Being our first General Assembly, this was our first time really engaging with a report from the Church. What was instantly apparent was the wide-ranging nature of the report. The Board’s remit is enormous, everything from finance, compliance and risk management to policy, strategy and communication. The chairman is James Fraser, who was formerly principal of the University of the Highlands and Islands – so he knows what it’s like to work with a big institution!
Mr Fraser started with some very encouraging news – in 2013 it was predicted that, this year, the Free Church would have a deficit of £1million. In 2016, we have a shortfall of just £45,000. He did hasten to add that, although very encouraging, this news must not make us think we can be complacent. The Church’s activities often attract increasing demands for resources and thus good stewardship is as essential as ever.
As well as overseeing the finances of the denomination, the Board of Trustees also have responsibilities for the denomination’s communications, primarily websites and public media. The report records that the Board, “through the Church’s Communication Officer, continues to concentrate on its two objectives of improving internal communications across the Church and providing a compelling Christian voice in Scottish public life.” While they realise it is important to respond to public events as they arise, there was also the need for “position papers on topical areas particularly where public policy is likely to diverge from Christian teaching.” The Board is currently looking into “improving access to research with a view to improving the quality of the Church’s response to policy makers.”
As you can imagine, this would take a large amount of time and commitment, and ensuing discussion among assembly commissioners focused on the issue of whether another group should take over these responsibilities. Knowing that there was already talk of committee being formed for this purpose, the Board’s report pre-emptively addressed the topic: “The Board of course believes that ministers and others should be engaged on communicating and researching the Christian viewpoint on such issues but feels that it does not need to set up some elaborate mechanism to achieve this end.”
On the subject of congregational websites, the Board wrote: “A church template is available and may provide a relatively straightforward way for a congregation to improve its online presence in the short-term.” The necessity of an online presence was acknowledged, and the Board offered the following advice to congregations: “It is not the function of the Board to regulate social media but the Board is anxious that social media is used responsibly and thoughtfully, recognising the power inherent in social media to represent the Church and the gospel in a meaningful and responsible manner.”
One of the key points raised during Mr Fraser’s speech on the Board report was education. A few things really stuck out for us, and we think their ideas are worth supporting.
1. Christian University – “A Christian university would teach and research within the pre-suppositional framework of a Christian worldview. It would welcome people of all faiths and none to its student body.” What a concept! We might think of the United States as being the go-to place for Christian-led further education, but James was asking us to work toward the realisation of a Christian university here in Scotland. He made the perceptive assertion that “teaching and research is shaped by the values of the institution and its staff; and today in most Scottish universities the values framework is derived from a radical secularist worldview.” This would be balanced by an institution founded on a Biblical worldview. And there’s somewhere to start, too. Mr Fraser suggested that a foundation for such a university could be Edinburgh Theological Seminary – it already provides theological education at university level thanks to its partnership with the University of Glasgow.
2.Schooling – “An education system cannot be value free – our present state system is permeated by a mixture of pernicious secular values and leavened to some degree by a legacy of distinctly Christian values.” Prior to the development of a Christian university, there ought to be a Christian education system. This is especially important today – how many of us are aware of the impact secularism in this country is having on the children in our churches, regardless of our denomination? Mr Fraser issued this plea: “We need to debate how we are going to prevent the secularisation of our children through the media and the education system, because if we continue to lose them we will have no future whatsoever as an institution”. This philosophy has “permeated the media, the education system, and opinion-makers to the extent that our Christian world view is being marginalised, ridiculed and at best something that should be confined to a box marked – private and for use in your spare time”. Conversely, following the vision of Scottish reformer John Knox, we should see education “not just as a tool for economic and cultural transformation but also as a tool for Christianising the nation”. James therefore urged that the denomination work towards having a Christian school in every city in Scotland, a point picked up on by a member during questions and applied to rural communities, too. Mr Fraser applied the issue of education to the wider need for every Christian to own and live by the worldview of the Bible: “We need, as a Church, not only to ensure that our children know and understand scripture and that their parents know that they have a duty to bring up their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. We also need to ensure as a Church that our children understand a Christian worldview – that they have the critical apparatus to weigh and judge the presuppositions of the secular worldview… and to assert the Christian worldview. This has to be the outcome of a new vision for the education of our children.”
What was striking about this year’s assembly was something that David Robertson pointed out. Nowhere in the report was there anything on public issues. As a church that believes in the Establishment Principle we seem to pay it lip service. We hope and pray that in the days that lie ahead our church will do all it can to be a voice crying in the wilderness of 21st century secular Scotland.
We were both greatly encouraged by the Board’s concerns over Christian education. We believe Christian education is vital, especially, when it comes to reaching and seeing the next generation flourish. It is also vital for the health of our nation as a whole. To that end, we must pray, think act and invest in this area. May this be the beginning of a long and exciting adventure on the issue in the Free Church of Scotland.
Andy & Sean
Soli Deo Gloria