The Church of Scotland General Assembly
THE Assembly decision which grabbed the headlines was the one which allows congregations to apply for National Lottery money. More serious, however, and more symptomatic of the root disease of the Church, was the Assembly’s approval of a report on the interpretation of Scripture by the Panel of Doctrine which commends methods of Bible interpretation which are erroneous, leading to false doctrine and wrong practice.
The Lord High Commissioner was Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld, who professes to be “the most conservative of Presbyterians”. In addressing the Assembly at its opening, he stated, “Her Majesty the Queen has commanded me to assure you . . . of her resolution to maintain Presbyterian church government in Scotland.” In concluding, he spoke of the many and complex challenges facing the Church. “The Church can draw on two millenniums of experience in presenting the gospel. You have the support of half a millennium of our Reformed faith.” It is a sad fact, however, that the Church of Scotland does not value, but has departed from, its Reformed heritage.
In his sermon, the Moderator, the Rt. Rev. Professor Alan Main, spoke on Elijah’s despondency when he fled from the wrath of Queen Jezebel, and how he was strengthened to resume his work by hearing God speak to him. The thrust of his sermon was that “it is critically important” that we hear God speaking to us in His word. “How can we presume to speak a word in season for our God,” he asked, “unless we have ourselves first heard? So what is required is an attitude of prayerful expectation, the covering of the heads in reverence, but with ears, heart and mind all open, waiting with quiet confidence and hope for the word He will speak in His good providence.”
It has to be said that the ministers and elders of our national Church have need of such an exhortation, for it is obvious that many of them, while professing the Scriptures to be “the supreme rule of faith and life”, regard them as less than that in practice. The Panel of Doctrine in its report, “The Interpretation of Scripture”, pays lip service to the supremacy of Scripture but also describes Scripture as “a central resource” and as playing “a key role” – which is something less than the Reformed view that Scripture is the only and complete revelation of doctrine and practice. The Panel, in commenting on the phrase: “the Word of God which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments”, says that “the Word of God is not to be identified exclusively with the written Scriptures”, and, “We are not asserting that everything found in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments is the Word of God.” With regard to 2 Timothy 3:16, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine”, the Panel favours the erroneous rendering of the Revised English Bible, “All inspired scripture has its use for teaching.” “This leaves open,” says the report, “what scriptures are to be regarded as inspired by God’.”
Under the heading of “Truth and Interpretation”, the Panel comments on the rending of the veil of the temple when Christ was crucified. It says that the likelihood is that “we are dealing here with theological poetry rather than historical prose.” Regarding the earthquake at the crucifixion of Christ they say, “Seen as poetic theology [rather than historical fact] this account also is powerfully symbolic.” The 41-page report concludes, “Different strands of our Church will tend to interpret Scripture in different ways, depending on which facets of the tradition have the most impact on them. . . We do not believe that one view of interpretation is necessarily to be held by all church members.”
In such a large report about the interpretation of Scripture one expects to see an exposition of the principle that Scripture is to be interpreted by Scripture, but the most we find is the phrase, “Relate difficult passages to simpler ones”, and the statement that ” intertextual’ connections often generate an enriched meaning”. While the report does state certain orthodox teachings, the message it sends out is that every man can interpret Scripture as he sees fit. This was the view of a liberal commissioner of Assembly who favours the report. “The report, in summary,” he said, “says it does not matter if people take different messages from the same Bible passage.”
According to the Church’s magazine, Life and Work, the report was warmly received by the Assembly. “We must hope,” said the Assembly, “for a recovery in the confidence of Scripture.” It hopes in vain as long as it continues to turn its back on the Reformed doctrine that “the infallible rule of interpretation of scripture is scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any scripture, (which is not manifold, but one,) it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly,” (Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 2, section 9). It is this doctrine which the Assembly ought to be emphasising, expounding and promulgating.
With regard to lottery funding of congregational projects, the Church’s Special Commission on the National Lottery recommended to the Assembly that it relax its total ban on the use of National Lottery money. The Special Committee had the backing of a majority of the presbyteries 14 out of 25 “favoured selective use of Lottery funds”. The Assembly, said one newspaper, “wrestled with the temptation of the National Lottery”. Sad to say, the tempter won. The Commission stated the “the Lottery is here to stay [a prediction that will yet be proved wrong, we believe] and is seen as a method of public funding of worthwhile causes.”
The Assembly gave a nod of approval to morality by reaffirming “their opposition to gambling in all its forms and their particular concerns over the effect of the National Lottery upon the life of the nation”, and then agreed that congregations could apply for Lottery funding when other options had been exhausted. This duplicitous decision did not hoodwink the public. We agree with the Kirk member who, in a letter to the press, deplored the decision of the Assembly and stated, “A gambler has faith in chance and fortune, but Christians are called to put all their faith in God and His providence. To pin hopes on anything other than God, and the work of His grace in our lives, shows either lack of faith or a switch of allegiance.” It was disgraceful that a former Moderator, while criticising the Lottery, backed the lifting of the veto with the argument that such funds, although generated by gambling, could be made useful to the Church by God’s redemptive power. That a leading minister can talk of God’s redemptive power being exercised to redeem the proceeds of gambling is also an indication of the kind of theology to be found in the Church of Scotland. God will not be mocked by such double standards, which are all the more sinful when employed by the Church.
The sophistry, muddled thinking and double standards of the Commission are reflected by an editorial in Life and Work. While bemoaning the Church’s “ongoing muddle over the National Lottery” and what it calls “a characteristic fudging of law and grace”, it also argues that “just as moderate drinking should be respected, while drunken violence not, so too should occasional and inconsequential flutters be tolerated in the name of liberalism. Addiction [to gambling] is a serious matter, and should never be underestimated. . . but to condemn outright lotteries, tombolas, bottle stalls, and the rest, advances neither the message nor the mission of the Church so much as an inch.” The Lottery organisers are much pleased by the Assembly’s lifting of the ban, as was the Church of Rome. “We welcome the decision of the Church of Scotland,” said a spokesman for the Roman Church in Scotland. “We have never been against accepting a donation from the Lottery because we are not against the Lottery per se. . . We have always said that, if there is money going, we will take it.” How typical of Rome!
On the ecumenical front, the Assembly approved an interim report by the Scottish Church Initiative for Union (SCIU) which offered suggestions for a united Church in Scotland. The Rev. Duncan McClements, outgoing convener of the Church’s Committee on Ecumenical Relations, said that the report was “a real attempt to combine what each tradition has to offer and produce a new blend”. The nature of the ecumenical movement gives us reason to conclude that the result will not be a scriptural blend but a devil’s brew. Talks between the Churches (the Church of Scotland, Scottish Episcopal, United Reformed, Congregational and Methodist Churches, with the United Free and Roman Catholic Churches as observers) began in January 1996 and it is hoped that specific plans will be presented formally to the Assembly by 2001 or 2002. The Assembly instructed presbyteries to study the report and send responses to the Committee on Ecumenical Relations by July 1999.
Some commissioners expressed their fears about losing their presbyterian identity and coming under the rule of episcopal bishops. An attempt to have the contents of the report merely noted did not succeed. They do have reason to be apprehensive. The SCIU interim report says that “the ministry of the bishops can be compared with the ministry of the eldership” in that each is “a particular gift of God to the whole church”. Would bishops, then, preside in the regional church councils which the report envisages being formed? The report coyly replies, “The precise procedures will need to be worked out.” In the 1950s the Kirk resisted attempts to bring in “bishops by the back door”. It now looks as if it is going to welcome them in by the front door.
The Committee on Ecumenical Relations also recommended that presbyteries be encouraged to appoint ecumenical officers to assist in promoting church unity, and that Boards and Committees of the Church be urged to offer reasons why they are unable to work ecumenically. Such moves smack of the high-handed requirement of the Church that its courts promote, or at least do not hinder, the appointing of women ministers and office-bearers, although that requirement is contrary to the Scriptures. Indeed, it is the Ecumenical Relations Committee which has stated, in a report on Gender Attitudes, that “gender attitudes within the Church (of Scotland) require critical attention.” On this, the Church’s 30th anniversary of the ordination of women to the ministry, the committee complains that “there are still Kirk Sessions without women”, and that there is a “significant and perhaps growing group of men and women in membership of the Church who resist institutional equality” and who “maintain that a clear distinction of role and authority, on the grounds of gender alone, is both biblical and appropriate.” It would be good if their number was indeed growing.
Many of the decisions of this Assembly confirm that there continues to be no reason to feel optimistic about our national church indeed, rather the reverse. The more it distances itself from Scripture, the further away from God it goes, and the nearer to self-inflicted extinction. “Some years ago,” says one ecclesiastical commentator, “the year 2047 was predicted as the point at which, given the haemorrhage in its membership, it would cease to exist. This year the date has been revised. Termination is currently estimated to arrive ten or more years earlier.” May God, in His mercy, pour His Holy Spirit upon church and nation, so that there will be a return to Him in penitence and faith. And may we be earnestly seeking this blessing. “Thus saith the Lord God; I will yet for this be inquired of by the house of Israel, to do it for them,” Ezekiel 36:37.