Tag Archives: schism

After a schism, a question: Can atheist churches last? via CNN

Sunday Assembly founders Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans have begun to franchise their “godless congregations.”
January 4th, 2014

By Katie Engelhart, special to CNN

LONDON (CNN)

The world’s most voguish – though not its only – atheist church opened last year in London, to global attention and abundant acclaim.

So popular was the premise, so bright the promise, that soon the Sunday Assembly was ready to franchise, branching out into cities such as New York, Dublin and Melbourne.

“It’s a way to scale goodness,” declared Sanderson Jones, a standup comic and co-founder of The Sunday Assembly, which calls itself a “godless congregation.”

But nearly as quickly as the Assembly spread, it split, with New York City emerging as organized atheism’s Avignon.

In October, three former members of Sunday Assembly NYC announced the formation of a breakaway group called Godless Revival.

“The Sunday Assembly,” wrote Godless Revival founder Lee Moore in a scathing blog post, “has a problem with atheism.”

Moore alleges that, among other things, Jones advised the NYC group to “boycott the word atheism” and “not to have speakers from the atheist community.” It also wanted the New York branch to host Assembly services in a churchlike setting, instead of the Manhattan dive bar where it was launched.

Jones denies ordering the NYC chapter to do away with the word “atheism,” but acknowledges telling the group “not to cater solely to atheists.” He also said he advised them to leave the dive bar “where women wore bikinis,” in favor of a more family-friendly venue.

The squabbles led to a tiff and finally a schism between two factions within Sunday Assembly NYC. Jones reportedly told Moore that his faction was no longer welcome in the Sunday Assembly movement.

Moore promises that his group, Godless Revival, will be more firmly atheistic than the Sunday Assembly, which he now dismisses as “a humanistic cult.”

In a recent interview, Jones described the split as “very sad.” But, he added, “ultimately, it is for the benefit of the community. One day, I hope there will soon be communities for every different type of atheist, agnostic and humanist. We are only one flavor of ice cream, and one day we hope there’ll be congregations for every godless palate.”

Nevertheless, the New York schism raises critical questions about the Sunday Assembly. Namely: Can the atheist church model survive? Is disbelief enough to keep a Sunday gathering together?

Big-tent atheism

I attended my first service last April, when Sunday Assembly was still a rag-tag venture in East London.

The service was held in a crumbly, deconsecrated church and largely populated by white 20-somethings with long hair and baggy spring jackets (a group from which I hail.)

I wrote that the Assembly “had a wayward, whimsical feel. At a table by the door, ladies served homemade cakes and tea. The house band played Cat Stevens. Our ‘priest’ wore pink skinny jeans.”

I judged the effort to be “part quixotic hipster start-up, part Southern megachurch.”

The central idea was attractive enough. The Assembly described itself as a secular urban oasis, where atheists could enjoy the benefits of traditional church – the sense of community, the weekly sermon, the scheduled time for reflection, the community service opportunities, the ethos of self-improvement, the singing and the free food – without God. I liked the vibe and the slogan: “Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More.”

Shortly thereafter, Assembly services began bringing in hundreds of similarly warm-and-fuzzy nonbelievers. The wee East London church grew too small, and the Assembly moved to central London’s more elegant Conway Hall.

The Assembly drew criticism, to be sure—from atheists who fundamentally object to organized disbelief, from theists who resent the pillaging of their texts and traditions. But coverage was largely positive – and it was everywhere.

In September, a second wave of coverage peaked, with news that the Assembly was franchising: across England, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, the United States and Australia. That month, the founders launched a crowd-funding campaign that aims to raise $802,500. (As of mid-December, less than $56,000 had been raised.)

Still, prospective Sunday Assembly franchisers seemed exhilarated. Los Angeles chapter founder Ian Dodd enthused that he would “have a godless congregation in the city of angels.” In November, his inaugural Assembly drew more than 400 attendees.

But as the atheist church grew, it began to change—and to move away from its atheism.

“How atheist should our Assembly be?” wrote Jones in August. “The short answer to that is: not very.”

Pippa Evans, Assembly’s other co-founder, elaborated: “‘Atheist Church’ as a phrase has been good to us. It has got us publicity. But the term ‘atheist’ does hold negative connotations.”

Warm-and-fuzzy atheism gave way to not-quite atheism: or at least a very subdued, milquetoast nonbelief. Sunday services made much mention of “whizziness” and “wonder”—but rarely spoke of God’s nonexistence.

The newer, bigger Sunday Assembly now markets itself as a kind of atheist version of Unitarian Univeralism: irreligious, but still eager to include everyone.

In a way, this is a smart move. According to the 2012 Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 20% of Americans have no religious affiliation, but just a fraction of those identify as atheists.

A godless congregation is likely to draw crowds if it appeals to what Herb Silverman, founder of the Secular Coalition for America, calls “big-tent” atheism, which includes “agnostics, humanists, secular humanists, freethinkers, nontheists, anti-theists, skeptics, rationalists, naturalists, materialists, ignostics, apatheists, and more.”

But atheists who wanted a firmly atheist church—a Sunday Assembly where categorical disbelief is discussed and celebrated—will not be satisfied.

As the Sunday Assembly downplays its atheism, it also appears increasingly churchlike.

Starting a Sunday Assembly chapter now involves a “Sunday Assembly Everywhere accreditation process,” which grants “the right to use all the Sunday Assembly materials, logos, positive vibe and goodwill.”

Aspiring Sunday Assembly founders must form legal entities and attend “training days in the UK,” sign the Sunday Assembly Charter and pass a three- to six-month peer review. Only then may formal accreditation be granted.

This is not an East London hipster hyper-localism anymore.

Selling swag and charisma

Organized atheism is not necessarily new. French Revolutionaries, for instance, were early atheist entrepreneurs.

In 1793, secularists famously seized the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, to build a “Temple of Reason.” They decorated the church with busts of philosophers, built an altar to Reason, lit a torch of Truth – and brought in an actress to play Liberty.

A half-century later, French philosopher Auguste Comte drew acclaim for his “religion of humanity,” which imagined an army of secular sages ministering to secular souls. London has hosted formal atheist gatherings for almost as long.

History suggests, then, that there is nothing inherently anti-organization about atheism. As Assembly’s Sanderson Jones puts it, “things which are organized are not necessarily bad.”

To be sure, Sunday Assembly members in the United States say they’ve long wanted to join atheist congregations.

Ian Dodd, a 50-something camera operator in Los Angeles, had long been a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church; he enjoyed it, but wanted something more explicitly irreligious.

Nicole Stevens of the Chicago chapter found herself yearning for a secular community—a “place to check in and think about things bigger than the day-to-day”—after having her first child.

But it is one thing to support an atheist “church” – where the ‘c’ is small and the effort is local – and another to back an atheist ‘Church’ that is global and centralized.

The former responds directly to the needs and fancies of its community. The latter assumes that its particular brand of disbelief is universally relevant—and worthy of trademark.

Centralized atheism also feeds hungrily on charisma, and Sanderson Jones, who resembles a tall, bearded messiah – and who, despite the SA recommendation that Assembly hosts should be regularly rotated, dominates each London service – provides ample fuel.

But it remains to be seen whether the Sunday Assembly’s diluted godlessness is meaty enough to sustain a flock.

“Because it is a godless congregation, we don’t have a doctrine to rely on,” explains Sunday Assembly Melbourne’s founder, “so we take reference from everything in the world.”

So far, Assembly sermonizers had included community workers, physicists, astronomers, wine writers, topless philanthropers, futurologists, happiness experts, video game enthusiasts, historians and even a vicar. The pulpit is open indeed.

My own misgivings are far less academic. I’m simply not getting what the Sunday Assembly promised. I’m not put off by the secular church model, but rather the prototype.

Take an October service in London, for example:

Instead of a thoughtful sermon, I got a five-minute Wikipedia-esque lecture on the history of particle physics.

Instead of receiving self-improvement nudges or engaging in conversation with strangers, I watched the founders fret (a lot) over technical glitches with the web streaming, talk about how hard they had worked to pull the service off, and try to sell me Sunday Assembly swag.

What’s more, instead of just hop, skipping and jumping over to a local venue, as I once did, I now had to brave the tube and traverse the city.

Back in New York, Lee Moore is gearing up for the launch of Godless Revival – but still speaks bitterly of his time with the Sunday Assembly network.

Over the telephone, I mused that the experience must have quashed any ambition he ever had to build a multinational atheist enterprise.

“Actually,” he admitted, “we do have expansion aims.”

Katie Engelhart is a London-based writer. Follow her at @katieengelhart or http://www.katieengelhart.com.

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Churches should perform gay blessings, CofE says

imageChurches should perform gay blessings, CofE says

In a historic shift in thinking a panel of bishops recommend the Church of England allow special services which will amount to gay marriages in all but name

In principle the Church of England is still committed to the belief that any sex outside a traditional marriage between a man and a woman is a sin

By John Bingham, Religious Affairs Editor
11:15AM GMT 28 Nov 2013

The Church of England is poised to offer public blessing services for same-sex couples in a historic shift in teaching.
A long-awaited review of church teaching by a panel of bishops recommends lifting the ban on special services which will amount to weddings in all but name.
Although the Church will continue to opt out of carrying out gay marriages, when they become legal next year, the landmark report recommends allowing priests to conduct public services “to mark the formation of permanent same sex relationships”.
The report repeatedly speaks of the need for the Church to “repent” for the way gay and lesbian people have been treated in the past.
In what will be seen as a radical departure, it also suggests that the Bible is inconclusive on the subject of homosexuality.

The report does not recommend drawing up special liturgies for the blessing service, although it suggests new “guidelines” are drawn up.
Unlike weddings, priests will not have a legal obligation to offer such services and the decision will be left to individual parishes.
The report insists that the Church continues to “abide by its traditional teaching”, but the recommendation undoubtedly represents a fundamental shift in practice.
Opponents have been warning that any attempt to change the church’s position in sexuality would lead to a split which would make the disagreements over women bishops pale into insignificance.
It would also trigger a major rift within the 80 million-strong worldwide Anglican Communion.
The review, chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling, a former civil service mandarin, and including four bishops, was ordered last year in an attempt to resolve years of tension over the Church’s approach to gay worshippers and clergy.
But it was granted a wide remit to explore all aspects of its teaching on human sexuality – an issue which has dogged it for decade on sex.
Although the report itself will not change Church teaching or liturgy – something only the House of Bishops and General Synod can do – its publication marks a landmark moment for Anglicanism.
The debate over gay marriage earlier this year was just the latest in a series of issues exposing growing divisions as liberals and conservatives battle for the soul of the Established Church.
Questions over remarrying divorcees, its approach to cohabitation have plagued the Church for decades.
In principle the Church of England is still committed to the belief that any sex outside a traditional marriage between a man and a woman is a sin.
Any official endorsement of lifestyles outside those limits draws anger from traditionalists who argue that the Church is turning its back on 2,000 years of teaching.
But opponents argue that an apparent obsession with people’s private lives is a distraction from the Church’s core mission to spread the Christian gospel.
In practice its position has shifted dramatically in recent decades and even leading evangelicals have acknowledged a need to accept massive social change.
Last year a new official handbook for vicars on conducting weddings made clear that they should expect most couples wanting to marry to be already living together and probably have children.
The House of Bishops agreed last Christmas that openly gay clerics who are in civil partnerships are now officially allowed to become bishops – as long as they claim to be celibate.
The approach taken by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, typifies that of the Church in recent years.
An evangelical who once opposed gay couples adopting children, the Archbishop strongly objected to the Government’s introduction of same-sex marriage when it was debated in the Lords.
But only weeks later, he used his first presidential address to the Church’s General Synod, to warn Anglicans of a need to face up to a “revolution” in attitudes to sexuality.
He later said that most young people – including young Christians – think its teaching on gay relationships is “wicked” and has angered traditionalists by inviting the gay rights group Stonewall into church schools to combat homophobic bullying.
The Archbishop of York, who led the Church’s opposition to gay marriage, has himself signalled support for some form of blessing for same-sex relationships.
Speaking in Lords in July, he pointed out that it already offers special prayers and services to bless sheep and even trees but not committed same-sex couples – something he said would have to be addressed.

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Sunday Disassembly

The Sunday Assembly has a Problem with Atheism
Posted by Lee Moore On October 31, 2013 4 Comments
In the past, I have spoken highly about the Sunday Assembly; let me explain how my view has changed.

When Sanderson Jones brought his show here to New York, I jumped at the chance to volunteer as an organizer at the first Sunday Assembly here in America. I signed on because it looked like a great opportunity to inject a bit of positivism into our irreligious community. After all, this movement has been known to be a bit negative from time to time. Once Jones had left, the organizers went to work on recreating his show for an American audience. It didn’t take long for us to start finding issues to disagree on. A minority of organizers wished to make the event not a show but an actual church service and agreed with Jones about cutting out the word Atheist, not having speakers from the Atheist community, avoiding having an Atheist audience, and moving the show out of a bar setting to a more formal church-like setting. We even had one organizer who wanted to avoid having anyone from what he called “The black t-shirt crowd.” In order to deal with some of these issues and keep the show running smoothly, we decided to have a board of directors, to which myself and 6 others were elected. The majority of the board shot down all of these anti-atheism ideas and pushed for a show that was both a celebration of life and our godlessness.

As a group, we put on some excellent and well-attended events and enthusiasm was high. Everything seemed to be going really well, so it came as quite a surprise when we discovered a few from the anti-atheist minority had been conspiring to steal the show. The majority was notified via skype shortly after our last show that the minority was resigning from the board en mass, with the intent to turn the Sunday Assembly into something more like a Unitarian church service. Jones informed us shortly thereafter that he was with the minority, and we were no longer a part of the official Sunday Assembly.

What started out as a comedic Atheist church wants to turn itself into some sort of centralized humanist religion, with Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans at the helm. As Jones and Evans are preparing to launch their 40 days and nights tour, designed to open up new Sunday Assemblies across America (and relaunch the new milquetoast show here in New York), you might be asking to what end. From an insider’s perspective, it would seem Jones and Evans are trying to get rich from their new-age religion. The fundraiser for this tour was, in part, to pay themselves some pretty hefty wages according to sources inside their organization. It only takes some grade-school addition skills to see why they feel a pressing need to spread across America. After all, we saw how well that worked for L Ron Hubbard.

 

image

Sanderson Jones. A 21st century, great-white, charismatic, ginger Jesus… and like all the saviors before him, he wants your money.
Jones has been quoted as saying,”I’d like to make this as un-atheistic as possible. Atheism is boring. We’re both post-religious.” This may be true on his side of the pond where the majority do not identify as religious, however here in America, Atheism is a struggle for equality and recognition from our long-standing religious majority and their institutions. It can be a painful and arduous struggle at times, but I would never describe it as boring.

The idea behind having a comedic, godless, community-building celebration isn’t a bad one. Its a shame Jones and Evans left that idea behind in favor of a more profitable one. There is, however, an alternative rising from the ashes of the cast-off majority. Michael Dorian, a former NYC SA board member and NY State Director for American Atheists, has teamed-up with Don Albert, another former board member and musical director for NYC SA, and myself to bring you something new. We have named this new endeavor The Godless Revival, and it will be the celebration of Atheism that you deserve. We have no centralized leadership or rules to follow, and we are not trying to get a paycheck out of it. The sole goal is to promote a godless celebration of life, and with that intent in mind, the first one will take place November 24th right here in NYC. Sean Faircloth will be the first speaker, and you can also look forward to great music, tasty beverages, and a fun atmosphere. If you want to know more about this project, check it out on facebook. If you are interested in starting up a Godless Revival in your own city we would be happy to help you along the way. I hope to see many of you this November in NYC.

The Sunday Assembly has a Problem with Atheism
Posted by Lee Moore On October 31, 2013 4 Comments
In the past, I have spoken highly about the Sunday Assembly; let me explain how my view has changed.

When Sanderson Jones brought his show here to New York, I jumped at the chance to volunteer as an organizer at the first Sunday Assembly here in America. I signed on because it looked like a great opportunity to inject a bit of positivism into our irreligious community. After all, this movement has been known to be a bit negative from time to time. Once Jones had left, the organizers went to work on recreating his show for an American audience. It didn’t take long for us to start finding issues to disagree on. A minority of organizers wished to make the event not a show but an actual church service and agreed with Jones about cutting out the word Atheist, not having speakers from the Atheist community, avoiding having an Atheist audience, and moving the show out of a bar setting to a more formal church-like setting. We even had one organizer who wanted to avoid having anyone from what he called “The black t-shirt crowd.” In order to deal with some of these issues and keep the show running smoothly, we decided to have a board of directors, to which myself and 6 others were elected. The majority of the board shot down all of these anti-atheism ideas and pushed for a show that was both a celebration of life and our godlessness.

As a group, we put on some excellent and well-attended events and enthusiasm was high. Everything seemed to be going really well, so it came as quite a surprise when we discovered a few from the anti-atheist minority had been conspiring to steal the show. The majority was notified via skype shortly after our last show that the minority was resigning from the board en mass, with the intent to turn the Sunday Assembly into something more like a Unitarian church service. Jones informed us shortly thereafter that he was with the minority, and we were no longer a part of the official Sunday Assembly.

What started out as a comedic Atheist church wants to turn itself into some sort of centralized humanist religion, with Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans at the helm. As Jones and Evans are preparing to launch their 40 days and nights tour, designed to open up new Sunday Assemblies across America (and relaunch the new milquetoast show here in New York), you might be asking to what end. From an insider’s perspective, it would seem Jones and Evans are trying to get rich from their new-age religion. The fundraiser for this tour was, in part, to pay themselves some pretty hefty wages according to sources inside their organization. It only takes some grade-school addition skills to see why they feel a pressing need to spread across America. After all, we saw how well that worked for L Ron Hubbard.

Sanderson Jones. A 21st century, great-white, charismatic, ginger Jesus… and like all the saviors before him, he wants your money.
Jones has been quoted as saying,”I’d like to make this as un-atheistic as possible. Atheism is boring. We’re both post-religious.” This may be true on his side of the pond where the majority do not identify as religious, however here in America, Atheism is a struggle for equality and recognition from our long-standing religious majority and their institutions. It can be a painful and arduous struggle at times, but I would never describe it as boring.

The idea behind having a comedic, godless, community-building celebration isn’t a bad one. Its a shame Jones and Evans left that idea behind in favor of a more profitable one. There is, however, an alternative rising from the ashes of the cast-off majority. Michael Dorian, a former NYC SA board member and NY State Director for American Atheists, has teamed-up with Don Albert, another former board member and musical director for NYC SA, and myself to bring you something new. We have named this new endeavor The Godless Revival, and it will be the celebration of Atheism that you deserve. We have no centralized leadership or rules to follow, and we are not trying to get a paycheck out of it. The sole goal is to promote a godless celebration of life, and with that intent in mind, the first one will take place November 24th right here in NYC. Sean Faircloth will be the first speaker, and you can also look forward to great music, tasty beverages, and a fun atmosphere. If you want to know more about this project, check it out on facebook. If you are interested in starting up a Godless Revival in your own city we would be happy to help you along the way. I hope to see many of you this November in NYC.

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Doomed?!

‘Staying in the Church of Scotland’ – By Alastair Morrice

September 23, 2013

Alastair Morrice, who formerly ministered in Wester Hailes, in Edinburgh, has committed to writing some of his own thoughts on the question of whether or not scripturally-obedient believers should leave the Church of Scotland, and comes down firmly on the side of remaining within the denomination.  His comments can be found on Dropbox here but I have Alastair’s permission to reproduce the entirety of the text, below. Alastair also does not mind if his article is reproduced and distributed to elders and members of congregations, or used in blogs and websites, if that is thought to be helpful:

STAYING IN THE CHURCH OF SCOTLAND

The Background.

In recent days there have been several strongly worded expressions of opinion by those who advocate secession from the Church of Scotland.  David Randall takes up Bonhoeffer’s  image of what you do if you are in a train that is heading for a crash.  There is no good running up and down the corridor.  The only sensible thing to do is to get off.  Not only is it sensible, he emphasises, it is the only right thing to do.

He writes:

There have been calls for evangelical unity between those who believe it is right to leave the Church of Scotland and those who believe it is right to stay.  This sounds good and “Christian”, and if it means accepting that people are entitled to hold their own views, fine.  But it goes further than that and it breathes the post-modern air of “what’s right for you may not be right for me”.  The truth is that the leavers are convinced that the right thing to do in relation to a church that has rejected Scriptural authority is to depart from it – not only that it is right for them themselves to do so.  We believe it is the right thing – full stop.   That is the whole point, and if it were a case of different people believing different things are right, if that were all that is at stake, then we wouldn’t be in this dilemma of separation; we could simply accept the mixed economy that liberals desire.

Although David Robertson of St Peter’s Free Church, Dundee is not a Church of Scotland minister, he has written frequently on various aspects of the present situation and in his response to an article by Eric Alexander printed in the church magazine of Trinity and Henry Drummond Church of Scotland where Eric is now a member, he writes:

The battle to turn the established church into a predominantly biblical church has been lost.

Having the crumbs of the remnant of civic religion is not worth the price of being shackled by an increasingly autocratic and centralised denomination that has turned against the Word of God.

Its time for more Gospel unity.   Its time for a renewal of real Presbyterianism. Its time to remember and learn from our history.  Its time for us to stop handing over our ministers to be trained by unbelievers.  Its time for us to forget about maintaining and living off the churches legacy from the past. Its time to get on with the mission of the present and the potential of future.  Its time for a new beginning.   Its time to leave.

The conclusion of both David Robertson and David Randall is that the denomination has turned against the Word of God, and that therefore the time has come to leave. 

An alternative way.

At the heart of the argument presented by those who advocate secession there is a conviction that the Church of Scotland as a denomination has so embraced a liberal theology and that theology is so dominant in the church as to make it irretrievable to an evangelical biblical stance.  The case for leaving is incontrovertible not simply because of a number of bad decisions around a particular case of the induction of a practising homosexual minister but because as an institution it has now, they allege, abandoned orthodox theology particularly in relation to the authority of Scripture.

But is this so?   Are there other perspectives from which things might look rather different?

Liberalism in the Church of Scotland.

There have been and are different kinds of liberalism.

In living memory of many of us was a kind of gentle liberalism which was defined not so much by what it overtly denied, but what it never preached.   This was, of course, very dangerous…especially when it meant that there was no emphasis upon personal conversion.  There was a widespread assumption that really everyone who went to church, and most who were outside it, were really Christians.   It was universalism in practice if not in theory. This cut the throat of evangelism, but it was difficult to deal with in any meaningful way, because those who espoused this general attitude were not usually publicly denying the cardinal doctrines of the faith.

Since the 1990s a much more aggressive liberalism has come into existence.

In this form of liberalism the cardinal doctrines of the faith are much more openly under attack.  The universalism which was assumed under older liberalism is now vigorously promoted.   To suggest that someone might not be ‘in’ is itself tantamount to heresy because the doctrine of ‘non-judgmentalism’ and inclusion, has become paramount.   Judgment is an alien concept, and therefore all traditional notions of the atonement have to be re-written.  This is radical Christianity, and it is directly opposed to evangelical views.  This was epitomised in the much quoted remark at a General Assembly when a commissioner said that we had outgrown the Bible.  Such teaching affirms that the Bible’s teaching is there and is of value, but we are not bound by its authority.

The spear head of the attack of this more aggressive liberalism is focussed at present on the issue of sexuality, but the reality is, as has often been pointed out, that behind this is a much broader attack on the authority of Holy Scripture.

The question is, ‘Is this contagion of liberalism such that we must escape it lest we lose our witness to the apostolic faith?’

A historical perspective on evangelical work in the Church of Scotland.

Those who entered the ministry during the resurgence of evangelicalism in the 1950s to the 1990s entered a situation, particularly at the beginning, where the older form of liberalism was widespread, and they entered charges which generally espoused to varying degrees that older liberalism, and they were set upon ‘preaching the Bible’ in such a way that over time the minds of those who heard the truth would be persuaded, people would be converted, and nurtured through Bible Study and prayer so that they grew in a living faith and gradually the tone of a congregation would be changed.

There are many examples of this happening.  Nearly all churches which are now regarded as evangelical were formed in that way…. And it happened throughout the country from Wick to Galashiels, from Edinburgh to Glasgow.   Sometimes people speak as if the only such ministries were in St George’s Tron, Holyrood Abbey, Sandyford Henderson, and Gilcomston South.  It is true that when Jim Philip went to Holyrood Abbey in late 1950s there were only a very few evangelical ministries in the Church of Scotland that could be recognised in Edinburgh. By the time I had my ministry in Wester Hailes from 1977-1987 there was a wide choice of evangelical ministry, in Newhaven, St Catherine’s Argyle, Barclay Bruntsfield, St David’s Broomhouse….and others!  By the time I went to Rutherglen in 1987, it was possible to have an evangelical united witness in the Cambuslang/Rutherglen area where the predominance of ministry was evangelical.  Across the city of Glasgow there were many evangelical ministries being exercised in widely differing contexts.

It is probably worth also bringing to mind that while we can talk of the broad liberalism of the period, there were always those who were clearly on side for the evangelical cause. They came from the group represented by Tom Allan, DP Thomson, Ian Doyle, David Orrock, Peter  Bisset and people of that kind who represented a robust evangelicalism over against the Iona Community which tended to be more liberal theologically leaning to the social gospel especially in the housing estates that were arising at that time.   We have to remember too that after outstanding ministries in Auchterarder, Aberdeen and Edinburgh James S Stewart occupied the chair of New Testament language, literature and theology in New College.  The influence of Scripture Union particularly under ‘Boss’ Meiklejohn, a licentiate of the Church of Scotland also had a deep influence on men and women entering Christian service including the ministry.  David Wright came to New College in the 1960s and continued to teach Church History in New College gaining widespread respect for his evangelical stance on church and social issues.

My point in writing like this is to bring out that all of this happened within a denomination that was broadly liberal.  Liberalism did not spread a contagion that destroyed the Gospel.  We were like leaven in the lump and the lump in our view of it was being leavened and decay arrested.  Much Gospel work prospered.  And often it prospered in strong fellowship with those from different church backgrounds.  The various campaigns during these years with Stephen Olford, Luis Palau,  Billy Graham and others took place on a united base, but very strongly supported from the Church of Scotland.

I don’t recall that during this period there were any of us who wanted to get off this train.   The church as a denomination was predominantly liberal.  We recognised that.  But we could function… we could see people becoming Christians… we could over time see profound changes in congregations.   We could live with the liberalism. In some ways it was not important to us because we could do the work of the Gospel unhindered and in large measure supported by the committees of the church in which many of us had some part.  The work of Church Extension in the massive postwar housing estates was pioneered by the Church of Scotland and not a few of us became involved in that ministry. And there were those who took a significant part at national level in the committees of the church, Bob McGhee, Frank Gibson, Ian Doyle, Jim Philip…. and many more.  There were efforts to see the Church focus on mission and evangelism.   John Campbell as an Adviser in Evangelism was a great help to us in the West of Scotland and others served across the land in that kind of capacity.

So is there some kind of change that has taken place to reverse this attitude of positive engagement in the denomination?  It has been pointed out that where there were the notable ministries of Holyrood Abbey, St George’s Tron, and Gilcomston South, these have been the very ones which now are exiting the church on the ground that the Church of Scotland as an institution is irretrievably corrupted and beyond renewal.  But a multitude of those which were founded in the next generations from the nineteen sixties to the twenty tens, sometimes by those who came from these congregations have no intention at all of leaving.  Indeed many of those who under God established these ministries, some now retired, are dismayed to find that there is a threat to these congregations which were faithfully and laboriously built up.

What has come in, and is it decisively new?

What came in to change the attitudes of some evangelicals within the Church of Scotland and lead them to think that the only course of action is to leave?

There is now, as I have described, a much more radical form of liberalism which has found its focus in the issue of the rightness or wrongness of allowing practicing homosexuals to be ministers.

Since the General Assembly’s decision to allow this in a particular case, two commissions have looked at this issue and have reported to the General Assembly.  The matter awaits a final resolution constitutionally and legally, but meantime there are individuals and churches which feel that they cannot remain within the Church of Scotland because of its ‘compromise’ on this biblical issue.

Does this constitute something new and so radically unbiblical as to justify secession?

I would suggest that it is not so.  Think of the situation vis-à-vis General Assemblies and their decisions with which many of us lived.

We knew that the church was broadly liberal and that if a vote was taken which would establish what the church believed on universal salvation, for example, then in all probability the evangelical view would have failed to gain a majority.  In fact there nearly was such a vote at one General Assembly.

Had such a vote been taken and had the evangelical position been lost, would evangelicals have left at that point?   The answer is ‘No’.

We knew that that was what the majority thought, but we were in the business of patiently working for the truth in the denomination, believing that doctrinal error would be corrected in the whole church over time.  That was what we saw as part of our call.

And we understood something else.

In that earlier generation of evangelicals, we never regarded the General Assembly as the depository of truth, and disagreement with its pronouncements was never thought of as a reason for leaving.  We would register dissent, go home, and get on with the work God had called us to do, submitting as we’d promised to such directives as came down so long as they did not clash with conscience.  It was possible so to live and the fruit of such an approach was and remains evident.

I think we also operated with a broader understanding of the identity of the Church.

Is the General Assembly and its decisions to be taken as the determinative expression of the mind of the Church?

What about an alternative way of looking at it from the point of view of the church’s local embodiment, its rich local character in every community of Scotland.   In reality every Church of Scotland congregation is mixed in almost every sense you can think of, but in many places embodies the reality of Christian life and witness in a community.  Often it is the only such embodiment, but very frequently it bears that witness with others from different Christian traditions. Generally this is harmonious and constructive.

This local church, we do understand, is helpfully related to other churches through the Presbyterian government of the Church of Scotland, but that government is largely unseen day on day.  These are the mechanics, but the life of the Church is the life of Jesus working by His Spirit in a community.

Suppose then, that is your view of the Church of Scotland and a decision is taken at the General Assembly about the rightness or wrongness of the induction of a practising homosexual minister.

Does that materially affect the Church of Scotland in your community?

It might in time have some effect when your church becomes vacant and you have to think about whether you would wish such a minister in your church.  But you will choose!  That is the long standing tradition and constitution.

Does it affect your fellowship, your service, your witness as a local church?   Probably not at all.

Does it affect the way your minister preaches or pastors?   Probably not at all.   It may indeed provide some material to raise in teaching ministry about the nature of sexuality and what the Bible teaches.

Unless, of course, he or she becomes conscience stricken about this issue and wants to leave over it. This will distress you because you love your pastor and will feel abandoned if he or she takes this course.

Worse still it will cause distress if the minister wants, because the church where he or she erstwhile ministered now seems to him or her apostate, to take that church out into another denominational structure, or into an independent fellowship. Then you will be distressed, divided and probably confused.   Why?   You were seeking to embody Christ in your parish, and you were succeeding at least to some degree, but now everything is being dictated by this one issue which suddenly seems to assert that the whole church in all its local manifestations has somehow become newly corrupt and incompatible with any form of Christian witness and therefore must be abandoned.

But have you wrongly isolated the General Assembly as the main or only expression of the Church’s mind?  What is this General Assembly? We know it is very fallible, only in a vague sense representative of the membership of the Church, composed with different people in it from year to year, often dominated by those who for one reason or another have the right to be there every year.  Are we going to let that body determine our whole understanding of what is the mind and the life of the Church?

And now suppose you do decide on the basis of a General Assembly’s decision that the Church of Scotland is apostate and you are going to leave, how will you do so?

Will you quietly leave yourself and join a suitable alternative denomination?   People have always done that honourably over various issues in the past.

Will you, if you are a minister, try to take your congregation with you?   That may be possible if all are agreed with you.   Occasionally it may happen, but let it be granted that all kinds of other issues will arise at this point.  How easy it is for loyalty to a minister to complicate things, or loyalty to the majority, or fear of being a small remnant who are left.

And if you can’t take them all, are you prepared to in effect force a division along the lines of your understanding of the only right thing to do?   What of those who come with you?  Will you join Free Church or International Presbyterians, or become independent?   How will you cope with the consequent lack of support?  And what will happen to those who ‘in conscience’, wrongly of course in your judgment, stay?  They have to in effect restart the church impoverished of some of its best leaders and most generous givers?  And what spiritual attitude is likely to be fostered among those who have come out with you?  They are doing the right thing, so by definition, others must be doing the wrong thing.  Is that not a breeding ground for the worst kind of spiritual pride, and possibly lead to other separations further down the road?

The underlying assumption of those who leave is that the Church of Scotland is beyond rescue.  ‘The battle to turn the established church into a predominantly biblical church has been lost.’  So writes David Robertson.

In this judgment it may have been possible for God to breathe life into the dead bones of Ezekiel 37, but it is impossible for God to breathe new life into the Church of Scotland.

Alternatively, is it possible to view the disastrous decisions of the last few years as but a greater threat to the work of God in the Church of Scotland, but not different in their essential nature from what preceded it and in the context of which so much good was done?

If so then the answer stays the same as many of us lived with throughout all our ministry.  We remain and seek to be faithful to God in life, witness and ministry trusting Him for the fruit in our congregations, communities and the life of the denomination.

If this radical and even aggressive liberalism is something new and so powerful that it truly permeates the whole church in a way to render it apostate,  then it seems to me that it would have to express itself throughout the church as a whole and be evidenced everywhere as a profound antagonism to the biblical Gospel.  I do not think that it does so.  In fact, all across the land, God is clearly working in the Church of Scotland, sometimes outstandingly and obviously so.  There are liberal voices and liberal churches, but are they stopping the preaching of the Gospel?  In many places and sometimes notably there is Gospel work taking place, new initiatives in reaching communities for God, and God is clearly blessing with conversions and people growing in grace and in the knowledge of the love of God. What possible grounds for leaving these situations, or dividing them and fragmenting further our witness?

What if, by contrast with the negative view which would lead to secession, we were to grasp in a new way the calling to faithfulness within the tradition of those who have established and developed an evangelical testimony within the Church of Scotland despite recent setbacks?

As one minister has commented, ‘The vast majority of evangelicals in the Church of Scotland will not be persuaded by secessionist arguments because God has placed on their hearts a deep settled desire to be faithful to what His call is personally, and what He has done and is doing and we trust yet will do within the Church of Scotland’.

Secession or Being Faithful – is this the real choice facing C of S Evangelicals?

24TuesdaySep 2013

Secession or Being Faithful – is this the real choice facing C of S Evangelicals?

A response to Alastair Morrice

Alastair Morrice, one of the most senior and respected evangelicals in the Church of Scotland, has written a fascinating article on why he believes that evangelicals should stay within the Kirk.  Alastair is happy for his article to be widely distributed and I am more than happy to help with that.  You can read it on Louis Kinsey’s blog here – http://coffeewithlouis.wordpress.com/2013/09/23/staying-in-the-church-of-scotland-by-alastair-morrice/

At first glance it is a convincing and well-written piece.  One that will appeal to those who are going to stay in whatever,  and one which will cause those who are thinking of leaving to think again.  Alastair in particular takes issue with the analysis given by another senior evangelical who has just left, David Randall, and with yours truly.  Perhaps he will not mind if I challenge what he is saying (I hope my membership of Crieff will still stand as well!).   I recognise entirely his good heart and motivation and his passion for the Gospel and for the Kirk.  However his article is I believe profoundly mistaken at several important points – and he is danger of confusing the two.

Firstly I must apologise again for commenting on this. Alastair points out that though I am not a minister of the Church of Scotland, I have written frequently on this issue.  I know that that really annoys some people who just basically wish I would go away and mind my own business.  Sadly it is my business.  I am not particularly concerned with the Free Church, although that is the denomination to which I belong.  My desire is neither to engage in schadenfreude nor to put down the Church of Scotland at the expense of others. In fact it is a source of sorrow for me that there are several good people in my congregation who have felt compelled to leave the Church of Scotland and come to St Peters.  They are very welcome.  The reason for them coming saddens me though.  My concern is simply this – the cause of the Gospel in Scotland, through whatever denomination. It is for that reason that I have a great interest in the Church of Scotland and why I belong to the Crieff Fellowship.   I recognise the excellent work done by many C of S congregations both in the past and the present.  I also have many friends who are Church of Scotland – some have already left, some are planning to leave, some don’t know what to do, and others are determined to stay, whatever happens.  I don’t apologise therefore for commenting on this – but I do recognise the deep personal issues and feelings involved so I ask for forgiveness if anything I say causes hurt or upset.

Alastair’s case is straightforward and can be summed up in the following way:

1)     The C of S has in the past been liberal but we still managed to work within it and prosper.

2)    We were able to do so because we could just ignore the General Assembly and get on with the work of the local Church.

3)    Those who leave are splitting local congregations and causing division within the body of Christ. They also foster a spirit of spiritual pride that will in turn lead to further divisions.

4)    To leave is to doubt the sovereignty and power of God who can if he wishes turn the dry bones of the Church of Scotland into living ones.

5)    Therefore to leave is to create unnecessary schism in the body of Christ.  It is better to be faithful and remain.

It is a simple case, powerfully put.  But I’m afraid it is completely out of date and does not take into account the current situation both in church and society.  Let’s deal with each of these points:

1) We can live with liberalism 

Alastair writes:  The church as a denomination was predominantly liberal.  We recognised that.  But we could function… we could see people becoming Christians… we could over time see profound changes in congregations.   We could live with the liberalism. In some ways it was not important to us because we could do the work of the Gospel unhindered and in large measure supported by the committees of the church in which many of us had some part. 

No one denies that individual congregations have flourished and that great gospel work has been done.  But looking at the overall situation, where are we now?  Although there are perhaps up to 400 ‘evangelical’ ministries,  one leading senior evangelical told me that he doubted there were even 60 evangelical congregations – and some of these are very weak.   We have often been told that the continuing decline in C of S membership (from 1.2 million to 400,000 and losing 20,000 per year) was due to the ‘dead wood’ falling away and that soon we would be left with those who were really committed and the C of S would have become an evangelical church.  Is there any sign of that happening?  The ‘one more push and we are there’ school, are living in a fantasyland, failing to see the demographic, financial and doctrinal disaster that is happening to the Church of Scotland.

As for living with liberalism.  Alastair says “we were in the business of patiently working for the truth in the denomination, believing that doctrinal error would be corrected in the whole church over time.  That was what we saw as part of our call.”  I’m afraid that that faith has been demonstrated again and again to have been misplaced.    How ironic that today when I received Alastair’s article I also received this:  The Herald is reporting that the Church of Scotland is preparing to welcome Bishop Jack Spong to Glasgow (you can read the full report here – http://coffeewithlouis.wordpress.com/2013/09/24/jack-spong-to-visit-congregations-in-the-presbytery-of-glasgow-herald/ ) Glasgow Presbytery came very close to denying that the Trinity was an essential part of the Christian faith a couple of years ago and therefore it is not to be expected that it will deal with allowing someone who denies the existence of God.  Its not that they are incapable of acting.  Today I also received (it has been a busy day) word from that Presbytery that they have asked lawyers to act in trying to get the ownership of the Tron Manse.  So Glasgow presbytery is preparing to go to law to get an evangelical minister evicted from his manse, whilst preparing to welcome Jack Spong to a couple of its churches.  Monty Python could not make this stuff up!

The question for me is – are or should evangelicals be prepared to live with this kind of liberalism?  Do you really want to be part of a church that promotes heresy and persecutes believers?  There comes a time when you have to shake the dust off your feet.  For me promoting atheists as preachers of the Word is that time.  The rot is in too deep.

2) We can ignore the General Assembly

“In that earlier generation of evangelicals, we never regarded the General Assembly as the depository of truth, and disagreement with its pronouncements was never thought of as a reason for leaving.  We would register dissent, go home, and get on with the work God had called us to do, submitting as we’d promised to such directives as came down so long as they did not clash with conscience.  It was possible so to live and the fruit of such an approach was and remains evident.”

Sadly it was precisely because an earlier generation of evangelicals bought into this ‘Presbyterian by name, independent by nature’ ecclesiology that the C of S is now in such a mess.  The trouble with Alastair’s ecclesiology is that it does not fit with the nature of Presbyterian vows or church government.  C of S congregations are not independent, able to determine what they wish to do, unaffected by decisions from wider church courts such as Presbytery and the General Assembly.   Funds are not just sent from evangelical churches to gospel churches but to congregations that would deny the gospel.  Do I think that my money should be going to fund Jack Spong coming to Glasgow to deny the gospel in my denomination?   Is it really the case that evangelicals can just continue their work unaffected by wider aberrations in the denomination?  I would suggest that to believe that is naïve in the extreme.

Remember when the ordination of women was decided?  It was ‘permitted’, but within a few years it had changed from being permitted to being mandatory.  Even then several congregations who did not think it was biblical were able to get away with it and were left alone to get on with their work.  But one by one they were picked off, until this year the moderator after visiting one such congregation, warned that they were going to be dealt with as well.  I remember visiting my local evangelical C of S in Tain, soundly Stillite, fantastic preaching.  So I thought I was safe in taking my sceptical brethren grandfather along to hear that there could be great preaching in the C of S.  Sadly it was a Presbytery service and the preaching was liberal rubbish.  But the local church had to go along with it because that is what the presbytery wanted.  Evangelicals may not regard the General Assembly or Presbytery as the depository of truth, but they have all sworn to obey them.  Pietistic sound bites and theological truisms don’t change the reality on the ground.

3) Those who leave are guilty of schism and fostering spiritual pride

Alastair acknowledges that there are individuals (particularly ministers) who can no longer stay.  He suggests that they should just leave quietly and not attempt to take their congregations.  He throws up several warnings:

And if you can’t take them all, are you prepared to in effect force a division along the lines of your understanding of the only right thing to do?   What of those who come with you?  Will you join Free Church or International Presbyterians, or become independent?   How will you cope with the consequent lack of support?  And what will happen to those who ‘in conscience’, wrongly of course in your judgment, stay?  They have to in effect restart the church impoverished of some of its best leaders and most generous givers?  And what spiritual attitude is likely to be fostered among those who have come out with you?  They are doing the right thing, so by definition; others must be doing the wrong thing.  Is that not a breeding ground for the worst kind of spiritual pride, and possibly lead to other separations further down the road?

It is difficult to know where to begin with this.  Surely those who are guilty of schism are those who promote and defend heresy?  Surely those who do not stand up to those who administer the poison of false teaching are just as responsible?  Alastair is writing out of a particular context.  He is well aware of the situation in Logies and St Johns where the Session voted to leave along with the majority of the congregation.  Indeed 15 elders stood up in front of the congregation and committed themselves to do so.  But after a strong resistance from Presbytery led by the evangelical interim-moderator, the group that voted to leave has itself split.  Some are now staying hoping to see a renewed evangelical Logies. Perhaps they will.  I hope they will.   Meanwhile the breakaway group had a good start as Grace Community Church in Menzieshill last Sunday (led by the aforementioned David Randall), with over 90 people at the morning service.  But it could and should have been more.

If Alaister’s definition of schism and division is leaving the Church of Scotland then I guess Grace Community Church and others are guilty. But if you don’t equate the body of Christ with the Church of Scotland, but rather with all who seek and follow Jesus, then I would suggest campaigning against fellow evangelicals is a more schismatic act.  Seeking to persuade and frighten people that the sinking ship will go down if they leave and thus divide brother from brother, is a schismatic act. Perhaps even writing his paper accusing those who leave of being unfaithful and schismatic and hoping for its wide distribution to discourage others from leaving,  is itself schismatic in the biblical sense? Who caused the schism in the group that were leaving Logies?  Maybe evangelicals would be better off handing out leaflets at the Jack Spong meetings, and setting up an evangelical network to combat liberalism, rather than seeking to combat other evangelicals.   Why do I get the sneaking suspicion that some evangelicals regard Willie Philip, Dominic Smart, Andrew Randall and even yours truly as a greater threat than Spong?!

Alastair is right to warn about the danger of spiritual pride and hubris amongst those who leave.  But it is not just those who leave who have to watch out for that.  When an evangelical can stand up and say that the only show in town is the Church of Scotland, when others can equate leaving with schism and staying with faithfulness, then spiritual pride is indeed not far from the door.

In the midst of all this though is one major reason why many evangelicals will not leave.  It is the fear that Alastair expresses – ‘how will you cope with the constant lack of support’? If you go to the Free Church, or IPC or become independent you will not be supported. There is an unthinking arrogance here and a lack of trust in the provision of the Lord.  How ironic that we are expected to believe that the Lord can and will revive the dead bones of a denomination, but we should not expect him to provide for his people who leave the secure shackles of that denomination!   I suspect that the minister who made a stand against homosexual partnerships within his congregation and was told by ‘evangelicals’ don’t rock the boat, keep quiet; or the kind of ‘support’ given to Willie Philip and the Tron, is not quite what Alastair had in mind!  It really boils down to the perfectly legitimate fear of losing job and manse.  But to be honest I would rather take a pay cut and be in a denomination where there is gospel freedom and discipline (and yes, the two do go together) than continue to be well paid but be restricted by those kind of fears.  Besides which I have known a great deal of spiritual support within the Free Church.   I may have my frustrations with presbytery and some of the strictures but to be honest I know that we are all on the same side.  And believe you me it is much easier to reform a church with a genuine commitment to biblical authority than it is to reform one that neglects or rejects the Bible.  I have been amazed at what God has done in the Free Church over the past decade.  Anyway I would rather be independent than vow submission to church courts that go against the Word of God.  Freedom has a price.

4) God can revive the Church of Scotland

The underlying assumption of those who leave is that the Church of Scotland is beyond rescue.  ‘The battle to turn the established church into a predominantly biblical church has been lost.’  So writes David Robertson. In this judgment it may have been possible for God to breathe life into the dead bones of Ezekiel 37, but it is impossible for God to breathe new life into the Church of Scotland.

This is somewhat disingenuous and not really worthy of Alastair.  I of course am not denying that God is able to breathe new life into any situation.  Can these bones live?  Only the Lord knows.   But that is a truism that does not really help.  And it is one that proves too much.  It is actually an argument for leaving the Church of Scotland, admitting the Reformation was a mistake, and re-joining Rome.  After all if God can bring new life into the bones in Ezekiel 37 he can bring new life into the Roman Catholic Church.  Given that the RC church is far more effective voice in the fight against militant atheism and secularism why would that not be the more attractive option?  If God does bring renewal and revival to the Church of Scotland I will rejoice as much as if he brings it through any other group.

I know that God can heal. It does not stop me going to a doctor.  I know that God can anoint my preaching.  It does not stop me preparing sermons.  I know that God alone can convert.  It does not stop me proclaiming the Gospel. I know that God can speak through donkeys.  It does not make me appoint them as evangelists.  I know that God can bring dead churches to life.  It does not stop me seeking to belong to a living one.

I had a friend who bought into this whole ‘I can be a living witness in a dead church which God can bring to life’ theory.  After three years of struggling in a liberal C of S he moved town and immediately went to the Baptist Church.  I teased him;  ‘what happened to being a witness’?  “I am never going through that spiritual desert again’!

5) It is better to be ‘faithful’ and remain

As one minister has commented, ‘The vast majority of evangelicals in the Church of Scotland will not be persuaded by secessionist arguments because God has placed on their hearts a deep settled desire to be faithful to what His call is personally, and what He has done and is doing and we trust yet will do within the Church of Scotland’.

The trouble with this is that it is also playing the spiritual pride card.  The ‘faithful’ remain whereas those who leave are unfaithful secessionists (talk about loaded words!).  That is as ridiculous as saying that the faithful leave and the unfaithful remain.  I am sure that there will be those who are committed faithful believers who will stay, and there will be those who will leave. Let each be persuaded in his own mind.

Besides which it is a very strange definition of faithfulness which means that you swear allegiance to a denomination which has set itself against the Word of God and which is being used to spread the poison of a virulent liberalism.  As Alastair himself states the situation has changed, from the nice ‘soft’ liberalism of those who just waffled meaningless pietisms to those who now aggressively promote anti-biblical doctrine. Mind you there has been a change in evangelicalism, from one which recognised that unity across denominational borders was key, to one which sees itself as just a ‘part’ of the church – the church being the Church of Scotland.  Evangelicalism in the C of S has become increasingly soft and increasingly denominational.

What he does not seem to recognise and where he is really out of date is in his failure to acknowledge how much Scottish society has changed.  Christendom has gone.  The parish system has largely gone.  The remnants of civic religion remain but bit-by-bit the last vestiges of that are being chipped away as well.  And the Church of Scotland is proving as useless as a chocolate teapot in preventing that.  Whether it is the debacle of appearing before the Scottish parliament and arguing that you are against same sex marriage for everyone, but for same sex partnerships for ministers; or the current pathetic attempts to retain the privilege of being school chaplains by promising not to promote Christianity, the C of S has become a caricature of what it once was.  Less than 5% of the Scottish population attend the Church of Scotland.  Maybe we all need to wake up and smell the coffee, before it is too late.  Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic is not what I want in ministry.  I would rather be manning the lifeboats to rescue the perishing.

Conclusion: Take the Shackles Off

One phrase that Alaister used really struck home to me.  Do I really want to be part of a church that just ‘functions’?  That for me is the maintenance model of the church.  I want the mission model.  I want to be part of a church that is radical and revolutionary, that turns the world upside down.  I don’t just want to ‘function’.

I was recently talking to an elder who has left the Church of Scotland.  He spoke of feeling free and the shackles coming off.  It reminded me of this song – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V7eZD3TKn_M

It may be that you can operate with the shackles of a bureaucratic Presbyterianism in a declining church in an increasingly secular culture, desperately trying to relive the glories of the past and strengthening what remains and is about to die.  Personally I have no interest in merely ‘functioning’ whether within the Church of Scotland or the Free Church. If you can be free within the Church of Scotland then go to it brothers and sisters. (I pray that Alastair and other friends within the C of S will know real times of Gospel refreshing and prosperity).  But if not – get out.  Don’t allow an unrealistic fantasy view of the Church, or the fear of what might happen, keep you from living in the glorious liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I want to take the shackles off my feet so I can dance! I just want to praise

David Robertson – September 2013

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Jesus was a radical … wouldn’t he have supported gay clergy? The Church of Scotland this month will finally confront the issue of whether a homosexual can be ordained into the ministry. There is a real danger that the church will end up on the wrong side of history By Ron Ferguson Sunday 5 May 2013

GEORGE Bernard Shaw once said that if all economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion.

The Church of Scotland this month confronts the issue of gay ministers

The Church of Scotland this month confronts the issue of gay ministers

The same might be said for theologians. The Church of Scotland has got its ecclesiastical knickers in a twist once more; this time over the question of whether a gay or lesbian Christian in a civil partnership can be ordained to the ministry. The issue will come to a head on May 21 at the Kirk’s General Assembly in Edinburgh, where a report by a theological commission on same-sex relationships and the ministry will be presented. However, after two years of study, the only conclusion that the commission has come to is that it cannot reach a conclusion.

Here’s the back story: the Church of Scotland, like many other churches, is divided on the issue of homosexuality. There are two main groupings, usually identified as “liberals” and “conservative evangelicals”, but which the commission labels “revisionists” and “traditionalists”.

Revisionists take the Bible seriously, but not literally. They point to contradictions within the sacred text, and argue that while the Bible is an inspired treasury of spiritual wisdom and is indispensable written testimony to the foundational events of Christian faith, parts of it deal with historical situations that have no direct relevance for today. Traditionalists love scripture and fear that a revisionist-dominated Kirk would emasculate the Christian gospel and turn it into a mirror of the world rather than providing an alternative critique.

Traditionalists and revisionists have managed to coexist in the Church of Scotland for a long time, maintaining the Kirk’s reputation as a broad national church. But tensions over interpretation of scripture have increased over the last few decades. In the 1960s, many traditionalists wanted to draw a line in the sand over the ordination of women.

When, in 2008, the Rev Scott Rennie – a gay man in a same-sex partnership – accepted an invitation from Aberdeen’s Queen’s Cross Church to be its minister, the fiery cross went out through the traditionalist heartlands. Here, at last, was a defining issue around which they could rally. In 2009, the General Assembly supported Aberdeen presbytery’s decision to allow Rennie’s ordination to go ahead.

Anyone hoping that the theological commission’s report on the matter would provide guidance to the Kirk as to the best way forward will be disappointed. Acknowledging that the commission itself was divided, its members simply laid out two different scenarios, offering the General Assembly “a choice of either legislating to allow for such ordinations or reaffirming the traditional understanding that it is inappropriate to ordain ministers who are in same-sex relationships”. In Edinburgh, you’ll have had your guidance.

How will it go on May 21? I have no idea. All I know is the stakes are high. There may be a schism, though Scottish Presbyterianism needs another Disruption like it needs a Moderator to be found in a Leith sauna with his breeches down.

What do I hope will happen at the Assembly? Before answering that question, I should sketch in some personal background. After seven years in journalism, I studied at St Andrews, Edinburgh and Duke universities with a view to the ministry of the Church of Scotland. I learned Hebrew and Greek. Specialising in New Testament language and literature, I was soon faced with the problems raised by Holy Writ as well as its glory and inspiration. Traditionalists could not answer the questions I was asking.

Eight years working as a minister in Easterhouse presented further challenges. Exposed to poverty and deprivation on a large scale, I realised that personal changes were not enough. Political change was needed if the structural and social problems that destroyed communities were to be seriously addressed. Although I respected the integrity of friends in the evangelical world – and still do – I needed a religious philosophy that held prayer and political action together. It was the Iona Community that gave me the richer vocabulary of faith I was seeking.

Homosexuality wasn’t much on my radar at that time. Any fleeting thoughts I had about it were conventional, unreflective and negative. Without knowing very much about homosexuality, I was against it. It was a Bad Thing. What changed my mind was meeting Christian gays and lesbians. I think here, for instance, of a fantastic couple who have been in a relationship for more than 40 years. The two women – one a Quaker, the other a Church of Scotland evangelical – met when they worked in an orphanage in Vietnam. They adopted a homeless girl. Now happily married, their daughter could not have been brought up in a more loving Christian home.

I was angered when I learned about the treatment that people in same-sex relationships suffered at the hands of the Church. What surprised me was not how few gay and lesbian people went to church, but how many attended, despite the fact that they had to endure rants from the pulpit about how evil homosexuality was and how they would end up in hell if they did not repent.

And one of the flaws in the Kirk’s consultation process was the lack of instructions to Kirk sessions and presbyteries to sit down and listen to real-life Christians in same-sex relationships. I find that an astonishing omission.

I have read some abysmal Christian literature, insisting that homosexuality was a lifestyle choice, and that it could be “cured” by prayer. (Why any sane person would choose a way of life that would bring them ridicule and contempt, and sometimes even violence, was not explained.) Clerics told Christian gay people that they would be punished by God if they had sex, because sex had to take place only within marriage. When they asked for marriage, they were told that marriage was restricted to heterosexuals. Gotcha!

How could this go on in the name of a loving God? It struck me that on this issue, the big, bad secular world that some clerics hate so much was way ahead of the churches in terms of compassion and moral sensitivity.

Some traditionalist leaders now agree. In America, three highly regarded conservative theologians – professors Jack Rogers, Paul Achtemeier and Peter Gomes – created waves when they changed their minds on the issue. Several leading evangelists have done the same. In Britain, the conservative Anglican priest Benny Hazlehurst – conscious that many gay evangelical Christians have lived exemplary lives – declared that “there is nothing in the Bible which condemns consensual, loving, committed gay relationships”, and founded a group called Accepting Evangelicals, which is attracting younger Christians.

There were further shockwaves in the traditionalist world in the UK a few weeks ago, when Steve Chalke, a high-profile evangelical preacher and writer, publicly declared his support for same-sex relationships. “When we refuse to make room for gay people to live in loving, stable relationships, we consign them to lives of loneliness, secrecy and fear,” he wrote. “It’s one thing to be critical of a promiscuous lifestyle – but shouldn’t the Church consider nurturing positive models for permanent and monogamous homosexual relationships?”

Chalke argued that those who claim the Bible condemns all forms of homosexuality will eventually become the minority, in the same way that those who advocated biblical justifications for slavery and a secondary role for women have also been outnumbered. I would agree with him. I also think that this has become a generational issue. Many younger Christians simply cannot see what the fuss is about over homosexuality, and fear that the Church will end up on the wrong side of God’s history.

Jesus was both a traditionalist and revisionist. He revered the Jewish law, yet he transcended it. “Ye have heard that it was said – but I say unto you” is like a drumbeat through his teaching. As he prepared for his own death, he told his disciples that he would have new truths to reveal. It would be wrong to attempt to second-guess what Jesus would say about gay ministers, but it is clear that for him, the tradition was no static thing set in stone, but was a living source of new possibilities.

I would like the General Assembly to affirm unequivocally that the Church of Scotland is an inclusive church, one which believes passionately in equality and justice before God. I would also like it to assert that candidates for the ministry will be selected on the basis of their character and commitment, not on their sexuality.

If that happens, some conservative ministers will leave (though not necessarily with their congregations). The Free Church of Scotland has already indicated that they will welcome such ministers. This move would certainly be a better “fit” for some of the more vocal opponents of same-sex Christian partnerships, since many of them, like the Free Kirk, are also opposed to the ordination of women.

There are many good people in the Free Kirk, but it is not entirely a faction-free zone. There are mutterings about “modernisers”. It was also from the ranks of the Free Church some years ago that a small group of “Bible believing” Christians conspired, but failed, to bring down their finest theologian, Professor Donald Macleod. The insatiable quest for ever more purity has splintered the Presbyterian movement in the Highlands and Islands. Maybe those who are determined to leave the Kirk should beware what they pray for.

Many Jeremiahs predict the demise of the Church of Scotland if it does support gay ministers. I believe that those dancing on the Kirk’s grave will be confounded. If the Church of Scotland moves to the clear public position of being an inclusive church, characterised by equality and justice and with a renewed focus on Jesus Christ at its core, it will be re-energised spiritually.

There are those who bemoan the fact that this controversy is being played out in the public domain. I don’t. Secrecy and cover-up have seriously damaged the Roman Catholic Church in recent times. Scott Rennie is a much-loved parish minister. He is also very brave. He could have covered up his situation, but he chose to be truthful, even though he knew it would be a costly decision.

I believe that this apparently arcane debate really matters, not just to the Kirk but to the wider community of Scotland. Presbyterianism has been one very important voice in the shaping of modern Scotland, for better and for worse. How it handles this issue will influence whether Scotland becomes a kinder place, or not.

Now is the time for brave spiritual leadership. I don’t know if we will get it. But I hope.

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May 7, 2013 · 08:24