The Church of Scotland has voted to allow homosexual men and women to be ordained, effectively opening up the path to recognition of homosexual marriage. Further, in what seems a very strange decision, the General Assembly has appointed a theological commission to investigate the impact this decision will have upon the church, Scotland's oldest historically Protestant church body. Wouldn't you want to investigate the likely repercussions before voting on such a question, I ask?
In fact, the decision is likely to lead to the departure of a large minority - estimated to be about a quarter of the membership - of evangelical and theologically conservative ministers and layfolk (the last such division occurred in the 1840s and led to the formation of the 'Free Church of Scotland'). One ministerial delegate said in a speech to the Assembly that voting on this issue was like being asked to pull the pin on a live grenade, and warned of the destructive consequences of the subsequent "explosion". Click on the post title to read a report from the UK's Guardian newspaper. The pic shows the standard of the Church of Scotland, the Burning Bush superimposed upon the Cross of St Andrew.
- Historical Note -
The Church of Scotland is a 'national church' but not an 'established church', as is the Church of England. It retains the allegiance of some 42% of the Scottish population. It traces its origins to the dawn of Christianity in Scotland, but historically dates from the Scottish Reformation of 1560.
- Why am I interested in it? -
The 'Church of Scotland' has a little-known significance in Western history that belies its size and geographical distance from the centres of ecclesiastical politics. Following the Reformation, the church established a system of universal education which led to Scotland becoming the most literate society in Europe at the time, even though it was also the poorest society in Europe - no mean feat! High literacy rates and the quality of the general education provided the necessary foundation for the extraordinary 'Scottish Enlightenment' of the 18th century (when Edinburgh was known as "the Athens of the North"), whose ideas and values profoundly shaped British and North American culture and enabled that culture to rise to dominance in the modern world (see Arthur Herman's little book 'How the Scots Invented the Modern World' for an exploration of this thesis). For almost every department of science or learning that one can enrol in today at a university in the 'Anglosphere', a progenitor in the Scottish Enlightenment can be identified - e.g. Adam Smith (economics), William Buchan (medicine), James Hutton (geology), Joseph Black (chemistry), James Watt (engineering), David Hume (philosophy. Of course, not all of the contributions of these men are happy ones, but their profound influence on the modern world cannot be denied.
Thus it is not an exaggeration - or only a slight exaggeration! - to suggest that 'the modern world' was born in the classrooms of schools operated by the Church of Scotland. Hence the heading of this post - "How Are the Mighty Fallen" (2 Samuel 1:27). While many of the leading figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, such as David Hume, abandoned orthodox Christianity, the movement itself could not have arisen apart from the milieu created in large part by the Church of Scotland, and the original Christian stream of the Scottish Enlightenment is exemplified by the contribution of the philosopher Thomas Reid, who was in his own day regarded as a more significant thinker than his contemporary Hume and who continues to influence Christian philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff today.
Then also, apart from the general historical significance of this decision and the way in which it reflects the decline of a once great institution, my paternal family line descends from 'Church of Scotland' members and ministers who were part of the Scottish migration to southern New South Wales in the early 19th century. Scots featured prominently in early Australian history, notably Governor John Hunter (the NSW colony's second governor), Governor Lachlan Macquarie, the person most responsible for establishing the viability of the colony of New South Wales (the 'Father of Australia'), and his successor Governor Thomas Brisbane (also an amatuer astronomer). Each of these figures typifies the values of the Scottish Enlightement as they filtered down to men of a practical nature, most notably the commitment to empiricism. Indeed, even Captain James Cook, the great navigator and discoverer of Australia's eastern coastline (not to mention his charting of the coastlines of New Zealand and Newfoundland), though born in Yorkshire, had a Scottish father.