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The Church of Scotland and the Presbyterian Church of Australia

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Just this last week I attended the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of South Australia. Another Church has just concluded its Assembly as well, the Church of Scotland, the church from which the Presbyterian Church of Australia was founded. Events at that meeting should concern every Christian and particularly those who trace their spiritual heritage through the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition.
This blog is written mostly for people who don’t read a lot of other blogs, so the following borrows freely from a lot of other comment that is available on the internet. The Sydney Presbyterian College blog comments here and here. But the issue to my mind is not whether this another step into decline or whether these are the steps that are taken when the decline is finished.

The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland was called upon to consider an appeal against the action of the Presbytery of Aberdeen to induct into a charge a minister who has openly declared himself to be living in a homosexual relationship.
Just to restate the situation, the Presbytery were willing to proceed with the installation of a minister who openly lives with another man. The appeal was intended to bring their decision under review.
The General Assembly voted (23rd May 2009) to back Aberdeen Presbytery by 326 votes to 267 (these numbers indicate there were also many abstentions). The Scotsman reported the decision was made after four hours of legal and theological arguments and a stirring rendition of the hymn “Spirit of Truth and Grace Come to us in this Place.” The Assembly offered the following explanation for their decision:
The following motion is agreed by the Assembly:
a) refuse the dissent and complaint of Aitken and others and sustain the decision of the Presbytery of Aberdeen on the basis that the Presbytery followed the vacancy procedure correctly in Act VIII 2003.
b) affirm for the avoidance of doubt that this decision does not alter the Church’s standards of ministerial conduct.
The first part means the Presbytery broke no rules of the church in their handling of the matter. I honestly have no idea what the second part means.
The Presbytery are now free to continue.
Many outside the church lauded the decision as progressive. The Equality and Human Rights Commission Scotland said it was “delighted” with the result. Alyson Thomson, head of communications, said: “The Church of Scotland General Assembly has set out a clear stall – it is a modern church for a modern Scotland. The commission is delighted that the Church has, as Scott Rennie requested, taken an honest look at itself over the issue of sexuality and decided that the values of fairness, equality, dignity and respect are of more worth than those of ignorance and intolerance.”
Soon after, the Assembly deferred consideration of a call to ban openly homosexual people from appointment to the ministry by establishing a Commission to consider the issue of training homosexuals for the ministry and to report back in 2011. Part of this decision was that until then, no more openly gay ministers can be appointed and no members can speak in public on the issue of openly homosexual, non-celibate ministers.
In anticipation of the debate an online petition was organised asking the Church of Scotland to support the appeal against the Presbytery of Aberdeen. Over 12,000 people signed it, including over 5,000 members of the Church of Scotland itself.
What are we to make of such a decision? There are many at mgpc who think of the COS with great affection. I’m sure that they are distressed and confused by this outcome.
Carl Truman, among others on the reformation 21 blog has made many pertinent observations. He also posted a considered evaluation here. Among those observations is that a decision such as this is not the beginning of the end for a biblical church, it is a sign that the end has come and gone. For generations now the COS has not upheld the teachings of the Scriptures in a clear, unambiguous and unified fashion. The Gospel is no longer clearly and singly maintained. This decision is a sign that they have shipwrecked themselves, it is not a cause of shipwreck.
Others within the Church from strongly biblical Congregations are trying to isolate themselves from the authority of the church and are seeking to relate only to congregations like themselves. This is not historical Presbyterian church government. This is a form of congregationalism more akin to the Baptist or Congregational denominations. It is a little concerning that these churches feel that they can set aside the authority they have agreed to exist under because they are convicted (rightly in my opinion) that others are not submitting to Biblical authority.
Interestingly, some of these Congregations are quite willing to state that they remain solely so that they can continue to occupy their buildings and remain in their current locations.
Others are suggesting that disaffected folk from the COS could form some sort of union with the Free Church of Scotland (a smaller Presbyterian denomination that seperated from the COS in the 1800s). The challenge here is that the Free Chruch still sing only biblical Psalms, without musical accompaniment. This proposal does not seem to contain the notion that those joining with the Free Church will adopt their practice, but that the FC will forsake their long held practice. Such an idea seems overly optimistic, to say the least.
In outlining this situation, I want to provide some observations from it that are pertinent to the situation of our own church. It’s not our task to fix Scotland, its our task to be faithful here.
Our principle of reading the Scriptures must remain secure. To affirm the Bible as the inspired Word of God is to believe that every word in the Bible is there because God caused them to be there. The Bible says what God wants it to say. It does not say anything that He doesn’t want it to say.
Coupled with that the only source of Divine revelation is the Bible. There are no other sources of revelation or authority that parallel the Sciptures. Modern delusions of prophetic revelations are similar to the liberal theories of the last century. They both reduce the central and unique authority of the Scriptures and make them contingent on external sources for authentication.
Finally, pastors and church leaders often receive lots of criticism for focussing on what are considered minor matters. The reason that minor matters need attention is that they lead to major matters. The reading principle of the Bible that has been used to introduce pastoral leadership by women is the same reading principle that is used to justify pastoral leadership by homosexuals. This is not to say, and I stress this, that everyone who supports pastoral leadership by women supports pastoral leadership by homosexuals. Its just that they have no reading principle of the Bible that allows them to oppose it.
This is of concern to the Presbyterian Church of Australia. There are those within it who question the doctrine of inerrancy in the strongest terms and whose aspiration for our denomination is that of a church in tune with and able to communicate the Christian message to people of the 21st Century. Again, I am not saying that these folk would necessarily agree with the situation in Scotland. The problem is that they do not have a way of reading with the Bible that gives them solid ground to disagree.
As I wrote earlier, tolerance of homosexuality is not the issue that the church stands or falls on. It is a sign though, among others, that a church has already fallen away from loyalty to the Bible and holds other authorities as supreme.
We need to hold to the authority of the Scriptures, the sovereignty of God and our mutual accountability as churches.
Thirty-two years ago mgpc took a step of faith as many were forced to move their work and witness from a Church that they could no longer support as being founded wholly on the Word of God. We have know much blessing since that time. We trust that our believing brethren from afar will know similar blessings in time to come.

8 thoughts on “The Church of Scotland and the Presbyterian Church of Australia

  1. “his proposal does not seem to contain the notion that those joining with the Free Church will adopt their practice, but that the FC will forsake their long held practice. Such an idea seems overly optimistic, to say the least.”

    This comment illustrates the danger in commentating on things from outside. No one is asking that the Free Church would forsake our long held practice. Rather that we would allow other practices. Furthermore the Free Church is undergoing a major review of our position on worship which is due to be voted on in 2010 at a plenary assembly. As the editor of the Free Church magazine I fully expect there to be a change…and I don’t think that is ‘overly optimistic’…

    • Thankyou for your gracious comment in the face of my presumption and ignorance of the fuller situation.
      I don’t think there is any place further ‘outside’ to be commenting on your situation than here in Mount Gambier so I really appreciate the firsthand perspective you offer as we try to learn from this situation.
      Is there some online material that provides the background or the substance of the review which is taking place?
      The idea of a united Presbyterian witness arising from this circumstance is evocative.
      Tomorrow as a fellowship we will pray that all our brothers and sisters in Scotland will be blessed with great wisdom, grace and faith.

  2. Hi Gary,

    Good to see you commenting.

    I added my name to the petition and encouraged my Victorian colleagues to do so. However I also thought Carl Trueman well and truly hit the nail on the head.

    I listened to Willian Phillip’s address to his own church and thought it very disappointing. As Carl says a congregationalist at heart as indeed our Sydney Anglican friends are.

    • Thankyou David and welcome aboard.
      I’m really trying to make observations about the situation and commenting on that which we can learn from them for our own situation.
      Otherwise I run the risk of commenting without full information, as has been pointed out above.
      Mind you I now know more about the current circumstances of another Scottish Presbyterian Church.
      If you’re interested, follow this link: http://www.freechurch.org/pdf/monthlyrecord/may09.pdf and look on pages 6 & 7 to see the terms under which the review of Public Worship within the Free Church will take place.

      • Thanks. Yes I know that link….I am the editor of the Monthly Record. Thelink you gives answers the question above as well. Pray for us in Scotland…there is a major shake up going on.

  3. Hi Gary,

    If you bump into Bill Scott say hello to him from me. He was minister in Dumfries (FC) during a time I used to visit ICI rather frequently in the first half of the 1980’s – while you were still in shorts. I think he went off with the Continuing mob.

  4. David Robertson may be rather optimistic about change in worship practice in the FCS. I don’t see that as really likely. What I do see is a renewal that brings more balanced approach that keeps worship issues in perspective. The new Scottish Psalter is a great step. And I ask, why would anyone want to make such a big obstacle out of a conservative Reformed worship practice if it occurs in the context of Christ honouring ministry? Really, there are bigger issues.

    • Thanks for the comment, Rowland.
      My comment expresses a concern that in a situation such as this that the fruit may end up being a group wanting to continue on the old perspective, a group wanting to go forward on the basis of a new perspective, but unable to join with others of a broader character, and a group fully able to accept a new perspective and work with others of a broader character.
      If it doesn’t work out like that I’d be more than pleased.
      My greatest hope is that their perspective will come from a reading of the Scriptures which is confessionally orthodox.
      Perhaps Australian friends of reformed and Presbyterian principles will be able to learn something.

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