It was gratifying that at this year’s Assembly, which met in Edinburgh in May, at least one speaker, Rev Bill Wallace, Convener of the Board of Ministry, summed up the national situation accurately. He said, “The move away from God has left our society suffering self-centred social decline. In the UK we have a massive drink problem, a growing drug problem, the highest teenage-pregnancy rate in Europe and the highest rate of youth crime. More than a quarter of the adult population is now on anti-depressants. It is a picture of a society turning from its Christian roots and finding that the new ways are socially destructive – a society more selfish and less loving.”
He also stated, however, that there are “many people searching for spiritual dimensions to life”. But what does the Church of Scotland have to offer to searching souls? Judging from what we were able to glean from various reports, it is not, on the whole, the pure, soul-satisfying food of the gospel of Christ. Indeed, in the reports of various Boards and Committees there is a conspicuous lack of Biblical spirituality, and of reference to the Scriptures. It leaves one pessimistic about the future of our national Church, at least in the short term.
Neither was it any cause for optimism that the Assembly appointed as its new moderator Rev Prof Iain Torrance, Professor in Patristics and Christian Ethics, and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Divinity, at the University of Aberdeen. The Christian content of the ethics he teaches is very much open to question when he has just pronounced, in an interview with the press, that he is “utterly untroubled” by the ordination of homosexuals to the ministry of the Church. He has also promised that any homosexual ministers who might encounter prejudice from their congregations would be given help to move to another parish.
It is also disturbing that the Lord High Commissioner, the Queen’s representative at the Assembly, was Lord Steel of Aikwood. As a young Liberal Member of Parliament, he piloted the notorious Abortion Act of 1967 through Parliament. As a consequence, about 5 million unborn infants have been killed since then. Lord Steel has been an elder of the Kirk for many years, but it is beyond our comprehension how he squares his Christian profession with his promotion of the barbarous Abortion Act.
The major concerns of the General Assembly were the financial crisis in the Church, the shortage of ministers and the decline in membership. Its financial difficulties have arisen not only from a reduction in value of its assets and a significant decrease in the number of legacies, but also from its much-diminished membership. For example, since 1994 the number of regular worshippers has fallen by 22%. Another indicator of falling membership is the greatly decreased number of baptisms – just 9000 last year as opposed to 50 000 in 1961. Rev Bill Wallace reported that “a growing number of our congregations have no minister – around 200 at present – and that number will continue to increase for the next 7 to 10 years at least”. He also said that the Church anticipates accepting around 60 candidates this year. However, it is expected that in seven years time as many as 250 congregations will be pastorless.
In seeking solutions to these problems, various reports called for “reforming”, “modernising” and “moving with the times”. The shortage of ministers is to be addressed by raising the cut-off age for accepting applicants for the ministry, raising the retiring age of existing ministers, and setting up more team ministries. In addressing the falling number of baptisms, the Assembly agreed to change its policy on this sacrament, principally by allowing other members of the family to act in place of a parent. It was also agreed that people other than ministers be allowed to baptise children in an emergency – for example, a midwife might, if requested, baptise a dying child. Not only does this smack of Rome’s superstitious view of the sacrament, but it also sets aside the Scripture and confessional requirement that the sacraments be administered by ordained ministers.
The only cure for the ills of the Church of Scotland and other Presbyterian denominations in Scotland, including our own, is an outpouring of the Spirit of God. All tinkering with administration, streamlining of committee structures and other steps to improve the use of resources are futile if the Spirit is absent. Accordingly we need to be on our knees pleading that God would open the windows of heaven and pour down a blessing upon the visible Church in Scotland – upon, and round about, His holy hill of Zion. Only then will there be a wholehearted return to the Word of God. Only then will the scenes of spiritual desolation be transformed into the garden of the Lord. Only then will there be a repetition of what happened at the Reformation when the number of converts was multiplied. “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.