First glance questions

It’s been a long day…

Scotland's Future

I was looking forward to reading the Scottish Government’s white paper on Independence, but first a ministers’ fraternal, community cafe, Presbytery strategy discussion, presbytery “Christmas” curry (far too early, we’ll need to get together again later on), moar presbytery meeting, and a missions speaker… home, talk to my wife, and then, finally… I got to sit down and read.

…it’s 00:54am.

I’m trying to get my head around this massive document – 670 pages is a lot, ever for a Free Church minister to plough through.   Where to begin?

First Impression: There is a lot that is good, so many positive policies that the current Scottish Government would seek to implement in an independent Scotland.   That’s maybe a draw back: it is a manifesto, not a true blueprint.   This isn’t what an independent Scotland will look like, it’s what the SNP want an independent Scotland to look like.   The real thing will be different, but maybe not very much so, going on the SNP’s electoral form.

But right now I’m drawn to page 564, question 590 in the Q&A.

590. What will be the position of churches and religion in an
independent Scotland?
We propose no change to the legal status of any religion or
of Scotland’s churches.

This is a conspicuously short answer – because in a document where just about every term has been carefully outlined and explained, no effort whatsoever is given to define “the legal status of any religion or of Scotland’s churches.”   Earlier in the paper churches are described alongside other parts of Scotland’s civic society, and as charities – players in the future process of crafting Scotland written constitution.   Great stuff – even if it downplays the contribution of churches!   But what exactly is the “legal status” which will be unchanged?   My suspicion is that this term has not been defined because, in short, our politicians, and possibly even our judiciary, don’t actually know for sure.   What it possibly entails is in the independence of the church to manage her own affairs – or as we like to call it in Scotland, Presbyterian Church Government.

And so, I have a related question.   Back on page 354, (Chapter 10,  Part 4, Building a Modern Democracy, The Monarch and the Crown) we read:

Earlier this year the rules on succession to the Crown were
amended (for Scotland and elsewhere) to remove outdated
gender discrimination. An independent Scottish Government
will promote, and support amongst the Commonwealth States
with the Queen as Head of State, a similar measure to remove
religious discrimination from the succession rules.

This second part relates to the 1707 Treaty of Union with England – a treaty which will be in effect revoked on a “Yes” vote.   While the religious tone of the treaty is obvious, it’s framework relates back to earlier principles enshrined in both Scottish and English law – the monarch, as head of state, shall be a Protestant, because in England they enjoy the odd office of “Supreme Governor of the Church of England”, and in Scotland they are bound to maintain Presbyterian Church Government.   The discrimination – and frankly, I’m happy to concede that – exists because of the “legal status” of Churches in these united Kingdoms.

And this presents a challenge to the framers of this white paper: How can you propose that the legal status of churches will be unchanged, while fundamentally changing the relationship of the Monarch, as head of STATE with these churches?   Suppose the “legal status” of churches really is a degree of independence in their own sphere, and this is what question 590 is about, surely we need to know how the Scottish Government propose to ensure this, while tinkering with the relationship in other areas?

These are perhaps, for most people, questions of mere window dressing in the context of Scotland’s constitutional future.   But I would like a lot more clarity from our politicians.   I don’t want to wake up and suddenly find I’m living with a secular constitution – which is intolerant of dissonant voices like independent churches, let alone open to listening to them on a range of moral and social issues.   I’d rather a partnership.   I believe a Christian heritage has shaped Scotland for good – in education, in democracy, and in civic values.   And I don’t want Scotland’s Future to slip that anchor.

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They’re Coming to Get Your Children….!

Excellent blog post from David Robertson. State education is the latest front. Time we realised this, and got our heads out of the sand.

THE BLOG OF DAVID ROBERTSON

They’re Coming to get Your Children….!

There is a real and present danger to children in Scotland’s schools.  Thankfully Scotland’s newspapers are on hand to enlighten us and warn us about this upsetting, disturbing and dangerous threat.  The Daily Record, led the way with an incisive piece of enlightened reporting, and then The Scotsman joined in with its greater understanding and in-depth analysis.   No – we are not talking about paedophilia, drug dealers, Satanists or recruiters for the Hitler youth.  We are talking about something far more shocking – people who don’t believe in evolution and who think homosexuality is a sin.  At this moment in time, thanks to this shock revelation through our intrepid and fearless press, parents all over Scotland should be locking up their children and conducting background checks into all their acquaintances lest they too fall prey to this evil.

The story so far.   Kirktonholme Primary…

View original post 2,358 more words

Thinking about Church leaders

Working in redeveloping a small rural congregation, one of our objectives has been to instil a sense of purpose to our church.   For a long time, we were “The Free Church”.   Being “Free Church” coloured everything.   For example, our worship was “Free Church” style.   Our teaching ministry was also “Free Church” style, as one dear person in my church put it, “Free Church preaching seems to really emphasise the Old Testament.”   There’s nothing wrong with the OT – I’m hoping to begin an evangelistic-focused series on King David this winter – but often that emphasis equates to a law-focused teaching, that doesn’t quite reach grace often enough.

The problem is, aside from that one person who thought “Free Church” means “Old Testament”, nobody was able to articulate what the congregation was really about.

We’ve put a lot of effort into trying to change this.   These days we have a very John Stott-influenced vision for the Church.   There’s a simple way to remember this vision – the Church is Christ’s bride, his W.I.F.E.   Sleat & Strath Free Church‘s vision is to be a church that serves God through:

  • Worship, focused on Jesus Christ
  • Instruction, based on God’s Word
  • Fellowship, around the Good News
  • Evangelism, showing God’s love in word and action

We’re now starting to tackle some of the ways this affects how we think about leadership – in terms of eldership, deaconate, Sunday School, our cafe work, and so on.   We want to identify leaders based on this way of thinking.   So today, I drew a very Abraham Maslow-esque pyramid.

Leadership Plan

The base tier is “Commitment to Christ” – basically, are you converted / born again?   This should really be a given in Churches.   Our desire to be a true worshipping community means Christ has to be worshipped by our leadership.   Operating on the Biblical assumption that without faith it’s impossible to please God, we need people committed to Christ to lead.

Building on that, we want people who shape their outlook on life from the Bible.   We want people who’ll submit to God’s way, revealed in Scripture.   Of course we’ll find people disagree about things, but as long as we have leaders proposing a way forward based on their understanding of the Bible, that’s got to be a good thing.

We also need people who’re committed to the Church’s fellowship.   The key to fellowship is of course, Philippians 2 – in a Christ-like way, think of others more highly than yourself.   We shouldn’t be interested in putting people with a “me-centred” attitude to church – who shun bible studies and prayer meetings because “I don’t get anything out of it” – into leadership roles.

Ultimately, this is because leadership is about service.   We want to cultivate leaders who serve, not leaders who demand.

So we’re thinking about this model – have we got it right?   We’d welcome any thoughts you have.

Praying constructively for a “struggling” work

My congregation has two distinct districts in which we witness – the Sleat Peninsula (where we’re redeveloping a small very rural congregation) and the townships around Broadford (where we’ve been operating a sort of church re-plant).   Over the last few years we have witnessed significant blessing and growth in the Sleat area.   But things in Broadford have been very different.    The curious thing is that both my Presbytery, and our denomination’s Home Mission Board, allowed my original posting here specifically to re-plant the Broadford church, and their expectation hasn’t changed.   The Church clearly still believes there is a work to do, and we’ve taken that as a clear commission from the Lord.   But while the small “core team” are still enthusiastically committed, others in the congregation are unsure about the Broadford work going on.

With a clear commission, but a congregation where some are starting to lose heart, how do we pray constructively for a “struggling” work?

Paul reminds us (in Philippians 4:6) that we are “not [to] be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”   Actually, we have a lot to be thankful for in relation to this work, but there is a tendency to focus on things that have not gone so well – specifically the small numbers attending, and non-existent growth over 3+ years.   But that God-ward attitude is the key to understanding and praying about hard, seemingly fruitless work that God has called us to.

Last night, in a really fruitful time of Bible study and prayer, I took my congregation through 2 Corinthians 4 as we thought about this issue.   Here are the notes we worked thorugh.

Adoration

Please read 2 Corinthians 4:1-6.

  • What does it mean (in verse 1) to have a ministry “by the mercy of God”?
  • What “ministry” has God given to us?
  • What does this tell us about God’s character in relation to the people we are called to witness to?
  • In what ways does this make our God more worthy of adoration?

Please pray, and reflect on the following points:

  • God’s character.   In the Lord’s Prayer, before Jesus taught us to pray “your kingdom come” he taught us to come to God as our heavenly (hence all powerful) Father (hence caring and receptive).
  • God’s grace and mercy.   If God has called any of his children to a particular witness and ministry it is because God himself wishes to show his grace to those being witnessed to and ministered to.   Give praise to God because in placing us in Broadford, he is showing his mercy to the people there.

Confession

Please read 2 Corinthians 4:1-6.

  • Looking at verse 3, what reasons might people have to lose heart?
  • Why is losing heart not legitimate for the Christian?   (The point here is that losing heart because of human blindness is really a deficiency in our attitude towards God’s sovereignty, if we can say, honestly, that we have not used cunning or underhanded ways to proclaim the Gospel.)
  • Thinking about context, what loss of heart might we be guilty of?   What does our loss of heart say about us, and more importantly about our God, to those who might be watching us?

Please spend a few moments privately reflecting on areas where, as Christians, we have become dispirited and lost heart in God’s service.   Please confess areas where God has been dishonoured:

  • As our treasure.   Is this lack of confidence and expectation in God worthy of him?
  • As our only hope of blessing.   If we, in our hearts, are lacking in a confidence in God, it is wrong to really expect anything other than discouragement.

Thanksgiving

Please read 2 Corinthians 4:7-12.

  • Looking at verse 7, what treasure is Paul speaking about?   Where is that treasure stored?
  • Thinking about our work in our context, what “clay jars” are holding this treasure?   How has God’s surpassing power been displayed in this?

Please give thanks for the many things that have gone well in our work in Broadford:

  • Mustard Seed Cafe.   Although labour intensive, we’ve passed council inspections, and are getting on top of paperwork issues.    The cafe is appreciated, helpful, and every week people have conversations that have been building relationships, and the seed is being sown.
  • Services.   Although attendances are small, we have double figures at a regular weekly meeting.

Supplication / Request

Please read the remainder of 2 Corinthians 4.

  • What part does God play in the advance of the Church (see verses 6,7 and 14)?
  • What part do we play in the advance of the Church (see verses 2 and 7, but particularly verse 13)?

Please pray for:

  • God’s blessing on our words.   Our words might be the Gospel (important though that is), but also in basic friendship forming too.
  • God’s Spirit in our hearts.   The promises of Jesus in Matthew 28:18-20 must be grasped by faith.

Number crunching the Kirk’s Assembly votes

Over the past week now I’ve had some interesting conversations with Evangelicals in the Church of Scotland.   Some have seen last Monday’s vote as a disaster, others are genuinely perplexed and frustrated, and some are telling me that the press and other outside observers have it all wrong – that Monday’s vote wasn’t a disaster for Evangelicals, that really nothing’s changed, and in two years time we’re going to see the Presbyteries fix this mess instead of the General Assembly.   What I’m asking now is simple: What is going on in the Kirk with regards the ordination of people living in homosexual relationships?   And where is Scripture in this mess?

Historical Trend

The first step in understanding what’s going on in the Kirk is the voting numbers over the last few years.   The Kirk’s General Assembly has some 750 commissioners, which may or may not be representative of the opinion of the whole church.   About 650 have voting rights.   In the votes in 2009, 2011 and now in 2013, there were not many abstentions.   Three times in five years now the Kirk has voted on ordaining gays:

In 2009 Scott Rennie’s induction (as an openly gay man, in a same-sex relationship) was effectively put to the vote on the floor of the General Assembly.   The vote was 326 to 267 (55% to 45%) in favour of ordaining gays, although I’m sure there are those who’d argue that wasn’t what this vote was about at all.   Some might say it was about church procedure, and not the ordination of gays.

If 2009 may not have been about gay ordination the 2011 vote definitely was.   Then (across two votes) the Assembly first rejected a compromise (53% to 47%) and then voted overwhelmingly for gay ordination (61% to 39%).

What happened on Monday last week was in keeping with this trend.   Last week’s vote was the first time a three way vote was allowed, with three motions (pro-, anti- and compromise) being allowed to go head to head.   The key figure is the percentage voting for the Kirk’s traditional position to be retained, with no exceptions.   This was only 26% (pro- 43%, anti- 26%, comp. 31%).

That’s a really clear trend – in 2009, 45% were opposed to ordaining gays to the ministry, in 2011 that had dropped to 39%, and this year, the figure was 26%.   The trend in the numbers favourable to a blanket ban on all gay ordinations shows collapse – I was going to use the word “softening” but a drop of 20% in 5 years is collapse.

The other trend that we see over the 2011 / 2013 votes is that the number willing to come to a compromise is increasing.   In a straight choice between full acceptance of gay ordination and some sort of compromise deal, the figures climbed from 47% in 2011, to 55% in 2013.   There has been a slight swing from pro- to comp.   But the real swing here has been from the collapsing anti- vote, to the compromise position.   So when we talk about a change in the Kirk, one thing we can demonstrate is a massive change in opinion.   Gay ordination is becoming acceptable… not just with Liberals, but increasingly on the Evangelical wing of the Kirk.

The Tolerating Compromise Itself

Still, this weekend some of the Evangelicals I was speaking were attempting to paint last weeks development as not so bad.   According to the men I spoke with, this buys the Evangelicals two years to firm up opposition at the Presbyteries.   But I don’t entirely buy this.   The architect of the compromise motion, former moderator Albert Bogle, is generally recognised as an Evangelical.   So I’m struggling to understand the strategy here.   Whatever his motion’s goals, what it does is open the door for a Kirk Session to opt out of the traditional position of the Kirk, while still being part of the Kirk.

Leaving aside the logical fallacy of such a provision, does the fact than an Evangelical proposed this tell us anything?    I suspect you can link this Evangelical motion to the voting trends which show Evangelical feelings towards gay ordination switch from anti- to compromise.   Bogel’s plan is just the outworking of the trend – Evangelicals are willing to accept the ordination of gays, in exactly the same way they were willing to accept the ordination of women 30 years (44 years, it was that long ago! – Ed.) ago.   This is simply Evangelical NIMBY-ism – they’re happy to tolerate it (for the sake of a united Kirk?), just not in their congregations or Presbyteries.

What it also suggests is that Scripture plays almost no part in the decision for the Evangelicals who support compromise.   I can see Andy McGowan’s frustration here: he – and the Theological Commission – spent nearly two years carefully outlining the arguments.    A compromise, sketched on the back of a fag packet over lunch, gained the support of more commissioners.   No Biblical basis for the compromise has been laid down – in fact the theologians on both sides conceded in the Commission’s report that this was an issue on which no Biblical compromise could be reached.   Whatever shaped commissioners opinions, we can be sure it wasn’t Scripture.

Looking Ahead to Barrier Action

Still, we’re supposed to believe that change is now at worst two years away.   Are the Evangelicals really saying that the compromise is going to be opposed by the Presbyteries?   Let’s look at the numbers again.   On Monday, in the three-way vote 43% were pro-, 26% anti- and 31% comp.   I appreciate that the Composition of General Assemblies probably doesn’t match the opinion of all the Presbyteries combined on this issue.   But still, the 43% pros are going to be a loud voice graciously willing to accept the compromise, and 31% have already shown their support for compromise over against the anti- option.   That suggests something like three quarters of the Assembly’s commissioners are going to be arguing for the compromise Bogle has proposed.   And as I’ve shown above, a good number of those already committed to the compromise are Evangelicals.

Conclusion

The reality is that opposition to gay ordination in the Church of Scotland is declining.   It seems there are a growing number of Evangelicals willing to compromise (probably for the unity of the Church).   And it looks like some care very little for the Biblical arguments around the issues.   As society has grown more “tolerant” so has the Kirk.   The evidence is that this is an area of the Church’s life where, overwhelmingly, the drift within the church is with culture.   That means, simply, the Kirk is not counter cultural.   The big question for Bible-loving believers is, What is God saying to the Church now?   Revelation 2:18-29 seems apposite.   There are still about 25% of the Assembly’s Commissioners to whom the Lord is saying, “I lay no other burden upon you.”   Your burdens are enough – I know we in the Free Church will do what we can to support you.   I know many will be tempted – for the sake of peace – to give in to the temptation to tolerate the sinfulness in your midst.   Jesus is calling you to stand fast for the crown, and the morning star!

General Assembly 2013 Review – Great People; Greater God

This year I had the privilege of presenting a report to the Free Church General Assembly (#fca13).   The Personnel Committee Report is not even remotely the highlight of the week, but for me, the personnel we look after – our people, particularly our paid staff and office bearers but also the thousands who serve God volunteering in our congregations – are one of the greatest blessings enjoyed by the Free Church.   This year’s Assembly was, for me, great because of what it demonstrated: we have great people, and a greater God.

Our paid staff

I don’t mean our ministers!   We have many excellent auxiliary staff – youth workers, alcohol workers, family workers, and so on.   But the work and witness of our Church would be severely curtailed if we weren’t supported by a team of really profession and dedicated staff in the Offices.   These are not front line ministry workers – but they administer camps, manage denominational finances, answer the phones, talk to the press, and so on.   We’d really struggle without them.   This year, Calum Ferguson reached the end of his full time service with the Church.   It was a pleasure to join in one of the longest standing ovations I remember at Assembly.   His work as International Missions co-ordinator has been incredible – to God be the glory.   I was also really impressed with Sarah Macleod’s introduction to the Assembly.   She’s an incredibly gifted young woman, and I pray God’s blessing on her work as Mission Co-ordinator, “looking after” both Home and International fields.

Our members

I wish I could share some more detail of the International Missions speakers we heard.   Some of these men and women serve God in really dark places, and their security is paramount.   But their vision is glorious.   They are not going to do it alone, but they want to see the world change, whole nations transformed – one life at a time.   One I can mention is Clive Bailey, who has just returned from Peru.   He has done sterling work in securing a long term future for a Christian school in Lima. Our people are doing great work, all over the world.   To God alone be the glory.

Our elders (and deacons)

I was so impressed with the elders at this year’s Assembly.  If we have guys like Tom Muir (championing discipleship and training for young men and future office bearers), David Kirk (articulating a vision for excellence doctrine, training, and ministry) or James Fraser (Principal of UHI, who still finds time to be chairman of our Board of Trustees) in our ranks, I have huge optimism for the health of our Church.   The Assembly was also full of a good number of older elders, few of whom spoke.   I made a point this year of hanging out with them at meal times – and their chat showed just how engaged they were with the sometimes difficult issues we faced.   To God alone be the glory.

I just wish we had ways of bringing deacons into some of our Assembly deliberations – maybe a day where diaconal work is dealt with in full, and deacon commissioners could deliberate the practical ministry of the Church?

Our ministers

We have some excellent ministers.   I have never suggested people watch Assembly speeches before, but this year there were some outstanding contributions: Angus Howat’s Moderatorial Address; Iain D. Campbell’s Ecumenical Relations Report; Iver Martin’s vision for the Edinburgh Theological Seminary (the Free Church College); Derek Lamont’s Home Mission Board Report.   Watch them if you are able – these are Free Church leaders with vision, and ambition for the glory of God.   We have men like Alasdair MacDonald, Angus Macrae and Jeremy Ross, whose contributions were full of deep pastoral concern.   We have some really impressive young ministers too – Hugh Ferrier is a wee star, I think the youngest minister in the Church, but insightful, and worth keeping an open ear for in the future.   And we have gracious and patient men too – the nomination to the Chair of Old Testament crystallises the Free Church’s financial dilemma in one guy, and Daniel Sladek deserves a medal for the way he has conducted himself throughout.

The #eFrees

These guys – led by the excellent Gordon Bell (like a herd of cats? – Ed.) –  just get a mention for being #epic and #madeofwin

I can’t mention everybody here – but we have great people in the Free Church.   But we have greater God, and I thank him for the great gift he has given our Church in our people.

General Assembly 2013

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.