Too little too late

January 8, 2015

The official confirmation for the Church of Scotland that the majority of their presbyteries have backed legislation which will allow the appointment of ministers in a same-sex relationship comes as no surprise. The legislation also makes clear that being in a same-sex relationship is no bar to becoming a candidate for the ministry. While the presbytery head-count of 54.6% to 45.4% may seem rather close, the final affirmation required by the 2015 General Assembly will be far more decisive. Assemblies tend to be more liberal than the church membership at large. We can also expect moves that will allow same-sex weddings in parish churches.

While radicals in the Kirk will be celebrating, what of the evangelicals? I was never one of those who predicted a mass exodus of congregations. Of those who left the Church of Scotland, only a handful have done so en mass. Most such congregations have split. By and large, there have been handfuls of members leaving on their own, disillusioned by the lack of fortitude shown by their minister. Anyone who imagines that a minister leaving the Church of Scotland is taking the easy option needs to think again. As well as losing their home and a job from which they could not be sacked (unless for some gross misdemeanour), there is a massive reduction in salary no matter what other denomination they go to. Those who have demitted their charges have acted with great faith and courage. Those who remain complain that we have left them to continue the fight. Our reply is, What fight? There was no fight to speak of. Rather there was only compromise.

And yet, what if there had been a fight? What if evangelicals had been better organised, more willing to raise the stakes if the radicals got their way? The closeness of the headcount at presbytery level suggests that Albert Bogle’s compromise might not have been necessary. If the Biblical principle for sexual union as being exclusively between one man and one woman had been as well argued throughout presbyteries and congregations as it was on the floor of the Assembly in 2014 there might have been a ground-swell against the radicals. We will never know.

Andrew McGowan has formed the Covenant Fellowship which allows church members to register their dis-satisfaction at the Kirk’s trajectory. Sadly this is fifty years too late. The fact that acting principal clerk George Whyte has welcomed the formation of this new group speaks volumes. They can angrily jump up and down like Rumpelstiltskin but they have surrendered their trump card—that they will never leave the Kirk; and that’s all 121 George Street cares about.

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A mixed-up economy

May 21, 2014

Why did the General Assembly decide overwhelmingly to pass legislation that will permit congregations to call a minister who is in a Civil Partnership?  It was not in order to glorify God.  It was not in order to be faithful to scripture.  It was not to keep the evangelicals happy; nor was it to give the revisionists what they want.  The evangelicals opposed the legislation; the revisionist tried to revise it to make calling a minister in a CP easier.  Commissioners passed this legislation because they are persuaded that this is going to put the debate to bed—at least for a few years.

Remember—most members of the Church of Scotland don’t really care one way or the other.  They just want everyone to get along as one big happy family. They are annoyed at Scott Rennie for stirring up a hornets nest in the first place; and they are annoyed at the evangelicals for making such a fuss.  What has been decided is “we are traditional, but you don’t have to be if you don’t want to be”; and to most kirk-folk that’s the perfect solution.  A mixed economy.

Alan Hamilton, Convenor of Legal Questions, is to be congratulated for a masterful performance.  He graciously but effortlessly batted away every ball bowled at him.  Finlay Macdonald (ex-Mod, ex-principal clerk) defeated 351:206.  New Testament scholar, Dr.Paul Middleton, defeated 424:165.  And Jeremy Middleton (no relation) defeated 369:189.

Alan’s committee offered the Church a mixed economy; conceded indeed that there already is a mixed economy in the Church.  He conceded that this brings with it legal risks.  The legislation is a form of discrimination and the only guaranteed way to avoid legal action is not to discriminate at all.  But the law, as it stands, allows Churches some lea-way.  But he could not assure the Assembly that a disappointed minister in a CP who was rejected for a charge might sue the Church successfully.

He was sure that this would not be the last word in the matter; in the future the Church could move in either direction.

During the course of the debate there were the usual plethora of silly faux-legal points and non sequiturs.  Moderator, John Chalmers, dealt with these in his usual patient manner.  One chap cited the recent case in Brazil of three women marrying each other in the one ceremony—had the committee considered how much more mixed the mixed economy might become?

The substantive debate began when Jerry Middleton stood to propose his counter motion which, in summary, sought to return the Church to an undiluted traditional/Biblical position.  I know Jerry, and have heard him speak on several occasions.  He is a formidable debater and clear thinker.  This was Jerry at his best.

He made several excellent points.  He said that we could be setting up candidates in a CP for disappointment: we train them for the ministry but when they seek a charge they could be met with a brick wall.  He feared that the legislation was not legally water-tight.  Fundamentally, it is just plain wrong.  It is illogical to declare one thing (the traditional understanding of human sexuality) and then affirm a practice that runs counter to that understanding.  This is not simply about people having different opinions.  Those who affirm what the Church says is its position (traditional/Biblical) regard as sinful what is being permitted, to be repented of, not a blessing to be celebrated.

There followed a rather good debate in the sense that it was a debate.  I heard Steven Reid and Mark Malcolm speak well in support of Jerry.  I was very sad to hear erstwhile evangelical Neil Dougall (now Convenor of the Ministries Council) oppose Jerry.  I also have to express a certain disappointment in some of what Alan Hamilton said, including that he was quite happy to envisage someone in a CP prayerfully considering God’s calling in their life.  If I had cherished sin within my heart God would not have heard my prayers, comes to mind.  In closing he said that what he and his Committee offered was new ways for new challenges in new times.

The legislation now goes down to the Presbyteries to approve.  If they approve it will come back to next year’s Assembly for final approval.  I am already hearing complaints among evangelicals who have remained within the Kirk that the fact that I and those like me have left will make victory on the floor of Presbyteries harder.  If I thought there was any mileage in winning the debate I would have remained.  It’s because I see no possibility of this legislation being rejected that I decided it was time to go.  Perhaps if those now complaining about our departure had been more vocal and supportive a few years ago we would be in a better place now.

This legislation is simply a way of giving a legal procedure for what is already the reality.  I wonder how long it will be before the revisionists try to liberalise it so that there is no need for Kirk Sessions to follow the complicated procedure.

I’ve just returned from the Crieff Fellowship New Year Conference.  This year Sinclair Ferguson gave four talks expounding Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  Not to put too fine a point upon it, Sinclair was at his best.  In culinary terms this was prime beef at its most tender, most edible.  Quality that was a joy to digest.

I have preached Philippians twice but listening to Sinclair makes me wonder if I have ever even read the book.  Let me give you some juicy morsels:

From chapter 1 – thanksgiving is characteristic of Paul – but this is not always true of Christian ministers.

Paul prays that the Philippians will be pure and blameless until the day of Christ.  We need to keep the end, the judgment in sight.  The pastor’s job is to prepare his people for the end.

Paul’s attitude to those who preached the gospel out of rivalry – is my ministry what’s most important to me, or is it the gospel? Paul is not defined by his ministry but by God’s designs for him.  To live is Christ, to die is gain. 

From 1:29 – suffering is as much a gift of grace as faith.  Suffering is subservient to the gospel.

From chapter 2 – there was a lot about how the imperatives (the commands) flow from the indicatives (the facts).  Thus the command for unity flows from the fact of Christ’s humility. 

To love Christ is to hate any misdescription of him. 

Christ’s obedience to the Father increased over his life – he was at his most obedient on the cross. 

Fear and trembling – we are so superficial that we fail to tremble at the love of God. 

Grumbling is one of the most destructive dangers for the church. 

The secret of unity is humility. 

Most profound of all to my mind – from chapter 4 – Rejoice in the Lord – I am here to bring joy.  My aim is to produce this Christ-ful joy in my people.  This is the funnel through which I want to pour out my ministry this year.  May it be a Ministry of Joy!

Weekend in Broughty Ferry

October 26, 2009

It’s been a long time since I have benefitted from turning the clocks back personally, but this morning, at 7am, I was able to walk the dogs in day-light.  I haven’t been able to do that for a couple of weeks and had been forced away from our usual out-towards- the-county route for lack of street lighting.  The dogs also seem to have enjoyed the freedom of being let off the lead.

I note in the press that some are calling for Scotland to have its own time zone (“tundra time” it’s being called) since our neighbours in the south don’t get the same benefit from the change in time.  It would be mad for Scottish clocks be showing a different time from the rest of the country.  But could we not just run our day an hour behind everyone else?  Could our schools and offices not start at 10am instead of 9am, and go until 4pm instead of 3pm?  Our bodies adjust to the reality of a time-change; instead of changing the hour why not change the structure of the day? 

I had a really good weekend at Broughty Ferry.  This was the weekend of the Dundee Presbytery Preaching Conference, primarily for Readers.  I was speaking on Preaching the Cross and Preaching the Empty Tomb.  I was very impressed by the attendance (about 30) and by their enthusiasm, listening to five talks between 9am and 4pm. 

It was particularly good to see some folks I hadn’t seen for a while.  One was Craig Kirkwood.  We were on CU exec together back when we were at Strathclyde.  He was Book Sec when I was International Sec.  Craig went on to be President. 

Another familiar face was Harry McLennan.  Harry is Session Clerk at Portmoak Church where I did my first attachment as a student for the ministry, under Robin Stewart.  Harry’s daughter and son-in-law are the Ferguson’s in Japan who do the Church planter’s blog.  You’ll see the Ferguson File to the right of my blog. 

I’m not putting the talks on the blog since they are far too long.  I’ll just say one thing.   A point I made in both talks is that as preachers we must never forget that the crucifixion and the resurrection were both historical events.  If Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ” alerted the Church to anything it’s that modern people have no idea just how horrific a death crucifixion was.  2000 years of church history have sanitised the cross for us. 

So I was arguing that it’s important to take our listeners to Calvary.  Let them hear the nails being hammered through the wrists; let them feel the six-inch thorns piercing the brow; let them taste the blood trickling down the cheeks and into the mouth; let them smell the foul mixture of faeces, urine and vomit.  Remind them that something real happened. 

The same goes for the empty tomb.  The Bible presents the resurrection as a fact, not a parable, still less a myth.  We need to scurry with the women through the quiet Jerusalem streets; we need to see the stone rolled away.  Let us peer over Peter’s shoulders as he stares at the neatly folded grave-clothes.  Similarly, let us walk a step or two behind the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, so that we can overhear what that stranger is saying to them. 

Take us there, not in an attempt to pad out a colourless story, but to help our listeners realize that something really happened on that first day of the week, that first Easter morn.

Preaching Leviticus

September 23, 2009

A few weeks ago I began a series of sermons from Leviticus.  As someone said, “That takes a lot of guts.”  And another confessed he thought it would be “offal.”

I’d been thinking about it for a while; but it’s only because we now have an Assistant that I’ve felt I have the time to ponder the text of what is one of the least accessible books of the Bible.  I just don’t think I’d have had the time to do that if I were still preaching twice a week.

Why preach Leviticus?  I suppose one answer could be, Just because it’s there.  It is, after all, as much part of Holy Scripture as any of the other 65 books.  Paul’s observation in 2Tim. 3:16 that all Scripture is God-breathed applies as much to Leviticus as it does to Genesis or the Psalms.  And if our Lord explained to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus what was said about him in all the Scriptures beginning with Moses, Leviticus must have been included.(Lk.24:27)

Derek Tidball in his very helpful little commentary in the Crossway Bible Guides series gives some answers.  Leviticus helps us to understand that God is holy yet merciful.  It teaches us the meaning of sacrifice and of being living sacrifices.  It encourages us to give the best to God in worship.  It instructs us in the qualities leaders in the church should have.  It leads us to Christ who makes atonement for our sin.  It sets out for us principles of family, sexual and social behaviour.  It teaches us to celebrate the faithfulness of God as our Creator and Saviour.  It helps us to understand the true meaning of liberty.  It show us that our faith has implications for our views on politics and economics.  And it teaches us the importance of obeying God’s commands.

For me there is another reason.  In recent years Leviticus has become the most reviled, mocked, derided book in the Bible.  Only recently a student taking a course in Religious Studies told me this story: The lecturer began by asking if there were any Christians in the class.  Several raised their hands.  To hoots of laughter from the rest of the class he attacked them: Then why are you wearing clothes made from more than one fabric?  A reference to a Levitical ban.  We’ve all read the so-called letter asking for an explanation as to how one goes about stoning one’s rebellious son and whether or not one should boycott the local fishmonger for selling prawns. 

In short, there has been a deliberate and sustained attack on the Levitical code.  And why?  Because it states that a man lying with a man is abhorrent.  The argument goes—it is inconsistent to still believe homosexual practice is abhorrent if one enjoys a prawn cocktail. 

What is particularly sad is that such attacks have come from ministers of the Gospel, ministers of Word and Sacrament, who, of all people, should have studied scripture and be at the forefront of defending it. 

So, for the sake of my congregation, who like so many others, want to believe that all Scripture is God-breathed, but find Leviticus incomprehensible, I felt duty bound to have a go at expounding it.  I’ve preached three sermons so far which I’ll post in the next three days [note—there is nothing in them about the CURRENT DEBATE].  I hope you find them helpful and if you have any constructive comments don’t hesitate to make them.  I’m not doing line by line, chapter by chapter; but rather picking out key themes and moments from the book.

So far, for me, the most important lesson has been that God hasn’t changed his mind.  He still requires a sacrifice to be made for the forgiveness of sins, and we still require a priest to present it on our behalf.  Leviticus has much to teach us about our God, our Saviour and ourselves.

Hamilton Presbytery revisited

September 2, 2009

Just to clarify my thinking on the legal side of what happened at Hamilton Presbytery.  I am arguing that the phrase “with respect to ordination and induction to the ministry” extends to training for the ministry.  Training for the ministry is “with respect to ordination”.  That is, it is preparing for ordination, it has ordination in its sights. 

My contention is that the spirit of the deliverance has been breached.  It was brought specifically “For the sake of the peace and unity of the church.”   Knowingly allowing practising homosexuals to train for the ministry certainly upsets the peace of the church.  It undoubtedly pushes the church further along the road towards open acceptance and endorsement of the gay life-style for her members and clergy.