Fresh bid to reunite the Kirk and the Free Church
The media are often theatre; and the above headline from a Scottish daily broadsheet is suggestive of either high drama or outrageous farce.
A report to the forthcoming General Assembly of the Church of Scotland gives and up-beat take on inter-church relationships, but any talk of union at this particular point in time would be akin to inviting a separated spouse to return to the marital home whilst stepping out publicly with a new partner.
However the Church has been trapped by prevailing circumstance, its own well-honed press release routines and a media that are predisposed to writing eye-catching headlines.
When asked what was most likely to blow a government off course former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan replied: ‘Events, dear boy, events.’ The mandarins of the Church of Scotland’s Edinburgh headquarters (likened to a Vatican without a Pope) could well be emphasising with Wilson’s observation.
With regard to ‘ events’, some of these follow an established and predictable pattern – and the Kirk’s general assembly is part of the annual round. In May of each year ‘commissioners’ (selected ministers and elders) meet in fine array to discuss the reports prepared during the previous 12 months, and then debate and decide on how to progress the matters raised into the year ahead.
Whilst this august gathering in Edinburgh has diminished in terms of national influence and interest, there is still a managed system of releasing details before and around each assembly. And this piece of media management is both embedded and – even for those in the C of S media unit – unavoidable.
News will out
News will get out, so news must be sent out – including one of the reports which have been prepared for the Assembly’s consideration from the Committee on Ecumenical Relations. (As a 'scene-setter' the report's Introduction quotes what the Committee said in 2004: ‘We believe that it is time to think of the total church life in Scotland in terms of a woven fabric, a cloth for the cradle, a robe for the king. We believe that the woven fabric is best envisioned, for us, in terms of tartan. As we know, tartan has one or two basic colours through which strands of other colours are woven, giving the tartan its unique individuality. We aspire to such an understanding of Scottish Church life where each colour, large and small, has its importance in the final design.'
This year’s report whilst compiled in a year of relative calm, comes out in a month of ecclesiastical mayhem for the Church of Scotland over the issue of gay relationships..
In summary the document outlines inter-church relationships at local, national and international level. But the meat of the matter with relation to merger discussions between Kirk and the Free Church of Scotland is contained in Appendix IV. And it is this prospect which will be causing shudder if today’s (mis-leading) headlines are believed.
An imperative to union
The report's introduction includes a reflection on a Joint Statement ‘warmly endorsed’ in 2007 by both Assemblies which ‘confessed the scandal of the continuing divisions within our Presbyterian family and called for a mutual recognition of each other as churches; mutual acknowledgment that each church needs the other and cannot be the Church to the exclusion of the other; mutual commitment to cooperate as far as possible in the advancement of the kingdom of God; and it called for the provision of a framework within which ongoing discussion could be accommodated and which would facilitate frank exchange of views.’ All fine-sounding but utterly predictable church-speak.
Yet commenting on behalf of the Free Church and in relation to the current upset on sexuality, Rev. Iver Martin said: “If co-operation means moves toward unity then that is totally impossible in the present situation. What would be very difficult at the best of times would be unattainable at the moment.”
Essential and perennial differences
Meanwhile and speaking on a wider level, the Stornoway-based minister continued: “The issue that we keep coming back to and which stands at the heart of our differences would be the place of the Bible, and the authority that we are prepared to give to it. The main difference is that the Church of Scotland has a ‘get out clause’ whereby it recognises the Bible as containing the Word of God, it allows a wide spectrum of interpretation.”
It is the Free Church position that the ‘Scriptures are the Word of God’ where the Church of Scotland’s Articles Declaratory state that the Church ‘receives the Word of God which is contained in the Scriptures’ (emphases added). Additionally there is historic concern about a ‘liberty of conscience’ clause relating to the Westminster Confession of Faith to which both denominations subscribe. Rev. Martin did however affirm: "It is not necessary in holding fast to the biblical doctrines of the WCF to also agree with the document’s interpretative phrases relating to 16th century events”.
Sadness regarding current events
But whatever the extent of the authority of Scripture, this has been totally side-lined by the current furore – within the Church of Scotland, but extending worldwide – over the matter of homosexuality.
Whilst emphasising his genuine respect for and ongoing good relations with many fellow ministers in the Church of Scotland, in relation to the matter of sexuality Martin said: “We feel really, really, sad about this whole situation: it is depressing.” Whilst affirming that anyone of homosexual orientation would be very welcome to come into his church the he observed: “Instead of making known to Scotland the Gospel that the country needs to hear, we are arguing about something that should be a black and white; and really undermining the whole Christian tradition in Scotland.”
Reading beyond the headlines
So any media headlines suggesting sudden and dramatic moves towards improved inter-church relationships are misleading. These should be seen more in the context of the annual General Election cycle and related press releases than any impending breakthrough in repairing historic divisions. (And no doubt the Bible-believing folk in the Free Church of Scotland will be mightily relieved to know.)
Unity or apostasy?
Historically, in the 4th century, Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity. While many of the followers of Jesus welcomed this new acceptance and freedom from persecution with open arms others fled to the hills, believing that they were seeing an emerging apostate church.
The Church of Scotland report reveals some very interesting (and some might say ‘alarming’) linkages between a swathe of national and worldwide religious initiatives and groupings – but which may have very dubious affiliations to Christ and the Word of God. (Have a look.). Jesus may have been a carpenter, but he was not involved in religious joinery.
Whilst there is encouraging evidence of local cooperation between different congregations – in the Highlands not least – in April 2009 the prospect of national and structural unity could be as far distant as ever. Much will depend on what happens this month in Edinburgh. For the moment all bets are off.
See Presbyterianism - Scottish Style for a roadmap of Scottish denominational relationships.
Church of Scotland Press Release: 7 May 2009
KIRK’S MISSION TO REAFFIRM LINKS WITH FREE CHURCH
THE CHURCH of Scotland and the Free Church are looking into the possibility of creating closer links after branding the divisions within the Scottish Presbyterian family a “scandal.”
In a joint report which is being brought by the Ecumenical Relations Committee to this year’s General Assembly they claim it gives a bad Christian witness to the world to have separate congregations within the same community with ministers who have little to choose between them theologically.
The joint report entitled “A Conversation with the Free Church of Scotland”, includes several examples in the North of Scotland where good working relations have been established between the two denominations.
Although the conversation has been seen as a huge step forward for both parties, with both Church’s Ecumenical Relations Committee s addressing each other’s Assembly, it looks unlikely that a merger could happen in the near future.
Controversy and division were common in the Church between 1750 and 1850, when there was considerable concern about the Church’s relations with the State, particularly over the intervention in the appointment of ministers.
The largest division was the Disruption of 1843, a major split which saw about one third of the Kirk breakaway to form what became the Free Kirk.
The Church of Scotland is part of several worldwide movements, including the World Council of Churches, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches and details of the work of these bodies are given in the report. The report also praised the amount of local co-operation between churches of different denominations across Scotland.