Saturday, May 26, 2012

On 26 May...

On 26 May 1892, the Free Church General Assembly passed the Declaratory Act anent the Confession of Faith. (For previous posts in this series see here and here). The Constitutionalists opposing it dissented from it in the strongest of terms. They stated that “the Church is left without any definite, fixed or authoritative standard of doctrine”. Some have tried retrospectively to justify the decision to remain under the Declaratory Act until 1900. The following questions and answers deal with these assertions.

8.Was it not simply a "relieving Act"?

This was a phrase coined in 1894 by Dr Rainy to appease conservatives.  The phrase reveals the whole problem.  The Act relieved office-bearers from confessing and subscribing to certain doctrines in the Confession of Faith that they otherwise must subscribe to. These were, however, doctrines embedded in the very constitution of the Church. The fact that it was a relieving Act did not nullify the damaging fact that it violated the Constitution of the Free Church by destroying the meaning of the Confession and Formula. It is noteworthy that the dissent tabled by the remaining Constitutionalists in 1894 acknowledged that the Declaratory Act had been confirmed "as a law of the Church, binding upon the Church courts in the administration of discipline".

9.Was it not possible to have remained in the Free Church without being "under" the Act as individuals?

This is a mistake.
a). Take for instance a presbytery that refused to licence a student who wished to appeal to the Declaratory Act.  The decision could be appealed against and the Presbytery would undoubtedly have been ordered by Synod or Assembly to give the student his legal right of recourse to the Act. They would have had to proceed to licensing.  This proved that noone could avoid obedience to the Act.
b). As Presbyterians each individual was responsible for the actions of the Church as a whole. When a Presbyterian Church by a competent majority changes its creed and constitution, the party opposed to this change has no alternative but to separate from the majority. In a Presbyterian Church each office-bearer discharges his vows to maintain the whole doctrine of the Westminster Confession of Faith not simply as an individual but as a member of a Church.  The Free Church departed from the whole doctrine of the Confession so far that it was impossible to discharge these vows.  A presbytery is unable to assert, maintain and defend the truth when it does not know and is not permitted to enquire whether or not the students that it licenses make mental appeal to rank heresy (the Declaratory Act).
c). The individual may not have been compelled to accept the doctrines of the Declaratory Act but if his congregation were more swayed by the official position of the Church his preaching would they listen to the "minority opinions" that he expressed in his preaching?
d). The individual was compelled to allow others to accept the doctrines of the Declaratory Act.  As an Act of the Church the Declaratory Act was obligatory and the individual was bound to recognise and acknowledge its operation. It is as sinful to give liberty to others to believe false doctrine as to believe it oneself.

10. Was there therefore any way to refuse to administer the Declaratory Act?

There was no way to refuse to administer the Act and those who believe that the Free Church preserved a right of continued protest are mistaken since either this principle was not important to them or they were happy to deny themselves continued protest.  The terms of their dissent in 1894 as referred to above show that they were concerned that administration of the Act was in fact binding upon them. Either way, it was impossible for those who remained to continue to fulfil their ordination vows or to exonerate their consciences.

11. What was Rev. D. MacFarlane's response?

Rev. D. MacFarlane read a protest at the 1893 Assembly after the passing into law of the Declaratory Act. Stating that since the Act was now retained in the constitution of the Free Church, the Church "ceases to be the true representative of the Free Church of Scotland".  MacFarlane added, "neither my conscience nor my ordination vows allow me to act under what has now been made law in this Church".

12.  Why did the Free Presbyterian Church never repeal the Declaratory Act?

The Free Presbyterian Church made a complete break with the Declaratory Act Church in taking up a separate position and therefore never had this Act on its statute book, so there was no need to repeal it.

For more on the intricate questions surrounding the constitutional issues of separation in 1893 as against 1900 see 1893, 1900 and Church Authority.