Foundations: No.80 Spring 2021

The Union of 1929 and What Came After: Developments in Mainline Scottish Presbyterianism in the 20th Century

The union of the Church of Scotland and the United Free Church in 1929 was perceived as a significant and promising development in Scottish church history. However, challenging trends marked Scottish society in the twentieth century, negatively impacting the church: secularism, mass entertainment, diversity and pragmatism. Furthermore, union was achieved by dismantling the former confessional commitments of the Church of Scotland, and by obtaining full liberty for future change without external accountability. The Church of Scotland since has been marked by an eroded doctrine of conversion, liberalism, and preaching losing its primacy, all before the current statistical decline. Two major attempts at renewal are considered: those of George MacLeod and the Iona Community and of William Still and the Crieff Fellowship, neither of which reversed the decline. The union of 1929 consequently looks like mere institutional realignment, with the trends already in place that would undermine mainline Presbyterianism in Scotland.

I. Introduction

For a mainline Scottish Presbyterian in the first half of the twentieth century, there could be no doubt what was the most important recent development in the history of Scottish Christianity. The union of the United Free Church and the old Established Church in 1929 to form the modern Church of Scotland brought together the two thick black lines of the “spaghetti junction” of sundered Scottish Presbyterianism into one single institutional church. By that union, the Church of Scotland became not only the recognised national church, but also the spiritual home of the vast majority of Scottish Protestants. For the historian J. R. Fleming, 1929 brought his magisterial History of the Church in Scotland to a triumphant conclusion, an “end of history”, the ecclesiastical equivalent of the fall of the Berlin Wall: antiquated divisions replaced by forward-looking unity. Furthermore, not only was the union highly successful in combining two large and disparate churches into one seamless body, merging local and regional lower courts, national General Assemblies, and even the historically-independent United Free Church Colleges with the University Faculties of Divinity, but the new Church exhibited considerable vigour. A national campaign of church planting in the 1930s under the leadership of John White (1867-1951) saw many new congregations established in the newly-built urban and suburban housing schemes of modern Scotland; scholars and preachers like the Baillie brothers, John (1886-1960) and Donald (1887-1954), were major national figures; Kirk membership, and at least occasional attendance, were a normal part of respectable Scottish life.

Yet less than a hundred years later, the picture looks very different. The union of 1929 looks like a mere institutional realignment, with all the key trends already in place that would lead to the present-day decline into near irrelevance of mainline Scottish Presbyterianism. This article will aim to put the union of 1929 within that broader historical context and to consider the subsequent development of mainline Scottish Presbyterianism in the twentieth century.

II. Trends in Scottish Society in the Early Twentieth Century

We can identify a number of trends in Scottish society that proved extremely damaging to the Church of Scotland, and to Scottish Christianity more generally.

1. Secularism

By the 1920s, Scotland was already culturally a much more secular country than ever before. Academic higher criticism of the biblical text had greatly undermined confidence in the unity and truth of Scripture as the inspired Word of God. General acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution, and of a geological long age for the Earth, had called into question the biblical account of origins and, by extension, the reality of the Fall of Man. The literary expressions of doubt found in Victorian works such as Matthew Arnold’s famous poem Dover Beach (1867), and George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch (1871-2), had hardened into a literature founded on secular presuppositions. The sentimental Victorian and Edwardian Scottish writers like Ian Maclaren and J. M. Barrie were now rejected as the “kailyard” (cabbage patch) school of literature, and the new leading writers, such as the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and novelist Lewis Grassic Gibbon, were politically of the hard left and, by conviction, determined atheists hostile to all organised religion.[1]

Furthermore, the horrendous death toll of the First World War had undermined confidence in the need for conversion in this world: how could it be conceivable that so many young men had been precipitated into eternity without evidence of spiritual preparation, or further opportunity for it, so far as one could see, to be lost without hope? The leading Church of Scotland preachers, such as John White, began teaching the possibility of posthumous salvation, in some form of Purgatory.[2] Yet such doctrinal change was, in the longer term, deeply undermining to the Church: it looked, as indeed it was, overly convenient. Where was the Scriptural, as opposed to emotional or cultural, basis for Purgatory? And, more to the point, it removed the necessity and urgency of seeking God in this world. As a consequence of all this, respectable Scots still continued to attend church in the early- and mid-twentieth century, but their lives were no longer dominated by the exercise of religious piety.

2. Mass Entertainment

This was reflected in changing recreation. Reading habits had changed dramatically from Victorian times: sermons were no longer the most popular form of literature, being overwhelmingly replaced by secular novels.[3] Radio was introduced in the 1920s and rapidly became ubiquitous; despite the many worship services broadcast, it normalised the hearing of plays, undermined the observance of Sunday as the Lord’s Day, and promoted an increasingly secular tone to conversation. Theatres were increasingly popular and socially acceptable, and the cinema as a new form of recreation grew with astonishing speed during the 1920s; professional football acquired mass popularity; crowds no longer flocked to attend evangelistic rallies or Communion seasons, but to watch films and sporting fixtures. Dedicated piety looked old-fashioned.

3. Diversity

The homogeneity of Victorian society rapidly broke down as the twentieth century progressed. Social pressure towards the respectability of church attendance decreased in the early part of the century as a wider range of Sunday activity became available, and this tendency accelerated dramatically during the 1960s. As households became more affluent, they became more able to pursue their own choice of activities: “presbyterian doctrine and practice [have] withered considerably as prosperity pushed out puritanism”.[4] Furthermore, church would no longer be viewed as “one size fits all” Presbyterianism, but as a matter of personal preference. Consequently, even where individuals did experience conversion and hold strong Christian convictions, that did not necessarily translate into institutional loyalty to the Church of Scotland. Brethren assemblies, Baptist churches, independent mission halls, Pentecostal and charismatic fellowships proliferated.[5]

4. Pragmatism 

Furthermore, society itself also became more hard-headed and cynical. The earnestness of Victorian statesmanship was entirely displaced by the practicality of twentieth-century politics. Political candidates could no longer expect to speak for any length of time on abstract principles, nor was there much patience with high-flown eloquence: voters expected transactional communication: specific policies to meet identifiable needs. This inevitably affected preaching: preachers felt the pressure to demonstrate the reality and relevance of their messages to ordinary life, and all too often the temptation was therefore to speak on political, social or moral issues, rather than on Christian experience that might only resonate with a minority, even had the preacher an acquaintance with it himself. The decline in experimental preaching was undoubtedly and inevitably accompanied by the decay of experimental Christian piety in Scottish society.

III. The union of 1929

The United Free Church arose from a union in 1900, between the two other large national Presbyterian Churches. This immediately prompted investigation of the prospects for a full union with the Established Church, but three major issues had to be addressed: constitutional, doctrinal and property issues.

1. Constitutional Issues

First, the Church of Scotland was historically committed to strict subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith on the part of ministers and Professors of Divinity. While this was a fairly dead letter, and broad liberty was taken for granted by Kirk ministers and Professors on doctrinal issues, this would, of course, require to be changed if a Church with a looser subscription was to be incorporated. Therefore, the Kirk obtained the inclusion of a key clause in the Churches (Scotland) Act 1905, legislation that was chiefly intended to address the property issues arising from the 1900 Free Church union, that the Church of Scotland itself had liberty to change its own formula of subscription. This subscription was then loosened in 1910 with the adoption of this form:

I hereby subscribe to the Confession of Faith, declaring that I accept it as the Confession of this Church, and that I believe the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith therein.[6]

By leaving the “fundamental doctrines” undefined, subscription as a meaningful doctrinal safeguard was in fact all but destroyed in the modern Church of Scotland.

Many of the ministers and congregations that had come from the old United Presbyterian Church were firmly committed to voluntarism, the conviction that the church should be supported only by the voluntary donations of its adherents. However, the Kirk continued to receive various forms of state funding, including the “teinds”, a sort of local property tax, and the right to charge the local heritors (landowners) the cost of building or improving the parish church.

A Committee of the Kirk was established to meet these concerns, convened by John White, and proposed a Declaratory Act to the General Assembly to declare that the rights and powers claimed by the Church of Scotland as a Church were not granted by the state but were inherent in the Church. This was approved, but in the face of opposition.

2. Doctrinal Issues

The opponents saw the Act as sacrificing the Kirk’s established status, in return for only a general recognition by the State. The small group of Scoto-Catholics successfully demanded that a doctrinal statement be included as part of the Church’s Articles Declaratory. This was incorporated as Article I and thus is embedded in the constitution of the Church of Scotland as recognised and established by law, declaring that the Church “avows the fundamental doctrines of the Catholic faith founded” upon Scripture. However, Article V was a good deal more significant for the future of the Church of Scotland:   

V. This Church has the inherent right, free from interference by civil authority, but under the safeguards for deliberate action and legislation provided by the Church itself, to frame or adopt its subordinate standards, to declare the sense in which it understands its Confession of Faith, to modify the forms of expression therein, or to formulate other doctrinal statements, and to define the relation thereto of its office-bearers and members, but always in agreement with the Word of God and the fundamental doctrines of the Christian Faith contained in the said Confession, of which agreement the Church shall be sole judge, and with due regard to liberty of opinion in points which do not enter into the substance of the Faith.[7]

The Church of Scotland no longer had a permanent doctrinal standard. After extensive delays caused by the First World War, the Church of Scotland’s presbyteries overwhelmingly approved the draft articles. In 1921, Parliament responded by passing the Enabling Act, recognising the Church of Scotland’s right to adopt the articles as a statement of its constitution. The constitution, which had received Parliamentary recognition, asserted that the Church has received from Christ alone as King and Head of the Church the capacity, subject to no civil authority, to self-government in all matters of doctrine, worship, and discipline.[8] In terms of its own governance, however, this effectively took the Church of Scotland outside the jurisdiction of the civil powers regarding its internal affairs. By profession, it was under the authority not of Parliament but of Christ. However, this removed any external accountability for consistency with the Confession or any other doctrinal standard.

3. Property Issues

The Church of Scotland had learned from the Free Church union of 1900 the necessity of assuring itself of ownership of its properties and funds once union had been accomplished. Furthermore, the obligations of the “teinds” could not be carried into the union, as this form of funding would be unacceptable to many of the former United Presbyterians. Therefore, in 1925, Parliament passed the Church of Scotland Properties and Endowments Act, which placed control of all the Church of Scotland’s assets in the hands of the Church itself, including a fixed annual payment from landowners to the General Trustees of the Church in compensation for cancelling all land charges, burgh revenues, exchequer grants, and the obligation on local heritors to upkeep churches.[9]

In 1926, the General Assembly ratified the Articles Declaratory 1921 as the official constitution of the Church of Scotland, which concluded the legislative preparation for the union.

4. The Union of 1929

In October of 1929, the General Assemblies of the Church of Scotland and the United Free Church at last accomplished the union, with John White becoming the first Moderator of the united Church. The scale of the union may be seen from the figures below.[10]

Table 1928 stats

One significant aspect of the union was that it brought large and healthy congregations into the Church of Scotland again in parts of the Northern and Western Highlands and Islands where the presence of the Kirk had been little more than a skeleton service since the Disruption nearly 90 years before. One conservative minister of the Church of Scotland, Rev Roderick Macinnes of Uig, Lewis, declined to enter the union, and he and about half his congregation were admitted instead to the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Similarly, one conservative congregation of the United Free Church at Scalpay, Harris, declined to enter the union, and was admitted to the Free Church of Scotland.[11]

5. The United Free Church (Continuing)

Only a small minority of very hardline voluntaries in the United Free Church were still dissatisfied with the extent of the national recognition of the new Church. They held out for an absolute separation from the state, and on that basis refused to enter the union. The leader of this movement was Rev. James Barr (1862-1949), who was both Minister of Govan United Free Church and Labour MP for Motherwell, and who had therefore carried on the fight against the union both in church courts and in the House of Commons. Lessons had been learnt from the 1900 union, and it was agreed that congregations that remained outside the union by majority could retain their property, and the name “United Free Church”, provided the minority agree to use the additional term “(Continuing)” for the first five years.

Less than 14,000 members, in 106 congregations, stayed outside the union, forming the United Free Church as it continues to the present. It was initially one of the most liberal of Scottish denominations, called by Fleming an “advanced ‘left wing’ of Scottish Presbyterianism”.[12] It was the first Presbyterian Church to ordain a woman minister, Elizabeth Barr, daughter of James, in 1935, and the first to have a woman Moderator, Barr herself in 1960. However, it also had an evangelical strand, including one Highland congregation in Balintore, which had a history in the Anti-Burgher tradition going back to the eighteenth century. Today, interestingly, this strand seems to be more prominent than before. The present United Free Church has opposed same-sex marriage as “inconsistent with Christian teaching”,[13] and so far has made no moves to accommodate open homosexuals in the ministry.

On this issue at least, it would appear therefore to take a more conservative line than the present Kirk.

6. Conclusions on 1929

What are we to make of the union of 1929? Consider two views: The historian J. R. Fleming, writing in 1929, described the union thus:

The crown of much striving after a greatly desired goal – a united Church both national and free. Such a combination is no longer a dream but an achievement. […] It hopes to assimilate and embrace the other religious elements within the nation which are needful for its ultimate completeness. […] With steady perseverance and undaunted faith in God and the future, all will be well.[14]

By contrast, John W. Keddie, has more recently described the union as follows:

The effective dismantling of the Reformed Faith in a meaningful sense, at least in relation to distinctive doctrine and constitution. Office bearers would no longer sign up to the whole doctrine of the Confession, or for that matter to the specifics of any doctrinal statement as the confession of their personal faith.[15]

The latter may well now appear the more reasonable conclusion.

IV. Trends in the Church of Scotland after 1929

The product of the union was a very large Church, which seemed full of promise, despite some ominous signs in wider society. However, we can identify a number of trends in the Kirk itself that proved extremely damaging to it and to Scottish Presbyterianism and Christianity in general.

1. Doctrine of Conversion Eroded

The necessity of a new birth was no longer preached with the urgency characteristic of Victorian evangelism. D. L. Moody (1837-1899), the American evangelist who had so impacted Victorian Scotland, had attracted criticism for the “easy believism” of his methods, but at least he had preached the need for conversion. By the 1920s, there seemed to be a tacit assumption that those who professed faith in Christ were genuinely converted. With little searching or experimental preaching, there was no distinction drawn between the genuinely converted and the merely nominal. This problem persists in the Church of Scotland to this day.

The Kirk had always had ministers of the Moderate school, not emphasising conversion, and sometimes giving little evidence of any experience of it themselves. But during the first half of the twentieth century the emphasis on the need for personal conversion all but died out in most of the Church of Scotland. One exception to this would be the Highland, and particularly Gaelic speaking, parishes where the emphasis on the new birth persisted.

2. Liberalism in Theology and Practice

The core of liberal theology was a rejection of the historical truth of many of the accounts of the Bible. Its positive message, which was general in mainline Scottish Presbyterianism by the 1920s, was the universal love of God, and the universal atonement of Christ for all men. These doctrines, preached without reference to the justice or righteousness of God, undermined any presentation of the danger of the soul entering eternity without a well-grounded hope in Christ. Ultimately, this theology undermined the necessity and even the value of church attendance: all were assumed to be saved, regardless. 

Some Church of Scotland theologians, such as Thomas F. Torrance (1913-2007), proposed a return in a more orthodox direction that would make the person of Christ central to theology and worship, without fully embracing the authority of Scripture or doctrinal Calvinism. Torrance was the most famous and influential mainline Presbyterian Scottish theologian of the twentieth century. He had studied under Karl Barth at Basel and was deeply influenced by the neo-orthodox and Christological direction of Barth’s theology. Torrance himself served as Professor of Christian Dogmatics at New College, Edinburgh, from 1952 to 1979.

He pioneered the translation of Barth’s Church Dogmatics into English, founded the Scottish Journal of Theology and wrote significant works of his own. His influence on academic theologians and ministers was tremendous, but arguably did not greatly filter down to the pew.[16]

3. Primacy of Preaching Lost

While individual preachers of the Church of Scotland were still very popular, such as James S. Stewart (1896-1990), parish minister of North Morningside in Edinburgh from 1935 to 1946, able to attract and hold vast congregations by their eloquence, the importance of preaching itself had been fatally damaged by the undermined confidence in the Bible as the Word of God. How could preachers of more ordinary talents command the loyalty of congregations, when the subject matter of their sermons was no longer even considered necessarily true, let alone a vital priority of eternal significance?

Furthermore, the cycle was vicious. Where preachers consistently abbreviated and de-emphasised their sermons, so the membership became less used to, and appreciative of, good preaching. Fervent, urgent presentation of the gospel of atonement by the blood of Christ as a message that must be received and believed if individuals are to be saved, became more and more difficult in this context. By about 1950, I suspect that such preaching was unknown in most Church of Scotland parishes.[17]

4. Thus Statistics are not the Whole Story

The membership of the Church of Scotland peaked in the 1950s at more than 1.3 million,[18] but the seeds of its decline had been sown long before. Bluntly, church membership had ceased to mean a great deal by the time that statistical high was reached. When the secular pressures of wider society intensified in the 1960s, the weakness of commitment to active membership in the Church of Scotland was painfully evident.

A former Moderator of the Church of Scotland, Rev John Chalmers, has described one example of this:

Back in the 1960s nearly every congregation in the Church of Scotland had well-attended evening services; then from January to July 1967 the BBC screened The Forsyte Saga in 26 Sunday night episodes; 26 weeks was more than enough to change the Sunday evening habits of families across the nation.[19]

The decline extended over time to morning services as well. The number of pupils enrolled in Church of Scotland Sunday Schools almost halved between the mid-1950s and 1980, and the number of Kirk baptisms fell by a half between 1967 and 1982.[20] Today, the membership of the Kirk is a fraction of what it was, estimated at just over 325,000 in 2018, and overwhelmingly elderly, with the decline continuing unabated.[21] But the true decline cannot be seen as a new development since the 1960s, but rather as a far longer-term development, over the course of the twentieth century.

V. Attempts at renewal

The Church of Scotland was not blind to these problems, and a number of attempts were made to revive the Kirk with a clearer vision and message for wider society. We will consider the two most important of these.

1. George MacLeod and the Iona Community

George F. MacLeod (1895-1991) was the minister of the industrial parish of Govan Old in Glasgow during the depression years of the 1930s. He was a charismatic and gifted minister from a famous clerical dynasty; his grandfather was Norman MacLeod of Glasgow’s Barony Church, a chaplain to Queen Victoria and a key leader of the nineteenth century Kirk. George, although he had served in World War I, and won the Military Medal for gallantry, had become a strong pacifist, and embraced radical socialist politics.[22]

In Govan, MacLeod became convinced that the Church was failing to reach the working classes effectively, and devised an intriguing and radical scheme to supplement the training of young ministers, and to harness their energies in pursuit of a greater project. He proposed that a group of new licentiates and working-class craftsmen would live together as an all-male community for three months each summer on the remote but historic island of Iona, and work to rebuild the ancient abbey there. The licentiates would spend two summers on Iona and two winters working as assistants in urban parishes, before seeking their own pastorates. The scheme, which became known as the Iona Community, commenced in 1938, and the abbey was eventually finished in 1967.

The Iona Community was brought formally into the jurisdiction of the Church of Scotland in 1949, despite considerable controversy, and continues to report to the General Assembly each year, though remaining independent in its governance. It is now headquartered in Glasgow, with the rebuilt Iona Abbey as its principal residence. In 2019, it reported 278 full members and 1400 associate members.[23] Members include both ministers and laypeople, and from many denominations including the Roman Catholic Church. There are also “Columban houses”, further residences associated with the Community, on mainland Britain.[24]

Members commit themselves to “the Rule”, which associate members to are invited to keep, and full members held accountable for keeping, as follows:

  • Daily prayer, worship with others and regular engagement with the Bible and other material which nourishes us;
  • Working for justice and peace, wholeness and reconciliation in our localities, society and the whole creation;
  • Supporting one another in prayer and by meeting, communicating, and accounting with one another for the use of our gifts, money and time, our use of the earth’s resources and our keeping of all aspects of the Rule;
  • Sharing in the corporate life and organisation of the Community.[25]

The Iona Community began with a focus on reaching the working class, but has developed to have a concern for alienated and marginalised groups generally, whether because of politics, gender, sexuality, poverty or experience of the justice system. In practice, it serves as a vehicle for the promotion of left wing and liberal views of politics, theology and worship.

In terms of politics, George MacLeod campaigned over a long period of time for the General Assembly to adopt a policy of support for unilateral disarmament of nuclear weapons, in which he was at last successful in 1983. This policy continues to the present.[26] The Iona Community continues to campaign on issues of perceived social injustice.

In terms of theology, the Community has embraced and promoted a view of mission that is positive to modern culture:

Philosophically, for the Community, the Spirit of God works through nature, through people, and through communities even where there may be no overt profession of faith. Thus God is to be found wherever his Spirit is present: church or no church. Within this approach whatever is “natural” is very easily regarded as “godly” and “spiritual”. Here the Community believes that it taps into ancient Celtic Christianity in which nature, faith, and culture were – in its view – closely tied together. This philosophy, plus its concerns for the marginalised has resulted in the Community, in the present debates concerning sexuality, to be of the view that whatever is natural is right – natural being understood as being “the way any person is formed”. The approach of the Iona Community is similar to the principle of enculturation adopted by many modern missions, in which the divine already existing in a culture or a religion is looked on positively and seen not simply as a starting-point for someone coming to Christian faith, but also as the way God has chosen to meet that people in that particular culture.[27]

In practice, this has also made the Iona Community a prominent voice in favour of full acceptance of the legitimacy of homosexual relationships at all levels in the Church of Scotland.

In terms of worship, MacLeod favoured a Scoto-Catholic, liturgical approach, that provoked the criticism that he and the Community were “half way towards Rome and half way towards Moscow”.[28] He defended this approach to worship in his volume of the Cunningham lectures, published in 1956, Only One Way Left. The Community’s publishing wing, Wild Goose Publications, continues this legacy by producing contemporary worship material in an ecumenical and progressive vein.

George MacLeod received considerable recognition, being appointed a Chaplain to the Queen, serving as Moderator of the General Assembly in 1957, and being awarded a life peerage as Lord MacLeod of Fuinary. He died in 1991 at the age of 96. His influence is pervasive in the modern Church of Scotland. However, it is very difficult to argue that MacLeod had much influence on wider Scottish society, and his work certainly did not produce any revival of the Church’s influence amongst the working classes, nor prevent the massive nationwide decline of loyalty to the Kirk. But MacLeod’s was not the only way of renewal attempted in the Church of Scotland.

2. William Still and the Crieff Fellowship

By the 1950s, active and dedicated evangelicals were few in the ministry of the Church of Scotland. One was D. P. Thomson (1896-1974), the energetic home missionary, who pioneered seaside mission and local campaigns of visitation in particular areas.[29] Another was Tom Allan (1916-1965), minister successively of the parishes of North Kelvinside and St George’s Tron in Glasgow. He organised the Tell Scotland campaign from 1953 onwards, seeking to reach out with the gospel. This campaign reached its pinnacle with the visit of the American evangelist Billy Graham in 1955 for the All Scotland Crusade.[30]

However, by far the most influential evangelical leader in the twentieth century Kirk was William Still (1911-1997), minister of Gilcomston South parish in Aberdeen for a remarkable 52 years, from 1945 to 1997. Early in his ministry, Still reached the conviction that the preaching of the Word, in a consecutive and expository manner, must take its place at the centre of congregational life. His discovery of the power of expository ministry was almost accidental, as he found himself preaching on consecutive portions of Romans week after week in his congregation, but he rapidly became convinced that this was the means, through careful exposition and rigorous application to the souls and consciences of his hearers, to let God himself speak, and thus to build strong believers.

Equally, it followed that prayer was the most vital and necessary accompaniment, to seek God’s own blessing on the preached Word. Acting on this conviction, Still made the radical decision to halt most of the additional and extra meetings associated with the congregation, such as the Boys’ Brigade, Girl Guides and Women’s Guild; the only exception was a Sunday School for children under the age of seven. The traditional Saturday night evangelistic rally he replaced with a congregational prayer meeting in preparation for the Lord’s Day. At first, attendances suffered, but as time went on a stable and committed congregation gathered around Still’s ministry.

Still was already evangelical in his convictions, with a background in the Salvation Army, and committed to the authority of Scripture as true and valid, but as he preached the Word, he found his theology moving in a Reformed (Calvinistic) direction. He came to accept and teach the full doctrine of the Westminster Confession of Faith. He taught the vital necessity of personal conversion, and of the eternal salvation that Christ grants to the believer, in the sovereign will of God. He taught limited atonement and double predestination as defined in the Westminster Confession. Still’s ministry coincided with the development of the Banner of Truth Trust publishing house from the late 1950s, which prioritised the republication of Puritan and historically Reformed theological and devotional works. This stimulated a significant recovery of Calvinistic doctrine and piety in the United Kingdom, which also influenced evangelicals in the Church of Scotland in a Reformed direction.

An immensely able and natural preacher, Still expounded the Word richly and persuasively. His ministry attracted large numbers of students, including many ministerial candidates, who were shaped and moulded by that preaching for the rest of their lives. His followers were known as the “Stillites”. The best known of his colleagues were James Philip of Holyrood Abbey, Edinburgh, George Philip of Sandyford Henderson, Glasgow, and Eric Alexander of St George’s Tron, Glasgow. These men adopted similar approaches in putting the expository preaching of the Word at the centre of the lives of their congregation, with great emphasis on gathered prayer.[31]

In 1970, Still founded the Crieff Fellowship (initially called the Crieff Fraternal). Initially, this was just a meeting of about twenty ministers, to hear a couple of Christian psychiatrists speak, and learn from them, but it continued to meet on a regular basis, growing to an attendance of over 400 ministers, and many elders. The Crieff Fellowship was never rigidly ordered or structured in the manner of the Iona Community, and certainly never reported formally within the structures of the Church of Scotland, but it had huge influence, effectively forming a large evangelical party within the Kirk.[32]

Still’s strategy as an evangelical leader was characterised as

a policy of quiet infiltration – that is, for evangelicals to work and witness within congregations in such a way as to bring the denomination as a whole back to its biblical roots.[33]

This applied to the Kirk: evangelical ministers would work within the existing structures of the Presbyterian Church. He urged that his followers should “trust to be enabled to tolerate the situation” of women entering the ministry for example, rather than contemplate separation.[34] But the principle also applied to society: evangelical Christians should be “salt and light” and change society from within. Critics have fairly pointed out that Still’s policy of quietism within the institutional Church left evangelicals fatally weakened, inexperienced and unprepared, when it was in church courts that the battle needed to be fought. For example, Carl Trueman writes:

There were many flaws in Still’s approach but the most obvious was that it failed to take account of the nature and significance of legislative and administrative power in Presbyterian denominations. Guarding one’s own pulpit and congregation is vital but it makes no difference to the Church at large, for denominational power in Presbyterianism is exerted by Presbyteries, Synods, and Assemblies, and to influence those one must sit on the relevant committees, turn up to meetings, make life difficult for all the right people. Boring work, thankless work, often unpleasant work – but ecclesiastically vital work nonetheless. It is thus the Stillite policy which must take considerable blame for the institutional weakness of the evangelicals as they engaged the liberals in the current battle. […] William Still left a legacy of great preachers and men of prayer in the Kirk. But his pitiful ecclesiastical strategy gave them no foundation upon which to mount a successful rearguard action against liberalism.[35]

Furthermore, despite the declared policy, the evangelical movement in the Kirk did, in any case, find it necessary to take more organised form with a couple of specific institutions. In 1981, Rutherford House was established as a centre of academic scholarship for the publication of literature and promotion of theological study of a Reformed and evangelical character. This was based in Edinburgh for 35 years, but has now become the Rutherford Centre for Reformed Theology in Dingwall. Andrew McGowan, former Principal of Highland Theological College, became the Director in 2019.[36] A second institution was Forward Together, which was founded in 1994, and was active as a pressure group within the Church of Scotland promoting biblical responses to social issues. In 2015, this merged into Covenant Fellowship Scotland, which was a specific organisation of protest over the acceptance of homosexual ministers in the Kirk. Covenant Fellowship Scotland is now the principal organised network of evangelical ministers and laypeople in the Church of Scotland, “working for the Reformation of the Church of Scotland, according to the Bible”.[37]

Still’s strategy was undeniably successful in terms of local congregational ministry, producing several large and dedicated evangelical congregations with a lasting influence in the Scottish cities, and through influencing ministerial candidates, seeding that influence in many parishes throughout the country. Yet committed evangelicals remained a small minority overall within the Church of Scotland, and the wider Kirk continued to move with the rest of society in a socially and theologically liberal direction, further and further from the authoritative declaration of the Bible as truth and the new birth as man’s great need. Dr Bruce Ritchie has written: “In recent years the traditionally large moderate ‘middle-ground’ of the Church of Scotland has all but disappeared”.[38]

While it is outside our chosen timeframe of the twentieth century, the emergence of the case of Rev Scott Rennie in 2009, a minister of the Kirk living in a homosexual partnership, being called to an Aberdeen charge, made the weakness of the evangelical party evident, and led many to conclude that the policy of “quiet infiltration” had failed. Liberalism, both social and theological, was ascendant in the Church of Scotland, and had the upper hand throughout consideration of the case, and the subsequent debates over same-sex marriage. Consequently, several of the largest, traditionally Stillite, congregations separated from the Kirk, Gilcomston South included, along with a significant number of parish ministers. Some of these congregations are now independent, while others have joined the Free Church of Scotland, and others a looser federation called the International Presbyterian Church.[39]

Critics of the Stillite strategy have pointed out that the roots of the Scott Rennie case ran much deeper than the emergence of the active homosexual lobby – and that such a case is a direct fruit of the doctrinal liberalism tolerated in the Kirk over many years. Carl Trueman has written challengingly on this:

Yet I still remain perplexed as to why the gay issue brought things to a head.  The official teaching of a Presbyterian denomination is always a function of its confessional documents as they connect to the terms of ministerial subscription. Those terms had been decisively loosened many generations before homosexuality became the major issue it is today. For example, I know first-hand that a former minister of the very Aberdeen congregation which called the gay minister denied fundamental tenets of the faith with impunity throughout his career. The problem with fighting on the gay issue is that this matter only became a problem because so much else that was so vital had already been made thoroughly negotiable. There is a lesson there. And there are also some grim optics: these men who left were not homophobes (whatever that means these days) but by making this the issue upon which to stand, they ran the risk of appearing as such. “So denial of the resurrection is acceptable but gay sex is not?”[40]

Those who left interpreted this as the moment Kirk membership became unacceptable, yet the failure of the dozens of ministers involved to act together and to summon others to join their stand, has undermined the assertion that such a moment has come. It is not clear that those who have left the institutional Church of Scotland over this issue make any claim to be the valid continuation of the Church of 1929, nor is it clear that they consider their evangelical brethren as obligated to follow them. Indeed, how could they, when the very constitution of that union makes the doctrine and practice of the Church protean? The result is that the movement out of the Kirk has rather appeared as a series of individual protests and separations – and not even necessarily in the Presbyterian form of protest to the responsible church courts – rather than as the true Church standing apart from error, and reconstituting on a basis of constitutional fidelity.

Others, arguably more consistent with the strategy as originally taught by William Still, have remained in the Church of Scotland, believing, even now, that they can usefully continue the fight against liberalism from within.

VI. General Failure

By the end of the twentieth century, it was clear that both liberal and evangelical attempts at renewal had failed.

1. Catastrophic Numerical Decline

It is no exaggeration to say that the Church of Scotland is now in an existential crisis. The membership of the Kirk is in freefall: it has halved in the last twenty years.[41] The Church runs a structural deficit each year, but this has been greatly exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis. The congregational income for 2020 is projected to fall from the previous year by £30 million.[42] The present scale of Church operations is totally unsustainable, in terms both of finances and ministerial manpower. These problems are likely only to increase as time goes on.

2. Broken Unity

Yet the problem is deeper than one of finances, or even numbers: The Scott Rennie case exposed the depth of disunity within the Church of Scotland. It is no exaggeration to say that the case calls into question what it means to be a minister, what it means to be a Christian, and indeed what it means to be the Church of Christ. The question of the compatibility of active homosexuality with ordained ministry drove a wedge between those in the Kirk still chiefly guided on questions of morality by the Bible, and those chiefly guided by the changing preferences of wider society. As the question has apparently been resolved in favour of the latter, many ministers and some congregations have left the Church of Scotland. While there was no single moment of disruption, nor any great authoritative summons from the Word for evangelicals in the Kirk to stand up and be counted at last, an ongoing exodus over a number of years has drained much of the vitality from the Church’s Evangelical wing, and has arguably undermined the Church of Scotland’s moral authority. Even other mainline churches, such as the Presbyterian Church of Ireland, have found the Church of Scotland’s acceptance of active homosexuality as compatible with ministry too much, and have accordingly severed ecumenical ties.[43]

3. Crisis of Identity

Furthermore, the problem shows no sign of being resolved as the furore over the question of homosexuality has died down. The question of what the Church is, and what it is for, remains. The Church of Scotland as an institution seems unable to assert a necessity for its own message. If its own leaders cannot assert a responsibility and priority upon, for example, Church attendance,[44] then its very future may well be in doubt.

VII. Conclusion

The union of 1929 does not seem to have fulfilled its perceived promise at all. It has neither heralded a wider structural unity of Christian churches, nor has it stimulated any return to greater Christian zeal or piety. In many ways, it was merely an institutional realignment. Indeed, if the union movement had significance, it surely lay in the loosening of the constitution achieved in the legislative preparation for union, which opened the way formally for the advancement of liberalism evident in the Kirk in the second half of the twentieth century.

Equally, attempts at renewal of the Kirk have not proven successful. From an evangelical perspective, the direction proposed by the Iona Community is wholly retrograde, leading directly away from the Christian convictions and piety that would form the basis for a solid revival of the national Church. By defending sexual lifestyles prohibited by Scripture, and promoting a political agenda focussed on the needs of the present world, the Iona Community has arguably lost all sight of the eternal existence of the soul, and urgent necessity of personal salvation. By contrast, the agenda promoted by William Still would seem, at least in its priorities, to offer the right direction for the Kirk, in a return to Reformed doctrine, biblical preaching, and the priority of evangelical conversion, and it is a matter of sadness that these concerns have been the priorities only of a minority in the modern Church of Scotland. Yet it is reasonable to ask whether the strategy of quiet infiltration has not been exposed as ill-conceived from the beginning. To imagine such a strategy succeeding at any point in the foreseeable future would seem a very fond hope.

The future of mainline Presbyterianism is difficult to foresee. The precipitate decline in numbers in mainline Presbyterianism shows no sign of slowing, and it is likely that churches will continue to close and congregations be amalgamated at a faster and faster rate. The Kirk may in the medium term be financed chiefly by the sale of unused properties, but this cannot ultimately be sustainable. In terms of specifically Evangelical witness, many of the most vibrant local churches now would seem to be those outside the Kirk. It is difficult to foresee the Church of Scotland returning to a significant place at the heart of national life in Scotland any time soon.


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