Some thoughts on St Georges Tron leaving the Church of Scotland
I am writing this on the train home from the Servants of the Word conference. It was a joy to hear Alastair Begg, Tim Keller, Dick Lucas, and others and to share in great Gospel fellowship. However what has exercised my mind, spirit and heart more than anything was chatting to Willie Phillip about the situation in the Tron. To put it simply – on Monday night the congregation left the Church of Scotland. It is a significant development for many reasons.
The Tron building is an historic church, the church of George Duncan, Eric Alexander and Sinclair Ferguson. It is wonderfully situated, right in the centre of Glasgow. Hundreds of thousands of people walk past its doors every day. After a recent refurbishment it is a bright open welcoming space, which is being well used by the Church (that is the people of God) to proclaim the glory of Christ. Under the current pastor, Dr William Phillip, they have been enabled to set up a team to run the Cornhill training course. All of this means that the Tron is at the heart of Scottish evangelicalism. Little wonder that other evangelicals within the Church of Scotland are distressed by this current turn of events.
That distress is only exacerbated when we remember that Willie Philip is the son of James Philip, who together with his brother George and the aforementioned Eric Alexander and the redoubtable Willie Still, were the backbone and the leaders of the evangelical renewal amongst Church of Scotland ministers in the latter half of the 20th Century. With Mr Stillâs church in Aberdeen also in the process of leaving, the sense at least to the outsider is that the evangelical movement within the C of S is fragmenting.
This is a key time for the church in Scotland as well as the Church of Scotland. There are several key questions that we need to ask.
1. Has the Church of Scotland become so apostate that every Christian should leave?
When three of the largest evangelical congregations have left; when several ministers have left and joined or applied to join other denominations; when there is an increasing trickle of people who are leaving their own congregations and moving elsewhere; is it now time for everyone to abandon the sinking ship? Given the recent decisions of the General Assembly there is little doubt that the Church of Scotland is on a trajectory which will lead, and indeed may already have led, to disaster. How can ministers, elders and members promise to obey and support a denomination which so blatantly mishandles and denies the Word of God?
It all sounds very simple â especially for someone like me who could not have joined the C of S in the first place, precisely for those reasons. And therein lies the difficulty. Many evangelicals within the C of S knew what they were getting into when they joined. What has really changed? There are ministers who feel a responsibility to âtheir flocksâ , who are currently experiencing blessing and who feel that the best way to reach their communities is through the local parish church. Who am I, and indeed who is anyone else, to state that everyone should leave? It may be that there are no easy answers on this one and different solutions for different people.
2. What should evangelicals do who stay?
If we decide to stay in the Church of Scotland, what should be the basis of this? It should be realistic, relational and radical.
Realistic – I have heard some dreadful reasons for staying which indicate that the speakers are living in a fantasy world which Walt Disney would be proud of! Every door in âyourâ parish is NOT open to you. The Church of Scotland is NOT the only show in town, or even the best hope for reaching people. The Church of Scotland is NOT the national church in a nation which is covenanted to God. Those days are long gone. Christendom is gone. Scotland has secularized faster than any nation in history â so letâs stop pretending. And letâs not play the game of hanging on to a few vestiges of civic religion in order to justify our existence. Please don’t fall for the fantasy that the Church of Scotland is about to be taken over by evangelicals â the one more push and we are over the line school of thought. Furthermore the Church of Scotland is not constitutionally faithful to the Gospel with the liberal majority being a basic aberration.
Â Those who stay have to realise what they are staying in and be realistic. It is almost delusional to argue that no major decisions have been made and that the Commission that is due to report in 2013 is going to overturn the decision that was made in 2011. It does not have the authority to do so. In fact most of the âstay in at any priceâ group know that 2013 will make no difference whatsoever â the real issue here is how many evangelicals can be persuaded to stay in.
So please be realistic. You belong to a church which at this Assembly decided to allow Hindu idols in your church buildings â it is difficult to conceive how much further you could go from the Church of John Knox! Stand up for truth and the Gospel â but know that this will cost you. We will work together with you. I sometimes hear men talking about being called to be âJeremiahsâ and stay in the midst of an unfaithful people. Apart from the dreadful exegesis (the Church of Scotland is not the nation state of Israel), this notion is not one I would want to follow too much â look what Jeremiah was called to preach and look at what happened to him. However if you are prepared to confront the Church in the way that Jeremiah confronted the leaders of Israel, and encourage them all to go into exile, go for it. I suspect you will not need to leave, you will be kicked out.
Â Relational – The reason for staying in must be relational â in other words because you love people. You don’t want to leave the congregation like sheep without a shepherd. But you need to be loving in all your relationships. Those of your brothers and sisters who feel they cannot stay should be treated with respect, honour and love. Donât gossip about them behind their back, donât accuse them of cowardice, betrayal or empire building, and donât justify your own actions by dissing others. They are not the enemy. Every evangelical in the Church of Scotland should be fighting hard to ensure that the congregation who have left the St Georges-Tron building are not evicted from it. It is better to have an evangelical congregation at the heart of Glasgow rather than one that has the label Church of Scotland.
Â Radical – To just stay in would not be right. You have to do something. You have to call the church to repentance and repent yourself. You may not leave but you have to be prepared to be thrown out as a âtroubler of Israelâ. And you have to prepare your congregation to leave because the time may come when they have to. The Disruption of 1843 did not just happen â there was the ten years conflict before that. Are you prepared for that battle?
3. What should they do who leave?
Â Realistic â Again there has to be realism here. You will face ridicule and persecution. Some people you thought were your friends will turn out to be those who do you most harm. You will face the dangers of your own heart – sinfulness, bitterness, pride, self-justification. It is a brave and costly thing to do. Iâm sure you know that that your leaving will not necessarily usher in revival and renewal â but it is always good to keep that in mind. And you cannot expect other evangelicals from other denominations just to join you. I remember when there was great hope raised by the formation of the APC after they split from the Free Presbyterians. âthis is just a beginning, this is a catalyst for a realignment of Presbyterianism in Scotland, this will provide a home for evangelicals in the C of S to go, we will be joining you soon, etcâ. What has happened? The APC still exists, and there has been some good co-operation between the APC and the Free Church in particular, but rather than C of S ministers coming to the APC, the traffic has largely been the other way, and the APC are left with only a handful of barely viable congregations.
I find it disappointing that it looks as though most congregations who leave the C of S will not be joining any existing denomination in Scotland but will be setting up another one. Yes, I know that the IPC (International Presbyterian Church) is an already existing denomination in London (barely) but it will be a new denomination in Scotland. I understand the attractiveness of the IPC â it allows congregations to continue to be Presbyterian and yet without many of the accretions and traditions that seem to so bind some. I suspect that the reality is that people will join IPC because they in effect allow you to be relatively free within Scotland whilst retaining the Presbyterian name and polity and letting you avoid the pitfalls and inconvenience. If IPC Scotland is not to turn out to be yet another Scottish Presbyterian denomination then a lot of change will have to come.
Relational â The reason for leaving must be love. You want to build biblical Christ centred churches, free from the control of a denomination that has rejected the Bible, not because you are cantankerous conservatives with a penchant for battle, but rather because you so love the Lord that you want to serve him faithfully; you so love his people that you want to feed and nurture them tenderly; and you so love the people of Scotland that you want to bring them Christ passionately. Don’t define yourself by what you are not, rather than what you are. Please donât despise those who feel they have to stay, or those who chose a different path from you. We have to connect and work together.
Radical â I think here is my greatest fear. At first sight it appears to be incredibly radical to walk away from a denomination that you have served and loved, into a wilderness of who knows what. It appears radical because it is. May God honour you for your stance. But that is only the beginning. It is highly possible that you either settle comfortably into some other denomination, move to another country, or establish a small number of relatively middle class evangelical congregations, catering only for those who are already persuaded of the truth. In other words, despite all the language, this just becomes a comfortable sect devoted to maintenance, rather than a radical return to being Christ-centred Gospel churches who burn with a passion for Jesus and the people of Scotland. Again the only way to avoid that is to have a genuine attitude of repentance.
4. What should the rest of us do?
Realistic â By rest of us I mean Christian sisters and brothers in Scotland who recognize and empathise with the struggles of our fellow believers within the Church of Scotland. I guess I am particularly concerned with those of us who perceive ourselves to be in âpurerâ denominations and especially those in my own church, the Free Church of Scotland. Our need to be realistic is just as necessary. The fact is that we are not as we should be. Being realistic requires us to accept that there are good things about and going on in, the Free Church. It also requires us to accept that things are not as they should be and that one of the reasons that there is likely to be at least one new denomination in Scotland, is not because of the inability of our brethren to see the One True Path, nor just because of sheer bloody mindedness, but rather because the caricature and perception they have of the Free Church contains at least some elements of truth. We might like to think that we could become the major evangelical Presbyterian denomination in Scotland but is that realistic? Perhaps in the medium to longer term. But in the short term we have to find a way to survive and more than that to multiply. Finance, the Free Church College and a failure to connect and communicate with our increasingly secularized culture are three of the major areas that need to be addressed.
I was not over happy (and am still not over happy) at the prospect of several evangelical congregations of the C of S setting up their own new denomination, rather than joining with us. So I wrote and spoke to a couple of friends and after listening to them, I had to ask myself the question â what would I do in their shoes? The bottom line is that I am not sure â knowing what I know about the Free Church and the changes that are going on, and believing what I believe about Christian unity being visibly expressed, I would on balance probably have joined the Free Church- if they would have let me! But it would have been a close run thing. I can empathise and sympathise with those who have not made that choice.
Relational â Schadenfreude is a great German word. In Scots it is perhaps best translated by the image of dour faced man inwardly leaping for joy, as he declares âaye, we told ye soâ. In Christian terms it is the pat on the back and the promise to pray âfor you, dear brother, in the midst of your troublesâ (whilst thinking âwe told you soâ). Instead of this rather pharisaical attitude (âLord I thank thee that thou hast not made me a Church of Scotland ministerâ), we need to genuinely pray for and feel the pain of our brothers and sisters. And it has to move beyond feeling. I am certain that one of the reasons that some of those who leave the Church of Scotland will not come near the Free Church is because they do not know us. They know only the image. We have not had them round for meals. We have not prayed with them. We have not cultivated relationships with individuals and congregations. Of course there are exceptions to this, but in general my observation would be that we have remained somewhat aloof in our own wee box. Whether this is caused by pride, a feeling of inadequacy or just sheer busyness is irrelevant. We have not done so. And we must begin to do so. We too must repent.
Radical – God is shaking up the Church in Scotland. And that includes us. We are not the ones standing on the sidelines looking to pick up the scraps that are left. We too are right in the midst of the mix. As the devil has a field day in our beloved land, where the âpeople of the bookâ hardly read never mind recall or believe the Bible; where all our political leaders think that they can âredefine marriageâ when they donât even know what marriage is; where substance abuse, dysfunctional families and economic injustice are fast becoming the norm in every community; we need to plead with the Lord to forgive us â and renew our covenant with God â to serve, love and proclaim Him, whatever the cost â so that he may be glorified.
I am not trying to be a doom and gloom merchant here. Just trying to âkeep it real, relational and radicalâ! There are some really good things going on. Today (at the time of writing) we have had the National Prayer Breakfast in Falkirk with Baroness Cox, Don Carson has been teaching at the Scottish Baptist ministers conference in St Andrews, and there has of course been the Servants of the Word Conference in Glasgow. At the weekend we had a wonderful Solas meeting of European church leaders thinking and praying about how we can re-evangelise Europe. A big vision, hopefully worthy of a big God.
Â Meanwhile the Olympic torch has been making its way from Dundee, through Fife to Edinburgh. It is a fitting symbol. Not of Greek pagan âgodsâ, nor of Nazi fascism, nor of âthe unity of our communityâ in Cameronian Britain. It is a symbol of what our dark, benighted land needs most, the light of the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ
In conclusion allow me to make some suggestions which may be a help in this realignment and shaking up that is going on.
- We should have an alliance of Confessing churches â where congregations which hold to a biblical confession of faith agree to genuinely work and co-operate together.
- We should establish close working practical links and unions between neighbouring congregations so that we can pool our resources.
- Each Free church congregation and Presbytery should reach out to the new IPC (or whatever) congregations from the C of S. Do joint outreach, invite them to Presbytery meetings, keep in touch with one another. We should also seek to work with like minded church of Scotland congregations.
- The FCC should stop their failed experiment and return to the Free Church, and the APC need to realise that the game is up. Neither are going to be the renewed denomination that they were hoping to be.
- At a national level, Cornhill in Glasgow, the Bonar Trust in Edinburgh and Solas in Dundee should seek to provide training in preaching, leadership and persuasive evangelism. The Free Church College should open itself out more to encourage this kind of co-operation.
- There must be a renewed commitment to genuine evangelism, social concern and prayer.
- We need an action plan for joint church planting between us all â where at least one new church per year is started. Our concern should be to have a good reformed evangelical congregation within 30 minutes of everyone in Scotland â whatever the denominational label.
I realise that much of the above is a fairly superficial and to be honest generalized view. I donât know the answers but I do believe that we have to stop mucking around, playing at church politics and pretending to be more significant than we are. We all need to be realistic, relational and radical. We have the Word of God which is meat, drink and life. We are in the midst of a culture which is starving. Letâs GoâŠ.