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Trongate

October 13th, 2012

This blogpost explains recent developments at St George’s Tron, the city centre church in Glasgow that decided to withdraw from the Church of Scotland. I have included the full text below the fold.

The great city of Glasgow has a motto – ‘Let Glasgow flourish”.  Actually the full motto is or was, ‘Let Glasgow flourish through the preaching of the Word’.  One can understand how in an increasingly aggressively secular society the latter phrase has been dropped, what still manages to shock is how a Church which supposedly seeks to follow Jesus Christ can also, and perhaps in a more aggressive and dangerous manner, undermine that motto.  This week there has been a stark reminder of just how much a church can move from its roots.  It is to this sad tale that I now have to turn.

There is a time to speak and there is a time to be silent.  There are those of us who are far to quick to have a knee jerk reaction and pontificate with outrage and passion on almost any subject that takes our fancy.  There are others who are so cautious that they would still demand an inquiry into ‘the full facts’ before they could condemn Adolf Hitler.  Surely wisdom is to be found somewhere in between these extremes?

Whilst in the great scheme of things what I am about to write about is not of the same scale as some of the much deeper and wider injustices in our society and world today, nonetheless what is going on is indicative of a deep malaise within the church in Scotland in general and the Church of Scotland in particular.

I was somewhat astounded to read a letter this week from Rev. Dr William Philip, the minister of one of Scotland’s largest and most influential churches, St Georges Tron in the centre of Glasgow.  There was also a letter sent from the Session Clerk to the Presbytery of Glasgow – as this latter letter is public I feel free to share some of its contents and to comment upon it.

But first of all  – some background (for those of you who are not aware of what is currently going on in Scotland).  For many years St Georges Tron has been a flagship church of the evangelical renewal within the Church of Scotland – something that has been going on since the 1950s.   Tom Allan, George Duncan, Eric Alexander, Sinclair Ferguson and now Willie Philip (the son of one of the original stalwarts of the evangelical movement, James Philip of Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh) have all had ministries which have been noted for faithful Bible teaching, evangelical commitment and evangelistic outreach.  Those of us who were not able to join the Church of Scotland nevertheless admired and prayed for their faithful and fruitful stand.   Willie Philip has continued that tradition but he has brought an added dimension – the Cornhill Trust.  Cornhill is a superb programme teaching people to exegete, teach and preach the Bible – it is growing into one of the most significant and influential movements in Scottish Christianity.  In addition to this the congregation have recently completed a £3 million refurbishment of their City centre building.  As anyone who goes into the centre of Glasgow can see it is truly a church building at the heart of the city, reaching out to thousands every day.  And yet it looks as though this is now going to end – not because of persecution from outside, nor decline within, but simply because the Church of Scotland has decided to destroy this work.

It stems back to the decision of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to permit the induction of a minister living in an openly sinful and unbiblical relationship.   This was further reinforced by a later Assembly and is likely to be backed up again, after yet another ‘commission’ (one suspects it has been largely designed on the theory that if conservative evangelicals are kept talking, then they will give up/fall out amongst themselves/or be won over to the more ‘liberal’ view) due to report in 2013.  The Tron rightly or wrongly decided that enough was enough and they were not going to wait. So they left the Church of Scotland.  There are those who would question the wisdom of such a move, including many evangelical Christians who would have preferred there to be a more united action taken at a later time.  Be that as it may the Tron took the view that the cause was lost and they could no longer submit to the doctrine, discipline and government of a Church which was prepared to be so cavalier with the Bible.

Although leaving the denomination, the congregation wished to continue with their city centre ministry in their newly refurbished buildings – largely paid for by themselves. The leadership of the Tron visited the Chairman and Secretary of the General Trustees of the Church of Scotland to assure them of their desire to have a peaceable and reasonable settlement of outstanding issues.  As an act of good faith they handed over a cheque for the then outstanding loan repayment.  They made contact with the Presbytery committee set up to investigate the matter and met with the convener several times.  They also invited this committee to attend the Sunday and Wednesday services to see how the congregation was getting on(an invitation which interestingly enough was not taken up). Whatever one thinks of the decision to leave surely no one could deny that these actions were in the best interest of the church and the cause of Christ?

And yet it was met immediately with a heavy handed and brutal response. The bank accounts of the Tron were frozen, despite a proper court order not being obtained.  This means that the collections of the congregation, given by their own members, have not been able to be used to pay the running costs of the congregation.   In addition to this the minister and his wife received a letter at home stating that they had no right to remain in the manse, despite the fact that the manse belongs to the congregation and not the denomination. More recently, court proceedings have now also been launched personally against the minister, the treasurer and the Session Clerk by the new “Interim Moderator” and “Kirk Session of St George’s Tron Church of Scotland” – a group set up by the Presbytery claiming to be the trustees of the congregation and using their charity number. The summons received claims that the action is raised with “the full concurrence of the Presbytery of Glasgow” although several members of Presbytery say they know nothing about this.

As I write this I have just heard that the Presbytery last night rejected the congregations plea and instead are intending to remove them from their building and the minister from the manse.  What does all of this mean and why is it important?

1)    Sacrifice – Firstly for the sake of the Gospel it is incredibly disappointing that the powers that run the Church of Scotland have decided to sacrifice the Tron.  Once again a denomination dominated by ‘liberals’ in theology are far from liberal when it comes to dealing with any who dare to disagree with them.  The Presbytery have spoken of a desire to have a conservative evangelical Church of Scotland congregation in the Tron building.  The jutzpah of such words is breathtaking in its hypocrisy. As Willie Philip’s reaction to the decision points out “There were some who spoke up for us, but the desire to punish us and make an example of us for daring to stand up against the denomination’s public apostasy was overwhelming.  Accordingly, they have resolved to evict us from our church building, and from our manse without undue delay. They will then ‘rebuild a vibrant evangelical ministry in the St George’s Tron building’!  With whom this miracle will be performed, we are not told.”

2) Fantasy – The congregation’s letter to the Presbytery stated, “If we are forced to move out of our building, it is hard to imagine another ministry will be easily replicated in the building, given the fact that there is not one member of our congregation who wishes to remain in the building as part of a Church of Scotland congregation.”  And yet the Presbytery apparently think that they can reestablish a city centre evangelical ministry with £30,000 per year and no people! This is the kind of fantasy that bureaucracies seem to thrive on.  The only worse fantasists I know are evangelicals who seem to have an incredible ability to avoid facing up to uncomfortable facts in the name of the Gospel.

3) Hypocrisy  – It is worth quoting from the congregations letter – “those who are hurt most by this will not be our core church family; it will be the outsiders to whom we are ministering from the building as a base—not least those caught up in addictions, those far from home as asylum seekers, students needing a spiritual family away from home and others, often destitute and hopeless, who come through the church doors regularly day by day, and week by week.”  The Church of Scotland hierarchy are prepared to sacrifice all of that for the sake of what?   I have noted a tendency amongst those who call themselves more ‘liberal’ in terms of the theology to be the opposite when it comes to practically dealing with those who dare to disagree with them. Liberal, in the best sense of the word, to my mind means open, generous and kind hearted. The actions taken against the Tron are closed-minded, petty and mean.  Mind you I need to be careful here not to blame all of this on ‘liberals’. At least one non-evangelical spoke out of a sense of fairness and justice in favour of The Tron.  Apparently there were also some ‘evangelicals’ who were just as prepared to stick the boot in.

4) Money – The congregation made this plea to the Presbytery – all to no avail – “We would plead with you, therefore, when deciding about our church building not to think that this is about us and our comfort. Rather, the focus must be on those in the city centre who need the gospel of Christ, and on how a living and effective ministry can be resourced, sustained, and developed without a large, committed congregation there. You will not be surprised at us imploring you to allow us to continue our 7-days a week ministry in Buchanan Street. Our folk have a real vision for the gospel in the city centre, and a real commitment to the building as a vehicle for that mission. Within the last 5 years they have backed that up by already giving over £2.6 million of their own money to fit the building for its missionary purpose (some elderly members going without holidays, some families re-mortgaging their homes and children giving their pocket money to make what contributions they could). They did this because it provides us with so many gospel opportunities day by day.”

It is true that the congregation still owe £0.5 million to the General Trustees in the form of a loan.  Why could the Trustees not have agreed a means to pay that back instead of grabbing the £2.5 million the congregation have spent themselves?  Again I have noted that those who enjoy talking about how ‘radical’ the Gospel is in taking on the materialism and greed of our culture are often those who are most hardline when it comes to money.  The Free Church and the Baptist Church in St Andrews for example would have loved to buy the Martyrs Church of Scotland building when, because of congregational decline; it came up for a sale.  Would the Church of Scotland be willing to sell it to another Christian church who could not pay as much as the University of St Andrews?  Not at all.  When it comes down to the wire, keeping a gospel ministry going seems to come second to mammon.  The Glasgow decision is further evidence of that hard-nosed materialism.   Scottish Presbyterians seem to have a particular penchant for going to law about property.  I had hoped those days had gone.  When the FCC departed from the Free Church and took millions of pounds worth of manses and buildings it was very tempting for the Free Church to take them to court.  After all just think what selling the odd manse, church building or caravan site could mean for the St Peters deficit or the on going need to cut ministries.  But we resisted the temptation – despite the FCC wasting over £1 million of the Lord’s money on trying to get a civil court to declare they really were the Free Church (a case they lost).  In an increasingly militantly secular Scotland I had hoped that these days of church fights over property had gone and we could in future have a more mature Christian approach.  Sadly someone seems to have forgotten to tell Glasgow Presbytery.

5) Evangelicals – Two of those named on the summons the Tron received, as pursuers are ‘evangelicals’ in the presbytery.  It is interesting that we have been told for years that once evangelicals were in positions of power then things would change.   Here are a couple of evangelicals in power and they are the ones taking the Tron to court!  There have been those who have criticized evangelicals within the C of S as being evangelical second, denomination first.  I have always felt that was an unfair and over sweeping generalisation. I still do.  But I am beginning to have my doubts. Now is the time for evangelicals within the Church of Scotland (whether they agree with what the Tron have done or not) to make a stand against the hard and vindictive behaviour of their denomination.  Surely it cannot be right that they are taking this church to court, seeking to remove their building and their manse from them.  And they cannot hide behind..’it is the lawyers’.  No – the lawyers are acting on behalf of the denomination to which they belong and which they serve as office bearers.  Surely now would be a good time to speak up in defence of those who are not allowed to speak for themselves?  At this point I should point out that there were those on the presbytery who spoke up for the Tron and made a good case.  They even included one man who could not be described as an evangelical but just had that quality which seems to be in such short supply, a sense of fairness!

This whole business is a really sad mess that makes me want to pull out whatever hair I have left.   I am intrigued at the number of ‘evangelical’ brothers who keep silent in public and/or are not slow to ‘diss’ the Tron in private.  ‘Willie is an empire builder’, ‘they did it all wrong’, ’an unfortunate manner you know’ etc.  Let us suppose for the sake of argument that all of this were true and that The Tron had got things wrong and that we did not like the leadership or their manner.  Would that justify us keeping silent when such a manifest injustice is being done?

Maybe I have got this all wrong.  But what I see is a bible teaching bible believing church, faithful to the constitution of the Church, more importantly faithful to the Bible that the church professes to be based on; I see that church being forced out of its key position in the centre of Glasgow, the money donated by its members being stolen by religious legalists, and the name of God being blasphemed amongst the Gentiles because of the actions of the church. I am ashamed that the following was reported of the Presbytery –  “it was a disgraceful report, and a disgraceful debate, with innuendo and so called ‘confidential information’ being cited to damn us with smears and falsehood.”  If that is true then the Presbytery of Glasgow should be ashamed.  If it is false then they should provide the evidence and I for one would have to admit that I was deceived by the evil brilliance of Willie Philip and the Cornhill Sinners.

I have just read the following in this mornings Herald –

A special committee headed by the Very Reverend David Lunan decided on the legal move. He said: “It gave us little joy to bring this report to [Glasgow] Presbytery; there are no winners in this and all we can do is approximate to that which honours our Lord.

While I am not filled with joy, I am content, I am at peace, that this is the only outcome that will bring closure, and by the grace of God bring healing.”

If this is an accurate report perhaps the Very Reverend could tell us just how taking the building away from a congregation which is doing a great work ‘is honouring to our Lord’ (I am struggling to think of a more blatant disregard for the third commandment)?  And whilst the convenor may be at content and at peace in closing down such a vibrant congregation, perhaps he can tell us why taking £2.5 million off a congregation and removing them from their building will ‘by the grace of God bring healing’.  Once again the capacity of ministers to avoid plain speaking and use an Alice-in-Wonderland version of the English language is astounding. (to translate what the Presbytery have done into the vernacular – we don’t like the Tron, we think Willie Philip deserves his comeuppance, and we sure as heaven are going to discourage any others from having similar notions of daring to challenge us).   The only part of the statement that rings true is that the Presbyteries actions will bring ‘closure’.  Indeed it will.  Closure of the Tron’s work in their own building and I suspect the continuing closure of other Church of Scotland’s throughout the city as it continues its freefall into irrelevance and oblivion.

I admire and support fully the work that Willie Philip and The Tron are doing through Cornhill and through the local congregation.  Let me demonstrate the scale of it – Cornhill is training 39 people this year. The stats for the C of S (from the GA report) show the entire C of S, across all years in its 5 colleges, is training 41.  The first year intake to Cornhill this year is 50% larger than the first year intake of the whole C of S.  Is it jealousy, a fit of pique, insanity or just hatred of the Gospel that inspires a presbytery to seek to punish a church which is doing so much for the sake of the Gospel? Maybe there is something cultural here as well – we would rather see something destroyed than allow anything creative to be done by an entrepreneur for the Gospel.

Is it not about time that all like-minded brothers and sisters stood and identified with The Tron?  Or are we just going to turn the other cheek (theirs), nit pick, indulge in schaedenfreude and just wait to see who is next?

I believe that the Lord will honour the faithful stance of the Tron and that ultimately losing the manse and the church will also turn out for good.  I do not believe that the Lord will honour the spineless behaviour of those who refuse to stand by and help brothers and sisters in need.  We may not want to choose sides.  We don’t have that choice.

David Robertson

St Peters Free Church

Dundee

October 2012

The following is the statement that was given to the congregation the Sunday before the Presbytery decided to evict them – it speaks for itself.

“On Wednesday evening at the prayer meeting we were asking you to pray for the forthcoming meeting of the presbytery of Glasgow which will take place on Tuesday night, and for the expected report of the special committee, under the convenorship of David Lunan, which will be reporting with recommendations about the future of our building here; and I do want to ask you all to pray for that meeting.

Since Wednesday, we have now seen the report which will go before presbytery on Tuesday, and I’m afraid I have to say to you it is very disappointing indeed. It’s a report marked by falsehood, fantasy and enmity. Falsehood – repeating all kinds of evil against us falsely. Fantasy – making the grandiose claims to what wonderful, vibrant ministry will be able to flourish in this building if only we are removed from it. And enmity. We sang a hymn last Sunday morning about “smiling foes” and this report waxes eloquent about how greatly they respect the tradition of conservative evangelical preaching at St George’s Tron and yet concludes that the only way of preserving such a tradition is to eject this congregation from that building. They adore the idea of having a vibrant, living evangelical ministry here within the Church of Scotland but when faced with a real ministry and congregation like that in practice it seems like they are determined to destroy it— like the religious leaders that Jesus spoke of who venerated the tombs the prophets but flogged and murdered the living prophets.

Now friends, none of this should surprise us. Since the day that most of you were faced here with the delegation from presbytery and from 121 George Street, you have seen and you know what we’ve been dealing with – a perpetual enmity that rails against the living Gospel of the real Jesus Christ and his true Church. We only need to open Bibles and read to recognise that.

Now, we mustn’t pre-judge the issue, presbytery on Tuesday night can reject this report, but I have to tell you that I think that seems extremely unlikely. And so, barring an intervention of God, that means that we must be prepared for the fact that we must soon be forced out of this building where we meet and where we so delight to share the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. It may also be that the family and I are forced to leave the manse and that we as a Church may lose all of our other assets as well. (These things are more complicated, we may have a better legal defence there, although it does seem that the Scottish charity regulator has tended to side with the Church of Scotland view. But as I say, these things are complex.)

Nevertheless, the deliverance being urged upon presbytery on Tuesday night includes taking further legal action without delay to dispossess us of these things. As you know, there is already legal action underway personally against myself and our Session Clark and our treasurer.

Now none of us can find this easy, and I think I can fairly say that there won’t be too many that find it harder than I do. But let us just together consider this: we are discovering together what real Christian discipleship means, because we are learning to tread where our Lord Jesus Christ trod.

“If anyone would come after me” He said “let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)  But he also said, “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for my name’s sake will receive a hundred fold and will inherit eternal life.”

Now we believe that don’t we? And we’re going to test it in a very tangible way it seems.

It may surprise you therefore, for me to tell you that our Elders meeting yesterday morning, where we considered this report and its implications, was, I think, the most encouraging elders meeting that we have ever had. Of course it began sombre as we read the report together but I must tell you that it ended with our hearts full of hope and joy, and our minds focused on the future, and our hearts thrilled at the prospects of the future because the Lord is opening up great opportunities for us through this for the advancement for our gospel outreach, for the expansion and the growth of our ministry and not for it’s decline. And we hope that over the next month or two we will be able share in much more detail some of that excitement with you.

We truly believe that this opposition is God’s opportunity for the next stage of our corporate mission together as a fellowship. It was the persecution, do you remember, against the Church in Jerusalem in Acts Chapter 7 that was the birth of the spreading missionary Church. “Saul was ravaging the Church” we read, “therefore those who were scattered went about proclaiming the Word.” And it was through that the Kingdom of God advanced and grew mightily.

So “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s pleasure to give you the Kingdom” – that is what the Lord Jesus said (Luke 12:32). We don’t need to be anxious about what we are to eat or drink or where we are to live or indeed where we are to meet. Our Heavenly Father knows that we need these things. Instead, “Seek first His Kingdom and these things will be added to you” says the Lord Jesus (Luke 12:31). And we know, don’t we, that we can trust Him.

So let’s draw near to Him now in the quietness of this moment and just lift our hearts, together, to Him – our Lord and our Saviour and our King – in prayer.

Let us pray.

Lord our hearts are sad and heavy, not so much with our loss but at the dreadful hatred and enmity of people who want to shut the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces – neither entering themselves nor wanting to allow others to enter, people who love the form of godliness, the trappings of religion, but deny utterly its power and therefore deny its person – the real and living Lord Jesus Christ.

Have mercy Lord, have mercy on those who would refuse to minister even to the least of your brethren and so will find that they have been heaping scorn and abuse upon You who loves everyone who bears shame for the sake of Your Name.

And have mercy on us Lord we pray in our distress and in our pain. This place is dear to us! It is dear to us in a myriad of ways, and we have poured out our substance these recent years to fit it for your service. And yet, Lord, that which we have lavished upon this place was not for us; it was not for this building even, but it was for you – our Lord and our Saviour, and it was out of love to you. And if now that should seem but a waste to so many, remind us Lord that like the ointment poured on your feet by Mary, nothing—nothing—so done out of love to You is ever a waste to You, but remains a beautiful thing in your eyes.

So receive our love O Christ our God, and help us through whatever path we now must tread, and help us to love you more, not less.

And remind us Lord, constantly, of your words of strength and of power when you say to us,

“Blessed are you when others revile and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you, falsely, on my account. Rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in Heaven for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

So, O Lord, look upon, us as men do whatever Your hand and Your plan has predestined to take place. And grant us, Your servants, to go on speaking your Word with boldness while You stretch out Your hand to do wonders through the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. For you alone are the King and the Judge of us and of all men. And in that truth we rest our souls in peace and we look to you for our salvation.

And this we pray in Jesus Christ, our Saviour’s name, Amen.”

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