Religion in Scotland

Finest minds of church and law were exercised for some two decades working through the fine detail which led to the remaking of the present-day Church of Scotland. The 1929 reunion was welcomed in a great public fanfare held in the temporarily converted Edinburgh Corporation bus garage in Leith; but a few years after this momentous union John Burleigh, pre-eminent Professor of Scottish church history and Moderator of the General Assembly in 1960 wrote about the price we might pay in the practical outworking of repairing the damage of the centuries.

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In his Church History of Scotland and he says: “It is one thing to unite denominations, and quite another to unite congregations which are proud of their traditions and tenacious of their rights. Presbyterianism has always fostered strong congregational life. It is easy to be critical of parochialism or congregationalism in this sense and to demand thorough rationalisation. But grave spiritual damage may be done if this problem is not handled with patience, sympathy and Christian insight.” He was right in his assessment. In what is almost a mere codicil to his Church History of Scotland, he notes that in the first 30 years of the Union 700 local unions and readjustments had been effected. That represents an average of 23 per year and that rate has never slowed-up. Given our natural propensity for resisting change and our inherited predisposition for dispute we have paid no small price in the process of restructuring the church. If you want to know what some of the best minds of the church have been doing over the last century then you don’t need to look much further than the vast list of readjustments which bear witness to the unfinished business of the 1929 union.

I don’t know how it could have been avoided but I do know that it has cost us in time, talent and money and it has cost us in a general drift away from the local church. Now, perhaps, the hardest pill to swallow is that the process of consolidation and restructuring for the future is far from finished. The point, however, of this potted history is to encourage us to stop and think about how we must resist the patterns of behaviour which have beset us in the past and adopt a new and more positive attitude to building and planning for the future. Sadly, in these past few years, as we have tackled our differences in relation to sensitive theological issues and in relation to congregational disputes the bonnie fechtersurfaces with alarming regularity. It’s time for a change. Urgent change is needed in almost every part of our church life. The structure of our version of Presbyterianism is groaning under the weight of too much bureaucracy. Presbytery reform is still a crucial requirement. The ministry of the local church needs a new reformation. Even our confession and expression of faith needs radically reframed. It was Albert Einstein who famously said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” This Titanic of a church may well be sailing very close to its iceberg and I wonder if instead of trading the same old arguments we are any closer to listening to and learning from one another. I wonder if we might have grown up enough to realise that there are no knock-out blows on matters of so-called “great principle”. I wonder if we can learn from our horrible history and build a more inclusive, accepting, understanding and loving community of faith.

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