Not the Free Church College

It’s long been typical of Gaidheals that they lack pride in themselves, and particularly in their own language.  Quite why this should be so is far from clear.  Why should someone who spoke two languages feel inferior to one who spoke only one?  Perhaps it was because the monoglot was the factor, the bailiff or at least someone with a white-collar job and ‘minister’s hands’.  Gaelic betrayed you as uneducated, unqualified and poorly connected.  All things considered, then, it was best to lose it once you were upwardly mobile; even better to pretend you never had it.

This might be a great help when it came to social networking, but it carried its own risks.  Those who knew you when you were running about barefoot, and living, like themselves, on potatoes and herring, might take it ill when you returned home, pretended you hadn’t a  word of Gaelic in your head, and dripped such posh words as ‘shall’ and ‘actually’: words never heard in Garyvard.

This particular kind of Gaidheal is now extinct.  Indeed the wheel has come full circle.  Edinburgh’s professional elite now prize Gaelic-medium education, and instead of Lewismen haughtily denying that they have Gaelic, you have Morningsiders proudly telling you that they’re learning the language; and not only do they tell you, but they look you in the eye and challenge you to conduct a conversation without using a single word of English.  They don’t seem to understand how difficult it is for a Stornoway cove to speak Gaelic without words like ‘wonderful’ and ‘beautiful’ escaping his lips at regular intervals.

But the latest ecclesiastical news suggests that the misplaced sense of embarrassment which once crippled the Gaidheal has now been transferred to the church; or least to the Free Church, which is showing increasing signs of being ashamed of its own theology, history and traditions, and wishing it were somebody else.  Local congregations want to drop the name ‘Free Church’ from their notice-boards and give themselves some other handle.  They’re clearly scared that if their real identity comes out, ‘normal’, ‘contemporary’ human beings will run a mile.

There’s a magnificent irony here.  We expect people to be put off by our name, yet to be perfectly willing to believe that a Jewish criminal executed two thousand years ago is still alive and is the Saviour of the world.

Now the inferiority complex seems to be spreading even to the Church’s corridors of power.  At the last General Assembly someone suggested that the name ‘Free Church College’ be dropped and replaced with ‘Edinburgh Theological College’.  At the time few took the idea seriously.  Many silly things are said on the floor of the Assembly.

But rumour now has it that the suggestion is being taken up with deadly seriousness.  There is even a fair chance that the next General Assembly will be asked to approve the change of name; and the Assembly, if asked, will rubber-stamp it.

But why?  The thinking behind the suggestion is extraordinary: the name ‘Free Church’ puts people off, and if we change it we’ll attract thousands of new students.  The odd thing is that the only people who seem to be put off by the name ‘Free Church’ are Free Church people themselves.  This year, not one single student from this background registered at the College.  Free Church leaders who rubbish the College have clearly done a good job at home.  Fortunately, their disparagements haven’t reached America, Zimbabwe or Japan.

But the change of name is only part of a wider agenda.  A small, close-knit group of men, bent on what they proclaim as a ‘radical shake-up’, are determined to loosen the bond between the College and the Church.  The first stage in this will be to change the rules governing appointments to the College.  At the moment, the rules are crystal-clear.  Only Free Church ministers may be appointed to College Chairs; and, except by express permission of the General Assembly, only Free Church ministers may be appointed as part-time Lecturers.

Let me make clear where I stand on this.  A few years ago I drafted a detailed proposal to allow vacant Free Church congregations to call ministers from any Presbyterian church in the world; and the same proposal would have allowed vacancies at the College to be filled by suitable candidates from the same world-wide constituency.

But there was one proviso:  all such ministers would have to sign the Formula subscribed by Free Church ministers.  I don’t care whether he’s from brightest Africa or darkest Edinburgh, if he is able to sign the Formula I would have him eligible.

The Assembly in its wisdom threw out my proposal, which means that the old regulations are still in place.  Only Free Church ministers may teach at the Free Church College.  But rumour now has it that the rule is being ignored, and that there are moves afoot to appoint non-Free Church ministers without any doctrinal safeguards whatsoever: not a word about our Confession or our Formula.

This sends out a clear signal: these ancient documents are mere fossils; orthodoxy a luxury we can no longer afford.  And if it begins with College appointments, where shall it end?  Shall we open our pulpits to those who disdain our creed, and induct to our vacant charges preachers who have no passion for either our Calvinism or our Presbyterianism?  And shall we then go on to place the governance of the College in non-Free Church hands, because this is the only way to ensure change?

Yet under these ‘old’ arrangements the College has seen more change in recent years than any other department in the church.  It has been validated as a Partner Institution of the University of Glasgow.  It has secured degree validation for its core programme.  It has been able to offer two postgraduate degrees.  It has set up a part-time programme now taken by a hundred students worldwide (many of them on-line).  It has been licensed to sponsor overseas students.

Never at any of these stages has the name Free Church or the restriction to Free Church staff been a problem to the external bodies.  Only in the house of our friends have we suffered denigration.

Other changes bore more directly on the College curriculum.  We made Hebrew optional for the BTh degree (only one student ever took up this option, though the take-up rate would probably have been far higher had it been available to Free Church candidates).  Bearing in mind the urgent need for the Church to go on a missionary footing, we drafted a course for training Evangelists.  The church ignored it.  And bearing in mind the needs of our young people, we drafted a programme for training youth workers.  Again the Church ignored it (I understand that youth workers now have to undertake a course of training with the Porterbrook Institute).  Despite the perceptions now so widespread in the Church, the College has never been afraid of change.

But the changes now proposed are of a different order.  Not only do they threaten to loose us from our Confessional moorings: they are driven by an impatience with the historic Protestant vision of the minister as neither a priest nor a social worker, but first and foremost a ‘learned’ explainer of the scriptures (and able, as such, to translate them for himself).  We are losing faith in preaching because we are losing faith in the gospel itself, as if it were nothing like interesting enough to fill a church.

To revolutionise the ministry in this way, filling our pulpits with preachers who are skilled in speaking but deficient in knowledge (2 Cor. 11:6), totally uninterested in the grammar used by the Holy Spirit, and driven by no zeal for our creed, would be to change the Church itself.

If we must go down this road let us at least do it in an orderly way.  Let us do it through the General Assembly, and under the Barrier Act.  Let us do it, if that is the mind of the Church (which heaven forbid!) by repealing our ancient Formula and replacing it with something less rigorous.  But let’s not attempt to reform ourselves by breaking our own rules.

Some years ago I asked a former student with long years of experience as director of an international bank, for his assessment of the College.  He answered, quick as a flash:  ‘under-funded, under-used and under-valued.’

This is a slightly expanded version of an article which first appeared in the West Highland Free Press on Friday, 11 January, 2013.