Moderator's Comments - Posted 1 June 2018
Jesus asked: “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12).
Your Moderator-General has been doing the family thing … visiting the relatives. And, for a while, was asking the same question.
A reflection from Scotland
In 1913, my wife’s grandparents took six weeks to sail from Glasgow to Melbourne – enduring near-death experiences on the wild seas, lack of all home comfort, poor food and days of boredom. I arrived in Scotland in about 30 hours. Air travel still amazes me in that I can depart after morning worship in Melbourne, Sunday morning, and then enter into worship for the opening of a General Assembly in Scotland by 6pm Monday night.
Courtesy of Uber, I found Liberton Kirk in a suburb of Edinburgh, a 12th century building belonging to the Church of Scotland, but used by the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) for their General Assembly. This is the smaller of the two free churches in Scotland.
Both free churches follow in the tradition of the 1843 Chalmers-led walk out from the main Church of Scotland over state-sanctioned patronage and moderatism in the pulpits (moderatism: a Scottish version precursor to full-blown liberalism – a system of biblical doubt that tore God’s authoritative word from the Bible).
Sadly, this 1843-founded Free Church of Scotland suffered bitter turmoil among its own ministers and elders during the 1990s and then an irreconcilable split in the year 2000. Since Jan 2000, there are two free churches in Scotland. It’s not for me to draw conclusions or take sides from the cultural distance of being “downunder”, and also due to the 18 years that have elapsed since the split, but I do make some observations that should not be read as judging issues that divide.
These are personal observations, gleaned by spending two days with the church, and also speaking at length with members of the FCoS(C) during meal breaks:
- the FCoS(C) is still hurting, deeply, over the divisive spirit that emerged in the church in the 1990s, and they attribute this to the handling (i.e. mishandling) of a matter of church discipline;
- the sting of this is acutely felt and was brought to a climax when they were labelled as conspirators in the matter by the civil court (blaming the church for this label);
- they claim they were misunderstood and misrepresented in their pursuit of this matter, which they did constrained by conscience;
- in the end, they felt that they were left with no choice but to withdraw / walkout and begin afresh as the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing);
- in doing so, they make strong claims to be the true inheritor of the title of Free Church today … and, in that, they feel the final insult and sting: that they had to relinquish occupation and use of church buildings and manses.
I noticed that they rarely speak publicly of the “other group”. In conversations over supper some ministers referred to them as the Free Church (Majority). What that says to me is that while the FCoS(C) refer to themselves as the Free Church that continues in true free-church spirit, there is another group who exist who, they acknowledge, have more congregations than they, hence: Free Church (Majority).
I enjoyed rich fellowship with the Free Church (Continuing). There are nearly 30 FCoS(C) congregations in Scotland, most strongly represented in Inverness, the Islands of the Outer Hebrides (eg Lewis) and the Island of Skye. There are about 25 ministers and 25 elders constituting the General Assembly. I didn’t hear of any expectations of extension to this number or plans to plant new churches.
To a PCA man like me, there are some stand-out differences: exclusive use of the metrical version of the Psalms in worship, a ban on any musical instruments for singing (except the human voice), exclusive reference to the King James Version of the Bible, standing for prayer and sitting for singing, lots of “Thee” and “Thou” in prayers, hour-long sermons not well lit with illustration, ministers in clerical collars and women wearing hats in church. And, most strange to me, foot-stamping instead of voting with hands or voices.
But, while the foot-stamping at first alarmed me (I thought it signalled displeasure), none of it seemed to matter as regards my engagement. I could enter into worship with mind, heart and soul. Our friends here in the FCoS(C) are devoutly and determinedly focussed on glorifying God and exalting Christ – giving honour to the one who alone is worthy of honour.
When FCoS(C) sings together (yes, solely from “Psalms of David in Metre”) it’s powerful and heart-led singing which I found profoundly moving. In the singing, there is a deep longing to acknowledge and a daring to hope that God is honoured in the items of praise and that hearts are being sanctified as well.
However, while enjoying the singing, I felt impoverished singing praises that make no specific references to the life and ministry of Christ, or the New Testament explanations of redemption. Although Psalms-only is devotionally rich and enjoyable, I missed singing praise back to our God using specific names of Jesus, or mentioning the blood of Christ or the power of the Cross. I think it’s a poorer option to sing praise to God without New Testament reflection or vocabulary. We pray in public worship with prayers crafted carefully by the minister with words soaked in New Testament thought and references. We sit under preaching likewise. But in singing, why only sing of Christ foreshadowed? Why not use (like our prayers), songs crafted carefully by gifted musicians with words soaked in New Testament thought and references?
When FCoS(C) focuses our minds, and humbles our hearts under the preaching of the Word, it’s an hour-long discipline we don’t often apply back home. But it’s expositional preaching always faithful to the intent of God, replete with side-references to other parts of Scripture and acutely applied to the listeners’ hearts and lives. Though there’s a defensiveness in their application that comes from the feeling of persecution and hurt mentioned above, and, to this listener’s ear, the tone is overly censorious.
When FCoS(C) prays … we all know FOR SURE that we’re speaking WITH God and BEFORE God. Prayers are extemporaneous, never short, full of Scripture, reverent, moving.
FCoS(C) fellowship is sweet and genuine, and outsiders like me and Rev Robin Tso from the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia were warmly welcomed. It’s a privilege to be here representing our Church. The FCoS(C) are truly brothers in Christ.
As an observer from another place, I ask, “How can these brothers in Christ get through this sense of persecution and hurt? How can they move on? What responsibility is there on the Free Church (Majority) to approach the FCoS(C) about this ongoing pain?”
From one Free Church to the next – the majority group. Of course, the numerical picture isn’t everything, but whereas the FCoS(C) has nearly 30 congregations, the Free Church of Scotland (FCoS) has 105 congregations, ten of these being recent church plants. It was a joy to be welcomed to their General Assembly.
I closed my eyes to listen to the presentations and debates and found that, apart from the accent, I could be back home within a PCA General Assembly. There’s a strongly expressed commitment to the inspired, inerrant and infallible Word of God – the Bible – as fully sufficient for faith and practice. The application of this is that their General Assembly is consumed with issues such as preaching, training the young into the faith, revitalising the not-so-strong congregations, witnessing the gospel to an increasingly secular society and planting new churches.
Same issues facing this church as ours. Same spirit as ours.
The FCoS was very interested to hear of our PCA journey of renewal since 1977 when we were gifted a blessed departure and the opportunity to begin afresh. That is, a fresh commitment to the inspired, inerrant and infallible Bible as the Word of God and the Westminster Confession of Faith as the sense in which we understand the teaching of Scripture. They were very encouraged by the close similarities between our churches. The PCA was very warmly received and greeted.
On reflection, it’s the Free Church of Scotland (FCoS) that is closest to what we are. Loosely put, the FCoS is the PCA in Scotland. I think we could benefit by fostering close, warm and practical ties with them.
It warmed my heart to think of the privilege of being sent to Edinburgh to be received along with other world church delegates, such as:
- Rev Dr Sam Logan – former International Director of the World Reformed Fellowship, and author/theologian;
- Rev Robyn Tso – minister of the PCEA, based in Newcastle;
- Rev Kien Seng Lee – Singapore Presbyterian Church;
- Rev John Gondwe – CCAP minister, Mzuzu, Malawi.
We each told our own story and offered encouragement by reminding FCoS that we are part of King Jesus, whose kingdom is growing across the world. One body, many congregations, united in purpose.
One of the highlights for me was the Theological Education report. To hear of this relatively small denomination supporting a strategically important institution: the Edinburgh Theological Seminary (ETS), attracting not only their own candidates but students from outside the Free Church. ETS is located in the very centre of city, has full access to one of the world’s greatest theological libraries, and issues degrees under the authority of Glasgow University.
While we were meeting, news filtered across from the other side of the Royal Mile. We need to understand that all three Presbyterian churches (FCoS(C), FCoS and CoS) were meeting in Edinburgh during the same week. The Church of Scotland (CoS) had just given approval for same-sex church wedding services. How can they do that, we ask? The ripple of this question went through the Assembly. How can a church authorise the writing of same-sex wedding services that dare to ask God’s blessing on a union and a lifestyle that displeases God?
Of course, there are many answers to this question, and David Randall has written a book on the subject (A Sad Departure). In summary, my view is that it’s natural progress from the proposal many years ago in the CoS to depart from the Westminster Confession of Faith as the sense in which they understand the Scriptures – a motion that didn’t pass at the time, but which became the mood of the church from then on.
In passing, I note that the Uniting Church in Australia meets in July on this same matter: to authorise the writing of church wedding services for something that displeases God.
Back to the FCoS. Over lunch, speaking with some senior officials of the church, I offered some personal reflections on how I saw the Free Church split (let the reader understand: they asked me to express an opinion seeing I had been meeting with the FCoS(C) for the previous two days). While not making any judgments, I spoke of the need to reach out with some form of olive branch to a hurting church and to offer whatever apologies may be appropriate. I urged them to listen to the FCoS(C) and feel their pain. While there’s clearly no possibility of reunification in this generation, the prayer is for better understanding and a more cordial relationship.
I began this letter with reference to a question: mother, sister or cousin? Jesus answered his similar question with: “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Both Free Churches in Scotland are purposefully and conscientiously committed to doing the will of the Father as expressed in his inspired, inerrant and infallible Word. And so is the PCA.
I’m sure that we each have our weak points, blind spots and our shibboleths. Nevertheless, we should learn from one another, enjoy each other’s company and strive, as best we can, to demonstrate the unity we have in Christ and, in some small way, to fulfil our Lord’s high-priestly prayer: “that all of them may be one”.
Let me answer my opening question in this way:
- while we have divorced our mother church (CoS); (in 2016, the PCA declared that we are no longer in fellowship with the CoS as a result of their decision to allow congregations to call ministers who are living in same-sex relationships);
- we have a genuinely close sister church (FCoS) by whom we can be greatly encouraged and walk more closely with;
- and a faithful cousin church (FCoS(C)) who, like our own cousins, we may see less frequently but by whom we can learn because we’re of the same family.
John P Wilson
Rev John P Wilson BSc, DipEd, BTh, DMin
Clerk of Assembly, PCV
(+61) 0418 537 209