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Role of Westminster Confession to be Reviewed

Thursday May 24 2018

The role of the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Church of Scotland’s subordinate standard, is to be reviewed.

The General Assembly today approved an Overture from the Presbytery of Melrose and Peebles which instructed the Theological Forum to review the reports and debates on the role of the 17th century Confession and to advise on the role of a ‘subordinate standard’.

The committee will also explore the possibility of producing a book of confessions, as has been done by other churches, containing the Westminster and Scots Confessions, Nicene and Apostles Creeds and other statements of faith.

Moving the Overture, the Very Rev Dr Finlay Macdonald presented the issue as unfinished business, having been proposed and agreed at General Assemblies and by Presbyteries in the 1960s and 1970s. He said: “The Church is not well served by a subordinate standard that, let’s be honest, is not taken seriously across the Church. The Presbytery is saying no more than that there is an issue here that requires the Forum to consider.”

Also from the Presbytery, elder Isobel Hunter said that before her ordination her minister had warned her that the Westminster Confession (which both ministers and elders affirm when they are ordained) might ‘put her off for life’. She said: “The Confession was adopted at a time when Scotland boasted of being the foremost burner of witches in Europe. We have moved on from that.

“Maybe this is the time to be radical, after 400 years of unease, to get the beliefs we swear to sorted… so that someone like myself contemplating ordination may be inspired for life, not risk being put off for life.”

Speaking against, two ministers warned that the Westminster Confession was an important part of their decision to remain in the Church of Scotland. The Rev Mark Malcolm said it might be ‘the hill I want to die on’. He said: “We are arguing over the soul of the Church… I do believe that what is written within the Westminster Confession of Faith has got everything to do with the glory of God as revealed in scripture.”

Others asked if now was the time to be dealing with this issue. However, on a vote the Overture was approved by a wide margin.

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Earlier in the day, the Assembly gave its habitual warm affirmation of the Chaplains to the Armed Forces.

The Moderator, the Rt Rev Susan Brown, said to the chaplains in attendance: “You are the constant in a context where people can be, and are, sent everywhere on tours of duty, facing every level of danger… Please be assured that this Assembly and Church recognise the ministries you offer as ministries that are particular and necessary and valued.”

The convener of the committee, the Rev Gordon Craig, said it would be ‘remiss’ of him not to report that the Registration of Ministries Act had ‘caused our chaplains to feel somewhat marginalised’ but he acknowledged the efforts of the Registration of Ministries Committee, and its convener, the Rev George Cowie, to explain and support chaplains through the process when returning to parish ministry.

“The chaplains are still very wary of the repercussions of this act, but a willingness to engage with the issues highlighted is clearly in evidence within the church,” he said.

As usual on ‘Chaplains’ Day’, the gathering was addressed by a senior member of the armed forces, in this case Major General Bob Bruce, Colonel of the Royal Regiment of Scotland and General Officer, Scotland. Appealing for more ministers to consider whether they are called to chaplaincy, he said: “The Padre is the rock of dependability, integrity, decency, reason and wisdom… when the going is really tough we absolutely depend upon them.”

There was discussion on whether the committee should report on the role of chaplains to the cadet forces, and Mr Craig agreed to examine the possibilities although, as cadet forces are youth organisations rather than armed forces, they don’t fall within the committee’s remit.

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During the debate of the Theological Forum, the Forum was instructed to study the place of the Profession of Faith (otherwise known as admission to the Lord’s Supper or confirmation) in the church.

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There was a moving moment during the debate of the Social Care Council when Tamsin Dingwall, the next moderator of the National Youth Assembly, spoke of her father’s struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease. She urged CrossReach to work with Presbyteries to offer support for families living with dementia.

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Following a lengthy debate, the Assembly rejected a proposal from the Council of Assembly to appoint a Special Commission reviewing the shape and organisation of the Church of Scotland Pension Trustees. Instead the Trustees themselves will be invited to bring a report and recommendations to next year’s General Assembly.

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