By schisms rent asunder, indeed

by
18 September 2015

Ian Bradley reflects on the Churches of Scotland, multiplied by historic bust-ups

Reformation, Dissent and Diversity: The story of Scotland’s churches, 1560-1960
Andrew T. N. Muirhead
Bloomsbury, £22.99
(978-1-4411-3903-0)
Church Times Bookshop £20.70 (Use code CT894)

 

THIS new book unravels the intricacies of Scottish church history over the 400 years since the Scottish Reformation of 1560, painstakingly chronicling and explaining the numerous splits and schisms that have, perhaps, been its most notable feature.

Such an overview has been long needed. The standard work on the subject remains J. H. S. Burleigh’s magisterial, but now seriously out-dated, Church History of Scotland, published in 1960. Alec Cheyne, for long Professor of Church History at the University of Edinburgh, died in 2006 without writing the successor volume to Burleigh’s for which many hoped. It has been left to Andrew Muirhead, a former librarian, and current President of the Scottish Church History Society, to undertake this unenviable task.

He is to be congratulated for making a flowing and coherent narrative out of the confusing and unedifying series of factional and doctrinal disputes and breakaways that have characterised Scottish church history since the Reformation. While he rightly focuses primarily on the dominant Presbyterian denominations, constantly splitting and reuniting, he also meticulously covers smaller Churches, some little more than one-man bands, in two chapters on Non-Presbyterian Dissent, and the rather less faction-ridden Roman Catholics and Episcopalians — although the latter were not without their own disputes over relations with the Church of England, and other issues.

The author has a good eye for telling detail, and manages to convey, in a little more than 200 pages of text, the flavour of Scottish church life as well as its complex institutional history. He notes, for example, that, in the early 18th century, a parish minister might be chosen for his ability to make a fourth hand at whist, rather than for any spiritual qualities; and describes a Dundee United Presbyterian minister in the 1850s who regularly conducted up to 20 marriage ceremonies in his manse on a Friday evening, earning him the nickname “Buckle the Beggars”.

This book does not grapple with theological issues, such as double predestination and limited atonement, which exercised so many minds in the Reformed Churches; and it makes no mention of the deep spirituality found within that tradition, exemplified by such figures as Samuel Rutherford, George Matheson, and Norman Macleod.

It is a pity that the author does not stand back at the end and ponder why Scottish Christians have been so fissiparous, so narrowly doctrinally focused, and so markedly less eirenic and tolerant than their English neighbours. Perhaps he was simply exhausted by chronicling so many bitter disputes — and for that one can hardly blame him.

 

The Very Revd Dr Ian Bradley is Principal of St Mary’s College, St Andrews, where he teaches church history. His book Argyll: The making of a spiritual landscape will be published this month.

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