Saturday, December 08, 2012

Some of the 20th Century Attempts at Union

The principles of the presbyterian view of unity and schism were firmly applied in 1893. The fathers of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland witnessed many sad and serious defections in doctrine, discipline and worship but it was only once they were compelled to sin that they separated. This point came when it was clear that they would be compelled to administer the Declaratory Act and thereby breach the ordination vows that they had made to God that they would assert, maintain and defend the truth. They could not discipline those who adhered to and preached Declaratory Act doctrines. They could not refuse to license, induct or ordain them, indeed they could not be confident of who did or did not make mental appeal to the Act.

The doctrinal constitution of the Church had been changed. As Thomas McCrie observed: “When a church once reformed and faithful not only departs from what she had professed and received, and persists in this by a series of public acts, but ...adopts doctrines inconsistent with her former scriptural profession and engagements, and imposes these by the perverted exercise of authority and discipline, separation from her communion is lawful. When the public profession and administrations of a church have been settled conformably to the laws of Christ, and sanctioned by the most solemn engagements, if the majority shall set these aside, and erect a new constitution sinfully defective, and involving a material renunciation of the former, the minority refusing to accede to this, adhering to their engagements, and continuing to maintain communion on the original terms, cannot justly be charged with schism”.

The FP Church maintained the constitution of the Free Church of 1843 while there was now a new body maintaining a different constitution. Rather than joining with the body maintaining the Free Church 1843 constitution, the minority of 1900 continued the new Declaratory Act body with the changed constitution and eventually in 1906 they decided to repeal the Declaratory Act. There was no doubt an opportunity here for them to agree terms with the FP Church.

It has been said that the repeal of the Declaratory Act by the Free Church removed any basis for a separate FP position. The Declaratory Act had only been removed as a "dead law" and not as a real defection - this was untrue and dangerous.   In fact the very repealing Act erected a barrier (still maintained) against union by recording a constitutional rejection of the Free Presbyterian position in 1893.  This directly inferred the Free Presbyterian separation to be sinfully schismatic. This provided an insuperable obstacle that would have required the Free Presbyterians to cast away the testimony raised in 1893 for a constitution that implicitly condemned their actions as schism. This was something that was not only part of their constitution but something concerning which they had vowed their approval to God. To dissolve the Free Presbyterian Church within the Free Church would have been sinful because it would imply that 1893 had been sinful.

In his first paper on union, Rev. Kenneth Stewart made reference to this fact and acknowledged that "the Free Church made a very bad mistake in claiming that she had ‘always adhered’ to her Confession – that is, that she had adhered to it in the intervening years between the passing of the Act and its repeal (1892-1905)". He notes that "the insistence on including this claim helped to scupper reunification".  He goes on "However, it is hard to avoid the impression that, later, it seemed to be the case that FP’s would work hard to find reasons for remaining separate even if they didn’t immediately seem to spring to mind". This is unsubstantiated, there was sufficient in the condemnation mentioned above to prevent union. JR Mackay wanted the phrase deleted by the Free Church; he did not get this but still joined. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Free Church overtures for union were largely opportunistic.

No one (whoever they might be), however, who had vowed their approval of the Deed of Separation m(1893) could abandon this constitution for a constitution that condemned clear statements of that Deed (and therefore constitution) without sinning. The FPs believed that the constitution had been changed legally but that the effect of this was that it created a new body with a new, altered constitution. They were now being asked to abandon the true representative of 1843 for a body whose constitution now condemned the separate position adopted in 1893. 

To reiterate the matters already discussed, the fundamental issue was that it would have been sinful for the FPs to have returned because the FCS had a constitutional condemnation of 1893 and while no one was going to impose that on individuals it meant that they would have been abandoning the truth for a constitution that implicitly condemned their actions as schism. To return would have been sinful because it implied that the 1893 separation had been sinful.