The Church of Scotland is a massively important institution in Scottish history, life and culture.
We are not like the Church of England, integral to the Parliamentary system. We are not like the church in the USA, totally separate from the political institutions. Historically, we have the most cordial, healthy relationship with our political systems, both central and devolved. When the Sovereign attends our annual denominational General Assembly, or is represented there by her appointed Lord High Commissioner, she or he is most welcome, but can take no official part in the deliberations of the General Assembly. In that sense, we have biblical autonomy free from state interference. That said, we are the state church with our ongoing commitment to provide the ordinances of the Christian religion to every part of the nation.
Our continued ability to fulfil that commitment is under threat from two different yet connected sources.
First of all, there is a genuine theological debate going on about the authority of the word of God. It’s not that the church is formally denying its authority, but rather that some with influence, are encouraging a more liberal attitude to Scripture, not least on issues of morality. They prefer to concur with current cultural attitudes, thus causing genuine disquiet and great pain within the denomination.
Our General Assembly of 2011 set the church on a trajectory towards the ordination of ministers and elders in practising same-sex relationships, although it also placed a temporary moratorium on such ordinations. The issue is at present under discussion in the wider church through a Special Commission which will make its report to the General Assembly of 2013. At that point, the Assembly will send any decision that changes the present historic law and practice of the church down to our Presbyteries, whose collective decision will be brought back to the General Assembly of 2014.
To the outsider, it seems a laborious process, yet it enables the whole church to discuss the matter and make its decision. This has served as a wise safeguard in previous years.
Regrettably, already the decision of 2011 has thrown the church into a real measure of pain and confusion, not to mention some division. Some members have disjoined. A few ministers have demitted their charges and there is still some in ongoing, sometimes hostile debate with the denomination.
The second problem that flows from all this is in the area of finance. Ministries are being contracted and buildings face closure.
However, that is not the whole story. In fact, the vast majority of ministers, elders and members of our Church, and that includes most Bible-believing evangelicals, are committed to seeing the renewal of our denomination and the spread of the gospel of Jesus in our nation and beyond. We believe that our divinely blessed history is precious, and, as we have seen our Lord increasingly bless evangelical ministries over recent years, now is not the time to leave. Of course, we respect those who have painfully chosen that road.
In 1993, with others, I listened to reports at our General Assembly that began to cast doubt on the denomination’s continued commitment to our traditional biblical understanding on two matters. These were biblical morality and, for many of us, the theology of other religions. The latter began to call into question the uniqueness of our Lord Jesus Christ as the only Saviour of the world.
In response, we founded a movement called Forward Together. Our purpose was to draw together, in the face of the coming challenges at that time, many in the church who aligned themselves with orthodox biblical doctrine and morality. The original steering group had in its membership such significant people in Scotland as the late Dr. David Wright, Professor of Church History in Edinburgh University, the late Rev. James Torrance, Professor of Systematic Theology in Aberdeen University, and the Rev. David Searle, Warden of Rutherford House. In its early years, it achieved a great deal that embraced both evangelicals and orthodox moderate leaders of our church. For this we praise God. However, the cultural climate changed rapidly and, regrettably, the church began to taste compromise. The challenge has not lessened. Indeed the very opposite is true.
Forward Together is therefore being revitalised. I was its original Chairperson, and have recently been invited to be its Director, a new post. Our current steering group is chaired by Kenneth MacKenzie, a significant Christian businessman and elder, and embraces clergy and laity from throughout Scotland. We now want to work in close co-operation with other ministries with a similar goal. There are many of us who do not want to leave the denomination, nor do we feel called of God, at this point, to do so. Already, we believe that significant progress is being made. For example, this year’s General Assembly was, we believe, blessed by God with a decision to affirm that marriage is between one man and one woman. A report has also been commissioned as to the unique place of the Christian faith as part of a multi-faith culture.
Gatherings are being held in which orthodox leaders of different ministries are genuinely networking towards a common goal. Indeed, relationships between leaders are being strengthened and affirmed. We are beginning to feel genuinely, mutually encouraged. Forward Together is playing a significant role in all this.
Reason to stay
I believe that historically there is no valid justification for choosing, at this point, to leave our denomination. Of course, there may come a time when, on theological grounds, our denomination may compel us to leave. That is a different matter. It happened to the early church, the Reformers, the Wesleys and, indeed, I would argue, to the Pentecostals of the early 20th century. Often, though not always, those who sought to be faithful to the gospel were persecuted. Tragically, the church in Scotland is replete with denominations, many of them Presbyterian, who chose to leave the parent denomination, and we are living today with the painful remnants of these decisions.
At this moment in our history we need another way to see blessing in our church, and, so, we will, without compromising our biblical orthodox convictions, stay. Therefore prayerfully, but humbly and openly, we will seek to influence for good our internal theological and moral debates. This is for the health of our nation and ultimately the glory of our Saviour.
Already we are encouraged by the prayers of many in Scotland beyond our own denomination and by many internationally. These are people who continue to value the ministry of Presbyterianism, which is one of God’s gifts to the world. We have also found real encouragement in new relationships being developed with similar ministries in other nations, not least in England and the Anglican Communion, where the church is facing exactly the same issues. We commit ourselves to your prayerful support.
The Rev. Norry Maciver is Director of the steering group of Forward Together.
http://www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057)