Thursday, March 08, 2007

The history of a denomination: XXIII.

Dr. David Cairns (pictured), Professor of Systematic Theology in the United Free Church College, Aberdeen, was the Moderator of the 1923 United Free Assembly. Cairns was a former United Presbyterian, educated at Edinburgh University and the old United Presbyterian College. In 1895 he had been ordained as pastor of the United Presbyterian Church at Ayton in Berwickshire, and in 1907 he had been called to his Chair at Aberdeen. As a theology professor, Cairns took a deep interest in the youth of the Church. He saw that all was not rosy in the United Free Church, yet he was young enough not to be a decided member of the Disestablishment party.
The year of 1923 was significant to Dr. Cairns in another way also - after the death of Principal Iverach of Aberdeen a few weeks after the Assembly of 1922 the Assembly now appointed Cairns to the Principalship of Aberdeen.
The Dundee Presbytery had sent up an overture calling for the preparation of a new Confession to supercede that prepared by the Westminster Assembly of Divines. The twentieth century, it was argued, had changed everything, casting the Christian faith into a new mould, approaching the faith differently. Now we do not deny this, but we deny that what was being thus expressed was in fact the Christian faith at all. It is precisely this departing from the faith that made it inadvisible for ANY revision, much less a new confession, to be prepared at that time. Among other things the Union movement doomed this overture to failure - if the United Free Church were to adopt a new confession it would have thrown up a further barrier to union with the Church of Scotland. As things stood, the Churches could unite on the basis of the Confession.

The Assembly was mostly taken up with the Haldane Report on the temporalities of the Church of Scotland. The Haldane Report was a government report dealing with existing law affected by the Church of Scotland Act (1921) and the further legislative changes necessary to facilitate the coming Union. The Report's reccomendations, if carried out, would give the Church of Scotland full control over all her property, lands, manses, churches, endowments and so on. The official deliverance proposed welcomed the Report and directed the Committee responsible to disseminate information about it through the Church.
The first amendment proposed to this was essentially one of delay. It was movd by Dr. Young that the Assembly pronounce no immediate opinion on the Haldane Report, but send them down, together with the 1921 Act and the Declaratory Articles of the Church of Scotland, to be considered by the office-bearers and the members of the Church.
What is interesting about this suggestion is that it is very much what the Constitutionalist party in theold Free Church proposed before the Union of 1900. Those who were calling for it now were the very people who had ignored the Constitutionalist plea before 1900!
Dr. Young's reason was not that he wanted to prevent Union, but that he was afraid of the Church splitting when Union came. This way he hoped to be able to bring everyone in.
Another amendment, submitted by Mr. Small of Berwick, declared that only complete disestablishment and disendowment could possible form the basis of any Union. This would have meant that Church of Scotland ministers coming into the Union would have no salary or next to no salary! What was more, Small's position was that the government should be completely indifferent to all religion - which is logically atheism!
The vote decided against both amendements by a large majority - about ninety per cent of the members.
The Church and State Committee was divided. A large minority had wanted to blast the Haldane Report, but the majority won out, and so the report submitted by the Committee was a gagged, edited version of what had been intended. However the minority managed to get their position out in the debate. The 'teinds' (roughly equivalent to the tithes) were, they declared, not the property of the Church but of the nation, and as such they should be employed for the national good.
Two assumptions were made here. Firstly, that the Church of Scotland was not doing any good to the nation. Second, that something expressly given to the Church had not in fact been so given.
And the majority of the Assembly refused to be led by such people. They continued to press on towards Union.

Next time, God willing, we shall see what 1924 brought.



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