Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Time for Some Spring Cleaning

About this time of the year my beloved wife thinks of the annual clearing out of our wardrobes. (As a mere man I would never think of such.) Often this means a much needed targeted approach to my wardrobe in particular, and a generous proportion of my treasured items of clothing are deemed out of fashion, faded, worn, or (unbelievably) too small and tight.

I generally bow to her superior sartorial wisdom, as any sensible husband would. Presentation and public appearance are important; she does not wish me to appear in public dressed as I was in the 70’s or even 90’s, especially as it seems that I have grown but the clothes have not.

Presentation and public appearance are also important for the church, especially on significant public occasions in congregational life. Some aspects of our worship and practice are timeless, some are merely traditional.  Often the traditional is not merely fossilised history but fossilised recent history, (within the last 50 or 150 years.)

This was forcefully brought to mind over the last weekend as I attended two services, one of which was the induction of a new minister to a charge and the other the installation of an elder to the Kirk Session.  What struck me, especially in the case of the minister’s induction, is how unnecessary much of the procedure was.  Not only was the language archaic, but it included a sprinkling of such phrases as “in hunc effectum” and “pro re nata” – we could probably have sneeked in an “ad eundum quo nemo ante iit” and the congregation would have been none the wiser.

The minister was asked to publically affirm his approval of the Claim of Right of 1842 and the Protest of 1843, which although historically significant in the history of the Free Church are not really essential points of reference in the 21st century church.  Not only had th minister to affirm his allegiance to the Westminster Confession of Faith, but he had to “disown all Popish, Arian, Socinian, Erastian and all other doctrines contrary to the Confession of Faith.”

Someone later jokingly asked me why he was asked to abjure “Rastafarian doctrine” – close, but not quite there. To be honest, I have never met a living Erastian, so cannot assume that it is a heresy that is much of a threat to the church today.  Conversely, no mention was made of heresies that are a present danger to the church,  such as charismatic theology, federal vision theology or false ecumenism. We might also want to ask why a clear affirmation of the Westminster Confession is not in itself thought to be a sufficient implicit rejection of such errors, both past and present.

Personally, I joined the Free Church of Scotland not because of what it (rightly) did in 1843 but because it is a living Reformed, Evangelical and Confessional denomination.  It makes me wonder if we will still be referring to 1843 in 2043!

Here is my suggestion: we need to do some “spring cleaning” of our forms of ordination and induction for ministers and elders. We need to ask what is essential biblically and what is beneficial. Equally, we need to ask what is faded and worn, what is unhelpful or even detrimental to the attempt to present the Free Church as a modern Evangelical and Reformed denomination, true to its biblical and theological roots. Perhaps we need to compare our service of ordination with those of the OPC, the PCA, and the URCNA.

If you don’t modernise you fossilise.  As the socialist writer Audrey Farrell has said, “Learn from the past, live in the present, plan for the future.”

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