This year’s General Assembly was graced by the presence of the Queen. “It gives me great pleasure”, she said, “to be attending the General Assembly in this Golden Jubilee year and it brings back memories of my visit here 25 years ago. On that occasion I repeated my solemn pledge, made in 1952, to preserve and uphold the rights and privileges of the Church of Scotland. I make that pledge again today.” It is good to hear her say so, but we fear that the fulfilment of her pledge is made more difficult by the bad advice she has for so long received about the unique nature of the Reformed and Protestant privileges which were inherited by our national Church – a fact that is confirmed by her repeated presence at multi-faith events.
The Rev Finlay A J Macdonald was appointed as the new Moderator of Assembly. One leading Scottish newspaper noted, “The urbane and combative Mr MacDonald is very different from the outgoing John Miller, who comes across as a shy, other-worldly figure. For the past six years Mr MacDonald has been the Church’s principal clerk . . . and therefore more powerful than any Moderator. The obvious question arises: Why does Mr MacDonald wish to cede power? . . . One explanation is that he wanted to head off the prospect of reformer Peter Neilson becoming Moderator. Mr Neilson’s recent report to the Kirk, Church Without Walls, which advocated a more decentralised and campaigning Church, has come closest to rallying support for a different approach.”
Be that as it may, Mr MacDonald is following purposefully in the footsteps of those in the past who steered the Church into espousing the social gospel. He said in his assembly sermon: “What opportunities we have to be a force for good as we proclaim and seek to live out the gospel values of love for neighbour, compassion for all in need, standing up to the tyrant and standing alongside all who are oppressed, offering friendship and shelter to the stranger who comes within our gates, working to overcome the ignorance and prejudice which feeds sectarianism and racism, offering informed comment in the great moral debates of the day as we grapple with the ever-accelerating advances in science and technology! These are the real issues for the Church, these are the concerns that drive the agenda of the General Assembly. . . .” True, the Church at large must deal compassionately with the poor and needy and engage in moral debates, but if such issues, rather than the salvation of sinners, are the real issues for the national Church, we need not wonder that its membership has declined as it has.
However, some in the Church are voicing disagreement with this social emphasis. “There is a growing evangelical wing of the Kirk that is increasingly critical of Mr MacDonald and the establishment”, says one columnist. “One thorn in the liberal side is the Rev Robert Anderson, previously chaplain at Edinburgh University. Mr Anderson says, ‘The Church of Scotland has been dominated by the liberal agenda for much of the last 50 years. These have been years of unparalleled decline.'” Another critic within the Church comments that the Church has in recent decades “become synonymous with a narrow leftism to the point of abandoning its spiritual mission”; and another newspaper columnist says, “The Kirk’s Church and Nation Committee has over the years published a series of reports which could have come from any left-wing think-tank”.
On the ecumenical front, the Assembly was addressed by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh. How low the Church of John Knox and Alexander Henderson has sunk when it has invited the leaders of Romanism in Scotland – Cardinal Thomas Winning in 1995 and Archbishop Keith O’Brien this year – to address its supreme court! In his speech, O’Brien apologised for his Church failing to respond to ecumenical approaches and talks in the past, and added: “There are so many externals that you get hooked up on. . . . Let us forget the externals and first of all keep talking.” It is a sign of the Romeward drift of the Church of Scotland that his speech was enthusiastically applauded by the Assembly.
Other indications of the Church’s pro-Rome attitude are its decision to continue ecumenical talks with the Rome Catholic and other Churches (only seven of the 41 presbyteries consulted called for a halt to the process), and its unprecedented apology for what the convener of the Church and Nation Committee calls the Church’s past “sectarianism” (when it criticised Roman Catholicism and the then British government for allowing a great influx of Roman Catholics to Britain from Ireland). The Assembly also set up a new joint group with the Roman Catholic Justice and Peace Commission to combat bigotry and sectarianism in Scotland. It is passing strange that the Church cannot combat sectarianism without the assistance of the Roman Church, which is second to none in fostering sectarianism. It ill becomes Archbishop O’Brien to state, “We must erase every trace of sectarianism from Scotland”, when Roman Catholic schools continue to promote it so effectively.
We are glad to note that the Education Committee of the Assembly criticised the media for downgrading the importance of the traditional family, and for “promoting sexual attractiveness and activity as if these were the main aims in growing up”. The Committee has also published a leaflet giving guidelines which “underline the importance of stable family life and relationships”. We do not know the specific content of the leaflet, but it aims, the Assembly was informed, “to put issues surrounding growing up into a Christian perspective”.
The dominant note in the Assembly was the Church’s precarious situation – even the threat of extinction – because of its rapidly diminishing membership (it is losing almost 20 000 members each year) and the serious shortfall in its finances. To stem the haemorrhage of both members and capital reserves, the Assembly decided to set up what one report calls “a task force, drawn from all sections of the Church, to make ground-breaking suggestions to help regeneration”.
Numerous solutions to the problem of what many see as the Church’s terminal decline have already been proposed by similar committees and commissions – for example, that the Church increase the number of new entrants to the ministry (there are 163 vacancies at present), attract young people by introducing more innovative forms of worship, reform its top-heavy bureaucracy, dispose of many of its resource-draining properties, and that congregations share places of worship with other congregations and even with other denominations. We have yet to see, among all the official suggestions, a call for a return to the old paths of preaching the Word in its fullness and purity. Just 12% of Scots now attend church on a regular basis, and a major factor is the fact that a majority of ministers have put the social gospel in the place of the gospel of the grace of God. The need of the hour is that our national Church would follow the example of the Apostle Paul when he said, “I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God”. Only the preaching of the gospel, which is the power of God unto salvation, will reform, regenerate and build up the Church of Scotland.
Of course, the preaching of the Word without the accompanying power of the Holy Spirit will be ineffective, but the immediate task of the Church must be faithful and unremitting obedience to the divine commands: “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature,” and, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you”. And, at the same time, we are to plead for an outpouring of the Spirit of God. This, especially, is needed in Scotland and beyond, in all branches of the visible Church.