Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The history of a denomination: XXVIII.

The Assembly of 1928 was the penultimate full General Assembly of the United Free Church of Scotland. The two Churches had come to the very brink, and there was no turning back. Shades of 1899 arose for United Free Churchmen. Just as then, two great Churches were about to unite, and one was about to divide. Yet, in a delicious piece of historical irony, the central issue in that division was the same as that of 1900 - and the men who were now the dissenters were those who had been most enthusiastic then! So true it is that 'as ye sow, so shall ye reap.'
The Moderator of that Assembly was Dr. Harry Miller of Edinburgh. Another former Glasgow student, Miller was famous for his work in the slum district of Edinburgh with the rather ironic name of 'the Pleasance'. Once the site of a royal garden, it had become a sink of iniquity. But the Pleasance Church, under Dr. Miller, had pursued vigorous evangelism, and now it was a garden of the Lord. Miller, born in 1869, was still a relatively young man, and they dubbed him 'The Boy Moderator'. He spoke on 'Our Heritage and Our Task,' with of course the Union in view. Principal Martin remained in his place as the de facto leader of the Church, and he would once again be called to the Moderator's Chair for the Uniting Assembly of 1929.
Business still had to be carried out, and once again the College Committee had to fill up a vacated place. Dr. Clow of Glasgow had resigned as Professor of Christian Ethics and Practical Training and as Principal. He was granted the status of Principal emeritus. The office of Principal was filled by the most senior of the remaining Professors, Dr. W. M. MacGregor, New Testament Professor. Arthur J. Gossip of Aberdeen was elected to the Chair of Christian Ethics and Practical Training.
As usual there were distinguished representatives of foreign Churches in the Assembly. The most notable of these was M. Paul Fuzier of Paris, from the Evangelical Reformed Church of France. He was of genuine Huguenot stock, with forefathers who had suffered and died for the Faith once for all delivered. One had spent the ten years from 1700 to 1710 chained to an oar in a royal galley for the crime of possessing a Huguenot communion token. What is worse, the man was already seventy when he was so chained!
France was even then the most secular country in Europe. Explaining this fact, M. Furzier noted that the average Frenchman was suspicious of Christianity because he mistook Roman Catholicism for it.
The visit of Dr. J. Montgomery Campbell of Dumfries, the Church of Scotland Moderator, was the most cordial of all the visits - for the next time the Moderators of the Churches met it would be to merge both Churches into one, and there would be one Moderator and one Assembly.
The hall was crowded for the report of the Union Committee. The result had already been anticipated, of course, but it remained to be seen what James Barr and his cohorts would do. It was moved that the Assembly, instead of immediately sending down the draft Uniting Act to the Presbyteries under the Barrier Act, to declare that the time for Union had come, and to adjourn the Committee until November, thus giving the Presbyteries a few more months to scrutinize the terms of Union. The Act would then, if appropriate, be sent down. Every attempt had been made to accomodate the dissenters. What was wrong, Dr. Drummond, the representative of the Committee, aske, with the plan? What was the objection? If it was to the 'vestiges of establishment', well, vestiges are the remains of what WAS, not something that IS. No, what they had was disestablishment in all but name. What had happened in Scotland was practically what had happened in Wales - and that HAD been called Disestablishment!
To the joy of the House, several of James Barr's former partisans now came over to the other side. But Barr was not cowed. Now he launched his last speech. He knew that he could not prevent Union, so he threw caution to the wind. No more delaying motions, no more talk of a process of consultation. He laid down HIS demands. It amounted to this: that the Church of Scotland must be publically humiliated by Parliament (strange, from one who professed a dislike to Parliament meddling in religious matters). First a bill must be passed declaring the Church of Scotland no longer to be by law established and that the compulsory payment of the land-charge that supported the Church had to be abolished. Commutation he declared to be 'endowment for evermore', forgetting that, if that was so, the disestablished Welsh Church had been 'endowed for evermore. He had not changed - but the Church had.
A more extreme amendment was suggested by Mr. Small of North Berwick. He wanted the Church of Scotland to divest itself of its endowments in order to please a few United Free Churchmen. No-one even seconded him. In a vote only 53 declared for Barr's motion, and in the end some 23 signed the formal dissent with him - no more than had formed the despised 'Wee Frees' in 1900.
The Assembly adjourned on 30th May to meet again on 21st November. It was on 20th November that Principal Martin was unanimously appointed Moderator of the 1929 Assembly - the very last of the United Free Church as it then stood.
The final sessions of the United Free Church Assembly of 1928 found that the plan of Union was approved. Dr. Martin declared that the principles of the Church were intact, so, "If Mr. Weir (one of the other dissenters) means leaving us, he need not think to carry the principles and constitution of our Church away with him, like another samson carrying off the doors and posts of the city. May I recall to the House the words of that narrative? 'And he arose at midnight, and took the doors of the gate of the city, and the two posts with them, BAR AND ALL, and put them upon his shoulders, and carried them up to the top of an hill that is before Hebron'."
The joke convulse the Assembly with laughter. Seriously, Barr and his party would be left with nothing but Disestablishment as their principle. While they might talk about preserving the historic testimony for liberty, the United Church would be as free as they were!
Only 48 voted with Barr, and only 27 signed the protest against union. This time there was a desire to reach a property settlement with the seceders. But only once Union was achieved and it was known who was in and who was out would that be done.
Meanwhile the Church of Scotland had adopted the Union report. The way was clear. All that remained now was for the Presbyteries to approve Union itself. All Scotland waited for the result, the Assemblies of 1929.

And that, God willing, will be our subject next time.



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