Walking up towards the Mound from Edinburgh Waverly, on a certain week in May – you are struck by something odd. Ministers. Lots of them. But then as you approach the Mound you notice something else. Like a fork in the road the Ministers split into two groups. Some head towards St Columba’s Free Church and the others head towards the Church of Scotland’s Assembly hall. It Did strike me as odd that this scenario has been playing out every year since 1843. Most church splits really go their separate ways – yet every year the CofS and FC ministers and elders are reminded of the disruption. I cannot help but wonder that surely there comes a time when you need to delete your ex-girlfriend from your Facebook friends’ list?
This week I had the joy (yes, joy) of attending the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland as a Commissioner for Glasgow and Argyle Presbytery. This is not a detailed report – you can watch the videos, and read the reports for yourself – instead this is simply a few short reflections on some personal observations.
FCGA17 was a humbling experience. It’s one thing tapping into the GA, online from afar – it’s another thing being there as part of the assembly. I’m reasonably new to the Free Church, so I don’t know most people – and most people don’t know me. Social media helps networking on one level – but on another level it’s superficial, one-dimensional and detached from context. Social networking may help us overcome geographical chasms, but it doesn’t develop depth of relationship. You just can’t get to know people via social media. In this sense, it was good to meet a number of folk in the flesh.
I was encouraged by most of the GA. When I wasn’t encouraged, I might have been drifting off because we were dealing with some boring bits (or slightly amused at how a church models its governing affairs like a mini parliament) – but most of the time I was deeply impressed by the contribution of many of the other leaders. One of the things that really encourages me about the FC is depth. There really is a depth in many of the members. There is a depth of knowledge, wisdom, spirituality and godliness among many of the men and women who spoke at Assembly. I’m thinking for example of Irene Howat whose love for Christ and children was and is so evident. I’m thinking of Ms Elaine Duncan (Bible Society) who exhorted the incoming Moderator as she presented him with a Bible – her words carried conviction, depth and spiritual authority. I’m also thinking of some of the elders and ministers – both young and old, who just oozed character. Maybe it’s just the fact that I spent too long in youth ministry, and contemporary charismatic-evangelicalism – but the lack of hype, spin and triumphalism at the GA was just brilliant – and as I said, humbling.
The fellowship was fantastic. I had the opportunity to get to know some new folks, and to get know a little better some folks I’ve just got to know. Having relocated from the Isle of Skye, where not only are Free Churches ten a penny – but you quickly get to know folks because it is such a small community – in the central belt, FCs are more thinly spread and ministry commitments prevent you from getting to know other leaders and ministers in neighbouring towns. I really loved getting to know some of the ex-CofS guys, and it was also great to spend some time around food with a few of the senior leaders. And it was brilliant to catch up with some of the Skye leaders – not least my former minister.
The ministry was top-notch. It really was. There was a clarion call to “tremble” at God’s word in repentance and humility; a call to mission; a call to semper-reformanda (the Moderator, Derek Lamont’s opening address was simply outstanding and cutting-edge); a call to holiness, discipleship and accountability Really, really good stuff.
Unity in Diversity
There was an obvious diversity in the FCGA17. Okay – perhaps not enough – it was very white-western-male-centred – but within that group there certainly were a mix of backgrounds, personalities and approaches. Some more conservative than others. Others more progressive than others. Yet at the same time there was a unity – and this was particularly felt at various times in the GA when there were references to the doctrine of scripture. Scriptural authority is not a peripheral doctrine in the FC, it is foundational – and that was clear at many levels.
I loved how folks from a non-CofS background were welcomed the message was clear, “this is your church” – in other words, just because you weren’t brought up FC –that doesn’t mean you are visitor or a second-class member. It was very encouraging to hear those words – not just for the CofS guys, but others who have come in from other denominations.
I also liked the fact that the chairman of the Board of Ministry made it clear that the FC was not an “anti-gay” church. With ministers and members of the CofS leaving over issues surrounding human sexuality – this may be the assumption that people make. It was great to hear an ex-CofS minister affirm this by making clear that it was the CofS’s departure from the doctrine of scripture which has led many to leave the CofS.
There were loads of laughs. The banter was brilliant – not least between myself and my commuting comrade – a minister who happened to be travelling via the same train route as myself.
This was also a sombre assembly. An assembly marked by tragedy. This was an assembly with a shadow over it. The passing of Iain D. Campbell, and the circumstances surrounding it, certainly impressed upon this ‘young’ preacher’s mind, the words of Tozer, “The world is not a playground, it is a battleground.” There is an enemy of our souls, and we all must be ever-watchful.
Sorrow was further compressed by the events in Manchester. One of the most powerful moments was our morning of prayer where we also sang psalms of lament. At moments like this – we need the breadth and depth of human experience that can only be found in the psalter.
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Whilst there was sadness, there was also hope – a lot of it actually. The Free Church is bursting with vision. That’s no exaggeration. The Mission Board, the Board of Ministry, and the Seminary Board and the Board of Trustees, are full of vision, passion, and strategy for mission, ministry and training in the 21st century.
This week in May, ministers at the Mound did not just continue to part ways geographically, and denominationally – they continued to part ways theologically. In one assembly, there was a clear message sent out that the church is not anti-gay, but it’s conscience is forever bound by the authority of scripture. In another assembly, a message of secular inclusion and scriptural abandonment rang out loud in clear. In paving the way for ministers to perform same-sex weddings, the Church of Scotland has abandoned the revelation of God’s Word. Maybe it’s a good thing after all that both assemblies run on the same week. The annual ritual also becomes a means of self-reflection. A constant reminder of the importance of not allowing the state to define our consciences, theology and practice.
Of course, while the ministers of each denomination head towards their respective assemblies – there are interactions. Friendly words – and not so friendly words are exchanged. I think of the minister from one assembly who confessed that he wished that he was attending the other assembly but felt that for him it was “too late”. But I also think of the exchange between a Church of Scotland Minister and a Free Church Minister who had left the CofS to join the Free Church. “Turn Coat” mocked the Church of Scotland minister. That’s simply poor taste. It’s also ironic – to be happy to be a turncoat when it comes to the Word of God yet to boast faithfulness to an increasingly apostate denomination is not a reason for boasting. As our retiring moderator reminded us, “These are the ones I look on with favour: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word.” Isaiah 66:2
There are no perfect Christians, ministers or denominations. But by the grace of God, there are real encouraging signs in the FC. God is at work. The priority is God, His Word and his world. After almost 500 years of the reformation, there is a remnant who are still saying “give me Scotland…” Whether we are also saying …” or I die” is yet to be seen – but the signs are encouraging. May God keep us in his grace, and empower us for his purpose and glory – for Jesus’ sake, Amen.