A Church of Scotland Blog written in the North East of Scotland
An Open Letter to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland 2013
May 21, 2013
Dear Brothers and Sisters of the General Assembly 2013,
I wonder how you feel, now that twenty-four hours have passed since the debate on the Report of the Theological Commission. I wonder if you, like me, are only now beginning to realise what some of the implications of yesterday’s debate and decisions are going to be. I have to confess to you that I have spent all of last evening and today feeling under a great sadness. I was thinking about it today as I drove home from a funeral service, and then it occurred to me, the weight I am carrying deep in my heart is the weight of grief and bereavement. Something has died, and I think it is the Church of Scotland as we have known it. Do you feel the same? I know that some of our most senior Assembly office bearers, including the Moderator it would seem, have said that this is a triumph for church unity, and other things to that effect, but I just can’t see it that way, and I don’t think that my congregation will be able to see it that way, either.
I have to tell you that I am worried about how my congregation is going to react to your decision on Monday. Did you think about that sufficiently? My congregation loves the Church of Scotland, though for some of them it is more accurate now to say that they used to. Many of the members of my congregation grew up in the Church of Scotland and came to faith through its witness and work. They love its Reformed theology and worship, its biblical foundation, its long history of fighting for the truth of the eternal Gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
But they feel that the Church of Scotland is giving on all of that up, and they feel that the Church of Scotland now despises them for wanting to hold on to the Bible and to the Confession of Faith. They feel that the Church of Scotland does not love them any more, and that their only crime is that they have been, well, a proper Church of Scotland congregation, that is to say, planted firmly on the bible as God’s word written.
Two years ago, our congregation lost a Session Clerk and a number of elders because of revisionist decisions taken by the General Assembly, and by the Presbytery prior to that, and in the period of time since, we have lost other members, too. I have to say that these brothers and sisters have remained with us, locally, because they love our fellowship and the bonds of love between us, but these are people, including bright, young people, who have renounced their Church of Scotland membership and no longer support the work of the Church of Scotland financially. They just don’t want to be members of the Church of Scotland. Can we afford that loss of life blood? I have spoken to those who can see themselves as ministers one day, but they feel that the Church of Scotland’s future is unsure and so they simply won’t offer themselves for assessment at this stage.
It grieves me that my congregation, faithful to the reformed standards of the Church of Scotland, is wounded and disturbed because the General Assembly upholds the wish of some to serve as ministers and in other posts whilst living in a way in which God has not permitted any of us to live which, paradoxically, you, the General Assembly, affirmed on Monday.
What advice do you give me? How will I hold them all together and encourage them to remain faithful to the Church of Scotland when you keep telling them that their beliefs and values are wrong and inconsequential, and that they should simply readjust their unbalanced priorities and get on with other, bigger things?
The Report of the Theological Commission
I have to say that I was dismayed by the treatment given to the Theological Commission in the presentation of its Report yesterday. The Commission had taken two years to prepare its full and comprehensive Report for us. I am guessing that there were difficult moments for all concerned in the Commission. It was a long Report, granted, and it wasn’t easy to read – perhaps it ought to have been much easier to read and shorter in length – but it was examining something truly important, the nature of marriage and sexuality, and the standards expected of those in the Church’s various forms of ministry.
It took me completely by surprise that at the end of the debate, you the General Assembly decided what you would do with the Report not on the basis of its analysis of biblical texts, nor by its reasoned argument about the Church of Scotland’s position within the world Church, and not even on the basis of Church history or theology, but on the grounds of what solution would enable us all to continue living under the same ecclesiastical roof. For those who look on, it must seem that the Church of Scotland is simply not able to make judgements on the basis of Holy Scripture, but only by sentiment and story, and by expediency and pragmatism. That is what some of the editorials are saying today, in any case.
I appreciate that the day was long, and that most of the Report’s time was given over to tidying things up. I also understand that unity is important, but surely unity can’t be the supreme and overriding principle by which we gauge every weighty decision that comes before our Church? Isn’t scripture the supreme rule by which all things should be judged, in the end, by a Reformed Church? Here we had a serious theological Report, which we ought to have had in the very first instance, instead of the Special Commission’s Report, and the General Assembly accepted a counter-proposal brought in at the very last minute and containing almost no theological or biblical underpinning whatsoever. I am just at a loss to know why that happened. I am confident that I am far from alone.
As an aside, I do fervently wish that the role of ex-Moderators in the life of the Church and in the processes of the General Assembly were given urgent consideration. Time after time the ex-Moderators work as a team, speaking en bloc and in support of one another, and the General Assembly is always minded to listen to their voice, as though their voice carries more weight than the voice of anyone else. Their contribution is almost never one that comes from a Reformed theological direction. I am of the view that at every Assembly, two past Moderators should assist the current Moderator, and that is that. All others should go and sit with the rest of the commissioners, and come to the Assembly once every 4-5 years, just like the rest of us. I believe that would be a popular change in the minds of many. They are de facto Bishops and their influence is handicapping the Church.
The Counter-Proposal 2d
Back on subject, let me ask you, with respect, why the counter-proposal in the name of the immediately ex-Moderator was so appealing to so many of you? It was last-minute and unprepared, and this caused the Assembly great difficulties. In fact, the present Moderator seemed to rebuke the ex-Moderator for his unpreparedness. She at least expressed her frustration with the difficulties the counter-proposal presented the Assembly because of its incompleteness. In fact, I don’t personally mind the fact that it was last minute. Sometimes the Holy Spirit moves us at the last moment, we all know that, but I wonder if the Convenor knew that this was coming? He didn’t seem to oppose the counter-proposal, and I apologise if he did but I missed it, but I think that he should have, because the counter-proposal puts the Church of Scotland in a position that many are today calling a fudge and an hypocrisy. And that is what was always likely to happen with something that was dropped on to lap of the Assembly at the last moment without sufficient time having been given to a reflection on the constitutional, ecclesiastical and legal ramifications of it all.
There was just no theological basis for the counter-proposal. No biblical warrant for it. No logical coherency about it. It makes no intellectual sense. It caught your heart strings because it was made with an emotional plea instead of being accompanied by critical thought about the implications of what it proposed. The counter-proposal you agreed to says that the Church of Scotland affirms the Church’s historic and current doctrine and practice in relation to human sexuality; nonetheless [it] permit[s] those Kirk Sessions who wish to depart from that doctrine and practice to do so. So, the Church’s investigation of human sexuality for twenty years until Monday has said, on each and every occasion, that homosexual practice is contrary to God’s will in every place in which sexuality is mentioned in the bible. In short, sin. You affirmed this and agreed with it. But yet you also agreed to allow Kirk Sessions and individual congregations to disregard this, and to disobey God, and to do what God nowhere permits, if they wish to. How can the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly be so double-minded?
Can you see, with the greatest respect, how ludicrous that looks?
I was staggered that it was an evangelical minister who suggested it to the Assembly. And it was evangelicals that vote for it. If they look back, they will see that Section 2d of the Deliverance was nothing more than the mirror-image of Section 2a. It handed moral freedom and licence to the revisionists. They are free to do what they want and act as they please, after Monday, for there will be few Kirk Sessions that will not want to be progressive and enlightened. I believe that the ex-Moderator moved the counter-proposal 2d for good reasons, as he saw it, but one of the manifold effects – and the many effects are only now about to make themselves known – was to allow elders the freedom to decide that their congregations can disregard God’s biblical instruction concerning human sexuality, which the Church of Scotland affirms, entirely as and when they please. It was a counter-proposal that appeased those in the evangelical wing of the Church who want to be able to say that the official position of the Church is heterosexual marriage, but what a hollow thing it is to be able to say that when every possible leeway has been given to Kirk Sessions to disregard it at will. In the end, facts on the ground are what count, and the facts on the ground are thoroughly revisionist.
What a price the evangelicals have paid.
The Future for Us All
Brothers and Sisters in the General Assembly, did you not wonder in the cold light of this morning what had been let out of Pandora’s Box? The effect on our denomination is now utterly unpredictable and the consequences are all simply unforeseeable. The ‘Mixed Economy’ that is now our ecclesiology is just a recipe for anarchy. It really means that anything goes, now. It is to the ecclesiology of the Church of Scotland what the phrase ‘broad Church’ is to the theology of the Kirk. A term that means the absence of doctrinal and moral certainties and boundaries. It is the relativisation of the Church of Scotland. The Congregations and Kirk Sessions can now do whatever they like.
It means, constitutionally, that Presbyteries no longer have final authority over congregations when it comes to doctrine and theology. Church discipline is no more. The precedent is set. Local churches can do what they like. It is no good arguing that this only applies to the matter of the same sex relationships and the ministry. If we say that, we are only acting discriminatorily and arbitrarily. Our supreme rule is no longer scripture. It is unity, at all costs. If an issue causes an unholy rumpus, threatening our unity, the General Assembly has set the precedent that within a mixed economy, anything will be allowed so long as we are all able to continue living under the same Church of Scotland roof.
If congregations can ignore the doctrine and theology of the Kirk when it comes to calling a minister in a civil partnership, why can’t Kirk Sessions ignore the doctrine and theology of the Kirk when it comes to baptizing adults who were baptized as infants but who experienced a powerful conversion later in life? If congregations can ignore the doctrine and theology of the Kirk when it comes to calling a minister in a civil partnership, why can’t Kirk Sessions ignore the doctrine and theology of the Kirk when it comes to ordaining only male elders, or inviting applications for vacant charges only from male candidates? If congregations can ignore the doctrine and theology of the Kirk when it comes to calling a minister in a civil partnership, why can’t Kirk Sessions ignore the doctrine and theology of the Kirk when it comes anything that threatens to cause a row and damage the peace and unity of the Church of Scotland?
We have, many are now saying, become Congregationalist. In one move, we have attacked Presbyterianism gravely, and all because a badly-prepared and ill-thought-out counter-motion, admittedly well-intentioned, came before the Assembly on Monday after a long day of procedural tidying up. And what of leadership? Is this not the abandonment of true church leadership within our Presbyterian polity? Have we not relinquished Presbyterian church leadership through the courts of the Church by telling Kirk Sessions that in spite of the Church’s historic and current doctrine and practice in relation to human sexuality, you can now do whatever you like? This was surely a counter-motion that ought to have been ruled as incompetent in its present state. I wonder if the Principal Clerk is not scratching his head somewhere and wondering how and when this might unravel?
The future for all of us within the Kirk is now uncertain. The revisionists have what they wanted, the room and space for those in same sex relationships to be ordained and inducted without hindrance. Some of the evangelicals have what they want, the title deeds to the Church’s doctrine of sexuality, as it were, though the revisionists occupy the house, to be exact. It is interesting to hear some evangelicals calling this the best of the worst possible outcomes – damage limitation.
For my part, I would rather have lost the debate having argued from the standpoint of God’s unchanging word than to have won some form of victory or achieved some sort of damage limitation having argued for nothing more than the pragmatism of holding the denomination together at all costs.
No one is truly happy. The problems for members of Presbyteries are yet to come. Kirk Sessions may call ministers who are in same sex relationships, but will evangelical Moderators feel able to officiate at such services of ordination and induction, and will evangelical Presbytery Clerks feel able to perform the necessary administration in connection with a congregation’s call? Will evangelical Presbyters feel able to come to the Lord’s Table when repentance for sexual unchastity is not a pre-requisite? How many Church of Scotland members are going to leave and withdraw their financial support?
Brothers are Sisters in the General Assembly, Monday’s decision was a vote for chaos and uncertainty. I say all of this because I serve the Church of Scotland and have devoted my life and strength to it, and have done so in some demanding contexts. Proverbs 27.6 says that the ‘Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.’ It is only from someone who truly cares that words of truth can come. No good is done by agreeing with a decision that was made on the basis of few facts and slender consideration, and which brings untold difficulty, even if that decision has come from a General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. I speak to you with respect. It is only because my ordination vow was to acknowledge the Presbyterian Government of the Church to be agreeable to the Word of God that I say all of this. We are now in danger of abandoning Presbyterian Church government, or at least of becoming a mixed economy of Presbyterianism when it suits us, and Congregationalism when things get too hard and challenging, and when tough talking needs to take place.
Something has died, and I think there is no going back.
I will, of course, continue to be subject in the Lord to the Presbytery and to the superior courts of the Church, as long as the courts of the Church do not require me to compromise my loyalty to the Lord of the Church.
Soli Deo Gloria