The A9, the Church and Transport Policy

a9Over the past few weeks, I’ve been intrigued to follow one Free Church Presbytery’s foray into the world of transport policy. The Presbytery of Inverness, Lochaber and Ross (PILR) has been calling upon the Scottish Government to bring forward its plans to dual the A9 between Perth and Inverness. Of course, as a former Consultant in transport policy and engineering, I’ve been extremely interested in this excursion into an arena where the church has usually found little to interest it.

The members of the PILR  are motivated in their call for accelerating the dualling project by road safety concerns. Of course, road safety should matter to all of us. In 2012, 170 lives were lost in Scotland through road traffic accidents and the A9 between Perth and Inverness has one of the highest fatality rates (6 fatalities per year, on average, between 2007-2011). Each road death brings the suffering of bereavement, often of people who had much more of their lives to live. Many of these deaths, however, are not accidents at all, but are caused by careless or reckless driving. The A9 is a busy road, especially in summer when volumes are 40% higher than in winter.  It is the A470 of Scotland – poor alignment in places, with limited visibility, and above-average percentages of HGVs and caravans. In winter, weather conditions compound the problems. These features, coupled with the long journey lengths of many users, contribute to driver frustration. The consequent poor decision–making of some of these drivers is what kills and injures people every year. Others are killed and injured for other reasons – it’s what happens when thousands of people travel in cars on the same piece of road.

So, it fascinates me that the church, which is rightly focussed (or ought to be) on the reality of human sinfulness and on the injustice perpetrated by some people against others – it fascinates me that the PILR are solely aiming their barrels at the Scottish Government. The reason people die on the A9 is to a large part due to selfish and reckless people who cause misery and suffering to others who are their victims. The PILR ought to be calling for greater responsibility on the part of drivers and more effective law-enforcement (for example, effective patrolling or peak-period speed limit camera enforcement), not solely requesting (somewhat forcefully) the Government to bring forward their dualling programme. Given the fact that in the Highlands and Islands there is a genuine cultural problem with respect to road safety (driver attitudes, especially towards vulnerable road users), if the church is concerned about road safety there are more issues to address than simply A9 dualling.

There are good reasons for dualling the A9, and the Scottish Government has already developed ambitious plans. However, road safety cannot alone make the case for it, and dualling alone will not prevent deaths (6 fatalities during 2007-2011 occurred on dualled sections of the A9). The most likely case is an economic one, focussed on the future development of Inverness. But even then, a biblical theology of creation ought to give us pause for thought. If decades of road building have taught us anything, it is that suppressed vehicle demand brings more drivers onto the road when road capacity is increased. To put it succinctly, if you completely dual the A9, more people will make longer trips in their cars, and more people will make trips by car rather than by rail or by bus. From an environmental perspective, none of this is good news. The church ought to be just as concerned with the sustainable use of the earth’s resources as it is with road safety. And, given that the A9 traverses some of the most spectacular scenery in Western Europe, the dualling of the A9 will have a detrimental effect on the visual environment. Historically, the church has neglected the environment and issues of sustainability. The church ought to be concerned about these things too.

Christianity has something to say about everything – this is God’s world. So, let the church speak out on transport policy. But let that speaking be considered, balanced, and theological.

[Anyone interested in this issue can read the Accident Analysis 2013 on the A9Road.info site]

One Church’s Unity

stgilesAt the 2013 General Assembly (GA) of the Free Church of Scotland, a call was made for evangelicals to leave the Church of Scotland and join the Free Church. Last weekend, Church of Scotland evangelicals met in Perth and formed a network committed to staying within the Church of Scotland in order to seek reform and renewal.

The Free Church GA was also reminded of the Free Church ideal of seeking the prosperity of the Church of Scotland so that one day the Disruption might be reversed. In the Free Church today, I wonder how many really do still hold to this ideal. History has landed us where we are as denominations (Free Church and Church of Scotland). Even after 170 years, the events of the Disruption still upset many in the Church of Scotland. And some in the Free Church still see the Disruption as for ever defining the denomination over and against the Church of Scotland. The GA address reminded those of us in the Free Church that the Church of Scotland is our mother church. Even if it has demoted the confession, and continues to struggle with issues of biblical authority, it has not ceased to be a church, it has not ceased to be the national church (even if its claim to be so is eroding), and it has not ceased to be the mother church whose prosperity we seek. It has not ‘forfeited the right to be called a church of Christ.’

Reformed people have long-argued about the rights and wrongs of secession. In the last century, Martyn Lloyd-Jones and John Stott argued the same issue. Stott, not Lloyd-Jones, was right – and history, it seems to me, has judged it that way. Stott’s position best reflects a Reformed ecclesiology. He said:

I would only contemplate seceding if the official doctrine of the Church of England denied the Gospel as I have been given to understand it in any fundamental particular. Then, and not till then, would be the time to secede.

Should people leave the Church of Scotland right now because of the GA fudge on non-celibate homosexuals in ministry? Has the Church of Scotland ceased to be a church because of this? Does it represent the abandonment of a ‘fundamental particular’? I’m sure there is a need for reflection and discussion, but it is not as clear cut as many suggest. Of course, those who suggest it is clear cut tend to hold the a particular ecclesiology, and see it very simply: evangelicals should leave the impure behind. But, is that the ecclesiology of the Reformers, or of the Anabaptists? Herman Bavinck writes of the tendency amongst those who hold this kind of pietistic ecclesiology:

Instead of making a broad and inclusive survey of all churches, carefully distinguishing between true and false, not throwing out the wheat with the chaff, they simply with one fell swoop condemn all churches as false, call all believers to secession and frequently elevate separation itself to an article of faith.… What is the fruit of all this? Not a reformation of churches but an increase in their number and a perpetuation of division. The Catholicity of Christianity and Church

There is a great need in Scottish Presbyterianism for a return to Reformed ecclesiology. Too many have turned to the ecclesiology-lite of Evangelicalism. There needs to be a return to Reformed doctrine on the nature of the Church, and a fresh appreciation of the biblical importance of Christian unity (and of the terrible track-record of Scottish Presbyterianism in this regard). There needs to be recognition of the  need for improved ecumenical relationships between the churches, and the gravity and difficulty of the situation facing Church of Scotland people with orthodox, biblical views on homosexuality. And, within the Free Church there needs to be a commitment to the ideal of praying for and seeking the good of the Kirk. Putting all this together, Church of Scotland congregations holding to the orthodox faith of the Confession need support and encouragement, especially on the ground at a local level. Calls for Christians to leave the Church of Scotland and join the Free Church are a case of one church’s unity being another’s disunity. If calls are made to those who have already left, that’s a different thing. Those members and congregations who have already left the Church of Scotland need to be persuaded most of all not to further abandon the ideal of unity within Scottish Presbyterianism.

I’m not Scottish, and the only Scottish church I have belonged to is the Free Church of Scotland. I love the Free Church. I love its people, its values, its theology, its history. Through this church, the Lord has greatly blessed me, my family, my children. However, I also feel a deep love and concern towards the Church of Scotland. I’ve worshipped with my family in her congregations, and been blessed. I’ve met many extremely gracious and gifted ministry candidates, ministers and members – a lot of these during my time at Highland Theological College. I love the Church of Scotland and pray that those who fight to uphold orthodoxy and resist heterodoxy within it would weather the current storm, as they did the storm of the old liberalism. The Church of Scotland is still one of the Lord’s churches. Impure, yes – as all are. Moving in the wrong direction, yes. In great danger, yes. But still part of the Lord’s Church. Those within the Church of Scotland who seek to follow the agenda of the world and disregard the authority of scripture need to be opposed. They need to be opposed from within the church by those who seek faithfulness to the Word of God. For the good of Scotland we must seek the peace and prosperity of the national Kirk.

So, I’m glad that a couple of days ago, 350 Church of Scotland evangelicals decided to stay within the Kirk to work for reformation and renewal. May the Lord bless their witness and work.

Continuity, Discontinuity and Reform

reformationWhen decisions are made to change things in a church, how does the church move forward? Let me share with you the words of a leader trying to guide his church in the aftermath of change.

The question arises:  Why has the implementation of the Council, in large parts of the Church, thus far been so difficult? Well, it all depends on the correct interpretation of the Council or – as we would say today – on its proper hermeneutics, the correct key to its interpretation and application. The problems in its implementation arose from the fact that two contrary hermeneutics came face to face and quarrelled with each other. One caused confusion, the other, silently but more and more visibly, bore and is bearing fruit.

On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call “a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture”; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the “hermeneutic of reform”, of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.

The hermeneutic of discontinuity risks ending in a split….

That church leader was Pope Benedict, speaking during his Christmas address to the Curia in 2005. His subject was the Second Vatican Council. Whilst the reception of the Council in the Roman Catholic church is an interesting issue, it’s not my interest here. I’m interested in how churches move forward after change.

The question is cogent, following the Free Church’s November 2010 decision to allow the use of hymns and other songs in public worship. There are those in the church who want to adopt and propagate a hermeneutic of ‘discontinuity and rupture’. We have seen all too often in the past that this does indeed appeal to the mass media who like nothing better than to help air the dirty laundry of the church and to spread ill-tidings. This hermeneutic proclaims that this is the end – the game is up. We might as well all pack up and go home. This hermeneutic is dangerous and divisive. And, more to the point, it ignores the great continuity in all that the Free Church has stood for, and still stands for today.

The correct hermeneutic for understanding the Free Church decision is the ‘hermeneutic of reform’. It is ironic that change in Reformed denominations does not come easily. And yet we have the call to be ‘always reforming’. Do we seriously think that we long-ago arrived? Or that there is no requirement on us to engage in the tasks of theology and mission in our age, and to reform our practices where we find that we have not reflected the truths of God’s Word adequately? A reforming church is constantly seeking renewal, is dynamic, Christ-focussed, Word-focussed, Spirit-led. And it does this without ever slipping its anchor. Those who adopt the ‘hermeneutic of reform’ in seeking to move forward in the Free Church will have truly understood the heart of the church for God-glorifying reformation, and they will silently, yet visibly, bear fruit. Renewal in continuity ought to be an idea that we are comfortable with. And discontinuity ought not to alarm us when it is the result of renewal.

It is precisely in this combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels that the very nature of true reform consists.

Time to Believe in the Church

moundDuring his Moderator’s address to the General Assembly last week, the Rev Dr Iain D Campbell said this:

“How reluctantly we part with what we have for the good of others. How eager we are to hold on to every last penny.

“How jealous we are to guard our congregational nest eggs, and slow to pour our resources into the common purse of a Church that needs us all to play our part.”

The Free Church, in these times of austerity, is having to cut its suit according to its cloth – like everyone else. However, the fact that a proportion of congregational contributions has been changed in recent years from an automatic levy to a voluntary donation means that more money is being held and perhaps spent at a local, rather than national, level.

The local church is, quite rightly, a focus for renewal of mission in the denomination. But what about the denomination itself? A national vision, a public vision, a strategic vision for mission, both national and international – these can all only be realised in the Church as a denomination (and, through the denomination, in the wider catholic Church). If local congregations choose to only send the bare minimum to Edinburgh, then I’m afraid that there is a collapse in vision of the kind that attends small expressions of church. Thomas Chalmers and the fathers wouldn’t recognise that.

In the early Church, the more wealthy gave to the less wealthy (both in material and human resources). The apostles co-ordinated responses to both theological and practical challenges. The generosity of the Churches was commended by Paul:

And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches.
Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.
For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own,
they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. (2 Cor 8:1-4)

The Free Church is reforming. As it does so it must keep its anchor in our confession as a Reformed Church. In challenging times, Free Church people  must hold their belief in the Church.