1. Thank you for agreeing to this, John. We’re glad that people are able to hear from you as you begin your year as Moderator. Could we ask, first of all, about your own experience as a Christian and how you have been involved in serving Jesus?
I was brought up in an evangelical church in southern England, and made a profession of faith when I was 11. While at university in Yorkshire I encountered the Reformed faith for the first time, and found tremendous spiritual stability and support in its clear presentation of the whole teaching of the Bible. So when I felt a call to train for the ministry, I came to what was then the Free Church College (now Edinburgh Theological Seminary). In 1975 I was ordained as minister of the Free Church in Ardnamurchan, and moved to the Free Church’s London Congregation (now London City Presbyterian Church) in 1979. From 1993 to 2013 I worked for the London City Mission, which works with churches to evangelise the poorer and more neglected parts of the city’s population. On retiring in 2013, my wife Sarah and I settled in Inverness, where we belong to the Smithton congregation.
2. Were you quite clued-up on assembly procedure, or did you have to spend time getting to grips with protocol and the legislation on the event?
I first saw the Assembly in 1973, and have attended many times over the years – so its procedures were fairly familiar when I became Moderator. But I did do some swotting up on the practical rules about how long each speaker is allowed. The main rule for a Moderator is, “Ask the Clerks!” – for it’s they who do all the hard work of keeping the Assembly running smoothly.
3. We were grateful for your address on the Tuesday of the assembly. Why did you choose as your text Matthew 28:18-20?
Because of my years with London City Mission and my long involvement with the World Reformed Fellowship, the Great Commission has been central to my teaching and thinking. But as I prepared the Moderator’s Address, the theme became focused on the promise of verse 20 – “Behold, I am with you always”. The Church (all genuine churches everywhere) is a missionary church – but the task of mission is so demanding that we can only engage in it if we are confident that Jesus is himself present with us, to sustain and empower our witness. I think the Church always needs to be reminded about that amazing promise – not because we’ve been disobeying the Great Commission, but because there is so much more to be done.
4. In your address, you said that well all “need to daily delight in the Bible’s teachings.” Would you say this is just for preachers or people in the Free Church?
For everyone, preachers, Sunday School teachers, elders, deacons, and members – no exceptions, no exemptions! If you want proofs for that, look at Psalm 1 and John 20:31. It is in and through the Bible that God makes himself known to us and speaks to us. It’s in the Bible that we see Jesus. And it’s by the Bible that God the Holy Spirit guides, encourages, warns and comforts us. How can we enjoy the daily life of God’s family if we don’t meet with him and listen to him?
5. Many people, not least those who took part in the assembly, were very enthusiastic about it, perhaps surprisingly so for those unfamiliar with it! Why do we have an assembly anyway, and could you give us a few highlights from this year’s meeting?
Why do we have an Assembly? Because we believe there are three vital tasks that are best done by local churches working together and sharing their wisdom and gifts:
Agreeing on God’s truth and its implications in today’s society –defending the faith against error and overseeing the recruitment and training of ministers;
Reaching out together to proclaim the gospel and plant churches;
Dealing with serious problems that arise in local churches
A lot of the Assembly’s work is safeguarding – checking that local congregations and Presbyteries have been taking their responsibilities seriously, and keeping proper records of their decisions. Thankfully, this year most of the assembly’s work involved hearing about progress in the first two of these.
Highlights: It was exciting to hear of new congregations being formed and to see two (in Broughty Ferry and Inverness West) being officially recognised as Free Church congregations. We heard of growth in the Edinburgh Theological Seminary. And we also heard evidence of the faithful and fruitful work in which the Free Church has been involved for a very long time. These included two ministries in Peru: the Colegio San Andres, a Christian School founded in 1916 by a Free Church missionary, John A. Mackay; and the ministry of the Rev. Donald Smith (one of my old classmates in the Free Church College) who has retired after serving for 40 years in Peru, and whose leadership has seen a Bible College grow into a Christian University. For me, another highlight was the prayer session on Wednesday morning, when our prayers were led by ministers and elders from all across the country.
6. A number of people at the assembly spoke of the need for humility when reflecting on the denomination’s activities, and urged against becoming complacent in the light of some positives we have seen this year. How would you encourage the denomination on this course, and what are some of the areas in which we need to be vigilant?
As a denomination we all need to remember that we have nothing that we have not received as a gift from the Lord Jesus. We must never forget that we are a bunch of ungodly sinners, saved by the undeserved grace of God. So we need to have a Biblical balance of confidence and humility (confident in God’s promises, humbled by our own repeated and on-going failings). In our particular culture, there is a great pressure to be self-confident, to be assertively publicising our strengths, and, perhaps, to be quickly critical of the failings of others. The Christian and the church have to walk carefully, avoiding cheap publicity and self-righteous criticism of others.
I believe the parable of the speck and the beam needs careful study – Jesus did not say that we were not to identify or remove a speck from our brother’s eye. But Jesus did say that we would not be able to help our brother in that way unless we had first recognised and dealt with the beam that is in our own eye! Like everything else, this brings us back to the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins, and to the nature of true faith, which is to despair of ourselves and cling to Jesus instead.
7. There was a lot of paper at the assembly! Why was there a number reports, and what were these ‘amendments and addenda’ we kept being given?
Actually, the Assembly has been using less paper of late because more and more of its members are using iPads and laptops! This year was a bit different because we met in Buccleuch Free Church, rather than in the usual Assembly Hall, so there were not quite the same IT facilities available. But paper is a great thing! It enables you to take your time to read and consider carefully, in a way that simply hearing it said does not allow.
The assembly appoints several “Boards” and “Committees” to deal with particular aspects of the Church’s life and work – e.g. the selection of students for the ministry; the finances of paying ministers’ salaries or the ways we can plant new churches. Each of these Boards and Committees prepares a written report of what they have been discussing through the previous year, and what they recommend that the Assembly do.
Amendments, Addenda, and Petitions
But the Assembly is not just a rubber stamp! Its members are chosen by local presbyteries around the church, and any of them can propose a different policy from that proposed by a Board (an “amendment”). Or, a member may feel that a Board, in its Report, has missed out something important that needs to be added to it (an “addendum”). And any members of the Free Church, even if they are not members of the Assembly, can submit a “Petition” if they feel that the Church has acted wrongly or improperly. All these are healthy aspects of church-government, for we don’t believe that there are any infallible ministers, elders, Boards, or Committees in the Free Church!
Too much paper?
Because the Assembly is the “highest court” of the Church, we need to keep accurate records of what has been discussed, and especially of what has been decided, so that there can be clarity among the churches. And because the Bible (which covers a lot of paper in its own right!) touches on every area of our world and our lives, we have a lot to discuss and thinks about. So we need a good deal of paper.
8.Do you think the assembly is well connected to the wider Church, or do we need to more to ensure that what happens at the meeting percolates down to the rest of the denomination?
Good question! I guess the answer is, there’s always much more that could be done, to arouse interest and prayer. Giving a lively report of assembly highlights to a congregation’s mid-week prayer meeting would be good. Encouraging people to read “The Record” in July, with its report on the assembly, or to follow the Assembly on the Free Church web-site are also good.
In previous years, there used to be “Missions Night” and “Delegates Night” at the Assembly, and many church members from all across the central belt used to come to those. We need to ask whether we can re-invent that healthy and encouraging aspect.
9. There were quite a few visitors to the meetings, and some of them were called ‘delegates.’ Who were they and why did they come to the assembly?
“Delegates” are invited guests of the Assembly from denominations and organisations around the world, with whom the Free Church has formal links and fellowship. They are the Assembly’s “window on the world”, reminding us that we are just one small part of Christ’s work and kingdom on earth. In these days of worldwide migration and the worldwide web, the delegates have an especially important and a growing role. In its turn, the Free Church sends “delegates” to other churches around the world, to strengthen links with like-minded Christians, and to learn from what God is doing in other places.
10. You have done your job as chair of the assembly, and we would like to record our thanks here for the way you handled everything with kindness, gentleness and thoughtfulness. Is that you finished for the year, or do you have anything else to do?
Strictly speaking, the Moderator’s role is limited to chairing the meeting of the Assembly. But a Moderator may occasionally be asked to represent the church as a delegate to another denomination’s assembly, or at a conference. And I guess we look to Moderators to be available for the churches might ask them to do. Whether that’s little or much, it has been a real privilege and an honour to be asked to “moderate” this year’s assembly!