Thursday, February 02, 2006

"Rainy wi'oot the Principal" V.

On 7th November 1862 Robert Rainy delivered his inaugural lecture in the Chair of Church History at New College. His hope was that he could now devote his life to theological learning. It was not to be, for he was almost immediately swept up in a controversy that would, one way and another, affect the rest of his life, and form Rainy into the ecclesiastical leader and statesman he would later be best known as.

When the Free Church separated from the Established Church of Scotland in 1843 it claimed to be the Church of Scotland, free and reformed. In such circumstances it was natural for the Free Church to seek union with those dissenting presbyterian denominations that had split off from the Church of Scotland earlier in history, protesting the corruptions of that Church. But in ecclesiastical politics there are few things more divisive than Church union schemes. In 1852 a small body called the United Original Secession Church had united with the Free Church, but the great prize was union with the United Presbyterian Church, a large and prestigious body that had been formed out of the union of two smaller bodies.
Unions had already been consumated in Australia in which Free Church adherents and United Presbyterians had been joined in one. People in Scotland began to think that such a union would be desirable for Scotland.
In 1863 union was formally proposed by Dr. John Cairns of the United Presbyterian Church. Both Churches appointed committees to consider the proposal. Robert Rainy was appointed to the Free Church committee on union. What followed was popularly known as 'The Second Ten Years' Conflict'. It would take a whole series to describe that conflict, so this will not be a complete account. We shall instead try to sketch out Rainy's involvement in the controversy.

The committees drew up a series of points on which they felt there were real or apparent differences between the two Churches. The crucial matter, however, was that the two Churches disagreed about the relationship of Church and State. The Free Church held to the traditional Scottish presbyterian understanding, that the State ought to support the Church, although Church and state are co-ordinate authorities. The Free Presbyterians, on the other hand, contained a number of views, the most common of which was 'voluntaryism', that the Church should only be supported by the voluntary giving of her members.
The distinction was a merely academic one, of course, as both churches were in fact independent of the state. But it was an academic distinction that was very important to the Free Church testimony to be the Church of Scotland, Free.
Leading the 'Constitutionalist' side, who held that union was only possible if the United Presbyterians adopted the Free Church position, was Dr. James Begg. Begg expected a favourable outcome, and the Cameronians, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland, joined in the negotiations.
But in 1866 problems began to emerge. Some people had been so caught up in the enthusiasm for union that they began to hope for a union of all the Presbyterian churches, including the establishment. That meant that the Church and state question was no longer academic, it was real. James Begg began to grow cooler towards the union, and Rainy started to think that Begg was pursuing a policy of obstruction.

On 30th May 1867 Robert Rainy was asked to move the motion recording the Assembly's judgement. The judgement was that there was no bar to union. Rainy was looking now to the future, to a greater Free Church. From his perspective the union was important because it would establish the Free Church as the largest church in Scotland, able to dictate terms to the Established Church.
James Begg moved an amendment to the motion that would have sent the union question to the people of the Church a whole - the reverse of the ususal process. Rainy declared that, "if you adopt Dr. Begg's motion the negotiations go off." Rainy's motion was carried, but Begg and his friends tabled a protest against it. From that day forth Dr. Begg and Robert Rainy would stand most often on opposing sides.

Rainy set himself to explain the union question. A natural conservative himself, he understood the fears of some of the members of the Free Church. He tried to explain that he wanted the good of the Free Church, that he was not seeking change for the sake of change. But the Free Church could not remain a fossil. She had to react to her surroundings, and the UPs were a part of that, "history is great, but Christ is greater. He is a present Lord with a present will; and the Church abides in Him."
Dr. Goold, the leader in the Reformed Presbyterian Church, was impressed. But Rainy was not primarily seeking to please the RPs, but his own people. Dr. Begg countered with an aggressive anti-union campaign, and in 1873 the plan of union was shelved. It was not abandoned, but it was postponed until a more favourable time. Of the original union committee only Rainy would survive to see that time.

Next time, God willing, we shall look at Rainy's work as Professor of Church History at New College.



Blogger Gordon Cloud said...

Thanks for the informative lesson in church history. Very interesting! I wonder, would James Begg be an ancestor of contemporary theologian Alistair Begg?

8:29 pm  
Blogger Highland Host said...

I'm afraid I don't know!

1:58 pm  
Blogger PeterinScotland said...

Not *Free* Presbyterians but United Presbyterians, surely.

5:56 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home