Rev H M Cartwright
In 1968, five churches accepted an invitation from the Church of Scotland to work towards union. In 1985 the Church of Scotland General Assembly rejected a proposal by the resulting Multilateral Church Conversation to draw up a Basis and Plan of Union, largely on account of reservations about Episcopacy. The Scottish Episcopal Church later invited the Churches participating in the previous discussions to enter into renewed negotiations, claiming that they had modified their position by developing a permanent diaconate, agreeing to ordain women to the priesthood, moving to a more conciliar structure. They also claimed to understand the episcopal succession as a sign but not a guarantee of the unity and continuity of the Church, and to recognise “that there could be no union which denied the fulness of the grace of God in the worship, fellowship, evangelism, service and ministry of any of the participating churches”.
The outcome was the appointment of the Scottish Church Initiative for Union (SCIFU), with representatives from the Church of Scotland, the Methodist Church, the Scottish Episcopal Church and the United Reformed Church, and observers from Roman Catholicism and the United Free Church. After seven years of deliberations, the SCIFU group are now submitting their Proposal for Union to the various bodies represented. There is as yet no formal basis or plan of union but the group recommend that their Proposal be approved in general terms, that consultation be initiated throughout the participating Churches and any others interested, that where there are good local or regional relations between different Churches, attempts should be made to implement pilot schemes of working together in the ways proposed, and that a new group should be appointed “to complete the unfinished business of the SCIFU proposal and prepare a Basis and Plan of Union”.
The only reference to the doctrinal position of the proposed united Church is that the group began with “a working assumption that there was as much significant agreement on most points of doctrine between the participating churches as was to be found within each of those churches”. A “commitment to unity in co-ordinated diversity” seems to be the key principle of the Proposal and the Church’s function and ministry are understood in terms of mission, the mission being to demonstrate the reconciling love of God in a nation falling apart. The Proposal is largely taken up with structures intended to demonstrate unity and facilitate mission. At the local level there would be the “maxi-parish”, a geographical area embracing congregations which would largely continue with their distinctive traditions and practices but would be served by a ministry team and led by a maxi-parish council. Representatives of congregations on this council would be known as elders, whatever they might be called locally.
Maxi-parishes would be grouped together in regions, which would have their bishops and councils and would be responsible, among other things, for the appointment and ordination of ministers. A National Council would act as the chief locus of authority and final court of appeal. An attempt is made to accommodate what is hailed as a recently-discovered concept of the ministry of all the baptised, together with the Congregational emphasis on the Church Meeting, the Presbyterian insistence on the eldership, and the Episcopalian dependence on the bishop. It is significant that the bishop would preside at all ordinations of ministers and deacons – who seem more like the deacons of hierarchical churches than those common in Presbyterianism. (The ministries of the Church are listed in order as all the baptised, elders, deacons, ministers of Word and Sacraments, and bishops.)
The readiness to accept the variety of doctrine between and within the participating Churches is indicative of that departure from the authority of Scripture which characterises each of the participating Churches as bodies – a departure manifested also in the refusal to accept that Scripture is normative for Church ministry and government. An Appendix to the Proposal states: “Thankfully, the churches have moved a long way since the days when they glowered at each others across the battlements of their respective citadels of certainty, and today most would agree that ‘the New Testament does not describe a single pattern of ministry which might serve as a blueprint or continuing norm for all future ministry in the Church'”.
It is quite significant that an Appendix to the Proposal describes the differences over “the way in which leadership in ministry is ordered” as the issues which “were, by and large, the cause of the mid-seventeenth-century disputes that eventually led to the split in the Scottish Church that current discussions are seeking to heal”. Another Appendix traces the convictions of the SCIFU group back through the ecclesiastically-accommodating Archbishop Robert Leighton to John Forbes of Corse and the Aberdeen Doctors of the early seventeenth century, who opposed the Covenants and Covenanters. This is in effect an attempt further to undo the position for which Reformers and Covenanters contended, and it can be achieved only by denying that Scripture exclusively provides us with definitive and authoritative teaching on the doctrine, government and worship of the Church.
Claiming, as we do, to stand on the Biblical and Confessional Basis of the Reformed Church of Scotland, we believe that Church union which would have the Lord’s blessing can only be achieved on the basis of genuine agreement in theology, worship and practice over the whole area of absolute revealed truth as that was confessed by the undivided Church of Scotland. For that reason we cannot participate in movements for union which proceed on other principles and involve diversity of belief and practice in areas where the Church has confessed that Scripture is clear and uncompromising.
The idea that uniting the Churches which currently exist in Scotland would achieve the one Church of which Scripture speaks and which was the ideal of the seventeenth-century Scottish Presbyterian leaders is unhistorical and unjustifiable and certainly has no Biblical basis. There is a difference between schism and separation; schismatics are those who depart from the truth and occasion the divisions which result. “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them” (Rom 16:17). We long for the day when the Churches in Scotland will return to the old paths which are relevant in all ages and, strange as it may seem to many today, the best way to secure this with the Lord’s blessing is earnestly to “contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3) and to resist all pressures to compromise.