BBC News reported this week that the Church of Scotland may soon take radical steps to address the changing needs of its members. A report due for presentation in May is "understood to recommend" closing nearly a third (500 of 1,700) of the Kirk churches, shifting power away from the central bureaucracy, and scrapping some elements of the traditional service.

While these shifts would mark a substantial break with about 450 years of tradition, the Church of Scotland has been radical from the beginning. In fact, it was founded largely on the principle that many sixteenth-century religious practices had to go—immediately.

All of the main sixteenth-century reformers—including Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli—criticized aspects of Catholic practice and piety, and most raised serious questions about Christendom politics as well. But in the opinion of the Kirk's founding father John Knox (ca.1514-1572), none of these men went far enough. Knox preached his very first sermon in response to a congregation's demand that he clarify his exclamation, during a worship service, that the church of Rome was a harlot. He called England's Catholic Queen Mary Tudor, who rose to power in 1553, the "wicked English Jezebel" and openly advocated violent rebellion against her. The Scots Confession, which Knox drafted with five other men in 1560, is the Reformation's most vigorous and stringent statement of faith.

The Scots also instituted more drastic changes in worship than any other reformers. Where Lutherans in Germany and Anglicans in England, for example, retained much of the medieval liturgy, Scottish reformers rooted out everything they deemed nonessential: the "idolatrous" Latin Mass, oral confession of sins, invocations to Mary and the saints, relics, sacred images, and masses for the dead. They also pitched indulgences, purgatory, pilgrimages, and all holy days other than Sunday. Knox called the overall campaign a return to "the grave and godly face of the primitive church."

The transition to reformed worship could be violent. Knox's inflammatory 1559 sermon against the "abomination of the Mass" resulted in the purging of altars, statues, reliquaries, and more from St. John's Kirk. Reform-minded Scots ransacked abbeys and monasteries, smashed icons, and gutted churches in preparation for Protestant takeover.

Once the takeover was complete, a totally new order of worship replaced the medieval mass. Instead of listening to a professional choir singing complicated polyphonic music, reformed Scots sang biblical psalms set to contemporary tunes. Congregants who had never understood Latin now heard a basic catechism every Sunday night. Lay leaders, not priests or celebrants, read Scriptures and prayers. Everyone shared both wine and bread at Communion.

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The revolutionary character of the Scottish reformation sets it apart from other reformations in both negative and positive ways. On the negative side, the violence and fierce rhetoric of Knox and his associates are tough to defend. Many people today don't even try, writing Knox off as a vicious, arrogant, misogynistic fanatic. On the positive side, though, Knox often comes up for discussion when Christians find themselves under an oppressive regime. Presbyterians, imbued with a Scottish sense of independence, were among the leaders of the American Revolution, and German Christians under Hitler also looked to the Scots for inspiration.

Today, however, Scots are neither particularly oppressed nor particularly drawn to the Kirk. Membership is down to about 600,000 from a high-water mark of 1.3 million, and the remaining members keep getting older—hence the proposal to close 500 churches. "The church we inherited was a settled church for settled communities, which is no longer the case," says Rev. Peter Nielson, chairman of the Kirk's Special Commission on Review and Reform. In other words, it just might be time for another round of radical changes.

Elesha Coffman is associate editor of Christian History.

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Christian History Corner appears every Friday at Previous Christian History Corners include:

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1,700 Years of Faith | Armenian Christians celebrate their heritage and look to their future. (Jan. 26, 2001)

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