AT the General Assembly of the Free Church, which met in Edinburgh in May, the retiring Moderator, the Rev. D. K. Macleod, preached on the sixth chapter of Isaiah, and spoke about the crisis in Church and State as well as in the life of the prophet, the comfort given, and the commission accepted.
The new Moderator, the Rev. Kenneth Macleod, Barvas, in his opening address, The Gospel in this Revolutionary Age, dealt with “the main challenge confronting the gospel today” the shift in the world-view of the Western world from Theism to Dualism. By Dualism he meant the view that regards the world as “an entity entirely independent of God”. In assessing the response of the Reformed Churches to this challenge he first, astonishingly, praised the Roman Catholic Church for maintaining its witness to God as the Creator, and to man as made by God in His image. He went on to say that we should pray that this witness would be more effective in opposing Dualism! It is high time that he, and certain other ministers in the Free Church, ceased to give the impression that the elements of truth in Romanism somehow make the whole system (with its gross errors and corruption) more acceptable.
The Report of the Public Questions, Religion and Morals Committee is very full and informative, and deals with such subjects as drug addiction, alcoholism, divorce, the Alpha course, terminal care, and human genetics and cloning. The Committee examined some of the difficulties which ministers face over requests for remarriage after divorce, and affirmed “the nature of marriage as foundational for society, and that adultery and desertion are the only biblical grounds for divorce”. It is good that, when the Alpha course has been used in some Free Church circles, the Committee has highlighted its serious shortcomings. “Since this course has been so widely received and welcomed,” says the Report, “and has seen upwards of half a million people presented with the Gospel, it may appear unintelligible, if not absurd, that the Free Church of Scotland should note the Alpha material with disquiet. However, a study of the course material shows a profound lack of emphasis on some cardinal features of the Gospel such as the holiness and justice of God and the gravity and consequences of sin. More serious is the disproportionate emphasis upon Holy Spirit baptism and other features of charismatic religion… There is good cause for disquiet.”
The Report of the Committee which deals with ecumenical relations recommended that fraternal relations be established with the Free Reformed Churches of North America and also that formal contact with the Associated Presbyterian Churches be renewed. It recommended delaying any further approach to the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland at present.
The Training of the Ministry Report states that “in 1997 a relatively large number of students completed their course, but in 1998 no Free Church students entered the College to begin ministerial training. Nor is anyone due to begin in 1999, although one has been accepted for the year 2000, while another continues his pre-College education. This is likely to be reflected in an increasing number of vacancies throughout the Church, even though we recognise that God in his sovereignty can raise up servants for his cause in unexpected ways…” The situation, says the Report, constitutes a “challenge… to humble ourselves as individuals and as a Church, seeking forgiveness for anything in us, in our relationships with one another or in our blurred vision of our glorious God-given task that may have discouraged men from offering themselves for ministry in the Free Church of Scotland”.
The College Board Report draws attention to a minute of agreement that has been drawn up between the University of Edinburgh and the Church, safeguarding the interests of both with regard to the validation of the College course by the University. The Rev. Maurice Roberts moved that the Assembly postpone its plans for a link-up with the University as there was a reasonable fear in the Church that the testimony of the College would be affected. “He felt that other Reformed colleges had no desire to be accredited,” says The Monthly Record, “and that history shows that places once known for their orthodoxy can quickly decline.” With regard to the duties of the principalship of the College, Rev. John Macleod, Clerk of the Training of the Ministry Committee, moved that the Senate perform these, and that the appointment of a principal, which he thought would be unnecessarily divisive, be deferred by the Assembly. However, the Assembly carried on with the plan for accreditation, and appointed Professor Donald Macleod as the Principal of the College.
When the General Trustees Report was presented, an attempt was made to remove Rev. John Macleod from the clerkship of the Training of the Ministry Committee. In proposing that Mr Macleod be relieved of the clerkship, Rev. David Robertson said that his motivation was to help Mr Macleod by freeing him from some of his administrative work. Mr Macleod thanked Mr Robertson for past help and said that he had no desire to relinquish the clerkship. The proposal was defeated and Mr Macleod continues as Committee Clerk. However, it is interesting to note that the Commission of Assembly, which met in June, directed “the Finance, Law and Advisory Committee to consider the future terms and conditions of service of Committee Clerks”.
An account of Assembly business which may be of interest to our readers must necessarily report that the dissension about Professor Donald Macleod dominated the proceedings, and is perceived by many to be at the root of the Churchs troubles. After the Assembly closed, some of Professor Macleods supporters gave upbeat assessments of its proceedings, but the deep-seated division in the Church repeatedly manifested itself.
The retiring Moderator made reference to it in his sermon. “We are called to show forth the praises of Him who has called us out of darkness into His marvellous light,” he said. “What are we showing to a watching world a world in darkness a world in desperate need? What of the condition within? What is happening to ourselves? Words of Samuel Rutherford written at a time of controversy in the Church of his day, seem so apposite today; We are now shouldering and casting down one another in the dark, and the godly are hid from the godly.”
The new Moderator also referred to the problem in his opening address. “Finally, as a church we must rid ourselves of the scandal of internecine strife,” he declared. “No matter how informed and biblically correct our witness may be, the whole is neutralised by our unholy divisions. We have become the laughing stock of the world on account of our loveless petty contendings with one another in the full blaze of world-wide publicity. Unless this ceases, extinction would be a mercy.”
Even the Special Commission, appointed by the 1998 Assembly with the remit “to seek reconciliation and peace”, was unable to come to an agreed finding. In dealing with what it called “matters relating to Rev. Professor Donald Macleod”, the Commission had to keep in mind that the Assembly had reminded them in its remit “of the embargo imposed by the Deliverance of the 1995 Assembly” (which stated that the enquiry into allegations against Professor Donald Macleod is completely terminated, and “that anyone seeking to pursue it further does so at the risk of themselves being censured as slanderers”). Nevertheless the Special Commission stated that the matters concerning the professor “represent the most significant and intractable source of dissension within the Church”. The Commission states in its report that it could not agree as to how to proceed; that two motions were put before it but no vote was taken between them because it was recognised that the whole issue would come under the scrutiny of the General Assembly; and that the Commission agreed to set out in its report the two main points of view in the Special Commission.
The first main point of view was that with regard to the widespread divisions throughout the Church, the General Assembly be asked to direct that investigations take place regarding certain matters in relation to Rev. Professor Donald Macleod. “Leaving to one side matters dealt with by the decision of the 1995 General Assembly,” it said, “there has been a considerable number of submissions to the Special Commission regarding the writings of Rev. Professor Donald Macleod, expressing disquiet, and the General Assembly through the Training of the Ministry Committee should now formally investigate these writings. . . The Special Commission would be failing in its duty to the Church if it did not take cognisance of the fact that there are still statements being made and publicly repeated regarding Professor Macleods conduct in Australia, accompanied by allegations that the Churchs investigation into these matters has been deficient in that there exist primary witnesses whose evidence has never been sought or heard by a Church court. In the light of this, the Special Commission would ask the General Assembly to recall the decision of the 1995 General Assembly as being procedurally unsafe and contributing to the present unrest in the Church, in that there exist grave doubts as to the thoroughness of the underlying precognition previously undertaken by the Training of the Ministry Committee, and that the Training Committee be directed to re-examine matters in regard to Professor Macleods behaviour in Australia.”
The second main point of view of the Special Commission, with regard to questions relating to Rev. Professor Donald Macleod, was that the Commission should advise the General Assembly that because the Assembly remit reminded them “of the embargo imposed by the Deliverance of the 1995 Assembly”, the Commission went as far as it was empowered to go by making certain proposals to the Assembly. The first proposal was that the General Assembly note the finding of the 1995 Assembly! The second proposal was that the Assembly note “that there has been no evidence presented to, or allegations brought before, any Church Court by due process, to implicate any minister, office-bearer, member or adherent in the Free Church in any lying, campaign or conspiracy to pervert the course of justice”. The third proposal was that “the General Assembly require all within the Church to desist from making such allegations unless they do so by means of due process or risk being themselves censured as slanderers.”
In another attempt to deal by due process with “matters in relation to Rev. Professor Donald Macleod”, three private libels (written, formal charges) against Professor Macleod were brought before the Assembly by Rev. David Murray, Rev. William MacLeod and Rev. Maurice Roberts. The libels had previously been brought before the Presbytery of Edinburgh but were not heard, and were now brought before the Assembly by way of appeal. In a speech in connection with his appeal, Rev. David Murray stated, “I have made a serious allegation against Professor Macleod and I am prepared to be thrown out of the Church if I am proven wrong. . .”
In speaking to his appeal the Rev William MacLeod stated, “The Presbytery [of Edinburgh] have objected that the charge I have brought is one that is covered by the 1995 finding. Actually the matter that I am raising is something that happened in 1996. . . Now I fully realise that I am taking a risk. Anyone pursuing a private libel may fail and be censured as a slanderer. Yet I am so convinced of the strength of my case that I am quite prepared to take that risk… The charges remain and there are witnesses that can prove every point. A trial is the only thing that will bring an end to this matter and bring peace to our Church.”
In the event the appeals of the three libellers were rejected by the Assembly, their libels were not heard, and they were prohibited from raising the matter again. But another happening overshadowed the whole proceedings.
When Rev. D. Murray was about to present his appeal he was asked by Rev. D. Robertson if it was true that the Free Church Defence Association (FCDA), of which Mr Murray is a member, threatened to take the Free Church to court. Mr Murray denied that there had been any such threat, as did Rev. M. Roberts, chairman of the FCDA. After being further interrogated, Mr Roberts stated that he had been faced with a situation of gross and irremediable wickedness in the Assembly. Mr Roberts refused to withdraw his statement, saying, “In my heart of hearts, I believe what I said is the truth. I implicate no one in that but myself.” The Assembly appointed a committee to prosecute a libel against him for contumacy.
At the June meeting of this Commission of Assembly, Mr Roberts still refused to withdraw his statement and was ready to cite witnesses and produce evidence to justify his statement about the proceedings of the Assembly. The report of a minister of the Church, who was present at the Commission meeting, says that Mr Roberts was not allowed to call any witnesses or produce any documents in his defence, and thus, argues the minister, was denied natural justice and the right of defending himself. The Commission suspended Mr Roberts indefinitely from the ministry of the Free Church of Scotland.
The supporters of Professor Macleod are decidedly in the majority and the conservative wing has been outmanoeuvred and routed again, but it looks as if the “internecine warfare” will continue until the conservatives surrender or are ousted. On the whole, it appears to us that the Free Church has taken another shift to the left and will decline further spiritually, if the Spirit of God be not poured out upon it.