Thursday, January 18, 2007

The History of a denomination: IX.

The United Free Church Assembly of 1908 was presided over by Robert Laws of Livingstonia, the veteran missionary, in the Moderatorial chair. Welcoming him to the chair, Dr. M'Crie joked that, "They looked foward to a very amicable, well-ordered and peaceful Assembly, inasmuch as it was to be an Assembly under the reign of Laws." Dr. Laws often had to suffer jokes on his name, although on one occasion the joke was on another. A lawyer who was not familiar with the United Free Church missionary, seeing on a list a book entitled 'Laws of Livingstonia' had ordered it and been most upset to discover it was not an obscure legal treatise but a missionary biography!
Much of the Assembly was, of course, taken up with the usual business matters, but there were a few very important developments. The first was the introduction of a kind of 'Social Gospel' view in the report of the Home Mission and Life and Work committees. Horrified (justifiably so) by unemployment levels and by poverty, it was urged that social service was almost a necessary preliminary to the Gospel. What was the point, it was argued, of preaching the Gospel to people in these conditions? Surely their living conditions had to be improved first, so that the Gospel seed could grow in the slums of Glasgow and Edinbugh?
Is this wrong? Certainly it is! It is, as George Reith of Edinburgh noted, an invesion of the Bible's teaching and a subtle incursion of materialistic philosophy into the Church. 'Improve his surroundings and you will improve the man' says this philosophy. To which we have to reply that it is all backwards. No, improve the man and he will improve his surroundings.' The Gospel is addressed to the outcasts of society, the offscourings. Some United Free Church ministers had made theirs a middle-class religion. Have we done the same? Others had adopted the philosophy of socialism, thinking of human social welfare, as George Reith put it, "in terms that would be equally applicable to a well-conducted piggery." (p. 94).
The Church and State debate (one of our special topics in this series) was noteworthy for the large number of elders who participated, mostly opposed to the report, which once again reccommended disestablishment. THe old breed of disestablishment enthusiasts were dying, and they were being replaced by men who were first for UNION, not disestablishment. A number of motions that would have had the effect of putting disestablishment out of the question were moved but not accepted. The status quo remained, but it was evident it could not do so for long. Dr. Hutton was enraged, declaring he had nothing to say to 'the Establishment'. But it was a rearguard action. Hutton's attempt to bar religious instruction from the Church's teacher training colleges after they had been handed to the state was defeated.
And the great event of the Assembly was an official letter from the Church of Scotland Assembly inviting the other Presbyterian Churches of Scotland to a friendly conference on the ecclesiastical condition of the country with a view to closer fellowship and co-operation.
At once the Old Guard rushed to attack it. But their day was over. Instead a committee was set up to consider the proposal. Great cheers greeted the almost unanimous passage of the motion to establish the committee.
As if as an omen, Dr. Hutton died before the Assembly was over. His day, and the day of those like him, was over.

God willing, next time we shall consider the 'ever memorable' Assembly of 1909



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