Different facets of the current religious scene in Scotland are to be found in four recent happenings. First, I reported in these pages some years ago a Hebridean island’s fight against the introduction of a Sunday ferry service. Fortified by a sizable police contingent from the mainland, however, the march of progress won “the day sin came to Skye.” The even more rigidly Sabbatarian island of Lewis is now confronted by a painful dilemma: a $15 million construction project that would bring much needed employment may not materialize if Sunday work is ruled out. “They don’t only want 200 acres of our land,” said an islander. “They want part of our heritage as well.”
Our heritage has been further eroded by a new hymnary for use in the Church of Scotland. Our own congregation has not yet adopted it, and my copy (kind gift of a friendly Episcopalian) lay unopened for two months. I was afraid of what I would find—or what I wouldn’t. What would a faceless committee in Edinburgh know or care about hymns that evoked for me memories of people and places long gone?
Finally courage came. I opened the book and compared it with a single section of the old one. Not counting hymns on which savage wounds had been inflicted, there was a distressing list of the fallen. “The Ninety and Nine” was a predictable casualty, as was “Rescue the Perishing.” No longer was there “A Fountain Filled With Blood,” no longer “Showers of Blessing.” And “A Debtor to Mercy Alone” was necessarily a concept alien to man come of age. But I nearly wept for the insensitivity that axed “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” I closed the hymnary at that point. One day I’ll look for the good things in it—when I have recovered from the shock of finding myself so obviously a yesterday man.
A third piece of bad news was that Bishop Carey of Edinburgh took umbrage because the Church of Scotland declines to take episcopacy into its system (see “The Bishop and the Kirk,” News, September 28). His public expression of displeasure from the pulpit of the mother church of Presbyterianism caused a national furor and did nothing at all for the cause of holy chumminess within this realm. I felt sorry for him (you know how a dangerous charity tends to creep in unless prejudices are regularly exercised), and pondered whether a bishop who spoke his mind had not something going for him after all.
Was the man trying to break new ground in inter-church exchanges, with diplomacy flung overboard in favor of total candor? The perils of this line of thought need no underlining, for what might it not do for the ecumenical movement? Of course I need have no fear: it’s all in the I-had-a-dream category—a fallen world simply couldn’t take that much truth in its daily diet. Charles Péguy, that remarkable Frenchman the centenary year of whose birth this is, would have agreed. “The man who wishes to remain faithful to truth,” he said once, “must make himself continually unfaithful to all the continual, indefatigable renascent errors … [and] inexhaustibly triumphant injustices.”
Finally, here in St. Andrews has taken place a conference on evangelism described as “a unique assembly in the annals of Scottish church history.” Inter-church relations face peculiar problems in a land where the Church of Scotland lists 1.15 million members, Roman Catholics claim some 800,000 baptized, and no other church has more than 50,000 communicants. The smaller groups, moreover, include the rigid Calvinism still found in Highlands and islands, a largely High Anglicanism, and the distinctive church order of Christian Brethren.
All the main Scottish groups were represented at St. Andrews among the 400 delegates whose coming together had been inspired by the 1971 European Congress on Evangelism in Amsterdam. That the conference was held at all was a triumph; that it was obviously so worthwhile, even more so.
There was robust self-criticism, not least in the findings of a questionnaire sent to the Church of Scotland’s 2,000 congregations. Asked what evangelistic efforts had been planned over the past twelve months, 500 replied, but only thirty-two of these reported any such planning, and not all even of that small number of plans had been carried out. The Gospel Radio Fellowship, which organized the enquiry, ruling out the suggestion that the 1,500 non-respondents were too busy evangelizing to reply, found that many ministers either regarded their congregations as somehow “special,” to be handled delicately, or pointed out that the east of Scotland was widely recognized as unreceptive soil for evangelistic enterprises.
Other sobering facts emerged: the lament by both a vagrants’ hostel superintendent and a detention-center chaplain that most of their voluntary helpers were non-Christians; the frequency with which the use of church buildings was denied to young people lest property be damaged or the congregation’s reputation endangered; an attendance of only eleven after 1,700 male members were invited to a church meeting by letters signed and delivered by the pastor; the harmful effects when Christian groups are obsessed with one particular emphasis to the neglect of others (the presence of a strong charismatic voice at the conference itself was sporadically evident). A particular plea was made to stop sniping at Billy Graham and others, with the reminder that many men were in the ministry today because of mass evangelism in the 1950s.
The professed aims of the conference were three: to wait upon God for his way forward; to bring people together over denominational and other barriers; and to show the tools and resources available for churches in evangelism. The debates were pertinent, lively, and conducted in such a fine spirit that CHRISTIANITY TODAY’S representative naughtily asked at the press conference if there had been prior agreement to avoid potentially divisive subjects (there hadn’t). Particularly heartening was the large contingent of younger Church of Scotland ministers in attendance.
It is reported that on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution two conferences were held in hotels on the same Moscow street. One was sponsored by the Orthodox Church; the principal item on the agenda was vestments for the clergy. In the other meeting, Lenin and his friends drew up final plans to overthrow the existing regime. Citing this story, a 1960 Scottish booklet commented: “We may deplore Communism and all it stands for, but it may be the judgment of God on a Church which, preoccupied with trivialities, has become blind to the basic needs of the age.”
There was ample proof in the humble and down-to-earth manner in which the St. Andrews assembly went about its business, and in the plans it made to continue its task, that in the land of John Knox there is under way a prayerful, dedicated determination that the lost provinces of religion should be recovered.
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