK: mains « ninetysix and ten

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