Recent Developments With The Church Of Scotland And St. George's Tron
Since I first discussed this situation two months ago the "discussion" over the property, the building and its contents, has continued between the departing congregation of St. George's Tron in Glasgow and the Church of Scotland and in the past week there have been a few major developments.
To very briefly recap the situation, the city centre church's leadership and congregation expressed concerns over the trajectory the Kirk is on towards allowing the ordination of officers who are in active same-sex relationships. For about a year they considered their relationship with the Kirk and in June voted to leave the Church of Scotland and become, at least for the moment, an independent congregation. While there are some reports of unpaid assessments, the major sticking point, as it is with some other Presbyterian branches, is the property, and the Kirk, through the presbytery, chose to keep the property and not let the departing congregation retain any of it.
Within the past week there have been three important developments. A week ago during an evening service a writ was served on the congregation requiring certain contents of the building to remain with the Church of Scotland. On Sunday December 9 the congregation held their last service in the building and then vacated it. Then, earlier this week the Kirk asked the Charity Regulator to enter the fray and settle the property dispute.
As one individual commented on this blog earlier about these disputes - "There are three sides: Your story, my story and the truth." From this distance I don't know where the latter lies but the agreed facts are listed above. Now let me share some of the viewpoints.
The congregation's side has been well covered in the media and the coverage has been generally favorable to them. The Kirk has been almost silent and this situation has now become a public-relations problem for the Church of Scotland. The Kirk has been bit more active this week with damage control. Yesterday they issued a statement about the whole situation. Regarding the serving of the writ they say:
Messengers at Arms do not - and did not in this case - storm the building and demand the return of items. It had become apparent that former office bearers of the Church of Scotland Congregation had started to remove items that we believe belong to the Church of Scotland from the building. An interim interdict granted by the Court of Session was served simply to prevent this continuing, and to prevent the disposal of items already removed until questions of their ownership can be resolved. The former minister met the Messengers at Arms in a side room and the interdict was handed over - all reasonably amicable, we have been told.The congregation's view, or at least the pastor's story, is presented in a Herald Scotland article which says:
As the Kirk intensified its efforts to reclaim property, more than 100 church members were left stunned when Messengers-at-Arms arrived to serve legal papers demanding the return of a number of key items.It is worth noting at this point that The Scotsman has an article that briefly and equally quotes both sides regarding this incident.
The church minister, Rev Dr William Philip, described the arrival of the law officers as frightening and humiliating. He said: "To disrupt a prayer meeting in that way and demand the organ and other key items that were gifted to the congregation, just weeks before Christmas, truly beggars belief.
"Not content to evict us, it seems they are determined to publicly humiliate our leaders and frighten our members, some of whom are vulnerable people.
"It is shameful. Having law officers disrupt a church meeting and intimidate a church is something we associate with China or former Soviet dictatorships but is the last thing we expected from the so-called national Church.
There are some parallels between this situation and one in the PC(USA) back in June of 2005 where a minority group continuing in the PC(USA) disrupted, intentionally or unintentionally, the worship of the break-away majority which then held the property. The incident was particularly news-worthy because the Moderator of the General Assembly, Rick Ufford-Chase, was with the minority and hoping to speak. The initial reports from the Layman described the incident by saying "a contingent including Rick Ufford-Chase, the moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA), tried unsuccessfully to take over the June 26 worship service being conducted by the majority." On his blog Mr. Ufford-Chase responded and essentially said that he did not realize what he was getting himself into and that the last thing he wanted to do was to intensify the existing divisions. The Layman did report on Mr. Ufford-Chase's response.
Back to the Tron...
It should be noted that additional writs were served with the pastor, Mr. Philip, saying that one was delivered to his wife at the manse concerning that property and to other officeholders regarding the church building according to The Herald.
The viewpoints are less divergent about the last service in the building for the departing congregation this past Sunday. An article posted by the Christian Institute describes the service this way:
The Herald notes that the congregation departed singing "A Safe Stronghold our God is Still," an English version of Martin Luther's Ein Feste Burg
On Sunday 500 people packed St George’s Tron for the minister’s last sermon at the venue.
He spoke about the difficulties faced by those who would stay true to the Bible’s teachings and “make a life investment with Jesus”.
He made reference to the Church of Scotland’s “refusal of any terms on which we might continue to use the facility”.
An article in the Scotsman also covers the last service in the building and has a number of quotes from members of the congregation regarding their view on the situation.
"These things shall vanish all; the City of God remaineth," were the words that echoed as their last Sunday service ended.
There were hugs and tears as the congregation closed the doors of the church from which they have been evicted, despite contributing £2.6 million to its refurbishment.
Having been unsuccessful in negotiating the disposition of the property and the Kirk having the interdict served, the Church of Scotland has now asked OSCR (Office of the Scotland Charity Regulator) to decide the varying claims on the disputed buildings and contents. It is covered by the BBC and mentioned in the Kirk statement, saying:
When access [to the property] was finally granted [to Church of Scotland Trustees] last week it was apparent that many items had been removed from the building that we believe belong to the Church of Scotland. Yet again they seem to be asserting their rights to these items through action without any willingness to discuss matters with us.
As you may have noted in this post this situation has deteriorated into a war of words. Among the strongest is the statement made by Mr. Philip that I quoted above when he told the Herald Scotland, among other things, that "Having law officers disrupt a church meeting and intimidate a church is something we associate with China or former Soviet dictatorships but is the last thing we expected from the so-called national Church."
To claim that the Church of Scotland is acting in a heavy handed manner is, in our opinion, merely an attempt to divert attention away from the real issues here. These are nothing to do with differing theologies, but about ownership of charitable assets, and the questionable financial management of the former congregation - in particular the legality of the transfer of assets of the Church of Scotland to the Epaphras Trust before the individuals chose to leave the Church of Scotland. We have therefore written to OSCR to raise our concerns about the legality of this, as we consider we have a duty to do under charity law.
The Kirk statement responds to this saying
The claims made by the former minister and his supporters are extreme. To claim that the Church of Scotland is persecuting them, intimidating them and acting like a dictatorship does not stand up to examination. Since they announced that they were leaving the Church of Scotland last June - a decision which caused a great deal of sadness in the Church - we have gone more than the extra mile to persuade them to stay, to enter into meaningful discussions with them over the Church of Scotland assets they lay claim to, and to try to come to an acceptable agreement. However they have consistently refused to hand over the congregational records and other assets, and they have turned down an offer of a tenancy arrangement for the manse. They had given us no notice of any plans to move services out of the building after 9 December.
So where to now?
For The Tron Church, their new name reflected on their web site, they will begin worshiping in the (apparently uncontested) church halls about five blocks away on Bath Street. In one of the Herald Scotland articles a church spokesman indicated that they had planned to move after Christmas.
For the Church of Scotland the plan is to continue their presence with a continuing worshiping congregation in the now recovered building. That same Herald article concludes with this quote:
The Very Reverend William Hewitt, session clerk of the on-going Kirk congregation, said: "It is regrettable that we are again forced to take action like this to protect our charitable assets. However, we are left with no alternative given the on-going lack of open co-operation from the leaders of the former congregation"and the Kirk statement says
However it is now the future that counts. That is why we have decided we have to rebuild the Church of Scotland presence in this part of Glasgow City centre, based out of the Tron building. The Church of Scotland is now starting to focus this work. It will do so building on the traditions of conservative evangelical preaching and compassionate service, and to that end a Transitional Ministry is currently being established.
There is still no end of letters and opinion pieces appearing in the media about the situation with The Tron including concern for the situation, the possibility of schism and a call to reassess the polity. One columnist in the Glasgow Evening News asks the important question 'Who does the Kirk think will fill this church now?'
It is interesting to note the effort the Kirk is putting behind the continuation of their ministry in the building. Did you catch the title of the acting session clerk?
In looking at how the Kirk handles this dilemma, and in how Presbyterian branches in general handle challenges, it is interesting to ponder the observation of the Rev David D. Scott in that polity reassessment piece I linked to above. In that letter he talks about how at the congregation level the members have called the pastor, contribute to the budget and have a level of graciousness about the happenings in the church. He then says:
At regional and national level, people are much more detached from the parishes. Our executive is not elected and doesn't hold a mandate from the people. Financial decisions are not being made by the people who actually put the money in the offering bowl. A system of courts immediately raises the Pauline dichotomy of law versus grace.So we will see how the situation in Glasgow plays out. It seems that it is being watched closely as the test case that will set the precedent for future departures. While I know there is a lot at stake here I have to ask the question as to how we as the Body of Christ best balance our witness to the world with our ecclesiastical proceedings over doctrine, polity and possessions. Yes, I know - the answer is "very carefully." But for the run that this is having in the Scottish media we should be asking whether we can be a witness to the world while still being right. (And don't say "you first!")
After 30-odd years in the ministry, I think it is time for a radical reassessment of our polity. What we call "the courts of the church" are not effective in two crucial areas. First, situations that require the application of grace. This is true not only of the present crisis with seceding congregations but also with office-bearers (and especially ministers) who find themselves in difficult situations, sometimes through no fault of their own. Secondly, the application of vision and the accommodation of visionary people who think out of the legal box and other boxes too.
OK, commentary mode off. We will see what is next. Stay tuned...