The History of a denomination: XII.
1911 was a fairly quiet Assembly. It was overshadowed by preparations for the coronation of King George V. The Moderator was Dr. James Wells of Glasgow, a noted evangelist whose voice was familiar to many in that city through his open-air work. In his address Wells warned against the spirit of the 'Social Gospel' and of Socialism, the temptation to neglect the preaching of the Gospel to the poor in favour of mere social work. Here Wells spoke with authority, as his church, located in the slums of Glasgow, did both. He was glad the Church had woken up to the terrible social evils of Edwardian Scotland, he said, but he was afraid that some would use the amelioration of social ills as an excuse to neglect evangelism. History proved that without true religion no civilization worthy of the name could long exist. Every effort to secularize the Church, in the supposed interest of the poor and of untried theories, must be resisted. The tendency of some to postpone the evangelization of the poor until their outward conditions were improved was the sign of decaying faith in the true mission of the Church to preach the Gospel to every creature under heaven. The Open-air preacher's voice filled the Assembly Hall as he appealed, on behalf of millions of living souls of men and women, souls that would have to spend eternity in heaven or in hell, that the Church remain focussed on the Gospel!
What else is there? 'Woe is unto me is I preach not the Gospel', said the Apostle. Yes, woe is unto me if I preach social reform only, woe is unto me if I preach slum clearance, woe is unto me if I preach Socialism, woe is unto me if I preach politics, woe is unto me if I preach teetotalism AND NOT THE GOSPEL! 'Woe is unto me if I preach not the Gospel!'
'But we preach Christ Crucified' is the motto of the Church of God. Let others preach social justice, 'but we preach Christ crucified'. Let other preach socialism, 'but we preach Christ Crucified.' Let them preach politics, 'but we preach Christ crucified.'
How we are grateful to men like Dr. Wells who saw through all the plausible talk of social reformers to the core of the matter - that what must be changed is the man himself, not his surroundings. Change the man, and then you truly will change his surroundings. But if you only change his surroundings, you throw good money after bad.
We cannot hope to stop the decay of our society by petitioning parliament, nor by providing social care, but by preaching the Gospel. Do not misunderstand, those are good things to do, to care for the widow and the fatherless. But we ought to remember to care for their souls as well as for their bodies. 'These things ought ye to have done and not left the others undone.'
The 1911 Assembly saw the attempt in the Temperance debate to force all Kirk-Sessions to use only unfermented 'wine' in Communion. Mercifully this wrong-headed attempt was thrown out and the choice put freely before the individual Sessions. Thus a throughly unnecessary battle in the Church was narrowly avoided.
Here let us remark that we hold this to be one of the drawbacks of denominations, the tendency to centralise all decisions in the Assembly. Presbyterianism at its best is a thoroughgoing federalism, with local issues decided locally. The Assembly's purpose it to co-ordinate local Congregations, Synods and Presbyteries and to deal with Church-wide matters like foreign missions and the training of the ministry (and indeed false teaching). It is not intended to settle every little detail of Church life, and if it is looked on to do this, it will fail badly.
A great step was taken in the direction of Union. The Church of Scotland agreed that Spiritual Independence (i.e. that in purely spiritual matters the government had no authority over the Church) was a necessary requirement of union. Most of the Assembly were overjoyed at this - for it was the United Free Church's main issue in the matter. A small group of hard-line supporters of Disestablishment was however beginning to emerge who threatened to block Union no matter what.
God willing, next time we shall look at the 1912 Assembly's progress.
Labels: United Free Church