With the General Assembly only hours away, the excitement is [doing something, we’re not sure what exactly: probably slowly dying in the corner perhaps? This year, nobody is thrilled to be facing the tough challenges of the day, be they financial or doctrinal]. Over the last few weeks I’ve read a few blogs about the forthcoming events on the Mound next week.
Church of Scotland minister Louis Kinsey writes at his blog about the problems with the “broad church” logo the Kirk seems to present as a good thing. It could be, if “broad church” meant different dress codes, or bible versions, or even styles of worship (at a push) – but when “broad” refers to hugely divergent systems of doctrine sheltering under the umbrella of one body, you have a problem.
Meanwhile, Free Church theologian Donald Macleod’s column in the West Highland Free Press is worth a read – it’ll appear as a blog eventually [it has], much like his piece on the Theological Commission’s Report on Same-Sex Relationships.
Free Church ministers David Robertson (with a piece over at St. Peter’s blog) and (retiring Free Church Moderator) Iain d. Campbell come back to the need for a reorganisation of Presbyterianism in Scotland, to establish a clear and distinctive voice promoting God’s Word in our society today.
Is any of this schadenfreude on the part of the Free Church?
I’d say not – but maybe I’d say that anyway? It would be easy to think the Free Church, (much maligned as tiny and largely an irrelevant Highland Denomination) are just cheering from the terraces, delighting in the demise of a competitor in the Scottish Presbyterian ecosystem. Only, we’re not. We care deeply for the good of all Scotland – with congregations all over the country. And while smaller, we are conditioned to not see the Kirk as the only game in town. Those accusing us of schadenfreude forget that we pray for, have good relationships with, and want to bless healthy Church of Scotland congregations up and down the length of Scotland. We’re not the denominationalist fiends you think we are. Please look again, and see what is, rather than the caricature.
Over the last few years we have really taken to heart the oft misquoted message of Thomas Chalmers – “Who cares for the Free Church, except as an instrument of Christian good?” The Free Church has quietly abandoned much of the stuffy traditionalism that characterised our denominational identity, but has done so without losing the distinctive message of the Gospel, and largely without threat to our Presbyterian heritage. In my estimation we are an example of the good broad church Louis Kinsey speaks about.
Maybe it’s time for the Evangelicals in the Kirk to ask themselves the same questions of their own denomination? Who cares for the Church of Scotland, except as an instrument of Christian good? It’s not Schadenfreude to suggest an alternative to the Kirk, as it fast becomes an instrument opposed to the Christian good of Scotland – as a growing number of ministers leaving her ranks will testify.
The Christian good of Scotland would of course be served by a Reformed Kirk. I’d love to see it, and I’ll continue to pray for that. But in the absence of Reform, and in the presence of serious advances towards the Kirk further conforming to the world, how is the Christian good of Scotland best served?
Meanwhile, across the road…
The Free Church Assembly, meanwhile, has to keep that question front and centre as we struggle to face our own challenges. How is the Christian good of Scotland served by the Free Church in times of austerity? We’re certainly not going to do it cutting back on theological education – or jettisoning solid doctrinal teaching for a more exclusively vocational curriculum. I’m persuaded the job of the pastor-teacher is to equip their congregations for ministry – not do mercy ministry in the place of their congregations. The only conceivable reason Christians don’t do mercy ministry is because they don’t understand the love of God. So skimping on doctrinal training for a different model will actually make the work of the Church harder, not better – don’t we need better preaching, accompanied, of course, by the work of the Spirit? I’d have thought academic training for the pastor-teachers in our pulpits is therefore vital, along with vocational training for people doing other jobs in mercy ministry – a “both not either” approach. That’s an expensive aspiration, so I should probably shut up.
And how is the Christian good served in times where Scotland lacks a distinctive Christian voice speaking to the moral and spiritual decay in our nation? I suspect being distinctive is not something the Free Church will find hard – let’s pray and hope we sound a distinctive note for the right reasons.