Tuesday 26 May 2009

Scottish Kirk to Split or No?

Back in the days when I made periodic visits to YMCA Bonskeid House, Pitlochry, I looked rather ingnorantly upon a bust of Thomas Chalmers contained within the house. I was more interested in the previous owners and ordained visitor, the Barbours, and anti-laird, socialist inclined, John Murdoch, that led to me meeting one of his descendents. It interested me that about the 1840s Bonskeid was about the location that Gaelic was spoken, moving west. It has retreated far from there now. Incidentally Bonskeid House is now a private residence, so it cannot be visited.

Thomas Chalmers led the Great Disruption in 1843 that meant 451 of 1200 ministers and a third of the Church of Scotland members left to form a Free Kirk. The issue was one of patronage and the middle class after the 1832 Reform Act thinking it had more right not less to determine the ministry (including the lairds on a more feudal basis). There was a Veto Act, that allowed a congregation to reject its patron's choice and a Chapel Act that put ministers fully into their churches, but new churches could only be extensions of chapels-of-ease and there ministers did not receive full status. Thus Chalmers and company left, and became able as Free Church Presbyterians to expand as they wish. Chalmers, however, was a mixture of prejudices: anti-urban, anti-working class and pro-property (so rather odd in that he led a movement from patronage). The class distribution of these Churches was that the main Kirk had upper and lower class support and the Free Kirk had middle class support.

All this is by way of introduction of a habit in Scottish religion towards schism. So originally there were two sides: Chalmers had the Free Kirk, or the Wee Kirk, or the Kirk without the steeple, whilst left behind was the Auld Kirk, the Cauld Kirk, or the Kirk without the people. In 1847 a majority of the United Associate Synod of the Secession Church (from the 1820s union of many scessions) joined the Presbytery of Relief (a 1761 secession) to form the United Presbyterian Church and this merged with the Free Church of Scotland in 1900 to form the United Free Church of Scotland, with a minority staying out and retaining the Free Church of Scotland name (the Wee Frees). This was after the Free Presbyterian Church had been established in 1893, over the libralisation in the United Free Church regarding the Westminster Confession. By 1929 the original Auld Kirk had achieved some vitality of its own (even some coloured windows!) when the United Free Church of Scotland was absorbed back in, aided by an Act of Parliament in 1929 that recognised the intentions of the seceders. So one impact of Chalmers' efforts was eventually the progressive secularisation of the Scottish State regarding religion and a specialisation of Churches away from social provision and towards religion. This was so after such experience that Free Church children had to attend Church of Scotland educational institutions but it didn't give poor relief to Free Church children, and also academics had to subscribe to the Church of Scotland's Confession of Faith. Disraeli scrapped that in 1874.

All this is by way of background to events regarding Scott Rennie in Aberdeen. It is the habit of secession. Even in 2000 22 ministers walked out of the Free Church of Scotland regarding the comparative liberalism of Professor Donald MacLeod. One can go back to William Robertson Smith, of the Free Church up to 1900, who questioned Moses' authorship of the Torah in 1875 when writing for the Encyclopaedia Britannica (he was its editor from 1887) and who suffered six years of trials from fundamentalist influence until 1880, only to be deposed from Aberdeen Free Church College in 1881 after another published article, though his views continued on and indeed became even more influential at his new base at Cambridge.

So what is happening now? Scott Rennie kept his ministry in Aberdeen, but the Church of Scotland has frozen any further gay men appointments for two years, with a commission sitting and a ban on talking to the media for two years. So it has done something of the Anglican approach: a man appointed is in place, but there is a moratorium from any more. A group calling itself the Fellowship of Confessing Churches is operating as an extension of the GAFCON Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans - the FCC statement is pretty much that of the FCA (and really demonstrates how little Anglican is the FCA and how rather more it owes to Conservative Evangelicalism) - and while it continues to agitate a group of Scottish ministers which thinks that the two year kick into touch is not worth it.

The question is whether, at a time of secularisation and decline, there is the same eagerness to divide the Scottish Church again. Probably not, but it is the habit.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sorry for late comment.

The tendency to religious schism in Scotland does back even further, to the breakaway of the Cameronians in 1712 (they still exist as the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland)and the big secession of 1733, later splitting into "burgher" and "anti-burgher" factions.

The splits of the 18th century and some of those of the 19th (including "the disruption") are usually presented in terms of interference by / resistance to state or landed interests, and that was certainly the fuse which lit the fireworks on many occasions.

Underlying this, however, was a distinction expressed as "auld licht" and "new licht" in several of the fissures and sub-fissures. Those names meant different specific things at different times but in general "auld licht" referred to the most conservative or reactionary theology and "new licht" to more progressive ideas.

The wider context is important. Much of this was going on at the time of the so-called "Scottish enlightenment", of David Hume, the misappropriated Adam Smith, Thomas Muir, Rab Burns and many others who were either radical thinkers, writers or agitators or influenced by the new intellectual climate and interested in pursuing new paths in science, scholarship, art and politics. Theology was not exempt! Many of those who can be regarded as "enlightenment" figures were ministers or committed to Christianity.

So, a sort of "new light" theology developed which was socially liberal compared with the "auld licht", who merely perceived sin and satan everywhere. The "new licht" could be radical in applying moral principles to public life and politics. Their influence was mostly in the mainstream, continuing, CofS, though "new licht" attitudes also emerged from (probably minority) elements of the United Free Church before the 1929 union

The CofS has been in a state of tension, albeit often swept under the carpet, between "new light" and "auld licht" ideas for at least 150 years. It is not alone in that, of course. The Church of England, for example, lacks such vivid shorthand as "auld licht" and "new licht", but not the fissure.

Since the late 19th century and for most of the 20th, the CofS was predominantly a "new licht" sort of church, sometimes boldly -such as in opposition to colonialism- and sometimes not as bold as it ought to have been. Now things have changed. As in other churches, evangelicalism has expanded and is much more influential than in the past.

In Scotland, the "auld licht" has flared similarly, but it remains a sickly, smokey flame, illuminating the harsh features and bitterness of those who hold it, but not the way ahead. As for the "new licht", it would be good if they were like this:

but this


seems to be current form. Still, distinctly less bad than the other lot