Lessons From America: Want a Sister Church?
Rev. David A. Robertson
Not many people know that the Free Church allows ministers to take a sabbatical. Providing you have been in the Ministry for at least ten years and in one place for at least seven, you can get two weeks sabbatical for every year you have been in the Ministry. As far as I am aware, ‘yours truly’ was the first to take advantage of this generous provision. As a result, I have spent the last six months on ‘sabbatical’ in Jackson, Mississippi. It is an experience that both my family and myself have benefited from. The hospitality and spirituality of our friends here has, at times, been overwhelming. As well as doing some work on my Ph.D., I have taken time to get to know a number of American churches and to encourage co-operation between the US and the Free Church. Whilst over here, I have learnt a great deal and it is my intention, in this and subsequent articles, to reflect upon that and to share with the readership of The Monthly Record some of that experience. I should, perhaps, point out that most of my ecclesiastical experience has been with the Presbyterian Church in America (the PCA). In this first article, I want to explain how we can be involved with the PCA and how the PCA can be involved with us. There are many dangers and misconceptions in such working together but, as you will see, there is also great potential in this relationship. Let’s begin at the beginning.
Our association with Jackson began in 1997. For a number of years, Annabel and I had been keen to do a “Maclennan”. Calum Maclennan, whilst in Golspie, had participated in a pulpit swap with a minister from the States. We prayed about this, but there was a particular difficulty. It was not just that we wanted to do a pulpit swap, but that we also wanted to ensure that the experience would be mutually beneficial to both our churches. So we needed an American minister who would be appropriate for Dundee. The greater difficulty was finding an American Church which would not be harmed by my presence. We had almost given up when two friends in Jackson - Duncan Rankin, Prof. of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary and Ligon Duncan, minister of First Presbyterian Jackson - suggested that Mike Ross of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Jackson would be a good person to swap with. It worked out pretty well. In the summer of 1997, Mike and his family came over to Dundee and we went over to Jackson. We swapped houses, cars and pulpits. The Rosses froze in Dundee and we sweltered in Jackson. They lived in a bug-free environment, whilst we lived in mortal fear of cockroaches. Their prayer life was improved by driving round Dundee’s roundabouts; we marveled at fuel at $1 per gallon. But, most of all, the preaching and the spiritual interaction went far better than we could ever have hoped. Mike is one of the best preachers in the PCA, and the people in St. Peter’s loved the difference in style and the excellent content of his preaching. Meanwhile, we were graciously accepted in Trinity PCA. The people were warm (all those rumours about southern hospitality are true), spiritual, and showed a real hunger and thirst for God’s Word. For us as a family, it was a time of real spiritual refreshment and renewal.
From that moment, we were determined to have a ‘sister church’ relationship. St. Peter’s had already been involved with that concept because of a relationship we have with the Haren Liberated Church in the Netherlands. It really works quite simply. The two churches concerned agree to pray for one another, to get to know one another and to support one another in any way that they can. It is a relationship which takes time and which grows over time. The advantages of it are numerous. It keeps us aware of the diversity and the internationalness of the Lord’s Church. It allows your congregation to be specifically involved in another church in another country. It is not just a relationship between the pastors, although that is very important. Opportunities exist for other members of the congregations to visit one another to have house swaps and to be involved in mission work. From St. Peter’s point of view, we have received a great deal of support from Trinity. This year, we will receive our third mission team from Jackson - both of the previous missions have gone well and have proved beneficial to all concerned. Secondly, we are conscious of the prayers and the intimate involvement of people from Trinity in St Peter’s. There are other side effects as well. As I write, a number of Scots have come over for the wedding of Ruairidh Macrae, who was a student in Dundee at the time and our Mission Leader, and Audra Odom, a teacher from Jackson and a member of the mission team. So, at least one Free Church Manse will bear the fruit of our sister church relationship! Trinity have also helped us in other tangible ways, particularly in providing the funds for us to employ Grant Macaskill as our Youth Worker.
But the results go far beyond that. In 1997, there were a few men in the PCA who were aware of the situation in Scotland and our desperate spiritual need. Ligon Duncan and Duncan Rankin, having done their PhDs in Edinburgh, were fully aware of the spiritual declension and the difficulties we face. Others, however, knew little about Scotland, except that it was the land of John Knox and Eric Alexander! When I first began to discuss with Mission to the World (MTW, the PCA’s missionary organisation) the possibility of them getting involved in Scotland, the reaction from Americans was often one of incredulity. Why would you want to send a Presbyterian missionary to Scotland? Was it not a bit like sending coals to Newcastle? Did we not have a healthy national Presbyterian Church and several smaller conservative ones? What could Americans possibly do? Over the past three years, that attitude has changed and an increasing number of American PCA churches are coming to see that Scotland is indeed a mission field, and one in which they should be involved.
Scotland is a very attractive destination for many PCA Churches. We speak the same language, we share much of the same heritage and it is relatively easy to come over to Scotland. I have received numerous calls, letters and e-mails from people who want to come to Scotland and who want to be involved. Therein lies the problem. The PCA is a large denomination of some 300,000 people. The interest in Scotland is large. The combination of these factors could mean that we either get swamped with well-meaning people or that some inappropriate people come and, in effect, do as much harm as good. There is also the danger that we Scots could regard America as some kind of milk cow ready and willing to give finance whenever we ask. Furthermore, there are real difficulties for the PCA in being involved in Scotland - the main one being that there is no PCA-style denomination in Scotland. The PCA has the option of trying to start a new denomination, but will not do so without a specific invitation and demand from Scotland, and that is not going to happen. Why? Let me give some basic reasons:
We already have seven Presbyterian denominations - what good would another one do, other than contribute to the increasing fragmentation of Scottish Presbyterianism?
The only possibility of a new denomination is if the Church of Scotland evangelicals were prepared to leave. There is no indication that any of the C of S evangelicals are prepared to do so.
The Free Church, as the largest evangelical Presbyterian denomination in the country, is undergoing a process of renewal and healing. Why should we set up a denomination which would, in effect, be only a mirror of what we already have?
The PCA, therefore, must work for the moment with what exists. They are constitutionally bound not to work officially with any Church that belongs to the World Council of Churches or that ordains women. That means that the only denominations they can work with in Scotland are the Free Church and the APC. They could, of course, work with individual Churches of Scotland that remain faithful to the Scriptures and do not ordain women. And they could support individual independent Presbyterian churches that might spring up (yes, I know that “independent Presbyterian” is an oxymoron, but it does happen!).
Meanwhile, we have to figure out how we can use this interest in Scotland, and the talents and resources of our brothers and sisters in the PCA for God’s glory in Scotland. I would suggest the following:
At an official level, we should continue to develop relationships. This year, I was an observer at the PCA Assembly and Prof. Duncan Rankin was the PCA rep at ours. These contacts should continue and develop. The Free Church should also encourage the PCA to come into the ICRC.
We should give every encouragement and support to MTW. In particular, we should develop a strategy for church planting and revitalisation, which MTW can help with. In 1990, the General Assembly accepted a proposal to plant one new church every year for the next decade. That proposal was a decade too soon. Its time has now come.
Rather than each man doing what seems right in his own eyes, we should encourage the Americans to get involved with strategic joint projects, which will prove beneficial to all. A new church in Portree? A church plant in St. Andrews? Youth work in Easter Ross? It is time for us to put our thinking caps on and dream dreams. This is surely the role of presbyteries.
Mission to the World involvement in Scotland
MTW are sending their first missionary to Scotland this October - John Wagner will be coming to help us with outreach in Dundee. John was on our mission team a couple of years ago, and is now committing himself to come and work with us for two years.
There is an increasing American involvement in the Highland Theological Institute.
PEF (Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship) have also sent one missionary, Frank Hamilton, who is now a Free Church elder, and who has proved a real asset to the Presbytery of Edinburgh and Perth. Mission teams are planned this year for Edinburgh, Perth, Kirkcaldy and Dundee. In addition to this, a partnership arrangement is being set up to support a new church plant in St. Andrews.
Rev. David A. Robertson is the minister of St. Peter’s Free Church in Dundee.