the reunion question

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?

some weird objections

A post by Gordon Matheson here rightly identifies the Establishment Principle as central to the concerns that many Scottish Christians have about changing to a secular constitution if Scotland became independent.

But rather than concurring with this, the post goes on to make three observations on the relationship between Church and State which sit rather uncomfortably with a conventional understanding of the Establishment Principle – a principle so crucial to the witness of the heirs of 1843.

Observation 1.

Firstly, God doesn’t need the Establishment Principle to guarantee the place of the church at the heart of the nation. The suggestion that the church needs the trappings of Establishment is bogus. We need to remember, the Church started life as a few dozen people gathered in a room in Jerusalem. It flourished in the face of fierce persecution in its Jewish cradle, in the culture of the Roman Empire, and across the whole Gentile world. Even today, the Church thrives in counties where it is suppressed. The Establishment Principle, if anything, should urge us on to win and hold onto hard-won religious liberty. The American constitution, for example, guarantees that liberty, but wisely does not establish any religion or denomination – yet the Church does okay in America. Meanwhile, in the UK, where we have an Established Church, we’re peripheral – hardly at the heart of anything. Establishment provides no guarantee of a place – let alone a place at the heart.

The oddity of this observation is that establishment isn’t so much about the needs of the Church as the needs of society. Nor is it about what God “needs” so much as what God ordains – what God has revealed is his preferred way for how Church and State should relate. The Establishment Principle doesn’t force us to choose between religious liberty and the church at the heart of the nation – it’s about both. And legal provisions that the Church should be established are not so much fancy trappings that we can easily dispense with as simply the State’s way of expressing its acceptance of its obligation under God to give national recognition to the Christian religion. If it happens that, in spite of legislation like the Treaty of Union, neither the state nor the established body are taking their current legal responsibilities seriously, that’s not a problem with the legislation but with the flaws and frailties of the state and the body it currently establishes. It certainly doesn’t undermine the Establishment Principle, which is just our terminology for the relationship which should hold between Church and State when both are living up to their divinely ordained responsibilities.

Observation 2.

Secondly, the Establishment Principle has never guaranteed orthodoxy. In fact, Established Churches tend towards a sickness in doctrine. History is replete with examples – from the Church of England’s half-way reformation, to the Three Self Patriotic Church on modern day China. The Establishment Principle is supposed to lead to a healthy balance between church and state. But because we live in a broken, sinful world that rarely happens. Even when it does it rarely lasts long. Either the state exercises undue control over the church’s doctrine and affairs; or the church becomes grotesque in her demands of the state; or the church makes compromises to appease the state. This has already happened in Scotland. We need to ask, what’s worse for the nation – a sick established church, or a healthier non-established church? It’s strange that a Free Presbyterian minister has forgotten this has happened before. In the run up to 1843 the relationship between state and established church became unbearable for men like Thomas Chalmers, and he walked out. The “Free” in the Free Church, and her various offspring, is a recognition that Establishment is a great Biblical principle, (and we still call the state to her highest calling in this); but we realise we live in the real world, where great principles rarely work as desired.

In the Scottish context, it simply is not the case that historically the Established Church has tended towards a sickness in doctrine. Strange for a Free Church minister to forget, but in the run up to the Disruption, the “sickness” was on the side of the State, not the side of the Church. The Disruption was actually a manifestation of very robust health on the part of the then established Church, when they would prefer to forego the benefits of establishment than violate the principle of Christ’s authority in his Church. For that whole length of time between the Reformation and the Disruption, Scotland had in actuality enjoyed that same healthy balance between Church and State which Gordon claims is so rare and short-lived – the 1842 Claim, Declaration and Protest is a standing testimony to this (and it’s part of the reason why the state’s encroachments in the early 1800s were so outrageous and intolerable).

The scenarios on offer – a sick established church or a healthier non-established church – are a false dichotomy. The ideal, encapsulated in the Establishment Principle, is a healthy established Church – and it’s not some remote, fanciful ideal so noble as to be unattainable. It’s as concrete and attainable as the principle that souls are converted under the preaching of the Word, or that people shouldn’t go around breaking the sixth commandment – both grand Biblical principles and things we should be able to consciously work towards without a second thought.

Observation 3.

So my third observation is that things break. Scotland’s history is full of broken covenants – but times of refreshing have come.  Yet today, you would have to wear rose-tinted spectacles to think the church (sick or healthy) has a place to lose at the heart of the nation. The Church in Scotland is largely irrelevant, sick with errors in doctrine, and frequent misplaced emphasis in word and action. God has already been provoked – and has given Scotland the church she wanted. I don’t think we need the FPs to tell us that might happen – we need to open our eyes to what already is!

Despite that, God has continued to be faithful to us. There are still a lot of healthy parts of the Church. He does that because of his grace. While we can never assume grace, we cannot live without it. The assumption that Scotland will be cut off from God’s blessing if we revoke a man-made treaty smacks of a graceless, legalistic view of God. We have to rely on a God who is not like that.

Thankfully, the Synod resolution neither assumes that we will be cut off from God’s blessing for revoking a man-made treaty, nor entertains a graceless, legalistic view of God.

People who read the resolution itself rather than the version filtered through BBC reportage would see that the main concern is not with independence per se, nor with changing treaties per se, but with corporately adopting a secular(ist) constitution to replace the one where Christianity is given its (rightful) place at the heart of the nation. To the extent that secularisation is a rejection of God, God’s authority, and God’s kindness to us collectively in providence, there’s not much room for doubt that to that extent it’s not quite the loving respect we really owe him.

Legally and constitutionally, the Christian religion does have a huge place to lose at the heart of the nation. Our challenge today is not to pretend that the constitution is irrelevant to the church’s role in society, but to work together to ‘strengthen the things that remain and are ready to die,’ and see how we can best cooperate to shape a society where the gospel can be preached freely and lived openly, for the good of Scotland.

resolution on independence

Cath is of the view that Synod could work harder to make its resolutions less open to misinterpretion and misrepresentation by the Beeb and others.

Cath is nevertheless of the view that, given a bit of contextualisation, the Synod resolution on Scottish independence which has just recently reached the limelight makes a substantive contribution to the debate.

Read it here: Synod resolution on Scottish independence

1. Context

a) The Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland continues to understand the relationship between Church and State in terms of the Establishment Principle.

This principle has been entirely mainstream throughout the history of the Scottish church. It says that although Church and State have independent jurisdictions, they still have responsibilities towards each other. On the one hand, the Church has the responsibility of praying for all those in authority so that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and dignity. On the other hand, the State has the responsibility of ensuring that the conditions are in place in society to allow this lifestyle to flourish.

Contemporary challenges to this principle usually come either in the form that the Church doesn’t need to be recognised or established by the State in order to flourish (which is true, but irrelevant), or that a mutually supportive relationship between Church and State is not after all a scriptural principle (a position increasingly popular in wider British evangelicalism and some quarters of American presbyterianism, but not necessarily true).

To the extent that the 1707 Treaty of Union is consistent with the Establishment Principle, it’s hardly surprising that the Synod’s commitment to the Establishment Principle leads it to be concerned about undoing the Treaty of Union, especially when the pro-independence campaign has so far been strangely silent on the details of how the State’s commitment to the national recognition of the Christian religion would be reasserted in a brave new independent Scotland.

b) Although the Synod resolution comes out strongly against independence, this is not the same thing as telling people how to vote.

The resolution expresses the Synod’s understanding of the current legal and constitutional situation, and their associated concerns about what they see as all the disastrous implications and consequences of Scotland becoming independent now, under present conditions and in present circumstances. But a Christian voter would be perfectly within their rights to believe that an independent Scotland would be good for Christianity in Scotland (if they credit, for example, the SNP’s protestations of how respectful they are towards the role of religion in society). They could then vote yes in an independence referendum in all good conscience, Synod resolutions notwithstanding.

I don’t really know how the FP vote gets distributed across political parties – as in, if there’s any particular party that would reliably be favoured by the majority of Free Presbyterians. FPs vote for candidates across the spectrum, from the Lib Dems to UKIP, and although I wouldn’t be surprised if FP voters mirror the Scottish electorate at large in being predominantly unconvinced of the case for independence, that certainly does not mean either that FP voters take their political advice from a synod committee (the idea is laughable) or that Synod would even think to offer such advice.

2. Contribution

The contribution of the Synod resolution to the independence debate is not economic or political or (even) legal/constitutional, but religious. That’s after all what you’d expect, from a religious body.

The religious concern is: in an independent Scotland, what place would there be for Christianity? All you can go by, to answer a question about a hypothetical future scenario, is the trends you currently perceive, and these are not reassuring. The vision offered to us of a modern, vibrant, exciting new Scotland is rigorously secular, contemptuous towards the socially conservative, and hostile by default towards Scotland’s own traditional forms of Christianity. This is a problem for Scotland, and keenly felt by Scotland’s Christians regardless of denomination, right here and now. The worry that many of Scotland’s Christians have for Scotland would be that these attitudes would become more firmly entrenched in an independent Scotland, and that the social, cultural, moral, ethical, and religious changes driven by these attitudes would only become more far-reaching at a faster rate. Of course Christians in Scotland may take the opposite view – that somehow, independence would allow Christianity to flourish in Scotland as never before – that secularism and secularisation would become a thing of the past in an independent Scotland – but the Synod is far from alone among Christian commentators in Scotland in thinking we have little of hope this as far as the eye can see.

Two other contributions of the Synod resolution could be as follows. One would be to remind people that history matters, that we need to take treaties and covenants seriously, even if they were made a long time ago, and that we have to act accountably when we act collectively to make or break agreements.

The other would be to keep the doctrines of grace central to the witness of the Christian church in general, in such a way that everything becomes subordinate to the question how the gospel of Christ can be most clearly articulated in our particular context in this time and place. In the Synod resolution, this point is disguised under terminology that other people don’t tend to use any more – fighting talk about Protestantism and Presbyterianism and the dangers of false religion. But, translated, Protestantism and Presbyterianism mean a gospel of mercy – salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and a community devoted to loving God and our neighbour. Scottish Christians are free to discuss what the best constitutional context for this would be, but surely there can be unanimity that proclaiming the gospel is the main thing.

here we go again

Every couple of hundred years or so, depending on how you count, the state invents a different way to try and muscle in on the territory of the church.

In the 1600s, the question was whether the king had the right to call himself the head of the church on earth. Penalty for saying he didn’t: fines, imprisonment, execution. Google Covenanters. But eventually it was established that the king is not the earthly head of the church. The state had overreached itself.

In the 1800s, the question was whether the civil courts had the right to force church courts to ordain ministers against the will of the church courts. Eventual outcome for those who said they didn’t: vilification, loss of income, homelessness. Google Disruption. But eventually it was established that civil courts have no right to interfere with the church’s decisions about who to ordain or induct. The state had overreached itself.

In the 2000s, the question is whether the government has the right to to force ministers to give blessings on relationships defined by the government. Penalties for those who say it doesn’t: are likely to include vilification, demotion, arrest, fines, imprisonment. The state is again overreaching itself.

It wasn’t especially exciting for the Covenanters when they were being hunted on the moors and shot dead in the doorways of their own homes. There wasn’t all that much glamour attached to secretly attending illegal conventicles and the population at large didn’t noticeably applaud their stubborn consciences or rise up as one to thank them for their robust stance on safeguarding civil and religious liberties for their own and future generations.

Ditto for the early Free Church, when snobby landowners were refusing them permission to meet for worship amid the sneering of the tabloid presses of the day.

Fact is, it’s always a bit tricky for people who want to affirm the rights of the church when these clash with the government’s latest fashionable ideology. That is, the right of the church to say who can/can’t be recognised as having authority in the church, to say who can/can’t be ordained, to say who can/can’t be the recipient of church privileges (the sacraments, and church ‘blessings’). These are rights which belong to The Church, and fall nowhere near the remit of the State. Yet again, Christians in Scotland need to brace themselves against a State succumbing to an intolerant, illiberal, aggressive secular ideology, and it’s not a bonny sight.

criminal, not political

“… it’s just about possible that you could see your actions refashioned into a noble cause if you were stealing the staples: bread, milk. But it can’t be done while you’re nicking trainers, let alone laptops.” (Here.)

Facebook buzzed yesterday over whether the riots could be called anarchism, and decided a better term was nihilism. I wondered whether an even better term would be anomie, and now Zoe Williams makes just that point.

“I wasn’t convinced by nihilism as a reading: how can you cease to believe in law and order, a moral universe, co-operation, the purpose of existence, and yet still believe in sportswear? How can you despise culture but still want the flatscreen TV from the bookies? Alex Hiller, a marketing and consumer expert at Nottingham Business School, points out that there is no conflict between anomie and consumption…”

There’s no cause, there’s no ideology, there’s no sense in it. Violence in a political cause you can understand, even if not excuse, but this is violence for its own sake. The “riot girls” video which has stayed firmly in the BBC’s top ‘most watched’ lists shows clueless teenagers, drinking stolen wine all night, treating it all as a bit of fun, and witlessly blaming variously “the government” (careless as to what party is even governing) and then “rich people”! but entirely lacking in any perceivable, far less coherent, justification. Obviously there are social and political and moral factors which can be identified by analysts looking on and can contribute to an explanation, but what’s motivating these people is no political project, no social ideology, no moral grievance.

“… these are shopping riots, characterised by their consumer choices: that’s the bit we’ve never seen before. A violent act by the authorities, triggering a howl of protest – that bit is as old as time. But crowds moving from shopping centre to shopping centre? Actively trying to avoid a confrontation with police, trying to get in and out of JD Sports before the “feds” arrive? That bit is new.”

They barely deserve to be dignified by the title riots. It’s empty, casual, self-indulging lawlessness, and simple moral wrong.