Tuesday, 24 May 2011

How Are the Mighty Fallen

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.


Kevin Davis said...

Interesting that the PCUSA (the Church of Scotland's counterpart in the U.S.) decided the same thing a week ago. While I lived in Aberdeen, I knew some outstanding evangelical churches in the C of S, but they are a definite minority, even in a relatively conservative place like Aberdeen. So, I'm not surprised by the decision. I wonder if people will join the (much more conservative) Free Church, or if they'll make their own denomination. They could just form a resistance coalition within the C of S, but not if they're forced to recognize the ordination credentials of an open and affirming GLBT pastor.

The crazy thing is that the most ardent proponents of GLBT identity politics are insistent that this will make the church more acceptable to the average American or Scotsman. Yet, here in the U.S., the United Church of Christ (a.k.a. Congregationalists) have ordained and married homosexuals for three decades. The UCC has shrunk more precipitously than just about any other denomination, despite being the mainline church of New England (and institutions like Harvard). I don't know of any remaining evangelical churches in the UCC; they've virtually been forced out. Meanwhile, the evangelical churches in the PCUSA and in the C of S have been the healthiest in retaining numbers and in diversity of age. So, these mainline churches are forcing their healthiest congregations to leave. It's insane.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

You are spot on, Kevin.
Down here the 'Uniting Church' is most open to LGBT agenda and has also witnessed greater decline than the other 'mainline' churches. In my own city of Toowoomba they lost a very vibrant congregation and pastor who left after the general assembly voted to allow presbyteries to play their own tune on this issue. They lost their property but have since re-built better and bigger. Not hard to see where the future lies.

Kevin Davis said...

From what I understand, the property issue is often the most difficult barrier preventing a church from disaffiliating. In Charlotte (North Carolina), nearly all of the nice old churches (e.g., First Presbyterian), with families that date back several generations, with majestic organs and lovely stained glass windows (donated by such families), with precious memories and hallowed grave yards -- nearly all of these Presbyterian churches are PCUSA. The same is replicated in towns and cities across the country. In most cases, the PCUSA, not the local congregation, is the owner of this property. Add to that, the court and lawyer fees are unbelievably high, to fight for a property that will likely be lost. It's hard to blame the people for wanting to stay.

Recovering Lutheran said...

In the USA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) chose a similar path two years ago - with disastrous results.

I believe the reasons for the decision to ordain non-celibate gays and lesbians and perform homosexual marriages in the church is political. The ELCA's leadership is largely uninterested in Christian theology and evangelism, but is obsessed with secular political activism. The ELCA is losing membership at a rapid rate, yet the leadership issues one "social statement" after another, and uses church funds to lobby government for a variety of secular political causes that are often at odds with Christian beliefs.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

RC & Kevin,

Back in the '90s a PCUSA theologian named McGlasson (if memory serves) wrote a book called 'Another Gospel' in which he described the baneful influence of 'political theology' into the PCUSA (I'm sure it was the PCUSA). He traced it back to Karl Barth's influence. That doesn't explain the direction of the ELCA though. Someone could write a thesis on this...

tony c said...

I fail to see how the ordination of GLBT clergy means the mighty have fallen. Particularly if the concern is that the decisions impacts are considered after principle .
It would seem to me a decision both integritous and consistent with greatness does treat impacts on popularity as afterthoughts. Have you allowed your disagreement with the decision to criticise a process you would otherwise laud?

Pr Mark Henderson said...

What principle would that be, Tony?
What about the principle of obedience to the Word of God? The action conflicts with God's Word, therefore it represents a fall from grace and truth.

tony c said...

"Wouldn't you want to investigate the likely repercussions before voting on such a question, I ask?"

It seems to me that this is not your genuine opinion. Or are you saying you would withhold your own vote until all impact assessments are in?

If you agree the decision is not pragmatic then why specifically criticize a lack of pragmatism in your opponents.

Pr Mark Henderson said...


There are certain matters where pragmatism is a constructive approach. There are other matters where one can only deal on principle. This is one of them.