“…the Free Church…like the Church of Scotland but with Christianity.”The Spectator
This is how a recent Spectator article depicted the Church of Scotland: a Presbyterian denomination devoid of Christianity.
It’s exaggerated and harsh but one of the Kirk’s most esteemed prophets does petition the Lord for the ability to “see ourselves as others see us.” And while it’s not an accurate statement, I suspect the CofS will not be suing for libel. In fact a recent tweet suggested that the author may have formed his opinion based on watching the essentially humanist communion at the General Assembly 2021.
The question is, how do you know when you are no longer a Christian denomination? Is it similar to an individual falling away from the faith? What belief or course of action would indicate that you had crossed the line into unbelief? Do you have to consciously choose to give up following Jesus or do you slowly drift until finally you realise you don’t believe anymore? Perhaps we’ll know we’ve reached that point when like the decreasing number of people in the Scottish census we tick ‘Christian – Church of Scotland’ but only attend once a decade.
We might ask, for example, don’t the Kirk’s history and core beliefs clearly identify her as Christian? That raises another relevant issue for this years General Assembly. Does the Church of Scotland have core shared beliefs? A previous Theological Forum Convenor once pronounced that the Kirk was no longer a confessional church. But the current forum is asking instead whether we can indeed affirm a shared core theology.
One suggestion is that the Kirk drop the Westminster Confession and replace it with some of the more ancient statements of faith such as ‘The Apostles Creed.’ That seems eminently sensible but I’m not sure whether, even here, we will find wide agreement. How many years will it take to decide if we believe in ‘God the Father’ let alone creator, heaven, virgin, resurrection and everlasting. And even if we agree to this position it would be unenforcible. In living memory, has the Kirk challenged any minister or elder based on their handling of core Christian theology?
Another suggestion from the forum is that we consider writing our own doctrinal statement. Thankfully this is not their preferred option because most of us would be dead and buried before that particular document was approved. Also, even if we could agree a bespoke statement of faith, the product would likely struggle to affirm a theology of God (or “the sacred we know as God”). Instead areas of general agreement such as creation care and social justice would become the only central tenets of the Kirk’s faith.
All this leads to the title of this blog; is it worth the effort? In a year when the Kirk is being asked to reduced ministers by another 20%, to reduce Presbyteries down to around nine and to consider the value of Presbyterian governance, is it worth also trying to define our faith? If we’ve not satisfactorily defined it since the 1560, what’s the harm in waiting a few more years?
And forget the progressive wing of the Church; when was the last time conservatives turned to the Westminster Confession for clarification on theology? More importantly, when was the last time, amongst quoting C S Lewis, J I Packer, Tim Keller or Tom Wright, you quoted a theologian from the CofS? In fairness, I’ve nearly made it through the first chapter of Torrance’s Incarnation. But the point being, we seldom look within our denomination for a theological lead. In terms of central support from the Kirk, it’s not the theological pronouncements that are useful but HR, the safeguarding, press and legal offices, the clerks and the General Trustees.
These are genuine questions. Do we need a shared theological statement? There is clearly an expectation that we should have one, but is it necessary or even possible? Would it be wrong to simply remove the expectation of a shared confession? Would it be more honest to share an administrative structure and not pretend that there is a coherent theological position? For clarity, I’m not saying this would be my dream situation, far from it! But would some of the angst and contention be removed if the Kirk stopped trying to define its theology and simply shared administration? Like Better Call Saul, separate firms with a shared reception.