Will Cuts Save Us?

There’s very little in Scotland today that’s not in decline.  Newspaper sales keep falling, attendances at football matches keep falling, the membership of political parties keeps falling, the turn-out on election-days keeps falling and the number of people in full-time employment keeps falling.

The churches are no exception.  The numbers attending services, the numbers going in for the ministry and, above all, the finances, are in decline.

Oddly enough, this last, the finances, is the easiest thing to fix, and certainly the easiest thing to sound the alarm about.  All you have to do is make cuts, and this year, if the little chirpers are to be believed, the cuts proposed for the Free Church are to be particularly drastic.  Rumour has it that the College and International Missions (the usual soft targets) are  threatened with cuts of between twenty and thirty per-cent.

This is an exact parallel to what is happening in the secular world.  The church is in a double-dip recession and its Trustees propose exactly the same solution as Messrs Cameron and Osborne: cuts.  But critics of government policy cry out that austerity is not enough: we must stimulate the economy in order to promote growth.  This very week, indeed, Business Secretary, Vince Cable, warned that if we simply keep making cuts, and allow the economy to contract year after year, we face economic disaster.

The same is true of the church.  If we allow it to contract year-in, year-out, closing down congregation after congregation, eliminating the College and withdrawing from international missions, we court extinction.  Cuts must be set within some overall vision.  What kind of church do we want to be?

A national church

The instinctive answer must be, A national church.  An article in a recent issue of the Church’s ‘Monthly Record’ spoke dismissively of the principle of the strong helping the weak.  But the principle is only a means to an end.  The real issue is whether we want to ensure that there is a witnessing Christian community in every corner of Scotland.  It is easy enough to maintain such a witness in areas of affluence and high population such as Inverness, Glasgow and Aberdeen, where local Christians, without any outside help, can easily afford the cost of a minister.  It is utterly different in areas where there has been massive depopulation and where the number of local believers has dwindled to a score or less.  Are such communities to be abandoned?

Yes, unless the strong are prepared to help the weak.  Granted, congregational boundaries will have to be enlarged, ministers and buildings shared, and worshippers prepared to travel.  But the idea of switching off the light and closing the door for the last time, leaving the parish bereft of a place of worship, should be abhorrent to every member of the Church.

This is why the strong should help the weak: not for the sake of some outworn form of words, but to ensure that in denuded glens, in ever-darkening islands, in inner-city ghettos, Jesus Christ can still be present.  This does not mean choosing conservation and insularity against outreach and mission.  Only through existing churches can we reach out to our cities, towns and villages.  Closing churches means giving up on evangelism; and the more churches we close the more we condemn Scotland to a new Dark Age.

What kind of ministry?

Linked to this is the question, What kind of ministry do we need?  But that itself involves another question: What kind of world do we live in?  We don’t need a course in sociology to know that our society is secular, anti-Christian and biblically illiterate.  Every Christian hairdresser learns this lesson in the course of her work.  Even in the Western Isles, there is a growing trend towards humanist and pagan funerals.

But at the same time, ours is a highly educated world, where geology, biology, psychology, philosophy, history and even high-school classes in English Literature present a united intellectual front against Christianity.  Nor is this front a million miles from our pews.  The sixth-year students, honours graduates and PhDs who sit in front of us every Sunday have all been affected by this challenge, and a ministry that lacks the intellectual and academic capacity to address it is not what our world needs. This is not the time to be dumbing down.

But it is not only a matter of adjusting our ministry to the age we live in.  A Presbyterian minister is not a priest charged mainly with performing rituals, or a social worker whose main business is to lend a sympathetic ear to people’s problems, or an entertainer paid to persuade people that church is fun.  He is first and foremost a preacher; and a preacher is first and foremost a teacher, whose main business in life (and what he is paid for) is to explain the scriptures, in all their beauty, complexity and rich diversity.

Unfortunately, these scriptures are written in ancient languages.  This is obviously a serious inconvenience, but it’s the truth.  Through the pain and toil and struggles of human authorship God himself has spoken, and if we want to hear his exact words we must learn Greek and Hebrew.  We cannot explain the Bible if we cannot translate it; and we certainly cannot claim to be professionals if we cannot read our own scriptures.

Young ministers today seem to be complaining that they’re over-trained.  It’s intriguing to compare this with the attitude of the great 18th century churchman, Dr. John Erskine, who had sacrificed a career at the bar for life as a minister.  Late in life, Erskine wrote, ‘I have no cause to lament my choice of profession; but I do lament that I entered on the sacred function ere I had spent one-fourth of the time in reading, meditation and devotional exercises, which would have been necessary in any tolerable degree to qualify me for it.’

It may be said, however, that we are living in unsettled times and that we are extremely short of men who know these ancient languages.  Does this not call for emergency measures?

I have a great deal of sympathy with this.  Exactly the same problem faced John Knox and his fellow Reformers.  There was an acute shortage of ministers, and so, as a short-term measure, they appointed Readers: men who had a basic education and could at least read the scriptures and recite the prayers in the Service Book.

We have no need to descend to such a level.  We can provide an ‘auxiliary ministry’ from among our many well educated elders, especially those who are now retired after proving their worth in other professions. Many such men are already preaching: indeed, without them, dozens of our pulpits would be silent every Sunday.  There is absolutely no theological reason why we should not, granted our current situation, authorise such men not only to preach, but to administer the sacraments; and there is no reason why, with the people’s consent, they should not be charged with the care of some of our now-vacant congregations.  Unless we are to abandon Wester Ross, Sutherland, Caithness, Perthshire and Argyll to superstition and paganism, some such provision must be made; and it wouldn’t take much thought to suggest from among our many retired teachers, doctors and others, a dozen names who could deliver it.

But this is not enough.  Ministers are for existing congregations, but there are already hundreds of towns and villages throughout Scotland where there are no such congregations: the sort of places St. Paul had in mind when he spoke of preaching in places ‘where Christ is not known’ (Rom. 15.20).  This is not what we train ministers for.  It is the work of what the New Testament calls ‘evangelists’, and at the moment we have none of them.  We neither ask God for them, train them, nor commission them.  Yet these are what modern Scotland urgently needs.

Denominational loyalty?

The final point is one I hardly dare to make.  If we are to grow, we must at the very least hang on to our own people, and at the moment we are not doing that.  There are many reasons for it, including the fact that we are too often guilty of crass tactlessness, as if we were almost inviting people to leave.  But there is a deeper reason: a chronic reluctance to develop any kind of denominational loyalty.  We teach our young people nothing about our history.  We don’t instruct them in our Catechism.  We don’t explain why we’re Presbyterians or why we worship as we do or even, indeed, why we exist.

The inevitable result, to put it at its most mundane, is that pitiably few will become life-long contributors; and this is even more true of those ‘outsiders’ who join our city congregations.  Few stay beyond their student years, and we seem content to have it so.  Little effort is made to win that conscientious loyalty which bind them to our principles and traditions.

And in a way it’s perfectly understandable.  We rightly shrink from even seeming to convey the impression that, ‘We are the people’.  We don’t, like some other Presbyterian churches, require those who join us to sign a Membership Covenant, because we firmly believe that the only requirement for church membership is faith in Christ.  Nor do we require that someone be in members of our denomination before they can sit with us at the Lord’s Table.  The Table is open, and believers, whatever their church affiliation, sit at it on their own recognisance.  Besides, the principle, ‘We preach not ourselves,’ extends to not using the pulpit to glorify the Free Church; and even if we forgot this, and tried to preach ourselves, we have very few distinctive principles.  Our pulpit message consists largely of what we hold in common with Martin Luther, Richard Baxter, George Whitfield, John Wesley, Charles Spurgeon, John  Stott and Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones.  We are ‘most in the main things’.

And we are proud to be part of ‘the holy, catholic church’.  Yet every ‘good catholic’ must first of all be a committed member of a local congregation and a loyal adherent to a denomination, and there is nothing shameful in such loyalty.  If people ask me, ‘Who cares about the Free Church?’ I reply, unhesitatingly, ‘I do!’  and I’m not ashamed of being proud of her.  I am proud of the reverence and the sense of the fear of God which is the hallmark of her worship.  I am proud of her absolution of sinners by her proclamation of the doctrine of justification by faith.  I am proud of her Confessionalism, by which she insists that every preacher must be fully committed to the great doctrines of Protestant orthodoxy.  I am proud of the part played by her spiritual forebears in the struggle for liberty and democracy.  I am proud of her respect for biblical scholarship.  I am proud of her Calvinism: not only of the vision of sovereign, yet intimate, grace, which lies at its heart, but also of its insistence that ‘every inch belongs to Christ’, not only in religion, but no less in politics, science and art.  I am proud of the fact that so long and so far as she is loyal to herself, she doesn’t ride hobby-horses, but preaches ‘the whole counsel of God.’  I am proud of what she has achieved in the Highlands, providing such a network of Christian ordinances as no loose federation of independent churches would even have ventured.  And I am proud of her faculty for self-criticism, and of her deep, deep conviction, that even as an institution she is a sinner who can be justified only by grace.

Let there be cuts, then, beginning at the local level, where Deacons Courts scrutinise every item of expenditure to ensure that they have as large a surplus as possible to invest in the Church’s national mission; and let the cuts continue at the centre, where every Board and Committee, and the College, and International Missions, and the Offices, receive every penny gratefully and spend it under the eye of the Great Donor.

But austerity and cuts don’t make a policy.  Growth is our policy; and cuts are justifiable only insofar as they contribute to that: not disabling us from our core business, but helping us to prosecute it more efficiently.

This is an  expanded version of Footnotes as published in the West Highland Free Press on Friday 28 September, 2012.