An American tourist was being shown the sights of Edinburgh by a local cab driver. “There,” said the driver, pointing a hand, “is John Knox’s house.” “And who is John Knox?” asked the visitor innocently. The outraged guide turned to glower at him: “Away hame an’ read your Bible,” he muttered.

The reformer who so ungallantly reduced Mary Queen of Scots to tears made an improbable appearance in last year’s Souvenirs of Scotland Competition. One of the principal prizes went to an artist who had designed a pack of playing cards, with historical personalities featured as the court cards. John Knox was there—as the Joker.

Past his statue in the courtyard go Church of Scotland general assembly commissioners bound for their annual deliberations. If Knox had joined them this year he would have heard some sobering statistics: 1,000 fewer congregations than in 1929; 116,628 fewer members than in 1969; giving per member that amounted to 45 cents a week.

The Church of Scotland Year-Book used to supply statistics on total Sunday-school membership but stopped doing so after citing the 1970 figure of 220,873 (in 1901 it had been 467,479). The Committee on Parish Education gives 167,733 as the total for 1973 and is unable to give a later figure.

I apologize for this uncharacteristic flurry of figures; they are presented without comment and with the recognition that neither head-counting nor bank balance is a conclusive guide to the spiritual condition of a church. It is significant, however, when a church acknowledges falling membership and income and sets up a committee “to interpret the purpose towards which God is calling His people in Scotland.” In his speech to the assembly the convener, Professor R. A. S. Barbour, discussed the problem:

The world seems to be bored with us. If you ask young people why they don’t come to church, the commonest answer seems to be that they’re bored. And I sometimes wonder whether we aren’t getting bored with ourselves. A lot of us stick to our duty in the Church faithfully, even doggedly—but where’s the life and enthusiasm?

It was a pertinent question, not least because only about a quarter of the commissioners bothered to attend that session.

This committee, incidentally, pinpointed many of the church’s problems, but seemed to put too much emphasis on better use of manpower, buildings, and money. Good stewardship is commendable, but the problem goes deeper. Some words of Thomas Haweis (1734–1820) about the decline of the church in his day might be pertinent to the Church of Scotland today:

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The grand causes of our present divisions, and what drives hundreds and thousands from the parish churches, is the want of the doctrines contained in the [Thirty-Nine] Articles jealously enforced, diligently taught, and adorned by a conversation in heaven.

This would introduce a theological and doctrinal note that is not often heard in Church of Scotland general assemblies.

If we may follow up Professor Barbour’s question, what does bring the assembly to life? Pomp and ceremony apart, most interest is focused on the reports of two committees: Inter-Church Relations, and Church and Nation. The latter ranges over subjects as diverse as North Sea oil, the world trade in arms, the food crisis, mixed marriages, and press freedom. It was the former that stole the show this year, however, in introducing as speaker before the assembly the Roman Catholic archbishop of Glasgow, Dr. Thomas Winning. Convinced that this signified yet another day’s march nearer Rome, a small group of uncertain pedigree engaged in the usual demonstration outside the assembly hall.

Now let me say at once that a reasonable case could be made out against Dr. Winning’s appearance. When the Kirk’s moderator called on John XXIII, protests were countered with an engaging blandness: “But what is wrong with one old man wanting to shake hands with another?” This might on one view be heartwarming stuff, but it is unhelpful and disingenuous in ignoring the wider implications for Scotland.

Fourteen general assemblies later, here is a Catholic archbishop ostentatiously knocking out a couple of bricks in a wall normally kept in good repair by one of Europe’s more conservative hierarchies. Like all good hospitality it is given unconditionally and without the promise of anything in return.

This year’s innovation nevertheless must have caused some heart-searching in Presbyterian corridors, but the establishment knew it had one thing going for it—the assurance that opponents would stage one of those inept and undignified protests that debase the coinage, insult good manners, and ruin a good case by overstatement. The 1975 protest was low-keyed and rather pathetic. Such conduct perversely engenders sympathy for the other side and—even less logically—might give the impression that this is all there is to the opposition case.

But the reception of Archbishop Winning had two good results. It emboldened the assembly (or, rather, a narrow majority thereof that prevailed against the committee) to approach the Scottish Catholic hierarchy over its inflexible attitude to mixed marriage, which owes nothing to Vatican II.

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Even more significant, it led to a resolve to establish contact with three smaller Presbyterian bodies in Scotland with which the national church has no diplomatic relations: the Free Church, the Free Presbyterian Church, and the Reformed Presbyterian Church—at least two of which are not on speaking terms with each other.

When the moderator visited Pope John fourteen years ago, I expressed the hope in this journal that, having crossed the continent to Rome, he might now cross the street (literally) to the Free Church assembly where an equally notable, if much less spectacular, task of reconciliation still remained to be done. (A Kirk newspaper called the comment “mischievous.”) Apart from one well-meaning but clumsily executed overture in 1965, the Kirk has done little to bridge the gulf between it and brethren who share its Reformation and Knoxian heritage.

It comes down to a question of priorities. The assembly may yet find that it was a tactical error to invite Archbishop Winning before inviting estranged Presbyterians. Rapprochement with the latter would have been difficult in any case; Archbishop Winning has now made it all but impossible.

Let me end not on a note of gloom but on this thoughtful word from the Kirk’s Overseas Council: “Western society may well need to be spoken to by those of other lands who have discovered the glories of the Gospel. So when we insist that the work in other lands goes forward we may well be ensuring that the day of revival for Scotland is on the way.” John Knox, it may be, has not quite been forgotten.

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