Presbyterianism - Scottish style

With the national Church of Scotland continuing to be embroiled in matters of sexuality (which could "sink the church"), it is perhaps worthwhile to remind ourselves of the history of the Scottish post-Reformation Presbyterian scene by way of -
first published 25/01/09

  A (Very) Brief History of the Presbyterian Christian Church in Scotland

 For updates see the foot of this article.
(Click here for most recent: Dec 2017)
Disruption Picture
Picture of the 'Disruption' Assembly in 1843
General Overview

There are five main cohorts of churches in Scotland; these being Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian, other denominations [e.g. Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal et al) and the ‘new churches’ which formed during and since the Charismatic (neo-Pentecostal) Movement of the 1960s/70s].

Pre-7th century Christianity in Scotland

In an earlier age, Scotland was significantly exposed to the Gospel by St. Columba and his followers in the 6th-century; indeed some would argue that traders first carried the Gospel message to these shores during the 1st century AD. It may be that early disciples brought what was birthed in Jerusalem at Pentecost back along the Roman trade routes into Scotland. What can certainly be said is that St. Ninian built Whithorn Abbey – his Magnum Monasterium – in the latter half of the 4th century, and his name is preserved in many places on the eastern side of Scotland, even as far north as St. Ninian's Isle in Shetland.

7th - 15th Century

From the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire (and the evacuation from Britain in 410) through to the middle of the 2nd millennium is the period now referred to as 'The Dark Ages' with a patchy historical record.
However there is (at least) one account which speaks of Christianity standing firm in Scotland. In 635, following a resurgence of paganism in the north of England, King Oswald – who, as a prince, had lived on Iona for 18 years – sought to rally his people and sent messengers to Iona (not Canterbury) that the elders of the Scots 'would send him a bishop, by whose instruction and ministry the English nation, which he governed, might be taught the advantages, and receive the sacraments of the Christian faith.'
Nevertheless and during this period the Celtic Church was largely weakened by the 7th-century Synod of Whitby (664)which saw the customs of the Roman Catholic Church (inherited from Augustine, Pope Gregory’s emissary to England) win the day.
But in spite of the prevailing Roman influence, the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320 affirmed a Scottish independence which stressed the prerogative of the Scottish people, rather than the King or the Pope.

The Reformation

The next major influence on the Christian church in Scotland came with the 16th-century Reformation in 1560, and the teachings of Knox and Calvin which created a split throughout the whole of Europe. The reformed churches in Scotland adopted a Presbyterian form of government (by ‘elders’) and this produced a further split when those who chose to adhere to a hierarchical form (prelacy, with bishops and archbishops) formed the Scottish Episcopal Church in 1582.

This division ultimately, in 1689, produced what we now know as the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland. Though largely created by the Reformation more than a century earlier, at this point the Church of Scotland became established by law. [In the years that followed, the Episcopal Church had to contend with restrictive legislation and lost considerable support.]

However, the Church of Scotland's pre-eminence has always been diluted by the persistence prescence of the Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches in Scotland and, in the 18th and early 19th-century, a succession of splits and reunions [ Burghers and Anti-Burgers, Old Lichts and New Lichts et al ] produced an extremely confusing and fragmented picture of Scottish Presbyterianism.

The 1843 Disruption

The Kirk (as the Church of Scotland came to be known) was further undermined by the Disruption in 1843 when a substantial minority of clergy and laity left the Church of Scotland and formed the Free Church of Scotland over matters of Erastianism (State interference with church affairs) and Patronage (clergy being appointed by landlords rather than congregations).

Subsequent Unions and Divisions

The Free Church itself was further divided in 1893 and again in 1900. In 1893 the Free Presbyterian Church seceeded from the Free Church because of the introduction of a 'liberty of conscience clause' pertaining to the Westminster Confession of Faith (see Footnote), and in 1900 the majority of the Free Church joined with the United Presbyterian Church to form the United Free Church.
However a minority within the Free Church chose not to enter this union and continued as the Free Church (of Scotland).The United Free Church of Scotland, (re)united with the Church of Scotland in 1929, although again a minority remained outside this union and continued as the United Free Church of Scotland.

Late 20th and early 21st Century

In the late 20th century two further splits occurred.

The first in 1989 when the Free Presbyterian Church split to produce a new grouping called the Associated Presbyterian Church(es). (The reform/conservative tensions within the FP Church came to a head when the Church disciplined one of its elders for attending a memorial service for a Roman Catholic friend. The elder concerned happened to be, at the time, the Lord Chancellor of Great Britain - the highest law lord in the UK.)

Then in 2000 a substantial minority left the Free Church to form the Free Church (Continuing) over a disagreement regarding internal church discipline relating to a senior figure in the Church’s ranks. However substantial reform/conservative tensions underlay the secession.

The Church of Scotland remains by far the largest Presbyterian denomination in Scotland. It is described as being a "broad church" embracing a very wide spectrum across the conservative-to-liberal landscape. Some see this 'inclusiveness' as a strength: it is also however the Kirk's greatest weakness. The denomination is - and has been for around 50 years - internally divided over the matter of sexuality. These tensions have increased since the advent of Civil Partnerships and 'gay marriage'.  And at the time of writing (Jan 2009) these matters are increasingly coming to a head. Accordingly the chart below might soon require futher amendment.


UPDATE (March 2011)

In November 2009 the Free Church of Scotland held a Plenary Assembly to decide on whether to allow hymns and instruments to take their place alongside unaccompanied psalm-singing. In effect the decision to allow individual congregations to decide each for itself has caused serious disruption and division within the denomination.
One minister, Rev. Kenneth Stewart, has left the Free Church and applied to join the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland while five former Moderators have placed prominent notices in several newspapers effectively challenging the legality of the proceedings at the Plenary Assembly. It is likely that the question will be prominent at the time of the Free Church of Scotland General Assembly (May 2011).

Meanwhile the Church of Scotland General Assembly (May 2011) is due to receive and consider a report from a two-year analysis on the question of human sexuality and civil partnerships.
UPDATE (March 2012)

At its General Assembly in May 2011, the Church of Scotland again failed to clearly define the denominations attitudes and responses to the issue of homosexuality. As many saw this Assembly as a 'line in the sand', some minsters, elders, members and congregations have left the denomination with others are planning to do so. Meanwhile some are fighting a rearguard battle in terms of (yet another) study into the whole issue. (See report 'Harvest is past; the summer has ended' which contains links to other relevant articles.)

One result of the above is the appearance of two new presbyterian denominations in Scotland – with one in Leith (Edinburgh) and another in Inverness (respectively).

Within the Free Church of Scotland there continues to be division along reform/traditional lines – manifest at this time on whether or not to sing hymns and employ musical instruments. Some (ministers, elders and members) have left the Free Church while some disaffected Church of Scotland members have joined it.

In all of this, the question 'Where to the Presbyterian Church in Scotland' remains a very live issue.
UPDATE (October 2012)

Church of Scotland

In the current year leading up to the Church of Scotland's forthcoming General Assembly in May 2013 there have been reports of backroom discussions (contingency planning of a 'jump-ship' nature) between disaffected Church of Scotland ministers and the Free Church of Scotland denomination. These have been with regard to the possibility of the latter offering a home to the former if the forthcoming Assembly decision is one which evangelical clergy find the cannot accept.
[The 2013 Assembly is due to be presented with, consider as a body, and respond to the ruminations of a Special Commission set up in 2011: this body has been tasked with examining the ramifications of same-sex marriages in a religious (church) context.]

The possibility of 'clergy-transfer' has been substantially eased by the Free Church's partial acceptance (i.e. at congregational discretion rather than as denominational policy) of the use of hymns and instruments in praise and worship. However there remain several issues which could mitigate against any flitting across denominational lines.

Church of Scotland ministers enjoy very favourable conditions of employment and these come at a financial cost – one which the cash-strapped Free Church denomination might struggle to accommodate. And of course cross-border movements would raise issues of 'parity' with and amongst existing Free Church clergy who are generally not-so-well-off as their C of S colleagues..

Additionally there is the issue of a minister 'coming across' along with his ( to say 'her' is not an option, as female ministers are beyond the Free Church pale: at this point in time at least) elders and/or congregation. Also, the Kirk has many women elders while the Free Church - as a theological posture - has none. In the Free Church women (mainly) don't pray out in the company of men: in the Church of Scotland they do.

The thorny  question of buildings

Then of course there is the question of buildings – occupancy and ownership; moral and legal.
In this matter the Church of Scotland has a vested interest in making life very hard for the one congregation which has thus far decamped from the denomination while wishing to retain its church building.
The minister, elders and congregation of the iconic St. George's Tron church in the centre of Glasgow have taken their stand and – as Moses did in the face of corporate sin – gone 'outside of the camp' (Exodus 33:7).

Accordingly, other ministers and congregations who may be contemplating any similar moves will be watching the 'Tron' situation very closely. And both the liberal clerics and the denominational bureaucrats who have a huge personal and corporate interest in discouraging further departures know that.
They are also keenly aware that further secessions would diminish both the standing of and the regular income to the Kirk and its coffers respectively. (Evangelical congregations are traditionally much better in their week-by-week financial givings than their liberal counterparts.)

Evangelical clergy face the 'carrot and stick' of maintaining their secure C of S positions, or being left to swing in the wind if they don't, are powerful influences. So the minister and the good folk of the Tron could find themselves - as an example to any others contemplating similar moves - deprived of building and ‘out in the cold’: expediently utilised as per Voltaire's satirical description of Admiral John Byng's execution: ".....pour encourager les autres" ("it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, in order to encourage the others").
[Ed note: see STOP PRESS at the foot of this update for latest developments.]

In the light of all of that, both the evangelical and the liberal wings in the denomination are strongly motivated to produce a 'work-around' – any solution which will keep organisation together whatever the cost to spiritual integrity.

It is perhaps anticipating such a situation that former Church of Scotland congregations have now withdrawn from the national church and aligned themeselves with other denominations. Included in the list are congregations in Inverness and Aberdeen.

Who knows what the forthcoming Commission report and the General Assembly's response will produce? To employ Churchillian phraseology, these back-room machinations invariably appear as "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma".
What is most likely – if past outcomes are anything to go by – is another fudge. So the trumpet – if indeed it sounds at all – will again produce a 'cracked note' (1 Cor. 14:8).

So some brave evangelicals will face into the wind while others .....?.

Free Church of Scotland

The Free Church of Scotland which is theologically split over the issues of what to sing and whether to employ instruments in the process has – for the moment at least – found a 'modus vivendi' of allowing each congregation to decide for itself.  Whether this will draw a line under the reform/conservative tensions remains to be seen.

[ It is often the case that amongst the progressive/modernising wing of any organisation there are some who – after a period of change from the status quo – feel that the reforms have gone too far; and so then revert to the position(s) from whence they earlier departed.
Others can feel that while the reforms were beneficial, they have not gone far enough; and further 'modernising' steps need to be taken. Life is not easy and never straightforward within Scottish Presbyterianism.]

A call for ecclesiastical joinery

At least one discussion paper has recently been written suggesting a 'coming together' of the right-wing denominations within the reformed presbyterian spectrum. The basis of the suggested reunion is that all four groupings have two very important things in common.

The first of these is a strict adherence to the Westminster Confession of Faith. This 17th-century document is the sine qua non – the bedrock of reformed presbyterianism theology and ecclesiology: it is the totem pole of tribal identity and regarded as the supreme emblem (for those who hold fast to it) of scriptural fidelity. It is accorded a reverence and – as a supreme irony in 'reforming' circles – considered by many to be unimpeachable; beyond the prospect of revision; sacrosanct and fixed for all time.

The second (and derivative) factor, which is implicit rather than stated, is the 'exclusive psalmody' tradition of nothing but psalms; and sung in the 'a cappella' tradition of no instrumental accompaniment'.

Another commonality is the fact that the denominations which fall within the above ambit are all either small or very small. So leaving aside theological imperatives and worldly considerations such as potential benefits of economies of scale, there is the very human tendency, in situations of threat and isolation, to huddle together for warmth. [As a counter however, two of the named denominations were the result of a split as recently as 1989; and healing can sometimes take a lot longer than that.]

NB. A cursory glance at the appended chart of presbyterian schism and reunion might suggest that such moves, when they do happen, happen very quickly. This is not generally the case. The foment that led to the Disruption of 1843 lasted 10 years. In reverse fashion, the negotiations that led to the majority of the United Free Church rejoining the Church of Scotland lasted from 1908 to1929, surviving a world war but taking an act of Parliament to achieve.

(Interim) Conclusion

The theological disagreements and concomitant political maneouverings which have been the hallmark of Scottish Presbyterianism through the centuries show no sign of abating. Neither is it likely that the steady march of secessions and subsequent reunions will produce any improvement regarding the spiritual potency or the inate authority of the various groupings. (With what the world would see as a factional tribalism, how can it be otherwise? The Word of God also has a view: Ps 133:1-2; John 13:35; John 17:21.)

However God is not God unless He has the ability to use even the most spiritually-derelict of circumstances for His purposes and for His glory; and for the extension of the Kingdom and the saving of souls. In fact the route to salvation is through utter brokenness. Perhaps in all of this and in the unsearchable mysteries of God there is a greater sovereign purpose? Pray that the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ will shine through the murk of human weakness.

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Another Church of Scotland minister has just now 'signed up' with the Free Church. with Rev. Paul Gibson (formerly Tain parish church).

Speaking to The Scotsman, he said that the decision had not been easy for him: “I was baptised in the Church of Scotland, I grew up in the Kirk and continue to have many dear friends who remain in the church, so I think I speak for those who have left in recent years that it is with great pain and upset that we’ve felt the need to withdraw and move on."

He also spoke of the Kirk's "erroneous liberal agenda" and the "systematic dismantling of the true gospel" over the ordination of homosexual ministers. Disclaiming any sense of bravado, but with a sense of great sadness he stated: "after many years of liberalism and political-style manoeuvring, the Church of Scotland has reached a point where the only thing that’s not tolerated is Biblical orthodoxy.”

Rev. Gibson's departure follows on from similar actions taken by other Church of Scotland ministers.

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TronThe Tron Church (Glasgow) has now written (4/10/12) to the Church of Scotland Glasgow Presbytery to give their position since the congregation seceded from the denomination on 11 June 2012. Part of the text (which has been communicated to the congregation) states:
"At the time of our Secession we said that we very much hoped to work for a peaceable and reasonable settlement of outstanding issues. In the same week we therefore visited the Chairman and Secretary of the General Trustees personally to assure them of our best intentions, and we handed over a cheque for our then outstanding loan repayment as an act of good faith.

We also made early contact with David Lunan and agreed to co-operate fully with his committee. This we have done, meeting Mr Lunan several times, and providing all requested information. We also strongly encouraged them to attend Sunday and Wednesday services to see something of what our congregational life and witness involves, surely crucial in any discussion of the future of the building and its use. In short, we have sought to do what we can to seek a constructive way forward. Unfortunately, in return we have been met with a very hostile response from the Church of Scotland."

UPDATE (February 2013)

Aberdeen church leaves
Gilcomston and DominicBelievers from within Gilcomston South Church in Aberdeen's Union Street is the latest congregation to leave the Church of Scotland over the latter's policy of allowing active homosexuals to serve as ministers.
Rev. Dominic Smart and the congregation have left the denomination and their imposing and iconic building in Aberdeen's main street. The departure has been more-or-less in progress since the General Assembly of 2009 which allowed homosexual clergy to remain as practising parish ministers within the Church of Scotland.

While the Gilgomston congregation was in much the same position as the Tron Church in Glasgow with respect to the recent and very substantial investment in modernising the church building, the manner of these departures wer in marked contrast. The latter being as undisputatious as such a significant event – with the attendant media attention – would allow.
A letter from Rev. Smart to the congregation was posted on-line. It has been published in full with interpolated summaries in the article 'Aberdeen church leaves the Church of Scotland.'

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UPDATE (May 2013)

The Church of Scotland in General Assembly has agreed - while officially upholding its traditional stance on heterosexual marriage -  to allow local congregations to call actively-homosexual clergy.
See 'Kirk confirms its spiritual demise'.

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UPDATE (Dec 2017)

A recent conversation caused me to re-visit this article since the previous (2013) update.

Since then, the Church of Scotland has sanctioned same-sex marriage. Over the last 3-4 years a very small number of ministers (and an even smaller number of congregations) have left the denomination over its acceptance of human relationships which are contrary to the will of God and the teachings of the Bible.
Over a period of years, I have heard all manner of reasons from those (ministers and members) who have stayed in the denomination as to why they have stayed.
One of the most bizarre of these was from a minister who said (of his personal position): "The captain should be the last to leave the ship." While superficially this might seem honourable, the remark did not take account of the fact that a good captain would have meanwhile been urging the rest of the passangers and ship's crew to "Abandon ship, and take to the lifeboats."
But in fact no minster would do this because (a) he would be discipled by the church if he did, and even if not (b)whould be left preaching to empty pews.

But leaving aside all the 'reasons' for staying, the fact remains that those ministers who are still in the denomination can no longer faithfully preach "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). They cannot (with any integrity or without charge of hypocrisy) proclain God's word in its entirety. They are (some might say) fatally compromised.

In 2015 a former senior iminister published a book entitled 'A Sad Departure'. The title is a 'double entendre'; referring both to the sorrow of leaving and over the denomination's departure from the Truth.
The book contains a summary of the experiences of some (ministers and congregations) who have left the Church of Scotland. <Click here>.

Meanwhile while the Church of Scotland continues for now to 'sail on', it is - in spiritual terms, and as denomination - holed below the waterline: unless ....
If the Lord of the Church were to visit the church in anything other than judgement it would be as a 'refiner's fire'. And who can withstand that heat?

Meanwhile the words of Moses ring down through the ages:
"This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.

Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." (Deut 30:19-20).
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Click on the updated chart below for a PDF (Acrobat) A4 version –with hyperlinks included.
Presbyterian Chart 03-12
Footnote:  All the presbyterian denominations subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith as the "Subordinate Standard" defining core beliefs. The 17th-century document is flawed; and the varying degrees of allegiance to it continues to cause problems. (See article: 'The Westminster Confession of Faith: a critique'.

Reformation History
reformation history See also Reformation History website which covers the period from 1500 to 1685. The Timeline makes reference to 'People/Events',  the monarchs in Scotland and England during that time, and key documents relating to the history of the Reformation in what eventually became the United Kingdom. The period covers the English civil wars and the 'Killing Times' relating to the Scottish Covenanters.

Christians Together, 19/05/2013