Once again it’s open season on the Free Church. The Free Presbyterians, an infallible and immaculate denomination, have been at it, as have the Reformed Presbyterians, who fish in troubled waters and deem a handful of proselytes a revival. The media, where we have few friends, have also been chirping about our financial problems, mostly from behind the financial cover of the BBC’s Licence fee.
And you could hardly expect our friends, the Free Church Continuing, to keep quiet. They’ve been on about property. In fact, they’re always on about property, as if it were their mission, and as if the idea that possession is nine-tenths of the law were far the most important of all Church Principles. Now they sense a glorious opportunity: the Free Church, by sanctioning the use of hymns, has departed from ‘the Constitution’ and forfeited all right to the property, leaving ‘The Continuing’ as the lawful and triumphant owners.
I’m not going to bother answering that. When the House of Lord in 1904 declared the ‘Wee’ Free Church the true Free Church it was a hymn-singing, organ-using denomination. What matters now, in May 2012, is that we should face the truth about ourselves.
Much of the damage suffered by the Free Church is self-inflicted. It was a matter of principle to permit the use of hymns. It allowed our worship to catch up with the New Testament, and we should make no apology for it. But it was clumsily done. It was foolish to sanction the use of hymns before we had agreed on a hymn-book; and foolish to sanction instrumental music in a way that seems to give carte blanche to everything from trombones to kettle-drums. Technically, the Assembly did lay down a restriction: instrumental music was to be used only as an accompaniment to sung praise. But few musicians have the humility to be mere accompanists. They have to perform; and nowadays, it seems, they also have to be amplified, lest the singing drown out the accompaniment. The result, too often, is a theological, liturgical and musical disaster. Fortunately, the tastelessness has been confined to a tiny number of congregations, but we need to get a grip. Permission to use musical accompaniment was never intended as a charter for ‘Anything goes.’
Financial problems are nothing new. In the 1980s and 90s, when I was editing the Free Church’s ‘Monthly Record’, there was a financial ‘crisis’ every September, and urgent appeals issued for ‘a special effort’. Invariably there was a heroic response, but then in those days congregations felt a real obligation to ‘central funds’, and each had a target which it felt honour-bound to reach.
But a few years ago that model, which had served the Church well, was ditched. Church leaders became impatient with the heavily subsidised smaller congregations, and decided on a new model which encouraged local congregations to keep their money to themselves and spend it (hopefully) on local evangelism.
They responded gladly, set themselves up as independent small businesses, undertook expensive refurbishment of their buildings, took on more and more ‘workers’ and forgot all about ‘central funds’.
The term itself is unfortunate because it prompts the same feelings as people have towards paying tax; and men who boast a passion for mission and evangelism speak with scorn of ‘Edinburgh’ and ‘central funds’. Yet the very purpose of central funds is mission and evangelism. Congregations are not withholding money from ‘central funds’. They are withholding it from the Board of Home Missions and the Board of International Missions. That is the tragedy. ‘Church Extension Night’ and ‘Foreign Missions Night’ used to be the highlights of the Assembly. Unless we reverse the culture and re-unite congregations with the denomination, they will soon be a thing of the past. We have imbibed the fatal philosophy that any minister who wants to ‘achieve’ anything must break out and go it alone.
So far the only solution suggested for the ‘crisis’ is to close small congregations and dispense with the services of their ministers. It says a great deal about us that this doesn’t shock us. Ministers are inducted ‘ad vitam aut culpam, which is simply a posh Latin way of saying, ‘for life, or until convicted of heresy or immorality’. There must be no going back on this. The secular world may be ruthless. That is no excuse for the church.
But yes, we must look to our payroll. The original ‘central fund’ of the Free Church, the Sustentation Fund, was set up for the express purpose of supporting ministers, and only ministers. Today, the payroll is vastly expanded, and people are asking, ‘How come we can’t afford ministers, but we can afford all sorts of other ‘”workers”’? These include (apart from Headquarters staff) managers, administrators, music directors, youth workers, congregational workers and presbytery workers; as well as Assistant Ministers, who (apart from Stornoway) would surely be better employed pastoring one of the many vacant congregations.
It would be totally unethical to sack any of these workers and condemn them to unemployment. But surely a moratorium is called for?
In any case, it’s all a mystery. How did ministers cope in an age (and it’s not all that long ago) when congregations ran to many hundreds? And how did they manage their correspondence and keep their records when their only assistant was a fountain-pen? Technology seems to have multiplied work, not reduced it.
Anyway, here we are. The Minister of East Kilbride has been put on notice about his job, but in the meantime we have appointed a Communications Manager. I don’t want him sacked, either. But is this not what used to be done by the ‘Monthly Record’, telling the Church and the media what was going on? The fact that this no longer done, is no reflection on the current editor. It’s been taken out of his hands. But it costs.
I will be accused, as often before, of speaking with a forked tongue: one year supporting change, the next deploring it. But the Church costs me, and many others, sleepless nights, and this is my only platform. Change, whether in our finances or in our worship, must be driven by theology and common sense. At the moment it’s driven by a mixture of contempt for tradition and a misguided attempt to give the man in the street what he wants.
As P. T. Forsyth once remarked, the church’s main duty to the man in the street is to take him off the street.
From the West Highland Free Press, 25 May 2012