Later today the Free Church of Scotland will gather in a special Plenary Assembly to consider the Report of the Board of Trustees concerning worship . I think the best summary of the requested action comes from the brief news item on the Free Church web site and so I reproduce the core of it here:
The Free Church Board of Trustees have published their report with recommendations to come before the Plenary Assembly in Edinburgh on 18th and 19th November. The report recommends the following:
The rescinding of the 1932 Act, which requires our form of worship to be read out at inductions
The rescinding of the 1910 Act, which requires that ministers speak against “innovations”
The affirmation of our current practice, which is to avoid the use of uninspired materials of praise, as well as musical instruments.
The adjustment of the 1905 Act to stipulate that the form of worship in the Free Church of 1843 was as above.
That public worship occurs when a Kirk Session or superior court calls for worship.
So now that you have the basic information let’s start to unpack it.
First, a brief history of the recent developments related to this issue, taken mostly from the 2010 Assembly report and the Trustees report for this Plenary Assembly. This began with the General Assembly meeting in 2009 when a proposal was brought to study whether the church should continue to restrict worship singing to unaccompanied “inspired materials of praise,” usually interpreted to mean Psalms. The Assembly endorsed this proposal for the church to, as a whole, consider this topic and had the Trustees bring a proposal to the next Assembly and to send the request to the presbyteries under the Barrier Act. The presbyteries approved the concept by a vote of 6-2.
One advocate of the introduction of more flexibility in worship music is the editor of the Free Church’s periodical The Monthly Record, the Rev. David Robertson, who wrote an editorial with comments in favor of the changes in the July 2009 edition (see point 3 at the end in the section “What about the Free Church?.”)
The Trustees returned to the 2010 Assembly with a proposal that included 1) “recognising the divisive nature of the worship issue and the desire on all sides not to be rushed prematurely into a conclusion” 2) that a special Plenary Assembly be called before the end of 2010, 3) that a Plenary Conference be called before the Assembly, and 4) “The General Assembly instruct Presbyteries to organise a day of prayer… focused on the issues pertaining to worship… and also on the necessity to maintain the unity of the Church.”
The Plenary Conference was held the last week of August and the church web site has a brief report that concludes with this:
The Conference was a risky venture. Many delegates feared that it may
have exposed, and indeed exacerbated, division. It turned out, however,
to be the opposite, providing a forum for discussion and fellowship. The
November Assembly will now have to make some kind of decision, which
will hopefully bring this to a conclusion (at least for the time being.)
We continue to pray that God will keep us together. If this week is
anything to go by, there is every indication that He will.
So that brings us to the Plenary Assembly that begins today. The proposed deliverance has nine points, the one most focused on the issue being number three that says:
The General Assembly, recognising that the majority of Kirk Sessions have not been persuaded by the arguments presented for change and therefore either support the current worship practice or have no desire to move from this practice, affirm that the practice of the Free Church of Scotland in public worship shall be to avoid the use of uninspired materials of praise and of instrumental music.
The Trustees heard from many Kirk sessions with 57 in favour of the status quo, 25 favouring permitting flexibility, and 13 expressing no preference. But as the report describes, a number of issues came out of the Plenary Conference and some of the other points address those. For example, there was some lack of clarity about what exactly the nature of the vows and instructions to ministers meant, so there is a proposal to strike relevant acts regarding those. The conference also brought up questions about what the definition of public worship was, so point four clarifies this by stating “The General Assembly stipulate that public worship occurs when a Kirk Session or a superior court of the Church call God’s people to assemble to worship him, in contradistinction to meetings called for testimony, fellowship and other purposes.”
There are five amendments and addenda now listed on the Plenary Assembly web page. One amendment requests the replacement of the main body of the deliverance with actions that would repeal restrictions and leave the ordering of worship as a matter for the Kirk session. Another amendment goes the opposite direction and strikes points three to seven replacing it with a single paragraph clarifying the action to be taken at Ordinations and Installations. There is a third that rewrites these points, keeping the exclusive “inspired materials of praise,” but allowing instruments.
The addenda, by their nature, are more limited. One requests a halt to the discussion, effectively maintaining the current state. The other presents no action directly related to the discussion but instead requests more and updated material, saying:
The General Assembly instruct the Psalmody Committee to investigate, collect and, if necessary prepare from within the resources of the Church appropriate portions of Scripture, other than the 150 Psalms, in a form which accurately renders the thought of the original and is suitable for singing in public worship. The Committee is empowered to seek the cooperation of others with the requisite linguistic, theological, literary and musical skills and is required to report progress to the 2011 General Assembly.
There are a few bloggers weighing in as well. David Robertson has a good pre-Assembly post that outlines the issues better than I can since it comes from someone in that branch. It does have his perspective favouring change which can be seen in his closing:
The Key Question – is, or should be, what does the Scripture say?
And what has become abundantly clear over the past couple of years, as
we have looked at, and examined this subject, is that our current
practice is by no means the only mandated practice in the Bible – and
that few of our Free Church office bearers really believe that. We do
not have the right to bind the Church, or the consciences of Christians,
to that which cannot be clearly demonstrated from the Scriptures.
Given the above it is clear that that vows do not need to be changed,
the constitution does not need to be changed, and even the practice of
individual congregations does not need to be changed. But the Assembly
legislation should be changed to allow sung biblical truth and musical
accompaniment, in those congregations where it is appropriate.
However this must not be a free for all. Our legislation must make
clear that the Free Church is a Reformed church which holds to a
Reformed position of worship. We are not a ‘broadly evangelical’
church. We are The Free Church of Scotland – we will always be a psalm
singing church (though inclusive psalmody rather than exclusive) and a
church that is biblically reformed in doctrine, worship, evangelism,
discipline and government. The plenary assembly will show whether we
have the wisdom, maturity and foresight to ensure that that claim is not
a hollow one.
Hinting at having similar sympathies, but recognizing the current state of the Free Church, John Ross has an interesting article where he outlines a plan of study to go forward so as to preserve the unity of the Kirk. And I found the writing of Ethan Smith informative as he looks at the Free Church and praises their emphasis on unity and their “debating with charity.”
So as we go into the special session I have not seen any particular related activity on Twitter but the Free Church web site will be providing live updates. (And it looks like it might be echoed by David Robertson.)
On a personal note, I would mention that in the last six months I have several times heard Psalms sung in an unaccompanied manner in the context of public worship, usually in connection with the celebration of the 450th anniversary of the Scottish Reformation, and have found them deeply moving. The Free Church of Scotland has several examples on their web site and I would also recommend examples from YouTube of Psalm 33, Psalm 103, and Psalm 147 among others. (Or, for a change of pace check it out in Gaelic.)
Over the summer David Robertson issued “Psalms Please – A Plea ” that asked why more churches don’t sing Psalms. One answer is that we do, but frequently in paraphrase form with no education of our congregations as to their origin. Many of the songs of Isaac Watts are Psalm paraphrases including “O God, Our Help In Ages Past,” (Psalm 90 ) and “Joy to the World” (Psalm 98 – no it was not originally a Christmas song but a paraphrase, admittedly with Watt’s enhancement of messianic overtones.) But most hymnals contain multiple pieces based on the Psalms, some more literal than others. It is up to our biblical literacy and worship education to realize the ultimate source of what we are actually singing.
So with that editorial moment over I turn you over to the Plenary Assembly. I look forward to their deliberations and appreciate that every deliverance related to the worship issue concludes with a call for the Kirk sessions to set aside a day of prayer for the church as it works through this.