FINLAY MACDONALD is an insider in the Church of Scotland. There is little that he, as a former Moderator and Principal Clerk, does not know of its life and culture. With great affection, he provides a concise outline of four centuries of the Kirk’s history, and outlines the complexities of its wonderfully decentralised polity.
In reading such a history, one seeks out some key moments. As a Scottish Episcopalian, I looked at the Kirk and Pisky relationship. Sprung from a common root, their adversarial relationship winds in and out of the story as Scottish ecclesiastical governance swings between Presbyterianism and Episcopalianism. In some measure, they have helped to shape each other and now share an increasingly productive partnership.
I live in Perth. So I am particularly conscious of the impact of John Knox’s fiery preaching at St John’s Kirk in 1559. “Unfortunately things rather got out of hand,” Macdonald writes, as he describes the mayhem that ensued.
He then outlines with care the events that made the Scottish Reformation “a process as distinct from a moment in time”. Of course, an important part of that process was the development of the Kirk’s distinctive polity, with the General Assembly at its heart.
In more recent times, the impact of the Disruption of 1843 continues to have a great influence on the Church of Scotland. In practical terms, the “reunited 20th-century Church found itself in possession of many more buildings than it needed”. Recent attempts to rationalise that situation have been difficult and painful in the local congregations.
My own affection for the Church of Scotland is rooted in the solid and earnest integrity with which it pursues issues over long periods. One example of this is the story of the — unsuccessful — efforts that were made to revise the Westminster Confession of Faith. Another is the continuing internal dialogue about what it means to be “a national Church”.
Macdonald outlines the ways in which today’s Kirk continues to engage with a wide range of issues in society, and to make its way in the secular culture of Scotland. These are challenging times for the Church of Scotland and for every faith community in Scotland. Macdonald has given us a comprehensive picture of a faith community of remarkable integrity and missional energy.
The Rt Revd David Chillingworth retired last month as Bishop of St Andrews, Dunkeld & Dunblane and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church.
From Reform to Renewal: Scotland’s Kirk century by century
St Andrew Press £16.99
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