a new declaratory act

[This post makes blog history by being a guest contribution.]

A new Free Church Declaratory Act?

The General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland has passed an Act on the controversial subject of the worship of that denomination in an attempt to put a line under the disputes of the past 10 years. The form of the Act will remind those acquainted with Church history of what used to be known as a Declaratory Act, in several particulars resembling in form and design the infamous Free Church Declaratory Act of 1892. In what is all but an admission of a very significant change in the meaning of the Questions and Formula put to Free Church Office-bearers, the new Act of 2011 recognises that the decision of the Plenary Assembly of November 2010 “may have created difficulties of conscience for some office-bearers and some who may be elected to office.” It then enacts that “in order to address such difficulties,” all candidates for office at the time of licensing, ordination or induction “may intimate to the relevant Church Court their own personal conviction with regard to sung praise and instrumental music in public worship.”

Considerable division emerged in the months between the Plenary Assembly in November 2010 and the General Assembly in May 2011 around the question of whether the Plenary Assembly decision required to go down to Presbyteries under the Barrier Act before becoming a new law in the Church. Some contended that the Plenary Assembly, itself called with consent of Presbyteries through the Barrier Act, made the Barrier Act legislation no longer relevant. Others claimed to have expected the decision of the Plenary Assembly to go down to Presbyteries before it could be formally adopted as a new law. Although now interpreted as merely permissive, the authority with which the decision was taken to remove all the 20th century legislation protecting purity of worship, was that of the Assembly acting with the majority consent of all the Presbyteries in Plenary session. There seemed to be surprising agreement that with Barrier Act legitimacy (however construed) the decision would be a binding law in the Free Church. This has always been the contention of the Free Presbyterian Church in connection with the Declaratory Act adopted in1891 and made law under the Barrier Act in 1892.

In substance and in form the new declaratory Act of 2011 describes the 2010 Act on worship as “permissive and not mandatory” and is itself professedly, (like its even more divisive and doctrinally heretical predecessor) a relieving Act.  Yet, it clearly identifies in the November 2010 decision a change in the relation of the Free Church to her constitutional commitments to purity of worship. While 2011 Act is constructed to relieve the consciences of office-bearers, just as the 1892 Act was designed to do, it would appear that the consciences intended are those of the Free Church office-bearers who wish to preserve rather than those who wish to change the constitution. Such is the new understanding of liberty of conscience that office-bearers who have not changed their avowed position on purity of worship are now required to make known their “personal conviction” and “it shall be the duty of the Clerk of Presbytery or Kirk Session in all cases to record any such intimation.” Those who have changed their position relative to the vows they have taken are not required to make any such statement as the Plenary Assembly has granted them the licence to change their avowed convictions with impunity.

It remains to be seen how many existing office-bearers in the Free Church will make use of the liberty and advice of the new Act which ordains that “existing office-bearers may intimate to the relevant Church Court at any suitable opportunity their own personal conviction with regard to sung praise and instrumental music in public worship.” This provision of the Act seems so wide open to misuse and misconstruction that it would hardly seem credible that a Presbyterian Church could long endure the ambiguity it has potential to create. If, for example a candidate for office in the Free Church of Scotland were to declare his personal conviction to be in favour of something presently disallowed by the Free Church understanding of her “purity” of worship, would an argument no immediately ensue over what practice in worship was according to the doctrine of the Scriptures and the Confession? Similarly, if an office-bearer who previously swore to “assert, maintain and defend” the purity of worship as authorised and practised when he was ordained, were to express himself as bound to do all in his power as an office-bearer to overturn the Plenary Assembly decision, could the Church Court to which he is accountable legitimately accept this intimation? Anarchy would ensue in either hypothetical case.

It is very possible that what lies behind the new declaratory Act is a hope that such anarchy is only hypothetical and not likely to prove a reality in the present day Free Church. Doubtless Robert Rainy thought similarly in 1892 before he encountered the zeal of the Scottish Highlands in defence of the old gospel. Similar zeal for the old purity of worship, for which the Free Church in the 20th century was well-known and often despised, is sadly little in evidence as the days following the Declaratory Act Assembly of 2011 turn to weeks and months. Separation or re-constitution are ultimately very unlikely. The universal cry for unity, (which begged the question by citing the Scripture injunction that believers endeavour to maintain the “unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace,”) is likely to prevent would-be protesters from asserting themselves any further. On both sides of the divide, flight would now be the preferred option for such malcontents. Some have already taken this option. The innovators responsible for the new constitutional arrangement are unlikely to be too distressed if those who consider them to have breached their ordination commitments find an ecclesiastical home elsewhere.

[Guest post by Rev David Campbell]

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3 thoughts on “a new declaratory act

  1. Matthew comments further, over at the Holdfast –

    On intimating personal convictions – “Merely to state one’s convictions is on the face of it meaningless when this has no integral connection with the vows and it does not matter to the Church whether or not the statement is made. It does not absolve the individual from keeping the vows as the Church has altered them.”

    On the vows – “Men are now being required to assert, maintain and defend worship that previously their vows required them to oppose. It is no longer possible to assert, maintain and defend purity of worship in congregations that will reject purity of worship. While liberty will be granted to use purity of worship when conducting worship there, is there liberty to preach against the defection from purity of worship? Will this not be seen as schismatic and proceeded against? Will elders be able to protest against defections within their congregation?”

    On binding laws and the power of the keys – “binding rules and constitutions may, even if ultra vires, effectually change in practice and reality the meaning and force of one’s vows. This is what happened in 1892-3, yet men sought to argue otherwise. One argument was that they were not required to preach heresy. The point was, however, that they had the keys of discipline taken away from them in relation to heresy and their ordination vows were meaningless on this point.”

    But that’s just a summary. Go here to read the rest.

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  2. Without a doubt the terms of the “currently practiced” contained in the Formula has changed from unaccompanied inspired praise to unaccompanied inspired praise through to a mix of inspired and uninspired praise with instruments. I think what is intriguing about both the plenary decision and the assembly decisions this year is the special privilege that certain ministers have been given.

    Sung praise is probably the most corporate aspect of worship. The minister, ruling elders, members, adherents and even unbelievers attending worship sing it. Children sing it along with those who have seen many generations. The decision made by the Plenary and confirmed by the General Assembly this year therefore had far reaching implications on those who worship across the Free Church.

    But critically the Act did not deal with the consciences of all those who sing across the Free Church equally. For example, a believing worshipper who loves the Psalms and believes that the use of uninspired praise is wrong may be subject to the voting of a Session as to what they will be required to sing. What should that person do? Should he or she sing the hymn against conscience or sit silent while those around do what he or she considers to be wrong?

    Similarly for a ruling elder who loves the Psalms and believes uninspired material wrong. He is also subject to the voting of sessions. He took the Formula to mean what it simply meant. He did not agitate for change and maintained a defence of that position. Of course, he can clearly express his position in the terms of the 2011 Act. But if his Session decides to include uninspired praise what then? Stating a position on worship doesn’t clear a conscience when one is required to do what one thinks is wrong even when a Session says so.

    What about ministers? Well if one is a Minster who believes that the use of uninspired material is allowable both according to Scripture and Confession, well that minister cannot impose his will. That minister is still subject to the how his Session votes. If the session is against him he may choose to leave or choose to remain. If he chooses to remain and sing only inspired praise well he still not required to sing anything that is according to his conscience wrong. Of course that Minister is still free to agitate for change within the congregation.

    But if one is a Minister who believes the use of inspired praise is right what then. Well firstly, you are not subject to the voting of your session because you are given a special privilege which states categorically that your beliefs when it comes to praise will be honoured both in your own church and even in the higher courts when praise is sung. So when that man states his position for inspired praise how does that work out practically. Well, simply that minister can go back to his own church and continue singing praise with a clear conscience. He believes the position the Free Church held prior to November 2010 is right and he can freely exercise that belief. He is not like the ruling elder with the same beliefs and who signed the Formula prior to November 2010. He is not like the believer who has received the teaching of the Free Church up until November 2010, who has always sung inspired praise in the free Church and who consequently has the same beliefs.

    So what does it say about that minister when he allows himself a special privilege not afforded to all office bearers or even to members of the Free Church when it comes to singing praise? What does it say about that man when he condones Sessions deciding on purity of worship and so allowing discord in other congregations but not in his own? Is there really parity among elders (teaching and ruling) in the Free Church? Does worship remain truly corporate where uninspired materials are included but people have consciences challenged as to their suitability to worship the Lord? I think not.

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  3. Chris, thanks for this.

    It’s undoubtedly the people who were genuinely, intelligently committed to the status quo who have lost the most, and who find themselves in the most awkward position.

    (Will maybe add more tomorrow but just wanted to acknowledge your comment.)

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