A Sad Departure – A Review by John Keddie
The occasion of this book of David Randall’s on A Sad Departure is the recent departure from the Church of Scotland of forty or so ministers and an (unspecified) number of other office-bearers and members. The book provides a rationale for this departure. The author was one of the ministers who separated from the Kirk after faithfully serving many years in a congregation in the north east of Scotland. The particular catalyst for the departure of ministers and people from the Kirk, we are told, was the acceptance by the Kirk of practising homosexual ministers after 2009. This was, by all accounts, the ‘last straw’ of defiance of biblical teaching which so many found finally unacceptable, leading to their ‘sad departure’. The author purposely uses the title A Sad Departure to cover two sadnesses felt: (1) the sadness of the Kirk’s departure from its historical and theological moorings; and (2) the departure out of the denomination of the ministers themselves.
Mr Randall has one way or another told a sad story. He has done so with real candour for which he is to be commended. His examination of the biblical and historical material is admirable. It is also a brave book, given that putting this into print will open him up to all sorts of critical reaction, both, one suspects, from the liberal side and from the ‘conservative’ side (within or outside the Kirk). On the one hand some will say: ‘But haven’t plenty of evangelicals stayed in the Kirk?’ On the other hand some will say: ‘Though forty may have left, what of those professed evangelical men (or women?) who have gone into the ministry of the Church of Scotland in the same period?’ The cynic might say: ‘Why are you sad leaving such a mixed and compromised body. Aren’t you going to breathe fresher air?’ Others might say: ‘What, only 40!’
Before examining the thesis of this book, a personal word. The reviewer was brought up in the Kirk. His father and two uncles were elders (a cousin was baptised by James S Stewart). One of these was elected an office-bearer in St George’s West, Edinburgh, in the days of James Black. Until I started to attend the ministry of James Philip at the Holyrood Abbey congregation in 1965 (aged 19), I have no recollection of hearing the gospel in the Kirk. In the 50s and 60s the Kirk was still well attended. But it was largely formal, nominal, and not distinctly evangelical. We had no Bible reading, prayers or grace at meals in the home. The gospel was unknown in my family circles. This was common. In the early days of my own experience there were eight Church of Scotland congregations in the area in which I lived in Edinburgh. By the early years of the new millennium none of them remained as such, though three of the former Kirk buildings became Christian meeting places: a Brethren assembly, a Charismatic meeting and a Free Presbyterian Church! But the Kirks had gone, the aggregate membership (not necessarily attendances!) of which in the early 1960s would have been around 5-6,000 souls. After a few years in Holyrood Abbey, in which I became a member, I had my own ‘sad departure’ (around the time of the admission of women to office and ministry in the Church) and attached myself to a Free Church of Scotland congregation. The issue, for me, was basically ‘broad churchism’. I did not move churches because I thought the Free Church to be flawless, but because at least it had confessional and constitutional integrity and for that reason deserved my support. Anyway, that is how I felt and that is what I did. I mention this because it has an obvious connection with the subject of Mr Randall’s book.
So, what about A Sad Departure? The Church of Scotland in the 21st century cannot be understood apart from the acceptance and adoption of the ‘broad church’ model in the wake of 19th century developments in relation to the Bible and the creed in the mainline Scottish Presbyterian Churches. Herein is the source of the ‘wrecking’ of the Scottish Presbyterian Church in the 20th century.
The wrecking of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland
1. First, and no doubt foremost, there is the matter of a revised view of the Bible in the churches through the rise of the higher criticism in Bible studies introduced primarily through the Free Church in the 19th century.
2. Then there are the qualifications of the teaching of the Confession of Faith through Declaratory Acts (United Presbyterians, 1879; Free Church, 1892; Church of Scotland, 1910).
3. There were consequently changes in ordination vows in the direction of relaxation (United Free, 1900; Church of Scotland, 1929). These qualifications and relaxations effectively made the creedal position of the churches mutable and consequently the application of discipline for heresy nigh impossible. It was the institutionalisation of a classic ‘broad church’ model in which ‘evangelicalism’ was, or at least was seen to become, just one tolerable view among others held by some within the Church, essentially an ‘outmoded alternative’.
4. The theological faculties became dominated by liberal, modernist or neo-orthodox theology and critical views of the Bible. This inevitably diminished its authority. This was exacerbated by the transfer of the denominational colleges to the Universities, cementing liberal modernist thought as the norm for the teaching of all divinity students in the Kirk.
Such movements ensured that even evangelically-minded students were not taught the orthodox, confessional, unequivocal, unqualified, Reformation evangelical faith. Nor, indeed, did they have to subscribe to it. It may have been their private commitment, so far as they understood it, but it was not the ‘official’ one, which was purposely ‘broad’ and qualified.
This, no doubt, had far-reaching consequences for the witness of evangelicals who would not find it easy even among themselves to be unified about what evangelical faith or a confessional position really were. In addition, they had to ‘get used to’ situations – Assemblies, Presbyteries, Committees and other Church courts which were diffuse and generally dominated by liberal mores, besides women in office. That was a continuing recipe for: (1) compromise; and (2) a sort of congregational independency or church-within-a-church which essentially involved a detachment from Presbyterianism itself!
David Randall makes reference to such movements, and yet, not without falling rather short in his analysis in some respects.
The inadequacies of A Sad Departure
1. In various places Randall makes reference to the Church’s historical and traditional roots and how it is the evangelical position that is the ‘authentic’, genuine one. However, he does not take sufficient account of the discontinuity between the more remote history, when Confession, formula and ordination vows were not yet tampered with, and the new model ‘broad church’, based upon altogether more indefinite, undefined, and mutable commitments to a fundamentally vague formula and loose ordination vows. These purposely lent themselves to breadth of interpretation which formally and officially allowed a wide spectrum of beliefs (or unbeliefs). There never has been comfort for evangelicals, at least since 1929, in the formula and vows. Adherence to the Confession is not now to the ‘whole doctrine of the Confession of Faith’ but essentially to sola ecclesia, what the Church determines to be acceptable. (I dare say some evangelicals completed their training and licensing without opening the Confession!)
2. There is little discussion in the book on the effects of the forms of theological education prevailing in the Church in the 20th century and their negative impact, not least on evangelicals. The dominant liberal, modernist, and neo-orthodox theology, together with the Old Testament and New Testament criticism, are dead weights in preparing men for a sound theology and evangelical ministry. This has surely had a profound impact on the declension of the Church. Although there is a superficial parallel between the situation in the 20th century and the situation in the Kirk in the 18th century, really it is not so. Yes, there was moderatism and unbelief in the ministry then. However, the formal position of the Church, confessionally speaking, was unaltered, and in general the teaching of divinity was perfectly orthodox. In the 20th century the position of the Kirk became ‘officially’ mutable and uncertain. (How many evangelicals in the Kirk believe in conditional immortality or deny limited atonement, or the perpetuity of the moral law?)
3. The argument is made in the book that the homosexual issue is the crux issue because it is so at odds with clear Bible teaching. Certainly the decisions on the ordination of practising homosexual ministers fly in the face of clear Bible teaching (well presented here by Randall) and are therefore in direct defiance of the authority of Scripture. Mention is made of a speaker in the Assembly who apparently stated that ‘We know better than the Bible now’! However, that is not new. I remember in the late 60s watching a live broadcast from the Kirk Assembly during a debate on the admission of women to office in the Church. I distinctly remember an influential speaker (Professor James S Stewart) advocating the admission of women to office with the statement that it was true that Paul taught clearly that women be not admitted to office. However, that was Paul and that was then. We have moved on and such things can be changed to suit the times! Such a view has in truth been endemic in the Church for reasons not unrelated to the qualified and mutable creedal commitments. The issue may not seem to be so critical (women in office). Yet the attitude to the Bible and its teaching was essentially the same and what has happened in the Kirk post-2009, given the social changes in the interim – not unrelated to the departure of the Kirk from evangelical orthodoxy – is simply a logical outworking of the principle of mutability worked through the fabric of the Church.
1. One very hard thing in all this is what is said in the book about loving the Kirk of our upbringing. We are to love the truth. And we are to love righteousness. But can we love a Church that has failed to maintain truth and faithfulness to the Lord and His gospel? I have had the profound feeling of the failure of the Kirk in relation to my own forebears, generations of Scottish families, and in promoting a vague sort of universalism. This does not accord with the letters to the churches in which want of faithfulness eventuates in the candlestick being removed. The churches in Laodicea and Sardis are unlovable. (‘Lukewarm’, says Jesus, ‘I will spew you out of my mouth’. Strong words. What is He going to do in Scotland?). So many of these churches were in truth pitiable. True we will love the souls of men, and we will love all righteousness, and we ought to love all God’s ordinances, but not a theologically corrupted church which can be soul-destroying.
2. Among the ‘sadnesses’ in this book are: (1) the striking fact of so few leaving the old Kirk; and also (2) the apparent lack of any unified movement or consensus on this issue amongst professed evangelicals. Notwithstanding what Randall says about sadness (reluctance?) in leaving the Church, the truth is that, given the legal restraints, no one leaving the Kirk will be able to take congregations or buildings with them. That is a practical discouragement from taking such a step (besides leaving stipends and manses behind). For larger groups, obtaining new buildings (and stipends) may be no problem. But for smaller groups it is more problematic. The smaller conservative Presbyterian denominations either have limited resources themselves or else are perceived to be ‘ultra-orthodox’. Where there is a ‘go-it-alone’ on the part of departing groups a question of real Presbyterianism arises: How do they form Presbyteries? What about continuity? What about formula and ordination vows, for that matter? What about theological education? A tragedy in the Scottish scene, so eloquently evident in the content of A Sad Departure is the fact that confessional Presbyterianism largely disappeared from Scottish Presbyterianism after 1900 (apart from the small ‘rumps’ of ‘unpopular’ conservative Presbyterians).
3. In retrospect it seems such a pity that there wasn’t a significant nation-wide ‘realignment’ either in 1900 or even earlier. It looks as though the (Free Church) House of Lords Case of 1903-4 was a crux in that if there had been a significant movement against the Declaratory Act of 1892 and the subsequent union, the Royal Commission to divide up the Free Church properties in 1905 might have worked out very differently and an evangelical, Reformed, medium-sized Church with a sound theological College might have emerged in the ecclesiastical firmament. However, that was not to be and, as they say, the rest is history. It seems to be a case of the Lord giving the Church up to the desires of its heart and sending leanness to its soul. Too late now, what might have happened in 1900. But still not too late for uncompromising evangelicals to support the faithful conservative Presbyterian denominations, or for that matter for there to be a coming together of these smaller bodies, or for ceaseless prayer for reformation and revival in our day among all God’s people.
why we could not stay in the Church of Scotland
The occasion of this book of David Randall’s on A Sad Departure is the recent departure from the Church of Scotland of forty or so ministers and an (unspecified) number of other office-bearers and members. The book provides a rationale […]
This article is written by Mr Keddie in response to Rev David Randall’s book A Sad Departure, reviewed in this magazine by Rev Anthony Dallison, himself at one time a Church of Scotland minister.