The second largest Christian denomination in the USA, with roughly half of its 13million global members living in the United States, has agreed to split over the issue of same-sex marriage.The United Methodist Church, a denomination long home to a wide mix of theological opinion, has been experiencing tensions for decades. The split, which has been a long time in coming, is the inevitable outcome of long-lasting institutional reluctance to maintain doctrinal clarity. It will take formal effect after the denomination’s General Conference in May. Continue reading “MALLEABLE MODERATES OPEN DOOR TO RELENTLESS MODERNISTS”
The CofS faces possible disintegration. In its decisions regarding homosexual ordination the last General Assembly acted with all the aplomb of the regimental idiot who pulls the pin on a hand grenade and then stands there wondering what happens next.
Like most evangelicals I am still feeling my way forward. We retire soon, what then? We will go to live in the village of Airth, there are several good congregations nearby, we shall undoubtedly worship with one of them, but, suddenly free of institutional ties should we formally ally ourselves with any church? Perhaps we should just work, worship and witness within a congregation without formally joining?
I wish I could say my quandary was purely the result of deep theological struggle, however, it has to be admitted that with me it is as much personal psychology as theology. I am one of those sad souls who is instinctively agin the establishment. Open Office rather than Microsoft Word, Partick Thistle rather than Rangers, Chick Murray rather than Eddie Izzard, you get the drift.
It is easy to be anti-instituitional in an ecclesiastical situation. Every one of us has sat through sermons wondering what was on television that night. We have all felt disenchanted with the institution. The faults in congregations and denominations are too glaring to point out, but we still do. Richard Dawkins’ comments are trifling witticisms compared to some of the more trenchant opinions I have heard in minister’s fraternals.
Christians tend to be amongst that dangerous class of people, utopians. Because
we see it before us in Christ we seek perfection, in our own lives, in His church and servants. We are future oriented, never satisfied with the present but always pressing on to what is ahead. We tend to undervalue the present in sincere desire to improve our work and witness. The ideal is always to be found on the top of the next hill, never on this hill. With this common attitude the church will always be seen as failing.
Utopians want to get stuck in, do the work and see the ideal materialise, and are unhappy when it doesn’t happen straightaway. Our prayer is “Dear Lord, give me patience. Now!” When we don’t get our results immediately we can get disgruntled and stalk off. Is this part of what is happening with those who don’t wish to continue in an increasingly unfaithful denomination?
We should distinguish between the church as institution and the church as organism. As an organism the church tries to fulfill its function as best it can. The world doesn’t acknowledge this but we should. Who is more admirable, the ageing rock star who jets to Africa to make documentaries urging us to donate to starving children whilst seeking out tax havens for his own wealth; or the father and mother who work hard, raise their family, do what they can to help others, and worship
and serve in their local church week in week out without recognition or applause?
The purpose of the institutional church is to provide the structures which enable that organic church to function, as such for good or ill institutions play a vital role. It is as an institution that the church is most seriously failing, and not only the CofS.
Unfortunately the alternative to organised religion is disorganised religion. Even when we find supposedly ‘independent’ congregations they usually have close ties with like minded congregations, and almost invariably have a highly developed internal committee structure. Totally unstructured groups are mayflies, quite attractive but they soon die.
Ecclesiastical institutions are inevitable. We find structures and organisation,
planning and even committees in the New Testament. The Bible knows nothing of freelance Christians. The discussion amongst evangelicals about whether to leave or to stay and fight is basically about the function and place of the institution.
On Friday 13th August there will be a gathering at the East Church Inverness of those determined to stay in until forced out. They see their task as fighting for gospel truths despite the odds against, and almost inevitable defeat. Recent history teaches us that the ordination of homosexuals to the ministry of the CofS will proceed, despite discussion, argument, pleading, or Bible. Neo-Protestant progressive Christians are quite prepared to shatter a church in pursuit of their aims and are determined to get their way.
Deep down the bitter enders realise this but understand their position as a matter of faithfulness to their ordination vows and membership promises. They will fight on until the bitter end, because this is their church. Even after all the avenues have been explored, arguments engaged and political manoeuvrings have failed many will stay, because it’s the church.
Instead of downplaying the importance of the institution in favour of the organism as do the ‘over the next hill’ mob, perhaps the ‘bitter enders’ are overvaluing the institution.
The institution is not the body of Christ, that is to be found in the organism, the living people of God. The institution is merely a framework which enables the church to emerge. The question is not: How do we preserve the institution? but: How can we make the institution serve the church? The institution exists to serve the organism, the organism does not exist to serve the institution.
Those who are set on leaving have an obligation to make clear what institutional arrangements they look to create. Without a clear vision of the emerging church most of us are left with a choice between fissiparous independency or bondage to an unfaithful institution. Without a comprhensible alternative the only option is to go down fighting.
The generous response to my previous post requesting advice was helpful, and as it pretty much agreed with what I wanted to do anyway I shall take your advice. Generally speaking, although seeing a need for some kind of forum for those concerned with the CofS situation, the great majority of respondents wanted the blog to continue as before.
I too agree for the need of some kind of mechanism whereby those who share a basic theological outlook are able to remain in communication with each other. As is well known I have the administrative abilities of a demented gerbil so that lets me out of the job. However, as leaders of Confessing Churches, Forward Together, Crieff Fellowship etc read this blog perhaps they could agree to work together, at least on this device for working together.
Back to business. Sometimes I am asked questions concerning the blog. Chief amongst them is: Why should I, an apologist, expend so much time and energy combating and highlighting the irrationality and innanities of progressives and so little time attacking atheists? After all, it is atheists who are the real enemy of the faithful.
No they are not. The real enemies of the faithful are progressives, and especially those within the Church.
Atheists are people who do not believe in God or in gods. As far as I can make out agnostics are usually just atheists without the courage of their lack of conviction. For the most part atheists couldn’t care less about Christianity, like it or not they generally ignore us and get on with their lives and for the most part are willing to let us get on with ours. As such they are a mission field. The progressive on the other hand, whether a believer or an unbeliever, is a man with a mission or a woman with a cause. They have no intention of letting us get on with our lives. As such they are a battlefield.
Progressives intend to remake society according to their ideals and principles and that work cannot be completed until they destroy the remaining vestiges of traditional social structures and values and marginalise the orthodox within mainstream Christian denominations. Thus in society the concepts of personal responsibility, the importance of the family and necessity of a moral code are undermined. In the Church clarity of faith, the authority of Scripture and the call for personal conversion are portrayed as anachronisms peddled by a tiny minority of convention-bound leftovers mired in the past.
Progressives inside and outside the Church have undermined the faith far more effectively than straightforward atheists ever have. The wolves in sheep’s clothing have carried off many more lambs than honest to goodness wolves.
Then there is the example of Jesus. For honest doubters and sceptics like my hero Thomas He had gentle words, personal contact and practical proof. For
teachers who would lead His little ones astray His response was somewhat more forthright. He warned them that by the time He had finished with them they would wish they had been thrown into the deepest part of the sea with a millstone tied round their neck. They were compared to whitewashed sepulchres, outwardly clean and presentable, inwardly full of the stench of decay and corruption. His way of saying “You get right up God’s nose.”
The Jesus of Scripture was not the sandal wearing proto hippy of the popular imagination, wandering around in long hair and robes, giving the peace sign and urging everyone to chill out, be nice to each other and reduce their carbon footprint. He could be as cool as a cucumber when debating theology with the Pharisees, but when it came to the harm they were doing to His little ones He could flay them with His tongue.
Progressives are the real danger who for the sake of Church and society must be opposed. Most of them are atheists, some are believers, all intend to sideline or destroy the Christian faith as known for 2000 years.
Besides all that, its fun.
I was wrong, and I’m glad that I was wrong.
The great temptation faced by ministers is cynicism, that corrosive corruption of the soul. Continually we encounter people in need and experience teaches that when people want something they will say anything. As a result we begin to automatically expect the worst.
Yesterday afternoon there was a meeting of orthodox ministers and elders in Glasgow to consider the situation facing the Church of Scotland concerning recent General Assembly decisions rejecting the Bible with regard to the ordination of practicing homosexuals. I went anticipating the worst. I had two expectations: being Scottish we would never agree, being Presbyterians we would appoint a committee. I was wrong on both counts, and I am glad that I was wrong.
Arriving at St George’s Tron I found the novel sight of a queue of people snaking up Buchanan Street as they waited in the rain to file into the church. Among the 600 or so attending there were people I had studied with during my first degree, and those I’d met during my ministry some of whom I hadn’t seen for years. Some were in neighbouring ministries and others I had never met. A few were retired, a significant number were at the beginning of their ministry.
That there was no squabbling was, it has to be admitted, due in part to the effective stage management by the organisers. Wisely there was no open discussion, 600 Scottish Presbyterians discussing church politics, the mind boggles.
After opening worship there was a succession of speakers. Some represented strong congregations already on their way to leaving or effectively rejecting Presbytery oversight with all the consequences that will inevitably bring. Others were genuinely searching for a way in which they could deal with the painful situation. All thought that a line had been crossed at the last General Assembly regarding Scripture and that there was no going back.
In fairness to the organisers it has to be acknowledged that conversations before and after the meeting indicated that the speakers were largely representative of those attending. There were few who said as one friend did, “We have differing understandings of the Church.”
Apart from times of praise the meeting was quiet, the speakers listened to with respectful silence. There were no interjections, no applause. Only once was I aware of a low murmur of agreement. Throughout the meeting there was a sense of dignity mingled with humility in face of what was happening. This was a sober and sobering gathering; no rally of dissent, rather a solemn affirmation of where we are. Although no decisions were made the direction which we shall take when we meet again in the autumn is clear.
I cannot recall being affected emotionally to such an extent by a meeting. Mainly it was the impact of the realisation that what had been a matter of discussion, or even something accepted on an intellectual level, was going to actually happen.
I left the Tron with the strong impression that disruption is now inevitable. Shakespeare was wrong, parting is not “such sweet sorrow.” In this instance it hurts, and hurts deeply. We are rarely so unfortunate as to witness an historic occasion. I fear that I was present at one yesterday.
In the discussions concerning the crisis in the Church of Scotland it is sometimes mentioned that the CofS is the “national church” and as such we should be hesitant concerning any move which might weaken that position and the ministry to all of Scotland which it entails. Unfortunately for the furtherance of debate there is usually very little attempt to unpack the meaning of the term. We have to ask: In what way are we a national church, and how does this affect us today?
Do we find the grounds for understanding out status as the national church in the National Covenant and the Solemn League and Covenant? How many of us could seriously and sensibly discuss the nature of the covenants? Can we bind ourselves today by theological/political decisions taken nearly 400 years ago?
Are we a national church in the sense of being thus recognised by the state? If so we have to ask if it is legitimate for the church to have its active nature defined by the state? You don’t need to be Karl Barth to be able to point out the very real dangers in such an assumption.
Are we a national church in the sense of being the acknowledged largest denomination in Scotland? This, for the moment is true but is a tenuous claim to a special status separating us from other denominations. What happens when the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland overtakes the CofS in numbers as it already has in political and media influence? Will the RCs then be the national church?
Are we a national church in the sense of being the church of the people of Scotland? Facts would indicate that on any given Sunday more than 90% of the people of Scotland ignore the CofS either in preference for another denomination or, more likely, the Sunday Post. Are we the national church in as much as that when people don’t go to church it’s our church they don’t go to?
Are we a national church in the sense that we have been the main Christian contributors in influencing the culture, laws and national psyche? There is a very strong historical argument to be made that the CofS has shaped the nation. Unfortunately this influence is historical, today the unforgiving truth is that the CofS is just one more minority voice competing with many others.
Perhaps we are a national church by self definition, we have chosen to bring the ordinances of the gospel to every part of Scotland. At the moment we are able to exercise such a territorial ministry, but it has to be admitted that the system is creaking and we are finding it more and more difficult to maintain this ministry in a meaningful sense. If we are reduced to ever more five way linkages in rural areas what is to prevent another denomination or grouping making the same claim to being a national church based on a territorial ministry to all of Scotland?
We have to ask ourselves if the CofS is special in some way as the national church and how does the reality of our situation as a national church today affect our decisions regarding the present crisis?
As we attempt to work through the crisis facing the Church of Scotland today and wrestle with where we go from here it is important for us to ask how we have arrived at this position. The reasons are legion. From the three areas of the theological, the structural and the political there are typical examples which show how we have failed in the past some and warn for the future. Most readers of this blog are not C0fS member but the principles apply elsewhere.
Theological In effect the CofS is a confessional Church without a Confession, and thus without a coherent centre. Our adherence to the Westminster Confession of Faith is nominal and there is no genuine form of unity around which we can structure our life or defend our faith. As Bonhoeffer said, “A Church without a Confession is a Church lost and defenceless, and that it is in its Confession of Faith that the Church has the only weapon which will not break.”
Without the coherence of a shared Confession we are essentially in a rudderless position where anything is permitted without fear of being called before Scripture. Denominations without a coherent controlling principle are susceptible to the influence of the world. In the CofS that principle was the Confession,which no longer functions.
Structural For too long we have abdicated our responsibility to educate our leaders. The denomination has educated its ministers on the cheap and is now paying the price. Our ministers have always been trained in Scotland’s ancient universities, at one time this was the same as being trained by the Church. The faculties of theology were staffed, to a significant extent, by theologians of ability and some of genuine stature who were also ministers of the denomination with experience in the life of the Church. No longer.
The Church failed to think the unthinkable and was unable to recognise the danger until we were confronted by a generation of leaders trained by state-run institutions. As a result they have little understanding of the theological tradition of the CofS or indeed of theology other than as an academic discipline.
Structural We have neglected ecumenism. Progressives have, until recently, made the running in incessantly pushing for structural ecumenism. The orthodox have neglected the more important theological ecumenism of working together across denominational boundaries with those who share our basic theological stance.
As a result natural allies have accepted denominational division as being more important that theological co-operation and mutual support. The theologically orthodox have concentrated on resisting the false ecumenism of administrative harmony and neglected the pursuit of genuine ecumenical co-operation between those of differing denominations who are in essential theological harmony.
Where to go from here Those who are intent on remaining in the CofS until they are actually forced out legislatively must ask themselves if there is any realistic possibility that by remaining their presence in the denomination is going to have an effective impact on: genuine adherence to the existing confessional standards or the creation of a new and acceptable Confession; on the overall education process which produces our leaders; and on denominational co-operation with the remaining orthodox bodies in Scotland. If not why stay?
Those who are intent on leaving and forming something new must ask themselves if what they create will: have a cohesive theological standard which provides a stable framework for co-operation and at the same time leaves freedom for theological exploration and development; retain the training of the leaders of the Church in the hands of the Church; be intent on co-operating with others who share their theological stance on the evangelisation of Scotland. If not why go?
Dominic Smart is minister of Gilcomston South in Aberdeen. The link below is to this month’s Minister’s Letter to his congregation. In it there is a very clear sighted recounting of the events at the recent General Assembly and a picture of a congregation seriously confronting the consequences of the decisions made there.
Whilst considering my position within the Church of Scotland regarding the ordination of practicing homosexuals I re-read Barth’s Theological Existence Today, one of the undervalued wee masterpieces of 20th century theology. In it Barth deals with the situation confronting orthodox Christians in the face of the rise of the Nazis and the German Christians.
I will comment on the theological similarities between the two situations later, but first some reflections on the historical lessons to be learned from the Confessing Church, those who held out against the revisionist majority German Christians.
Such is the passion aroused by this issue that although I have no intentions of doing so I am bound to be accused of comparing present day progressives with Nazis, this is what happened to Ian Watson a couple of years back. Despite the risk I would maintain that there are similarities between the position of the orthodox then and the orthodox today because there are similarities in the position of the progressives today and the German Christians yesterday.
The German Christians arrived at their theological and political position by reinterpreting the Bible so that it fitted in with the prevailing culture. To do so they had to insist that some scripture was less than the Word of God, for them that meant the ‘Jewish’ bits. They also claimed that they were awake to new revelation, that God was speaking to them afresh in and through the new Germany. They thus vigorously promoted the cultural and political values of their time and place; nationalism, anti-Semitism and a Christianity that fit snugly into their cultural milieu.
Likewise the Progressives of today have on the whole done more than reinterpret the Bible, insisting as they do that some scripture texts are not useful or relevant or are essentially the human product of a now discredited world view. They then refer to the new thing that God is doing, or to God’s continuing revelation in and through society. This ‘new revelation’ naturally enough sits comfortably with the prevailing morality of western culture.
There are lessons to be learned.
The Confessing Church in Germany lived in hard times. Even a cursory glance at Church history reveals that there is nothing new or surprising about this. Here in Scotland the Covenanters had to struggle, far more than we do, against the intolerance of the majority in the Church.
For the pastors and elders of the Confessing Church who had to face hostility within their own denominations and rejection by their local population their ordination vows as well as the Bible and the Confessions were foundational. Perhaps a re-reading of our ordination vows occasionally would be no bad thing.
The pastors made the situation abundantly clear to their parishioners. Those who had the support of their people were in a much stronger position than those who stood alone. Your congregation cannot help if they don’t have a clear understanding of what is at stake.
Do not disparage fellow orthodox who stay in a compromised denomination, you have no idea how God is dealing with them or will use them. Likewise do not disparage fellow orthodox who choose to leave, you have no idea how God is dealing with them or will use them. Whatever happens they are our brothers and sisters in Christ.
The Confessing Church not only worked within the politics of their ecclesiastical situation, they not only supported dissenting pastors in practical ways, they did the real heavy duty theological work of exploring what God was saying in their situation. Just think of the Barmen Confession. We have thinkers of genuine ability, let us use them.
Above all our present situation should drive us to prayer and the nurturing of our own devotional life. We will inevitably be driven into situations of conflict. There will be misunderstandings, some of them deliberate. Harsh words will be spoken, hurts will be caused, risks will be taken, friendships will be broken. We cannot stand in the midst of the coming struggle in our own strength. If we are to act graciously in the midst of conflict we need grace.
The Church of Scotland faces its deepest crisis in more than 150 years. There is no way in which we can responsibly underplay the seriousness of the decisions which have to be made very shortly due to the recent decision by the General Assembly to train for the ministry those in homosexual relationships. Not since 1843 have we encountered as serious a situation.
There is, however, a vital difference between today and 1843. In 1843 the evangelicals in the Church were prepared for a Disruption. There had been more than a decade of conferences, organisation, publications, lectures and political organisation. Today when we consider evangelicals in the CofS the only comparison is with those who are unable to organise a bacchanalian spree in an establishment devoted to the fermentation of alcoholic beverages.
Despite calls for a coherent and cohesive response to the progressive assault on biblical Christianity which has been mounted over the last quarter of a century we evangelicals have navel gazed and indulged in in-fighting for our own wee patch of the kail yaird.
Forward Together, the Crieff Fellowship, Confessing Churches, these CofS organsiations have all pursued their legitimate concerns, but done so apart. In the meantime we have lost ground and those who hold to the truth have found themselves regularly trounced in Presbytery and General Assembly and the CofS has gently and inexorably abandoned its connection with the Bible to become just one more ecclesiastical organisation owing more to the popular ethic of the day than to the eternal Word of God.
Is it possible that we can have a coherent response to the continuing destruction of the CofS and its transformation into just another mediocre religious clique, disparaged by its trendy friends and scorned by the universal, catholic Church?
There is to be a meeting for those concerned about the state of the Church in St George’s Tron, Glasgow on Friday 17th June. The purpose is to hammer out a coherent response to the crisis facing the CofS. As expected responses vary.
Already individual ministers have notified Presbytery of their intention to demit their charges. There is at least one instance of a congregation setting up a parallel church, civil recognition and all, ready for the day when they move over to an independent existence.
On the other hand there are those who, despite the harsh evidence of history, are determined to continue in the CofS until the bitter end of inevitable defeat.
In between the extremes, the majority, recognising reality, look for leadership about how to leave. We must make every effort to take action together. Those on the extremes, much as we must respect their principled stance, either going now or staying to inescapable end, weaken the cause.
We have to recognise the reality that our church has been stolen from us. We should acknowledge our responsibility for allowing this to happen because it was we who left the doors ajar and windows open to the burglars. But bemoaning our past or remaining blinkered about our future does us no good.
Our imperative at present is to avoid the extremes of going no matter what, or staying no matter what. Our task today is to organise our departure as a body tomorrow.
Will this happen? Compressed spheres of frozen water and temperatures
reminiscent of Hades come to mind. But then, prayer counts.
In a comment to the post “What Now?” Malcolm Duff makes some interesting and important points. One in particular deserves further unpacking.
“The “centre” ground that used to encompass past moderators has been lost and these men have much to answer for. They have implied that this is a storm in a teacup like women’s ordination that will soon blow over.”
The Church of Scotland has become eerily similar to the Church of England. Only recently has the CofS began to be referred to as a “broad church.” Until the 80’s we wouldn’t have seriously considered this. We were a Presbyterian church, even a Reformed church, but not a broad church. The Anglicans were a broad church, and proud of it. We were a confessional church, and proud of that.
Anglicanism has at its core a centripetal force. Accommodation and compromise for the sake of the unity of the communion is written into its ecclesiastical DNA. How else could it have survived?
Until very recently, the CofE had been composed of two wings and a broad centre. There is the Anglo-Catholic wing which sees the pre-Reformation tradition as being the defining characteristic of the communion and would welcome increasing accommodation with Rome. At the other end of the spectrum are the Protestant wing who, in varying shades from Pentecostalism to Puritan see themselves as Bible centred.
Between both wings lay the broad mass, the followers of the Vicar of Bray. Whichever wing predominated they would go part way with them until the pendulum swung and the other wing predominated, and they would accommodate the new regime. Meanwhile the work of the church in parishes throughout England quietly muddled on.
Recently there has been a new element in the mix, an increasingly strident progressive wing who have no concept of tolerance. The broad mass in the centre are increasingly coming under the sway of progressive theology and mores. The Anglo-Catholics cast glances towards Rome as a safe haven, the Protestants mutter amongst themselves, and the progressives reshape the church in the image of its scriptures, the Guardian and Independent.
There will be no mass break up of the CofE, they appreciate accommodation as a theological as well as social virtue. A few will go off to Rome, but not many, a few will go independent, but not many, and the church will have a new progressive face. The new centre will not be as tolerant as the old, they will demand obedience and the wings will be gradually squeezed to eccentric irrelevancy.
Not so in Scotland. Admittedly we have seen the anglification of the CofS due to increasing standardisation of viewpoint courtesy of the influence of the media, and a drastic weakening appreciation of and understanding of theology courtesy of our method of training ministers. However, there is a core difference in denominations.
As Malcolm points out the centre no longer holds. That viewpoint which evangelicals could once deride as Auld Kirk, traditional, cautious and always seeing problems with anything new or enthusiastic, the view represented by the ex-Moderators in the play pen at the Assembly, has gone. Progressives, always more adroit politically and with greater access to and sympathy from the media have, as with the CofE, taken over the centre ground.
The big difference in denominations is that we have a centrifugal force at our core. In our history principle has usually come before compromise. At times this has been self destructive hair splitting, at other times it has meant awe inspiring faithfulness. The neo-Protestant progressive centre has little understanding of our history. They look south today and see that nothing terribly dreadful has happened or will happen, the CofE will continue under progressive management and a few trouble makers will have disappeared.
They assume the same will happen in Scotland. It won’t, we don’t have the same tradition of compromise, and evangelicals have been pushed too far.
There is no turning back now, the important thing is that we manage the split in a way which does not damage those congregations who want to leave. Once again I quote Malcolm:
“I hope evangelicals can show a maturity and unity that we are not always good at, and that we can keep congregations together as we work out the implications of leaving. I would like too, to see an understanding approach from the Law Dept and General Trustees so that congregations could take buildings with them. But don’t hold your breath!”
This is no temporary upset which will blow over as others have in the past. For many of us this is not a case of “Will we, won’t we?” This is a case of how we manage the split.
This is something we have to do together. We should have been preparing for this moment earlier. We must do so now.