Friday, May 22, 2009

the presbyterian downturn in Scotland

As many wait to see what the Church of Scotland will make of biblical morality at the end of this week there are other indications of a downturn on the ecclesiastical scene in Scotland.

Some of the debate turns upon what it means that 'the act of Ordination and Induction the Church of Scotland declares that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the supreme rule of faith and life in the Church of Scotland'. The evangelicals have a tight interpretation of this but the response by the Aberdeen Presbytery notes that this statement 'has its origins in the first of the Articles Declaratory which declares, ‘The Church of Scotland adheres to the Scottish Reformation; receives the Word of God which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as its supreme rule of faith and life; and avows the fundamental doctrines of the Catholic
faith founded thereupon.’ The presbytery goes on to assert that the word of God is not 'synonymous with the Scriptures', 'but it can, in part, be discerned from the Scriptures through prayer and through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit'. This, they believe allows for widely varying interpretations according to individual experience.

It shows that the confessional revision movement has ultimately arrived at the point where no statement can express meaningfully the diversity of views within the Church of Scotland without being so vague as to mean that Scripture is interpreted entirely differently.

The Free Church have found this in their discussions with the CofS which some in the FC General Assembly unsuccessfully attempted to bring to a close. The idea of an associate presbytery had been dropped as unworkable, and there are no overt moves towards integration because the fundamental problem is still the authority of Scripture. The Convener of the Committee said, however, 'we have to take risks some times'. Which is no doubt exactly the objection in the minds of those trying to suspend the discussions. The question was asked as to why the joint report says 'both churches stand in the Reformed tradition'. The Convener responded: 'That is what they claim. It may be a different understanding to us'. A response which shows that they have entangled themselves in the same net as the evangelicals within the Church of Scotland by allowing vague statements to cover contrary positions. It isn't far from here to accepting a vague statement that covers contrary positions on the Scriptures also.

Yet there are problems of contrary positions within the Free Church itself. It's position and constitution couldn't be much clearer on paper. The most obvious is in relation to worship where a special General Assembly is expected to debate in 2010 whether the FC can adopt musical instruments and hymns. The strange thing is that those pushing overtly for the latter are bound by ordination vows which bind them solemnly to assert, maintain and defend the purity of worship in the Church which was clearly explained to them at ordination and induction to exclude hymns and musical instruments. There was a clear encouragement of freedom of expression on this which was contrary to those vows. ID Campbell picked up on the fact that the regulative principle was being skewed in the report by a reference to the primacy of Scripture. He pointed out: 'This report affirms the primacy of Scripture. Primacy is something you start from. Scripture is a finality not a primacy'.

'We have taken serious vows regarding a particular position on worship. We’re now being asked to approve a process in this report that begs serious questions. We seem to be asked to reinvent the wheel. It seems to be predetermining the outcome. He did not think he could approve a report that would allow songs of human compositions and instruments.'

Others defended the idea that one could have taken these vows and then challenge the Assembly for Scriptural proof of the position. This is absurd, if someone has taken vows and changed their minds it is not their business break their vows and then to change the Church's mind so that the vows can be changed.

Alex Macdonald raised an interesting point which was that in the period 1900 – 1904 'there was no focus whatsoever on the presence of worship, the practise at the time was to use psalms, hymns and instruments. It was not viewed as a fundamental principle of the Free Church'. This reveals the influence of the spirit of the Declaratory Act on the 1900 men and the fact that they were willing to allow everything to continue without correction to ensure that the property would be secured. This ambiguous position is the root of the current movement.

Some were arguing that it is not a constitutional matter - simply a case of changing legislation as had been done in the 19th Century. The Westminster Confession, however, requires singing of psalms only. Further the vows are part of the constitution and the Animus Imponentis was clear. The fact that the change is to be approved by a plenary Assembly and to go through the Barrier Act will make the change constitutional. Dr Kennedy would have separated from the FC if this step had been taken to constitutionalise impure worship. Why? The Free Church would have departed from its constitution and he could no longer keep his ordination vows by being part of it. The same will be the case for the FC now. Once this legislation goes through the procedure envisaged it can no longer be regarded as having a constitution equivalent to the FC of 1843.