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Going for Free?

With the Church of Scotland in turmoil, the Kirk's evangelical ministers have had an invitation to make a jump for it – by others who might soon be singing off the former's hymn sheets?

by Watchman

first published 05/05/2010


We are freeFOLLOWING a ‘Come on over to my place’ call by some Free Church of Scotland clergy to their disillusioned colleagues in the Church of Scotland, the way for an inter-denominational migration may well be eased if the Free Church overturns a century-old ban on the policy of singing psalms only.

In the wake of the appointment of an openly-gay minister last year, the Church of Scotland has been in tight-lipped turmoil within its ranks, and many are considering their position.

Amongst those who hold to a biblical view of human sexuality there has been a variety of responses amongst the clergy: this as a reflection of the various situations of individual ministers in terms of age, experience, time in a congregation, years to retirement and other relevant factors.

However there are almost certainly those who are making plans to jump for it if their concerns are not upheld by the Kirk’s General Assembly in May 2011 when the 2-year study by a Special Commission reports back. Indeed one Church of Scotland minister in Ross-shire left his position last year and some may indeed by considering leaving for other denominations. However “we love singing our hymns and spiritual songs” and other presbyterian groupings don't (as yet).

Recovering Truth or heading for error?


But the question relating to the possibility of a Free Church’s volte-face on what its member can and cannot sing, raises some very big questions. Has the Free Church been wrong for the last 110 years or has been right all that time and is now going astray? Is the Free Church on the brink of error, or on the verge of reclaiming Truth? It is surely not that God has changed His mind over the period: to use the technical term the Almighty and His Word are immutable. So what has changed?

Drivers for change


One of the factors is the generational change that is taking place as the baby-boomer generation heads for retirement. This creates a shift in the balance between (generally-older) traditionalists and (generally-younger) reformers. (It was traditional/reform tensions that last split the Church in 2000; albeit that a particular incident became the focus and the final straw.) And that split itself, altered the respective ‘move forward/stay-as-we-are’ balance within the two emerging camps.

Another very significant factor in all of this is the composition of the Free Church which spans East/West, rural/urban, Gaelic/English congregations. This range of diversity in cultures, backgrounds, linguistic preferences and geography creates a wide range of traditions and views. What the congregational ethos of one local church may call for can differ markedly from a sister church in a different part of the country.

Too near or too far?


The problem that arises in the wake of a denominational parting of the ways is that amongst those who leave (and the question and definition of who has left what is another matter) there are very often a new set of problems. Some feel that the ‘new’ has gone too far (away from the ‘old’). Others feel that the ‘new’ hasn’t gone far enough away from what has been.

What is interesting is that here we are, just over a decade since the last secession, facing the prospect of another significant issue. The above dynamic didn’t take long this time to become apparent.

Or futher still?


And it's here we get to another point. Psalm 150 instructs God’s people to: ‘Praise him with the sound of the trumpet: praise him with the psaltery and harp. Praise him with the timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs. Praise him upon the loud cymbals: praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.’ (And that’s in the King James Version – lest we get into the debate about modern translations.)
And it is rather strange the view that God who is the giver of all the good gifts to His people, should endow some with musical abilities, but forbid them to use these giftings in and for His praise.

So it’s not altogether unlikely that if the Free Church (or some of it) moves to hymn-singing that some time later (or sooner) down the track there will be calls for instrumental accompaniment.

Reformed churches in need of reform


If the detached observer comes to the view that this, at denominational level, creates an unholy mess then he (or she) would not be far wrong. The post-Reformation (‘Reformed’ so-called) churches have merely replaced the Pope and that hierarchy with a new version of the same. The pecking order and chain of command goes thus: General Assembly, Presbyteries, Ministers, Assistant Ministers, Elders, Youth Workers, Deacons, Sunday School teachers, administrators/other church workers and church members.

And in all of this the claim is to preach the ‘priesthood of all believers’. Jesus came to turn the world’s way of doing things upside down, religious organisations (of all stripes) have gradually reverted to what previously had been – the way of the world.

However, getting back to the Church of Scotland and its paroxysms of anguish over gay clergy, this unbiblical mode of conducting its affairs (no pun intended) through a tiered bureaucratic system lies at the tangled heart of the problem. Denominational mechanisms have evolved and sunk to the level of committee debate and political processes. The Holy Spirit doesn't get a look in and just quietly withdraws from the scene.

Free indeed


It is possibly with the realisation that denominationalism has failed, and is failing, that back in 1989 when the Free Presbyterian Church split, those who left decided to form the Associated Presbyterian Churches (note the plural of the noun).
Associated’ – the relationship: ‘Presbyterian’ –  government by elders; ‘Churches’ – congregations; not a denomination.
This is much more in line with biblical forms of relationship than the monoliths that we see elsewhere.

If the Free Church of Scotland (and others) were to tackle the problem at its root it would not have to agonise over whether to sing psalms, or hymns, or spiritual songs; and whether or not to have instrumental accompaniment. Each congregation would make up its own mind. But then the body politic wouldn’t be homogenous; and then it wouldn’t be a denomination; and then.....and then...

It’s said that long-term prisoners prefer the security of jail to the responsibilities and challenges of freedom: it’s called Institutionalism. Churches are not immune from this dynamic – the religious structure must be preserved.

So the institution must remain – in one form or another. And if it needs to change then some leave and some stay and some migrate to a different version of the institution. Jesus said: ‘You will know the Truth and the Truth will set you free.’ But having a hold on Truth, and living it are two different things. And the tired and ineffectual routine of moving the deck chairs on the striken SS Denominations looks set for another whirl.

Meanwhile Jesus is still building ‘His’ church; and we praise God for that unfailing assurance. The challenge for believers who are confused and shaken by all of this is to cling to Christ within His body - the true ecclesia. The Church.


Ed. footnotes:
One of the issues raised by the above relates to the extent to which a (particular) tradition becomes a dogma and then becomes doctrine.

The following articles cover some related themes
The Primacy of the Local ChurchPresbyterianism;Scottish StyleWhat to look for in a church.

Update: 20/08/10
The Press and Journal is a daily broadsheet covering Scotland from the far north down to the central belt. See: 'Free Church in "Worship Wars" dispute'. The article reports of a specially-convened two-day conference leading into an (ad hoc) extraordinary general assembly later in the year.

Watchman, 26/05/2011

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