Dismantling the Free Church College

Modern Scotland usually has little interest in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.  This year promises to be different.  The Report on the ordination of homosexuals promises the media a heady mix of sex and splits, while evangelicals wait anxiously, wondering what kind of church will be left by the time the Assembly has done its business.

Meanwhile a mere hundred yards away the Free Church holds its own Assembly, and we have problems enough of our own.  The most obvious is the recurring financial deficit.  The Board of Trustees are quite rightly insisting that this cannot go on.  The Church must match its expenditure to its income.

But this responsibility lies not just with the central spending committees, but with every local congregation.  Too many seem to take the view that the denomination’s financial problems are no concern of theirs.  Whatever the austerity at central level many local congregations are spending freely even if that means running up debts of hundreds of thousands of pounds.

This, of course, is what they have been encouraged to do by the Trustees themselves.  The old Free Church owed its survival and growth to Thomas Chalmers’s brilliant idea of the Sustentation Fund, whereby most of the people’s givings went straight into a central fund for the maintenance of ministers, guaranteeing each an equal stipend whether his congregation was large or small; and this was supplemented by monthly collections earmarked for such centrally-directed work as Foreign Missions, Training of the Ministry and Church Extension.

But a few years ago this venerable system was scrapped.  Givings were no longer earmarked, allocation of income was left to local Deacons Courts and congregations were encouraged to invest more of their funds in local activities.  They gladly proceeded to do so, erecting new buildings, refurbishing old ones and recruiting paid local staff.  Suddenly, the Church’s payroll was no longer confined to ministers and missionaries.  Instead, there were congregational administrators, youth workers, presbytery workers , development officers and drug-and-alcohol- support workers, all having to be paid out of the same pot.

By the time these costs are met there is little left to remit to central funds, apart from the statutory minimum a congregation has to pay if it wants to keep its minister; and in any case there is little will to send a penny more to Edinburgh than we have to.  Time was when there was a healthy rivalry between congregations and people scanned the Remittances pages of the Monthly Record to see if they were doing better than their neighbours.  These days have long gone.  Now the local church is everything, the denomination nothing.

Because, after all, did not the great Chalmers himself declare, ‘Who cares for the Free Church?’  There is something touching about the current popularity of this mantra.  Chalmers’s arrangements for the Sustentation Fund are dismissed because he lived before 2010 and came to church on a horse.  But if his views on church organisation are now only museum-pieces, how come his views on the irrelevance of his Church are so inspirational?

Of course it’s important that we see ourselves as part of the great worldwide army of Christian soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder with others of all denominations.  But as Gladstone remarked in his tribute to Alexander Duff, the first Church of Scotland (and later Free Church) missionary to India, catholicity of spirit doesn’t require us to be ashamed of our own regiment.  Duff, the greatest missionary Scotland ever produced, was certainly not ashamed of his.

In any case, Chalmers never said, “Who cares for the Free Church?”  What he said was, Who cares for the Free Church “except as an instrument of Christian good?”  And there’s the rub.  Chalmers’s vision was not only for his own parish, but for “the Christian good of Scotland”; and beyond that, for the Christian good of the whole world (it was Chalmers’s vision that inspired the young Duff to go to India).

That is the vision too many of our local congregations are now in danger of losing.  Their own buildings, their own parish: that is the vision, and the wider work, national and international, no longer counts.  Home and overseas missions are starved of funds, volunteers are no longer enthused to join our regiment; and even if they were, we could not afford to train them.

Or so we are told, because when the modern Free Church thinks austerity it thinks “College”, universally seen as the most useless unit in the whole regiment.  Yet no other unit has been so cost-conscious.  Already, it has voluntarily reduced its full-time staff by twenty per-cent.  Now the Board of Trustees have singled it out for yet further reductions.  The positions of College Principal and Professor of Old Testament are to remain vacant, to be “covered by way of temporary arrangements”.

There is something deeply disturbing about this proposal.  Some Trustees are known to be keen to “outsource” the training of ministers, and the two bodies most likely to benefit from such outsourcing are the Highland Theological College and the Porterbrook Institute.   Two members of the Board of Trustees are closely associated with these “rival” providers of theological education.  I’m sure they used no undue influence.  But did they (as would happen in any other area of public life) declare an interest and leave the room when the Free Church College was being discussed?

Hopefully the General Assembly will be sufficiently alert to its own procedures to note that this part of the Trustees Report is technically incompetent since it fails to instruct anyone in particular to make these temporary arrangements.  It certainly cannot be the responsibility of the College Board, who have no locus when it comes to making temporary staffing arrangements.  That responsibility lies firmly with the College Senate.  Has anyone thought this proposal through?

But, then, the Church’s whole approach to the College is beset with misunderstandings.

First, there is misunderstanding as to its function.  The charge (now repeated in the pews) is that it is losing money.  Was it ever designed to make money?  It was designed to train Free Church ministers, and from the very beginning it was accepted that this would be funded from ordinary denominational funds.  Additional income from non-denominational funds would be no more than a welcome bonus.  It’s a great pity that all the talk now focuses on the institution, ‘the College’.  The real budget-line is, ‘Training of the Ministry’, and if the Free Church is to have any future it must make this responsibility a priority.  It’s absurd to argue, ‘We have a financial crisis.  Let’s stop training our ministers.’  That should be the port of last resort, not of the first.

The College Board entry on the Free Church web-site conveys the impression that the Board is “tasked with reducing the College’s dependence on denominational support”.  There is no mention of any such task in the original (1995) remit of the Board.  But if the remit has been altered to include this task the Board have so far done little to fulfil it.  Virtually nothing has been done to raise awareness of the College and scarcely a penny has been raised for the College Endowment Fund.  Instead, the College has been pilloried as the Church’s great loss-maker, and the College Board, set up to ‘promote the interests of the College’, has too often taken a lead-role in the pillorying.  Apart from its early years under the chairmanship of Dr. Ian MacIver it has served mainly as a mouthpiece for the College’s critics.  It’s hardly surprising that morale among staff is at an all-time low.

Yet according to the “budget ceiling” proposed by the Board of Trustees, “Central” costs are twice as high as those of the College.  Central presumably means “Admin”.  Does anyone complain that the Offices (who provide an excellent service) are “losing money”?

From its very beginning in 1843 the Free Church emphasised the importance of providing its ministers with the best possible theological education and for the fifty years after the Disruption it was a world-leader in this field.  Nor was the passion for theological rigour confined to the Church’s academics.  On the contrary none were more insistent on it than the men of action like Chalmers and Duff.  Duff, a Gaelic-speaking Highlander (and what use are they?), was fit to govern an empire, and virtually did so through his influence on the administration of  India; and in addition to his thirty-three years’ service in the sub-continent he fired the whole of Scotland, England and even the eastern seaboard of the United States with unprecedented missionary enthusiasm.  But it was this same Duff who declared, ‘It ought to be counted one of the chiefest glories of our Church that, from the very outset, she resolved, with God’s blessing, to secure not only a pious but a learned ministry.’  What would he think of a Free Church which grudges to waste money on a Professor of Old Testament?

We may as well outsource our preaching as outsource the training of our preachers.  Free Church ministers need a very specific training not only because their core activity will be to translate and explain the scriptures, but because at the end of their training they have to make a very specific confessional commitment.  They have to affirm their sincere personal belief in ‘the whole doctrine’ contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith and, as William Cunningham once remarked, the business of the Church’s theological training is to put young men in a position where they can make that affirmation intelligently.  No other institution in Scotland has that as its mission; nor does any other institution stipulate that every member of its teaching staff must ‘sincerely own’ the whole doctrine of the Confession.  Many will argue, of course, that confessionalism doesn’t matter.  That may be.  What is certain is that the Free Church’s commitment to Westminster theology will not long outlast the outsourcing of ministerial training.

But misunderstanding is not confined to the function of the College.  It extends to the status of its professors.  They are not some special breed invented simply to irritate the Board of Trustees and bleed the Church of its resources.  As Alexander Henderson pointed out four hundred years ago they are simply ministers seconded to a special task; and they are not the only ones to be so seconded.  Three Free Church ministers are seconded to evangelism among Glasgow’s Asians; three others are seconded to theological colleges overseas; and another to the Home Missions Board as its Development Officer.  I grudge none of them to the work they are doing, but no one accuses them of losing money.  Yet, just as much as the College, they are dependent on denominational support.

And if the Professors were not Professors they would still be costing the Church money: a minister’s stipend, a manse, removal and re-location costs, expenses, Council Tax.  It’s time we stopped treating them as a class apart, viewed them simply as ministers and charged their stipends to the same account as we charge the stipend of the Minister of Golspie.   If we did that, the College’s so-called “deficit” would disappear since virtually all its costs are ministerial-salary costs.

Our financial problems are serious in the extreme.  But they can be addressed, and solved, on two provisos.

First, that we instil due pride in our own regiment.  At the moment, this is anathema, particularly in what seem to be our cutting-edge congregations.  The view seems to prevail that if you are to grow, you must disguise your Free Church identity (and lock every Gaelic-speaker in the broom-cupboard).  Indeed, one city minister remarked to me recently that when young people come to his city from such congregations they seldom attach themselves to a Free Church.  When challenged, they answer that the only Free Church they could attend is their home one ‘because it’s not really Free Church.’

Who is spreading this disastrous nonsense?  It is the most pressing challenge facing us.  What kind of church do we want to be?  The Free Church, with a theology of the cross and a worship suffused with a sense of the majesty of God?  Or a church where discipleship costs nothing (and especially not the opprobrium of being ‘Free Church’)?

The second proviso is that we make appropriate cuts.  The Trustees themselves are demanding a moratorium on “centrally funded” appointments.  This does not go far enough.  There must also be a moratorium on “locally funded” appointments.  It is not that long since congregations a thousand-strong survived with just one minister.  Now those with a hundred demand more “staff”.  What happened to volunteers (and labour-saving computers)?

Last evening I attended the Closing Service at the Free Church College.  It was a splendid occasion: marvellous setting in the Presbytery Hall, good attendance, brilliant speeches, warm camaraderie, easy rapport between staff and students, clear appreciation of the quality of the whole educational experience; and added to all this the poignancy of the end of an era.  John Scoales, the most learned College Officer any college has ever had, has now retired.  Principal Mackay, too, is leaving after thirty years as Old Testament Professor: thirty years during which he delivered OT courses unsurpassed anywhere in the world.  No man can step easily into his shoes, but a decision not to replace him would jeopardise the whole future of the College.

There are pundits in the Free Church (absolutely no experience of Higher Education, but confident that they alone are in touch with ‘the real world’), who roundly declare the College not fit for purpose.  The official representatives of the real world, however, have no such reservations.  Having assessed the College in the light of the very best academic practice, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, the University of Glasgow and the UK Border Agency have not only given it their imprimatur, but added their special commendations.   This doesn’t mean that it is now the finished article.  Far from it!  But what a tragedy that just when it stands poised for further development the Church should be taking the axe to it.

Will there be anyone in the Assembly with the courage to resist the Board of Trustees and propose the appointment of both a new Professor and a permanent Principal (to appoint an existing member of staff to this vital role would cost the Church virtually nothing).

I fear not.  But for the first time in my life I would love to be proved wrong.

This is an expanded version of an article which first appeared in the West Highland Free Press, Friday 17 May, 2013.