The Free Church of Scotland General Assembly
JUDGING from the report of the proceedings of the General Assembly of the Free Church which has been published on its website, the internal strife in the Church between the conservative and liberal wings occupied much of the attention of the Assembly. Our own Church has unhappy memories of strife and division in its midst in recent years, and it gives us no pleasure to see the same situation in the Free Church.
The Retiring Moderator, Professor D. M. MacDonald, preached on, “To me, to live is Christ.” (In quoting Scipture the Professor used the NIV an indication, we believe, of the drift of the Free Church). He spoke about Paul rejoicing “that Christ was being preached by some who had wrong motives, seeking to cause trouble for him in some way. . .We are so ready to take offence at personal criticism. We are so prone to be suspicious of those who do not share our particular doctrinal and denominational distinctives. And now we are even attacking one another within our own denomination. Fathers and brethren, these things ought not so to be! Surely we should rejoice that Christ is being preached and people are being converted to him through those who may differ from us in certain matters.” Professor MacDonald is, of course, a supporter of Professor Donald Macleod, whose modernising activities are causing distress to many, and around whom the controversy in the Church principally revolves.
In his opening address the Moderator, the Rev. Donald K. Macleod, spoke on, “We preach Christ”, and gave this quotation: “‘In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ we are called upon to show to the watching world and to our own young people that the Church is something beautiful’.” He then asked, “Is this what they see, as they see one-time friends and colleagues refusing to meet and speak together? Fathers and brethren, I have been attending Assemblies for over fifty years and I have listened to many heated debates . . . but there has not been a time when the watching Christian Church has had so much to wonder at, and indeed to mourn over, and the watching unbelieving world so much to ridicule, as they see a branch of the Body of Christ apparently trying to tear itself to bits. I earnestly pray that the self-destruct stage has not been reached, and never will be reached.”
Looking from the outside at what was said by most of those who referred to the internal strife, it seems to us that achieving unity is the principal objective (and a very important objective it is), rather than conformity to Scripture.
Three Overtures, seeking to resolve what one of them called the “turmoil of controversy and disagreement”, were brought before the General Assembly. The first Overture, from the Presbytery of Caithness and Sutherland, asked for the appointment of a Special Commission to confer with all parties and to report to the next General Assembly. The Overture from the Presbytery of Edinburgh and Perth asked the General Assembly to call on the Free Church Defence Association to disband, and to cite Rev. M. Roberts and Rev. W. MacLeod to appear before the General Assembly “to ascertain the authorship and responsibility for the attacks made on the General Assembly”. Professor Macleod and Professor MacDonald supported this Overture. Professor Macleod said that one condition for peace within the Free Church was learning to tolerate differences. We believe that some of these differences he has in mind would never have been tolerated by the Free Church in her better days. The third Overture, from the Presbytery of Lewis, asked that the General Assembly arrange for the convening of a Plenary Assembly to effect a reconciliation. The second Overture, that from the Edinburgh and Perth Presbytery, was passed from. The first and third Overtures were withdrawn, and a modified proposal to set up a Special Commission and to begin a process which might lead to a Plenary Assembly was agreed to. Such an Assembly cannot be called unless a majority of presbyteries agree.
An Overture from the Presbytery of Glasgow asked the General Assembly to review “its whole procedure in dealing with Professor H. Cartwright, Rev. A. Smith and Dr M. Murchison”, who were signatories to the Minority Report of the Training of the Ministry Committee which was presented to the last General Assembly. (The Minority Report, we may remind readers, claimed that documents in which serious charges were made against Professor Macleod, had not received adequate treatment when they were before the Training of the Ministry Committee, and had been summarily dealt with in terms of the 1995 Assembly. The Minority Report asked the Assembly to set up a Special Committee to look at these documents and report back. Instead, the 1997 Assembly declared the Minority Report to be in contempt of the findings of the 1995 Assembly, that declared the case against Professor Macleod closed, and of the Commission of Assembly of 31st October 1996. The signatories of the Minority Report were, at the same time, censured and removed from certain committees).
In presenting the Overture, the Rev. I. Smith said that no due process was initiated against these men and they were not called to the Bar of the Assembly to answer the allegations made against them. The urgent correcting of the procedure, he said, would go a long way to establishing peace.
At the same time, the Rev. M.J. Roberts presented a Petition which asked the General Assembly to rescind the finding of censure against Professor H. Cartwright, Rev. A. Smith and Dr. M. Murchison. The outcome, as the report of the Assembly proceedings states, was that “the Assembly voted to receive the Overture and to receive the Petition, and so rescinded that part of the finding which censured Professor H. Cartwright, Rev. A. Smith and Dr M. Murchison.”
The Training of the Ministry, which has responsibility for disciplining Professors, presented another Report in which it “noted with concern that Professor Macleod has publicly called into question the present legislation governing the practice of worship in the Free Church and believe this matter to be of such importance that the whole question of the principles and practice of public worship should be examined.” It also proposed a Deliverance for the appointing of a Special Committee for this purpose. Professor MacDonald, in presenting the Report said that there was no great move to change our practice, but people did have questions, which should be addressed. It does not surprise us that some members of the Assembly were suspicious that appointing such a committee would lead to undermining their principles of public worship, rather than preserving them. In the event, the General Assembly passed from the Deliverance.
The General Assembly also considered an Overture from the Presbytery of Lewis asking the General Assembly to affirm as follows: “the Church’s commitment to purity of worship as presently practised; the Church’s commitment to evangelism which does not compromise, or appear to compromise, the position of the Church with respect to public worship, and the duty of Presbyteries to be vigilant in requiring conformity on the part of office-bearers.” Rev Kenneth Stewart, in presenting the Overture, said that with respect to the issue of purity of worship and public worship, many throughout the Church believed that events in Aberdeen in December (when a carol service was held in Bon Accord Free Church) “had crossed the line”. An Aberdeen elder informed the Assembly that the carol service was an attempt to reach the unchurched. He put forward the view that when two principles (in this case, purity of worship and reaching the unchurched) appear to conflict the lesser principle may be suspended on occasion in favour of the greater principle. He concluded that the greater principle was to reach the unchurched. We deplore the sacrificing of one Scriptural principle for another. The Saviour not only commanded His disciples to preach the gospel to every creature but also to observe all things that He commanded them, which includes purity of worship. The Rev. J. MacIver rightly said that he “could not accept that we could not have confidence in the Psalms in either worship or outreach”. The Assembly agreed to receive the Overture.
The College Board Report referred to discussions between the Board and the University of Edinburgh about the possibility of the College course being recognised for a Bachelor of Theology degree, while safeguarding the College and the interests of the Church. Rev Innes M MacRae, Secretary to the College Board, “proposed an amendment to delete references to a representative of the Faculty of Divinity of the University of Edinburgh being associated with the Board in presenting nominations to the General Assembly to fill a vacancy in the College. Mr MacRae pointed out that “the Faculty representative might well be opposed to our Reformed heritage, and it was not always the case that academic qualifications were regarded as being of primary importance.” Rev J. Frew also expressed his concern “at the involvement of a Faculty representative in the presentation of nominees for the College. The representative could have great influence even without a vote, just as the Scots Commissioners to the Westminster Assembly had. The College had been our undoing in the past. Progress and scholarship had given us William Robertson Smith.”
With regard to ecumenical relations, Professor MacDonald said that the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland had no interest in developing relations further, and that fraternal relations with the Associated Presbyterian Churches were continuing, as was confirmed by the fact that one of its ministers addressed the Assembly. He added that no official links existed with the Church of Scotland and the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland.
In presenting the Supplementary Report of the Ecumenical Relations Committee, Professor MacDonald spoke about a letter, received from the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland, in which serious allegations were made about certain of Professor Macleod’s doctrinal statements. A similar letter was received from the Christian Reformed Church in the Netherlands. Rev G. Mair moved that the General Assembly give a clear indication to the Training of the Ministry Committee to consider the letters. He said that as the letters related to a Professor in the College it was the correct procedure to pass them on to the Training of the Ministry Committee as had been recognised by the Clerk. Professor Macleod warned that the Church would again be plunged in crisis if Mr Mair’s motion carried, and added that his own comments which were complained about contained important truths, and he made no apology for them. Mr Mair withdrew his motion, and the Assembly approved of the Committee’s action. It seems that the General Assembly has failed yet again to rein in Professor Macleod, let alone to take him to account for making statements which, in the eyes of many within and outwith his Church, cast doubts on the uniqueness of the Christian faith.
It would seem that the strife within the Free Church is far from coming to an end. In the week following the Assembly, Professor Macleod took the opportunity, publicly, to answer this question with regard to the business of the Assembly: “What, then, really happened?” In doing so he took a subtle sideswipe at the men whose censure was rescinded; he again questioned the use of exclusive Psalmody in worship; he informed his readers that some young men in the Church have serious problems with their ordination vows and were hoping for some relief at the Assembly (which reminds us of the events in the old Free Church which led to the infamous Declaratory Act of 1892, when those ministers who were weary of the good old paths wanted their difficulties met and their scruples relieved). Professor Macleod also paints a very black picture of the Free Church Defence Association and its magazine a publication he would dearly love to see outlawed. Meanwhile, as the leading moderniser in the Free Church, he continues to pursue his own agenda in his regular column in the secular press.
With regard to the proceedings of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, we hope to give a report in the next issue.