The outline of a proposal for tackling the schisms in Scottish presbyterianism has recently been put in the public domain. It’s by Rev K Stewart, titled ‘Reformed Scottish Presbyterianism: Reunion in the 21st century?’ and you should read it for yourself by clicking here.
This is a serious document which deserves to be taken seriously. The single biggest problem of our time (as far as I can see) is the lack of visible unity between the Lord’s people. That is to say, between Christians who confess the same Confession. Disunity is a glaring contradiction of our presbyterian principles and we are all implicated to a greater or lesser extent in the sins of schism and of tolerating schism.
The ecumenical movement has given unity a bad name. People who belong to doctrinally aware denominations which maintain a separate existence for known doctrinal principles are tired of explaining that mere organisational unity is not a desirable goal in itself. In these denominations, visible unity is maintained around a shared confession of faith, which by definition excludes from fellowship those who are doctrinally divergent. This is not schism. It is not schismatic to be separate from heretics. Organisational unity is worthless unless it is unity around the truth.
But although it is right to resist calls for unity with people and groups who we share nothing doctrinally in common with, it is never right to settle down comfortably in a state of separation from those who are in fact fellow-believers. Not heretics. When our brothers and sisters belong to different communions, that should always be a source of grief to us, something we can never regard complacently. Separateness from others is a statement to the effect that, as to doctrine, they are heretical, as to worship, profane, and as to discipline, immoral. This is why it matters so much. If we are one in Christ, we should be seen to be one in Christ. Organisational disunity is a scandal when we all hold to the same truth.
At the same time, achieving unity among those who all hold to the same truth is not straightforward. Mr Stewart’s paper identifies four denominations as requiring strict subscription to the Westminster Confession and committed to purity of worship as historically understood: APC, FCC, FP, RP. To recognise (even in general terms) each other’s commitment to the Confession and purity of worship is to acknowledge that we already share the most important things, and that it is the things of lesser importance which divide us. But the lesser things are not trivial things. There are reasons why we are separate and these reasons need to be faced squarely, evaluated honestly, repented of where necessary, and sincerely put behind us.
To be perfectly honest, I do not find that easy even to contemplate. Unfortunately for my own life of ease, I find it unavoidably necessary.
If we seriously accept the presbyterian vision of one united church, and the need to work towards it, then there are two possible ways of achieving it. Let me for the time being skip over several discussion-worthy points in Mr Stewart’s paper (did I mention that you should read it?) and zoom to the end where these possibilities are outlined. They are: either a new church solution or else an existing church solution. A new church solution would be where the four denominations form one new one, called, perhaps, the Reformed Church of Scotland. An existing church solution would be where one of the existing four acts as ‘host’ for the other three to merge into (the paper nominates, gently, the RPs for that role, although not ruling out another contender).
Trying my hardest to suppress my inner loyal Free Presbyterian and view the situation dispassionately, I can see enough pros and cons to both possibilities that I can’t actually decide which would be better even in theory. Even supposing things could be neatly agreed on the constitutional level, we would still be left with a complex tangle of sociological, cultural, and attitudinal factors to sort out. Since the only thing I’m clear on at the moment is that our current situation is unjustifiable, I’m just going to leave things here and not speculate from a position of uncertainty. Our splits are incompatible with our presbyterianism, so what can we do about it?