“It goes against the Scots inclination to march in line on anything, least of all in matters ecclesiastical: no one will tell the Scot “you must believe this”: he and God sort it out one-to-one” (Andrew Herron). The story is told of a breakaway congregation in the Borders spearheaded by two farming brothers. Said one, “It’s like this: there’s really only me and my brother uphold the true Kirk, and at times I’m no’ right sure about him”. Each person or group was unshakably convinced that God was as committed in support of their cause as he was disappointed with all other expressions of the faith.
Where did these divisions begin?
Probably with the Covenanters who in 1638 supported the National Covenant and the 1634 Solemn league and Covenant. Their aims were to resist liturgical change, to bar the Presbyterian door to bishops, to preserve intact their concept of the pure Reformed faith, to maintain the spiritual independence of the Church and to ring-fence the leadership of Christ within that Church.
And who could argue? The snag was that as Christ did not have a voice on their Kirk sessions they were constantly bedeviled by their inability to reach a common mind. James Bulloch of Stobo somewhat wryly remarked: “such was their vehement sincerity, one could only conclude that Jesus was saying one thing to one and something rather different to another.”
Well, that spirit continued into the eighteenth century and goes a long way to explaining why the history of the Scottish Church is punctuated by the steady proliferation of splinter groups.
The First Secession from the Church of Scotland stemmed from the preaching and writing of Ebenezer Erskine. He railed against an Act of the General Assembly which, he claimed, gave too much power to local landowners when choosing a minister for a vacant congregation. Attempts at reconciliation were made, but Erskine would not yield either to compromise or to appeasement.
Other schisms followed. These happened as a result of the Burgess Oath of 1746 which followed the failure of the Jacobite Rising of 1745. Every burgess had to profess in his heart and mind the true religion of the realm and authorized by the laws thereof. Some would: some would not and chose rather to form their own Church, as did the Anti-Burgher Lifters whose principled stand was on whether the celebrant at Communion should be required to lift the bread from the table or not at the Holy Communion.
These schisms were as nothing compared to the disruption of 1843 when the Free Church was born. The disputes focused on the choosing of ministers and the role of the church in the new industrial areas with their population explosion. Popular support for the new Free Church was always going to be strong but few could have predicted that within just four years 700 Free Churches would be built. The Church in Broughton which today houses the John Buchan Museum was built and opened as a Free Church in 1844.
The tale is told of a man who showed his friend some of the half-dozen churches scattered throughout his little village. “Yours must be a very religious people”, was the not unnatural response. “No”, replied the native, “just pure thrawn.” The further tale persists of the man who explained to his friend that there had been two churches in his village until they had a union: now there were three.
Those who wished above all else freedom from interference from landowners and General Assembly alike formed the Relief Church which was 136 congregations strong in 1847 when it joined with other Secession Churches to form the United Presbyterian Church.
Mercifully in the providence of God, who presumably was totally wearied at having to listen to the outpourings of so many different Presbyterian voices in one small country, there was begun the process of reunion which culminated in the 1929 Union of Churches. In today’s ordination service it is stated that ‘the Church of Scotland recognizes liberty of opinion on such points of doctrine as do not enter into the substance of the faith’: this is no invitation to heresy but rather the realization that thoroughly good men and women can see things differently.
Why two Churches in Broughton? In view of the foregoing perhaps the question should be “Why only two?”
This is an edited version of the talk given by Rev Ronald Blakey on May4th 2006 in aid of the Broughton Church Organ Fund.