Last Sunday I was introduced to Victor.  Victor was an elder in a Church of Scotland congregation which has a name for being evangelically minded.  Victor left the CofS late last year.  Why?  Because his minister and fellow elders refused to engage with the issue of clergy in a same sex relationship.  This was a shock to Victor.  He had assumed that his minister and fellow elders, who like him opposed the idea, would want to translate their opposition into action—some action, any action.  But no.

Victor is not the first former CofS elder to have had his eyes opened in recent months.  Another chap I met asked me back to his home so I could explain to him why his former minister—a second generation evangelical—wasn’t even willing to discuss the matter.  Again, this elder had assumed a mighty uprising of gospel preachers would take place.  Instead, he was told it was too divisive: there are more important matters with which to concern ourselves.

So for the sake of Victor and others like him, within or outwith the CofS, I offer these thoughts on why most evangelicals are not leaving the Kirk.  There may be other reasons—some honourable (a profound sense of calling to be a remnant), some not so honourable (the pay is very good).

Number One: Getting on with the job

The attitude of most evangelical ministers is that the issue of clergy in a same-sex relationship does not concern them.  Nor do they expect to be troubled by elders or members coming out of the closet.  As Czechoslovakia was to Neville Chamberlin (a country far away and of which we know little) so is the question of same sex relationships within the Church.  “It will never happen here,” and therefore let’s get on with the job of preaching the gospel.

They may well be right.  Though they ought to speak to Paul Gibson, now of Perth Free Church.  When Paul went to Tain Parish Church he was following on from a very long and faithful evangelical ministry.  Within weeks he discovered that his Session Clerk was in a homosexual relationship.  He assumed that the Kirk Session would back him when he tried to exercise discipline—it didn’t.  He assumed the Presbytery would support him when he took the matter there—it didn’t.  The advice he received was just to keep preaching the gospel.

It seems to me that at the root of this attitude is a theology of the church which is more congregational than Presbyterian.  I have heard it said in the same breath, “We like being part of the National Church but what happens in Aberdeen has nothing do with us.”  The vast majority of Church of Scotland ministers and members belong to that Church simply because it is the National Church.  If they had been born south of the border they would be Anglican; if they had been born in Sweden they’d be Lutheran; if in Italy, Roman Catholic.  In Scotland the Church of Scotland is the default church.

Very, very few of its members and ministers are Presbyterian by conviction.  Thus, the concept of connectivity which lies at the heart of Presbyterianism is by and large alien.  As long as we can do our thing in our parish then why should we leave?

Number Two: The best place to fish from

Related to Number One is Number Two, that the Church of Scotland is the best place to fish from; ie it is the best church from which to conduct mission.  Because the Kirk is the biggest denomination in Scotland, because it is the default church for Protestant Scots, it provides opportunities not afforded to other denominations.  To a certain extent this is true, particularly when it comes to funerals, though less so than in the past.  But school chaplaincies are no longer the exclusive domain of the parish minister.  Head teachers are more impressed with those who can communicate relevantly to children regardless of their denomination.  There are plenty of parish ministers who don’t get through the door of their local school.

I wonder how the average church member would react to this attitude.  Does she realize that her  minister does not regard her as a Christian but as a pagan requiring to be converted?  Are mourners attune to the nuance that the minister has not said anything about their dearly beloved departed having entered through the pearly gates?

My point is this, to remain within the Church of Scotland in the belief that it is the best place to fish from is self-deceiving.  If it is true, why, despite the increase in evangelical ministries, are there still so few evangelical congregations?  Why is Kirk membership plummeting?  Why are there so few candidates for the ministry?

Number Three: They have no-where else to go

All that said, there are evangelical ministers who are greatly distressed with the direction the Kirk is taking.  But what can they do?  Where can they go?

Those from outside the Church of Scotland need to understand that most evangelical ministers are not dyed-in-the-wool Calvinists.  Most do not hold whole-heartedly to the Westminster Confession of Faith.  They may have subscribed to it at their ordination, but most did so never having even read the Confession.  None of us ever received lessons in its theology.  We were told that the liberty of opinion clause was our “get out of jail free” card.  Most evangelical ministers in the Church of Scotland are, in practice, Arminian.  Most have ordained women to the eldership.  Most are happy to participate in ecumenical services.

Therefore, the Free Church of Scotland is not an option.  Nor is the United Free since they have too few congregations able to support a full-time ministry.  The International Presbyterian Church now has three congregations in Scotland but though Presbyterian in name, de facto they are independent.  Some have become independent and this is the route that Holyrood Abbey, St. Catherine’s, and St. James’ (Broughty Ferry) are taking for the time-being.  I truly hope they will soon return to the Presbyterian fold and join us in the Free Church.

Which draws attention to the fact that because there are so few evangelical congregations, even if a man were minded to leave the Kirk, he would be leaving to go to nothing.  Don’t under-estimate how hard that is.  Those who have done it are the bravest of the brave.

Very few of us are in the position to take a congregation with us.  In Kirkmuirhill it was half a congregation, and this was after 60 years of evangelical ministry.  Those of us in leadership there were genuinely shocked to hear members state that the reason they attend Kirkmuirhill Parish is because it is the parish church.  And I thought it was because they liked my preaching!!  This was their church and it mattered not one whit who the minister was or what s/he believed or preached.  It’s because of 60 years of Biblical ministry that half the congregation left; it’s because we were still a parish church that half the members remained.  And so far it’s only been churches with a similar history which have split.

Someone asked me if I knew of any other churches planning to split from the CofS.  After the three mentioned above, no.  That might be it.  The threat of one-third of ministers demitting was always a media myth.  I certainly never said that.  The truth is, most evangelicals will just get on with the job of preaching the gospel, hoping that the militant revisionists will leave them alone.  I wish them well.  My only question is this: if, by the grace of God, people are converted under your ministry, and you teach them that the Bible is the Word of God, our rule of faith and practice, what are you going to say to them when they start questioning you about what scripture teaches about sex and marriage?

 

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